Saturday, 17 November 2012

Northern offensive begins amidst battle for East

War on terror revisited : Part 69


By Shamindra Ferdinando

The 57 Division and Task Force I (TF I) linked up southwest of Periyamadhu on the afternoon of June 30, 2007. Having liberated Periyamadhu in the third week of June 2007, the 57 Division pushed towards Pallamadu to meet TF I troops. The move brought 1,084 square kilometers in Vavuniya, Mannar and Mullaittiuvu districts under government control. TF I troops took up positions two and half kms south of Sea Tigers’ main base at Vedithalthivu.

The then Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka launched operations on the Northern front on Mar.5, 2007. The opening of a new front was a bold decision as the LTTE still retained the capability to wage large scale combat operations in the Eastern Province. The newly raised 57 Division launched operations from the army frontlines west of Vavuniya between Vavuniya and Mannar. Operations were badly hampered for want of effective armour and artillery support. The General Officer Commanding (GOC) 57 Division Maj. Gen. Jagath Dias told the annual symposium May/June 2011 of the General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University (KDU) that effective deployment of armour and artillery couldn’t be achieved due to initial confrontations between 57 Division troops and the LTTE in jungles. The Division struggled in the face of fierce LTTE resistance. But the 57 Division persisted with offensive action on the central front. The Army Chief named Gajaba Regiment veteran Dias as the GOC of the 57 Division, subsequent to some setbacks suffered by the formation at the onset of the offensive.

The offensive got underway in the wake of an LTTE mortar attack directed at SLAF choppers immediately after they landed in Batticaloa in the morning. The Feb 27 attack caused injuries to 10 persons, including the then Italian and German ambassadors and a UN official. The LTTE fired mortars from Vavunativu. The attack prompted Dr. Rohan Gunaratne, who was also a guest speaker at the 2011 KDU symposium ‘Challenges of Post Conflict Sri Lanka’ to declare that war couldn’t be won by either party.

A story captioned, ‘Sri Lanka, Tamil Tiger Rebels Fight a War That Can’t be Won,’ by Colombo based Anusha Ondaatjie, quoted head of terrorism research at Singapore’s Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, Rohan Gunaratna as having asserted: "Continuing the current spate of violence is not going to bring about a different outcome or change the status quo. Both parties have developed significant support to be able to recover from losses, but this type of warfare is protracted." Gunaratna declared: "What is needed is a negotiated settlement to the conflict."

The website also quoted Gunaratna as having claimed: "The two parties have decided to fight each other," hence conveniently forgetting the circumstances leading to eelam war IV in Aug. 2006.

Three months after Dr. Gunaratne stressed the need for a negotiated settlement, the military cleared the entire Eastern Province. Addressing the KDU symposium Maj. Gen. Chagi Gallage explained the circumstances leading to the infantry and Special Operations troops backed by armour, artillery and other support elements launching offensive action on July 28, 2006 in response to the LTTE closure of the sluice gates of Mavilaru on July 21, 2007. Troops restored the water supply on Aug. 8, 2006.

The Eastern campaign was brought to a successful conclusion on July 11, 2007 with the clearing of Narakkumulla and Thoppigala. Although some LTTE units remained in the East they couldn’t pose a formidable threat to the Army, though on-and-off confrontations caused some anxiety among the civilian population.

Had the LTTE succeeded in assassinating the then Lt. Gen. Fonseka on April 25, 2006 and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa on Dec. 1, 2006, Sri Lanka’s campaign against the LTTE would have suffered an irrevocable setback. In fact, the success of the LTTE’s grand strategy to overwhelm the military in about two years hinged on the assassination of the Sinha and Gajaba veterans.

Madhu church April 25, 2008: Officers and men of 57 Division

Three days after 57 Division swung into action, Defence Secretary Rajapaksa told visiting US State Department official Steven Mann and Ambassador Blake that the LTTE leadership was an obstacle to peace and had to be eliminated. Defence Secretary Rajapaksa also called for US support to thwart LTTE attempts to procure advanced armaments, while promising the government would work out a solution to meet the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil speaking people. Mann was visiting Colombo in the immediate aftermath of Defence Secretary Rajapaksa and Ambassador Blake signing the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) to enhance military relations/cooperation between the GoSL and the US (No halt on offensive against the LTTE; Lanka seeks more US support to stop arms flow—The Island Mar. 11, 2007).

Having cleared the Eastern Province, the Army intensified operations on the Vanni front. However, the progress was extremely slow due to heavy LTTE resistance. Although the 57 Division made some territorial gains, it couldn’t achieve a significant battlefield victory throughout 2007. The LTTE remained confident of halting the 57 Division, though Army headquarters made available required men and material. Although it was not immediately felt on the battlefield, the LTTE suffered a heavy setback on Mar. 18, 2007, when the Navy intercepted two ships carrying arms and ammunition for the LTTE (LTTE suffers double blow on high seas; faces critical shortage of ammunition-The Island Mar. 19, 2007).

The LTTE almost succeeded in wiping out the SLAF offensive capability on the night of Mar. 26, 2007 when its aircraft bombed the Katunayake airbase. Had they destroyed jet squadrons comprising Israeli and Ukrainian fighters, the war effort would have suffered a debilitating setback. The LTTE aircraft escaped amidst anti-aircraft fire. (Abortive raid jolts govt. to review defences; Low flying light aircraft escape SLAF radar—The Island Mar. 27, 2007). The raid revealed the inadequacy of the Indian radar installed at selected bases, including Katunayake. In response to the LTTE threat, the government immediately revived an abandoned plan to acquire advanced Chinese radar. India strongly objected to Sri Lanka’s plans made during the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s tenure to install a Chinese radar network (Faulty radar helped Tigers?—The Island Mar. 28, 2007).

On Mar. 28, 2007, the SLA evicted the LTTE from Kokkadicholai, one-time Karuna Amman’s base, where an eelam court, ‘police’ and political office constituted the centerpiece of the power structure. The failure to repulse an army at Kokkadicholai had a devastating impact on LTTE forces still fighting in the East (Last major LTTE-held civilian center in East falls—The Island March 28, 2007).

The LTTE deprived the 57 Division of a major victory until late April 2008. After a series of battles on the central front, the 57 Division liberated Madhu on April 24, 2008.

In the wake of the Madhu debacle, the LTTE made an abortive bid to launch an attack on the strategic Palaly air base. Troops forced a low flying aircraft approaching Palaly to turn back by firing at it. The aircraft dropped two improvised explosive devices close to the Malady beach (Military thwarts LTTE aerial attack on Palaly air base—The Island April 25, 2007).

Task Force II on the Western front

The Army Chief opened a second front west of Vavuniya in mid Sept. 2007, with the launch of Task Force I (TF I). The TF I was commanded by the then Brigadier Shavendra Silva also of the Gajaba Regiment. The TF I was given the unenviable task of manoeuvring along the northwestern coast and the LTTE was forced to divert some of its resources to resist TF I. In spite of the army opening two fronts west of the Kandy-Jaffna A 9 road, the LTTE maintained a strong offensive posture with elite units spearheading action. The 57 Division and TF I encountered fierce resistance. The TF I evicted the LTTE from its stronghold at Adampan on May 9, 2008. It was the first of a series of major battlefield victories scored by Brig. Shavendra Silva’s formation.

The LTTE re-grouped quickly to resist the TF I advance towards the Mannar Rice Bowl. The LTTE deployed some of its best fighting units against Brig. Shavendra Silva’s troops, who gradually forced the defenders to abandon their positions. By June 29, 2008, TF I had secured the Rice Bowl, paving the way for TF I and the 57 Division to link up southwest of Periyamadhu, hence forming the widest ever front on the northern front. The two formations posed a formidable challenge to LTTE forces deployed west of the A9 road. Still, the LTTE retained strong forces capable of meeting multi-pronged offensive action. The LTTE had strong reserves deployed along the Jaffna front line extending from Kilali to Nagarkovil via Eluththumaduuval and Muhamalai and the Weli Oya/Mullaitivu region. But, the LTTE couldn’t re-deploy them as the LTTE leadership realized the possibility of the army opening new fronts.

Lt. Gen. Fonseka personally supervised battle plans with specific instructions to ground commanders on the front on a daily basis. A battle scared veteran of many high intensity battles in the Northern Province, including the Jayasikuru offensive (May 1997-Dec 1998) and the Jaffna battle (April to late July 2000), he didn’t tolerate excuses cited by ground commanders. The Army chief visited Security Forces headquarters, Vavuniya as well as other bases for regular briefings.