SPECIAL REPORT : Part 55December 24, 2014, 12:00 pm
by Shamindra Ferdinando
Twice President, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, declared that at the time the then Premier, Mahinda Rajapaksa, won the Nov 17, 2005, presidential election, the LTTE had controlled about 25 per cent of the Vanni territory. Mrs. Kumaratunga emphasized that the LTTE couldn’t have controlled not more than 30 per cent of land, situated on the Vanni east.
Addressing the media, at her ancestral home, at Attanagalle, on Dec 16, 2014, Mrs Kumaratunga said that her successor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, had to liberate the Kilinochchi and Pudukudithirippu area, situated in the eastern corner of the Vanni region.
The former Commander-in-Chief unwittingly revealed that she didn’t even know that Kilinochchi is situated along the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road.
The former SLFP leader sought to diminish President Rajapaksa’s role in Eelam War IV for obvious reasons.
Regardless of former SLFP General Secretary, turned Opposition presidential candidate, Maithripala Sirisena’s Camp, harping on restoration of democracy, good governance, the eradication of terrorism remains the central issue. Had that not being the case, Mrs Kumaratunga wouldn’t have claimed clearing up to 70 per cent of the territory, previously held by the LTTE.
In fact, Mrs Kumaratunga’s Dec 16, 2014, declaration meant that the entire Eastern Province, comprising Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara districts, had been under government control at the time she relinquished office. Rajapaksa took oaths as Kumaratunga’s successor on Nov 19, 2005.
A humiliating defeat
The LTTE clearly had the upper hand in the northern theater of operations at the time the UNP won the Dec 5, 2001, parliamentary election. The Sri Lankan Army (SLA) never recovered from the disastrous Agnikeela offensive, launched on April 24, 2001, in the Jaffna peninsula. The SLA had no option but to call off Agnikeela which was meant to regain Elephant Pass. Agnikeela brought an end to major offensive actions with the SLA adopting defensive measures, both in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The SLA could no longer sustain major offensive action after having suffered a series of debilitating battlefield defeats in the Northern Province. Nothing could be as humiliating as the Elephant Pass debacle, suffered in April 2000. Mrs. Kumaratunga had conveniently forgotten that the SLA suffered its worst defeat during her tenure as the President. The LTTE defeated the fully equipped 54 Division, headquartered at Elephant Pass. It was beyond any doubt the LTTE’s finest battlefield achievement. The LTTE rolled back five Brigades, placed under the command of officiating General Officer Commanding (GOC) 54 Division, Brigadier K. B. Egodawela.
The LTTE followed up with a devastating raid on the Bandaranaike International Airport, on July 24, 2001.That raid effectively ended any likelihood of Mrs Kumaratunga’s government going on a large scale offensive.
After having won the Dec 5, 2001, parliamentary election, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, pledged his commitment to the Norwegian-led peace process, initiated by Mrs Kumaratunga, several months before the LTTE made an abortive bid to assassinate her, on the night of Dec 18, 1999. A tripartite Ceasefire Agreement (CFA), involving Sri Lanka, Norway and the LTTE, signed on February 21, 2002, recognized a specific area under the command and control of the terrorist group.
Moratorium on large scale offensives
Consequent to the Agnikeela debacle, in April 2001, the military suspended ground operations, though the LTTE continued to consolidate the area under its control. Although Mrs. Kumaratunga remained Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, until Nov 2005, the SLA remained on a defensive posture, until the end of her term. Mrs Kumaratunga, during her second term (Dec 1999 to Nov 2005), suffered a series of stunning battle field defeats on the northern front. However, Mrs Kumaratunga couldn’t be deprived of credit for regaining the Jaffna peninsula, undoubtedly the SLA’s greatest battlefield achievement, before Eelam War IV. Mrs. Kumaratunga gave a tremendous boost to the armed forces by acquiring Mi 24s in 1995, Kfirs in 1996, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in 1996, MiG 27s in 2000, mobile multi barrel rocket launchers in 2000, and a range of other equipment. However, in spite of bringing the entire peninsula under government control, by early 1996, she couldn’t sustain the offensive.
In July 1996, the LTTE wiped out SLA’s 25 Brigade headquartered at Mullaitivu. Nearly 1,400 officers and men perished in the Mullaitivu battle. The LTTE finished off a battalion each from the Sinha Regiment and the Vijayaba Infantry Regiment (VIR), thus opening a new phase of the war. The Mullaitivu loss shattered the SLA’s morale.
Soon after the Mullaitivu debacle, the SLA launched an operation from Elephant Pass. The offensive, codenamed Sath Jaya, was meant to advance southwards, from Elephant Pass, as much as possible. By September, 1996, the SLA brought Kilinochchi under its control. In May, 1997, Mrs Kumaratunga authorized the launch of Operation Jayasikurui, a highly ambitious offensive aimed at restoring the overland Main Supply Route (MSR), between Vavuniya and Kilinochchi.
The LTTE retaliated. While,‘Jayasikurui’ troops had been struggling to push towards Kilinochchi, the LTTE, in February 1998, overran the army’s first line of defences at Kilinochchi. In late September, 1998, the SLA retreated northwards, from Kilinochchi. The SLA held its positions at Paranthan briefly before pulling back to Elephant Pass, thereby giving up Sath Jaya gains.
The LTTE was setting the stage for a decisive change in their overall strategy, which would, in just over a year, could give them an opportunity to defeat the army in the Jaffna peninsula.
Jayasikurui called off
War weary Mrs. Kumaratunga called off Jayasikurui, in Dec 1998.Immediately after calling off ‘Jayasikurui’, the SLA re-deployed the battle-fatigued battalions to link-up Olumadu, Oddussudan, Nedunkerni and Puliyankulam, on the eastern part of the Vanni (east of A9) in December, 1998. Buoyant with the success on the Vanni east, the SLA had moved westwards of the A9. Troops brought over 1300 square kilometres under their control in operations conducted in March, May and June, 1999. The SLA paid a heavy price for bringing territory under its control, without adequate men and material to hold regained areas. The political and military leaderships didn’t realize that substantial territorial gains were made without facing real resistance. The assertion that the LTTE had been severely weakened, by over three years of continuous fighting, was proved wrong when Prabhakaran launched simultaneous assaults on troops, deployed at Oddussudan-Olumadu and Oddussudan-Nedenkerni sectors on November 1, 1999. The SLA and the navy quickly abandoned their positions and retreated towards Weslaco. Within 48 hours, Weslaco was under threat. The LTTE swiftly struck across the Vanni west and within hours the SLA was on the retreat. Territorial gains, made in March, May and June, 1999, were abandoned within days.
Mrs Kumaratunga’s government made an abortive attempt to portray the unprecedented military defeat as a political conspiracy. A ridiculous bid was made to link retired army chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Landsman Almada, with the conspiracy.
After having caused massive battlefield defeats, the LTTE made an attempt to assassinate Mrs Kumaratunga, on the night of Dec 18, 1999. Had the LTTE succeeded, the UNP leader would have comfortably won the Dec 21, 1999 presidential election. In the run-up to the previous presidential poll, in Nov 1994, the LTTE facilitated Mrs Kumaratunga’s victory by assassinating UNP candidate, Gavini Dissanayakas.
Mrs Kumaratunga’s recent declaration that her successor Rajapaksa had to liberate about 30 per cent of Vanni east territory should be examined in the backdrop of major ground offensives being on hold since the Agnikeela offensive, in April, 2001. Moratorium on offensive action remained in place until August, 2006, when President Rajapaksa authorized the conduct of a limited offensive to re-open the Mavilaru sluice gates, in the Eastern Province. The government couldn’t avoid a military confrontation over Mavilaru due to Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) pressing the government to take military action.
EP cleared in one year
The SLA cleared the Entire Eastern Province, by August, 2007, after having launched clearing operations in September, 2006. Obviously, Mrs. Kumaratunga hadn’t taken into consideration the clearing of the Eastern Province, particularly the area surrounding the strategic Trincomalee harbour, at the onset of the humanitarian operation. In fact, if not for her intervention, the LTTE would have probably overwhelmed Trincomalee navy base during 2003/2004. Acting on information provided by the navy through the then Eastern Naval Commander Rear Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda, Mrs Kumaratunga resorted to remedial action leading to the take over of three ministries, including defence on Nov 4, 2003. Mrs. Kumaratunga declared that she exercised her constitutional powers, took over three ministerial portfolios and prorogued parliament.
Premier Wickremesinghe, who had been in Washington at that time, described the move as "opportunistic" and one that "precipitated a national crisis". The LTTE, which submitted its counter-proposals on October 31, said it was "carefully monitoring and studying the developments" and that its "leadership will decide what to do".
The military controlled only parts of Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara districts in the Eastern Province when the then army Chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka undertook the challenging task of clearing the region. War veteran Fonseka, waged war with a vengeance, after having survived an LTTE suicide attack, on the afternoon of April 25, 2006.
In spite of the devastating split, caused by Karuna, in March 2004, the LTTE had strong fighting formations in the Eastern Province, at the time the SLA launched clearing operations. The elite Special Task Force (STF) too, committed sizable force for operations in the Eastern theater, with the air force, as well as the navy, too making significant contributions. The military also involved members of Karuna faction in offensive operations. The LTTE had the wherewithal to fight for nearly 13 months before it gave up the Eastern Province. During the battle for supremacy, in the Eastern Province, the LTTE made an attempt to bring in a large quantity of ammunition in mid Sept. 2006. If not for the timely intelligence, provided by the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI), the LTTE could have succeeded in transferring arms, ammunition and equipment to those fighting in the Eastern Province, thereby prolonging the war. But intelligence provided by the DMI enabled the navy to destroy a shipload of weapons, off the eastern coast.
For some strange reason, Maithripala Sirisena’s Camp had ignored political leadership given by President Rajapaksa, during the combined forces campaign in the Eastern Province. The military couldn’t even have contemplated liberating the Northern Province unless the Eastern districts were firmly under government control.
MR leads the way
President Rajapaksa gave clearance to double the strength of the army. The rapid expansion of the infantry regiments, plus elite Special Forces and Commando formations, paved the way for the SLA to undertake the largest ever ground offensive in Northern Sri Lanka. President Rajapaksa’s predecessors hadn’t been willing to increase the SLA strength, to required level, though gradual expansion was allowed. Had the LTTE held just 30 per cent of Vanni territory on the Vanni east front, the SLA wouldn’t have needed such a huge force to undertake the Vanni offensive. At the conclusion of the war, the SLA had nearly 220,000 officers and men.
Although Mrs. Kumaratunga talked of President Rajapaksa having to clear a small pocket of terrorists on the Vanni east, the then ground realities had been very much different. The SLA launched two infantry formations, 57 Division (March 2007) and Task Force I or TF I (Sept 2007) west of the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road in a bid to draw out as many LTTE units, and destroy them, before an offensive could be undertaken east of A9. Both formations had to commence their advance from the Vavuniya-Mannar road and fight their way northwards. Both formations faced fierce resistance and struggled for many months before progress could be made. Resistance had been so fierce that the 57 Division battled for 11 months before it could achieve its first objective, namely liberation of Madhu. The area was brought under government control on April 24th, 2008. The TF I reached its first major target on May 8, 2008, after having battled strong LTTE units for eight months.
The SLA launched its first infantry formation, on the Vanni east front, in January, 2008. The 59 Division had been tasked to fight its way across the Andankulam and Nagancholai forest reserves that stood as natural defences for the LTTE’s main military bastion in Mullaitivu. The 59 Division brought Mullaitivu under control, in late January, 2009.
The 57 Division and TF I crossed the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road, at different points, during the first week of January, 2009.
The 53 Division (deployed south of A9) and 55 Division (deployed north of A9), manning forward defence lines, at Muhamalai, advanced towards Elephant Pass, while the TF I rapidly advanced on Elephant Pass after having liberated Pooneryn, in mid Nov 2008.
Soon after the TF I crossed the Kandy-Jaffna A9, it was named 58 Division.
In addition to five Divisions (57, 58, 59, 53 and 55), Gen. Fonseka also launched several Task Forces. Task Force II commenced its operations in June 2008 south of Palamoddai area. This was the first Army offensive formation to manoeuvre along the west-east axis across A-9. The Task Force III launched operations in November 2008 in the Vannivilankulam area. It was the second offensive formation to manoeuvre along the west-east axis across A-9. The Task Force IV commenced its operations in December 2008 from the Nadunkerni area. It was the second offensive formation deployed on the Vanni east front after 59 Division launched operations in January 2008. The final offensive formation Task Force 8 was launched on the Vanni east front in February 2009.
Although Mrs. Kumaratunga declared that President Rajapaksa had to liberate the Kilinochchi- Pudukudithirippu area, the celebrated 58 Division captured Pudukudithirippu, only on March 3, 2009, after having continuously conducted operations, since Sept. 2007. The SLA took 11 more weeks to finish off the LTTE. Nearly 2,400 officers and men died on the Vanni east front, from January 1, 2009, to May 19, 2009. In terms of number of dead, 2009 was the worst for the SLA. The loss of 2,400 lives, east of Kandy-Jaffna A9 road, within 19 weeks, is evidence of the level of LTTE resistance. The SLA had never suffered similar losses since the Mullaitivu debacle in July 1996.