Thursday, 20 December 2012

Mullaitivu beach sealed, stage set for final battle

War on terror revisited : Part 84

by Shamindra Ferdinando

Having rescued civilians trapped in Puthumathalan, Brig. Shavendra Silva’s 58 Division launched an operation to capture the Jordanian merchant vessel ‘FARAH III’ stranded off Puthumathalan. The LTTE had seized ‘FARAH III’ in late Dec. 2006 after the vessel developed engine trouble and was anchored off Mullaitivu. At that time, the navy couldn’t rescue ship crew due to heavy Sea Tiger presence in the area.

The 58.1 Brigade mounted an operation to capture the beach close to ‘FARAH III’. On April 22, 2009, the 58.1 Brigade cleared LTTE positions along a 500 m section on the beachfront.

The following day, Commandos and Special Forces evicted the LTTE from another 2.5 km section. The LTTE was retreating in the face of heavy attacks. The 58 Division eyed Valayarmadam, situated about six km away from Vellamullivaikkal, where Prabhakaran, Pottu Amman and Soosai and their families were hiding.

The 58 Division captured Valayarmadam during the last week of April 2009. Troops rescued more than 700 civilians held hostage by the LTTE.

Troops had moved in to the Valayarmadam area after a group of priests, including 14 nuns and four novice nuns belonging to the Pentecostal Mission reached the army held area on Saturday morning.

Meanwhile, the 53 Division crossed an earth bund situated west of Valayarmadam. Although the LTTE resisted fiercely, it couldn’t stall the 53 Division’s advance. Commanded by Gajaba veteran Kamal Gunaratne, the 53 Division, once commanded by war veteran Maj. Gen. Janaka Perera, played a critical role in the campaign against the LTTE, though it joined the offensive in Jan. 2009.

On April 28th, 2009, the 58 Division liberated Rettavaikkal. By the last week of April 2009, the LTTE combatants were trapped in a seven sq. km area. The LTTE continued to fire artillery and mortars to stall troops advancing on its shrinking last stronghold, knowing the army couldn’t retaliate due to the presence of civilians. Although field commanders pointed out that frontline troops were at a great disadvantage owing to the absence of air and artillery support, the government had no option to but to strictly ban the use of heavy weapons.

The international community was closely monitoring what was happening on the ground. The Colombo based western diplomats were of the opinion that the army couldn’t sustain rapid progress without artillery and air support and therefore a last minute arrangement was still possible to save the LTTE leadership. The government strongly resisted international intervention.

UNP MP calls for all out attack on Tigers

Much to the consternation of the UNP leadership, Puttalam District MP Palitha Range Bandara urged the government to maximize the use of all armaments at its disposal to finish off what was left of the LTTE’s conventional fighting capability. MP Bandara declared that there shouldn’t be any restriction on the use of artillery, mortars, air and naval assets in the final battle. The deployment of weapons should be the prerogative of ground commanders, the retired policeman said. Outspoken MP Bandara said that the denial of required firepower could cause losses among frontline fighting units (Use heavy guns, finish off LTTE, UNP MP says-The Island May 4, 2009).

MP Bandara was the only Opposition MP to publicly support the military operation, whereas many campaigned against the government. During Turkish National Day celebrations at a five a hotel in Colombo, TNA leader, R. Sampanthan walked up to the then Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohana and accused the military of trying to eliminate the Tamil community (Tamil MP makes serious accusations to Kohona-The Island May 3, 2009). Sampanthan made a similar allegation when he met British and French foreign secretaries in the last week of April 2009 in Colombo. UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was present on that occasion. The spouses of the then British and Norwegian ambassadors in Colombo were on the payroll of the UN sympathetic to the LTTE. (Govt. points finger at UN, UK and Norway—The Island May 3, 2009).

The LTTE launched a series of suicide attacks in a bid to stall the army, though Prabhakaran knew he couldn’t sustain defensive operations indefinitely. On the instructions of Prabhakaran, the LTTE reached every contact it had in a bid to arrange a ceasefire. But, the government insisted that nothing short of an unconditional surrender would be accepted (Suicide attacks won’t halt final push-The Island May 5, 2009).

Desperate Tigers launched attacks on the naval cordon, though they knew it was not possible to open an escape route. By May 10, 2009, the LTTE was on the verge of collapse with the navy thwarting an LTTE attempt to launch two clusters of boats. The sea battle ended with the navy capturing one explosives-laden suicide craft (Last ditch stand by Sea Tigers-The Island May 10, 2009).

In the second week of May 2009, the LTTE accused the army of massacring about 2,000 civilians in a massive artillery barrage on the no fire zone. The allegation was timed for an informal session of the UN Security Council scheduled for May 11. Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa alleged that the LTTE and a section of the media were trying to jolt Western powers into intervening in Sri Lanka (Tiger spin docs create casualty figures to mislead-Gota-The Island May 11, 2009).

Subsequently, the LTTE accused the army of massacring over 3,200 men, women and children on May 9, 10 and 11. Responding to the LTTE allegation, an irate Defence Secretary Rajapaksa said that the LTTE was making an attempt to cover up death and injuries to several hundred civilians in the no fire zone at the hands of Prabhakaran loyalists. The Secretary said the LTTE had fired small arms and mortars at a group of about 1,000 civilians trying to reach the army frontline, killing and wounding 250 men, women and children (LTTE trying to cover up failure to prevent exodus-Gota-The Island May 12, 2009).

Brig. Prasanna Silva takes over 59 Div

In the wake of a desperate LTTE propaganda effort to compel the international community to intervene in Sri Lanka, the army intensified pressure on the LTTE. The army chief shifted Prasanna Silva from the 55 Division to 59 Division ahead of an important operation to pave the way for the final battle. Under Brig. Prasanna Silva’s command, the 55 Division fought its way to Chalai, having destroyed all LTTE strongholds at Nagarkovil, Kudarappu, Championpattu and Chundikulam. Once the 55 Division consolidated its position north of Mullaitivu, Lt. Gen. Fonseka halted its further advance and moved Brig. Silva to the 59 Division stationed south of Mullaitivu. The 59 Division was given the task to capture the Vadduvakal causeway, and advance a couple of hundred meters to increase pressure on the LTTE leadership. The LTTE carried out three suicide attacks targeting the 59 Division, though troops achieved their objective. A bund cum ditch failed to stall the army, with Brig. Silva’s troops taking up position southeast of Sarvarthottam, adjoining Vellamullaivaikkal, where Prabhakaran, Soosai and Pottu Amman were taking refuge among civilians. Brig. Silva, a Special Forces veteran, played an important role in operations leading to the liberation of the Eastern Province. The 59 Division was to stop its advance outside the civilian safety zone, thereby allowing the 58 Division to finish off the LTTE.

58 and 59 Divisions link up

I GW (Gemunu Watch) of the 59 Division was positioned about 400 m north of the Vadduvakal causeway. Having captured ‘FARAH III’ by April 22, 2009, the 58 Division rapidly pushed southwards along the beachfront. 11 SLLI (Sri Lanka Light Infantry) and 12 GR (Gajaba Regiment) moved along the beachfront, while 8 GR and 6 VIR (Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment) pushed southwards along the Paranthan-Mullaitivu (A-35). The 9 GW (Gemunu Watch) was positioned in between 8 GR and 6 VIR. The 58 Division launched a night operation to destroy LTTE positions north of the 59 Division causing heavy losses to the LTTE. The 58 Division reached 1 GW on the morning of May 15, 2009. It was a historic moment. For the first time since the war began in the 80s, the entire coast was under the government control. At least 900 LTTE cadres, including the remaining leaders and their families were trapped in a small piece of land between the Nanthikadal lagoon and the sea.