BESIEGED TIGERS IN DEFIANT POLITICO – MILITARY ‘LAST STAND’

There was a time when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) organization controlled about 15,600 sq km of territory in the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka. Today, the beleaguered Tigers formally occupy only about 60 – 65 sq km area in Mullaitivu district.Currently this tiger – controlled territory consists of three sectors. A littoral strip of land of around 40 – 45 sq km extending from Pokkanai in the North to Vattavaakal in the South is the primary sector. This coastal strip is situated between two lagoons on one side and the Indian Ocean on the other.

The other two sectors are the roadway and adjacent areas between the Puthukkudiyiruppu junction and Iranappaalai to the east on the one hand and the road stretch and adjacent lands to the south of Puthukkudiyiruppu junction along the A 35 highway or Paranthan – Mullaitheevu road. These sectors together are about 20 – 25 sq km in area.

North – East

When the fighting resumed in full force after Mahinda Rajapaksa became President on November 18, 2005, the LTTE was in control of vast tracts of territory in the East and North.

In the East these consisted of a pocket in Trincomalee north, areas in Muthur and Eechilampatru divisions, the Vaakarai – Panichankerny areas, the Kudumbimalai/Thoppigala area, vast areas in the “Paduvaankarai” (shore of the setting sun) areas west of Batticaloa lagoon and some areas in Amparai district.

In the North, the LTTE had a swathe of territorially contiguous area ranging from Muhamaalai in the Jaffna peninsula to the North to Omanthai in Vavuniya district to the South and from Vidathaltheevu in the west to Mullaitivu in the east.

As fighting progressed, the LTTE was slowly yet relentlessly beaten back. First in Trincomalee district, next in Amparai district and then in Batticaloa district. Thereafter the action shifted to the North.

Once again the Army began gradually advancing while the LTTE commenced retreating. Tiger controlled areas in Mannar, Vavuniya, Kilinochchi districts and the greater part of Mullaitivu district  were taken. Now the LTTE is squeezed into a very small area.

A very large number of civilians and Tiger cadres are existing in this piece of tiger territory. It is from this beleaguered position that the LTTE offers military resistance. It is virtually a defiant, last stand by the Tigers.

Besieged

A “last stand” in military parlance is a term used to describe a situation where a body of troops or armed fighters defend an area or position against superior numbers or overwhelming odds. Though surrender is always an option the beleaguered personnel prefer or opt to fight to the very end. Except on rare occasions, last stands usually end in annihilation. Often but not always, last stands are preceded by long sieges.

The current ground reality suggests that the tigers are indeed besieged and face overwhelming odds. The 53,55, 58, 59  divisions  respectively led by Gen. Kamal Gunaratne, Brig. Prasanna Silva, Brig. Shavendra Silva and Brig. Nandana Tudawatte along with Task Force VIII led by Col. G.S, Ravipriya are all around the tigers in the North, West and South. After rendering yeoman service the 54 division and Task Forces III and IV are being kept in reserve in the strategic region.

This means that around 50,000 troops on ground have encircled the LTTE positions. In addition to this, the LTTE is also extremely vulnerable from the sea. The Navy can position its vessels alongside the coast and simply shell. There is also the Air Force that can engage in aerial bombardment. These advantages have created a situation where it is only a matter of time for the armed forces to deliver the coup de grace.

Last bastion

While it has been a case of advantage foe the army for quite a while as the armed forces aggregated successes consistently, the vital breakthrough in the current situation came when the key Puthukkudiyiruppu junction was taken by the Army. Despite hype about Kilinochchi it is Puthukkudiyiruppu that has proved to be the LTTE’s last bastion.

Puthukkudiyiruppu is situated along the A 35 highway or Paranthan – Mullaitheevu road. The Puthukkudiyiruppu junction is not located in the heart of the town but a little outside to its south on the A 35 highway.

The littoral strip of land, currently dominated by the LTTE, lies between two lagoons and the ocean. One is the Nandhikadal or Mullaitivu  lagoon and the other is known as Challai or Pokkanai lagoon. There is an isthmus between both lagoons leading from Puthukudiyiruppu junction to the coast.

There is a road running from the junction to the coast known as Puthukkudiyiruppu – Iranaipaalai road. Thus the junction is of utmost importance if one were to advance by land to this coastal strip. Along this road, close to the coast is Maathalan also known as “Palam” (old) Maathalan.

Once the road reaches Iranappaalai it branches out to the north and south along the coast. Northwards are the places Anandapuram, Devapuram and Pokkanai.There is a small inlet to the Pokkanai bay or lagoon at Pokkanai. Further north is Challai. The 55 division is stationed at Challai and has also seized Pokkanai and Devapuram.

To the south of Iranappaalai along the coast are places like Ambalavanpokkanai (different to Pokkanai), “puthu” (new) Maathalan, Valingarmadam, Karaiaammullivaaikkaal,  Vellaammullivaaikkaal , Vattavaakal, Karaichukkudiyiruppu and Mullaitheevu town.

Puthukkudiyiruppu

junction

These areas are along the littoral strip between Nandhikadal lagoon and the Ocean. The 59 division occupies Mullaitivu town, Karaichikkudiyiruppu and the “paalam” (bridge) area near Vattavaakal. The Government has declared the 14 km long and 2 – 3 km wide stretch between Vattavaakal in the south to Ambalavanpokkanai in the north as a fire – free zone. The bulk of civilians are crammed into this narrow strip of land between the Nandhikadal lagoon and the Indian ocean. The Tiger cadres though widely dispersed are militarily concentrated in Iranappaalai, “palam” Maathalan and Pokkanai areas.

Thus the Puthukkudiyiruppu junction is of utility value as it affords easy land access to the coast along the Iranaippaalai road. Apart from this, the junction also assumes  strategic importance due to two other roads converging in that sphere.

One is the road leading to Puthukkudiyiruppu in a north – eastern direction from Oddusuddan along the A 34 highway or Mankulam – Mullaitheevu road. This road goes through areas like Katsilaimadhu and Kerudaamadhu.

The other road also proceeds northwards to Udayaarkattu and Viswamadhu  from Thaniootru near Mulliyawalai along the A 34 highway. This road which goes through Keppapulavu has a fork which branches off to Puthukkudiyiruppu.

Task Forces Three and Four had proceeded along the axes of these two roads and had stationed themselves at Kerudaamadhu and Keppapulavu respectively. After these task forces were put in reserve for a well – deserved rest, the newly created Task Force Eight was assigned the goal of reaching Puthukkudiyiruppu.

The 53 division kept in reserve at Mankulam was also thrown into battle. Incidentally, Task Force VIII was  aligned to this division and for practical purposes formed part of the 53 division and was subject to its overall authority.

Meanwhile the 58 division that has been slowly and steadily progressing along the A 35 highway also reached Kombaavil to the north of Puthukkudiyiruppu. The 55 division that had taken Challai was trying to proceed southwards along the coastal strip. The 59 division at Mullaitivu town was also planning to proceed north along the coastal strip.

The LTTE’s counter offensive from February 1 to 3 saw the 59 division receiving some setbacks. Subsequently the LTTE infiltrated areas controlled by the 59 and staged attacks. Thereafter the 59 was placed in defensive mode and plans for launching a north – bound offensive were shelved.

More importantly the Government that had earlier declared a fire free zone between Udayarkattu junction and the “Manjal Paalam” (Yellow bridge) announced a new fire – free zone along the coastal stretch.

Military Drive

The new safe zone indicated what the new military strategy was going to be. It appeared that the plans for undertaking a “north and south bound” military drive along the coastal areas were not on. Instead the new plan seemed to be that of trying to reach Puthukkudiyiruppu from the north and south along hinterland routes.

The 58 division cut across westwards and then moved east as well as proceeding southwards. Thus two brigades of the 58 were assailing the general area of Puthukkudiyiruppu from northern and north-western directions. The 53 division – TF VIII moved towards Puthukkudiyiruppu from Southern and South – western directions.

After breaching the familiar “earth bund – trench” Tiger defences at Peruvil, soldiers of the 53  division and task force VIII created military history by entering the built – up areas of Puthukkudiyiruppu. Almost around the same time the 58 division also reached the outskirts of Puthukkudiyiruppu.

The LTTE however was not going to let go of the town easily. It set up elaborate defences in the area almost in a house to house, lane to lane, street to street basis. In addition small Tiger groups began harassing soldiers.

The Army prudently avoided a head on confrontation by attempting to take the Puthukkudiyiruppu town in its entirety. Instead some strategical, flanking manoeuvres were adopted.

Pushing downwards in a southern trajectory soldiers of the 58 linked up with the Task Force VIII at the key Puthukkudiyiruppu junction.Likewise the 58 also cut across from west to east in the area north of Challai lagoon to the coast and linked up with the 55 division.

Consequent to these developments the game plan seems to be a twin –pronged drive at present. Instead of trying to seize Puthukkudiyiruppu town the 58 division troops along with TF VIII are circumventing it and proceeding eastwards  along the Iranappaalai road axis towards Maathalan. The 55 is trying to proceed southwards along the coast to the same destination.

Three factors

Given the superiority in manpower and firepower enjoyed by the army and the comparatively reduced area needing to be captured the ultimate result seems a foregone conclusion. But this does not mean that the end would be swift and overwhelming. It would be an arduous ordeal to overcome the Tigers within a quick timeframe. There are three valid factors for this.

Firstly it is the size of terrain. The coastal strip as well as the Iranappaalai road isthmus are relatively narrow. The soldiers wont be able to use their numerical superiority to their advantage by fanning out extensively or outflanking tiger positions. When the frontage is narrow the numbers factor becomes irrelevant. A small number of defenders can hold off larger number of advancing troops. It is said that Gen. Montgomery underwent this problem during the Normandy invasion when soldiers had to move forward through a three km space.

Secondly it is the nature of terrain and effective defencive measures. The areas through which the soldiers of both the 55 and 58 – TF 8 have to move forward are basically open. Soldiers are extremely vulnerable to snipers, mortars as well as RPG launchers. There is also the saturation rate of mining possible in a small sized area. The LTTE has saturated the areas of advance with both anti personnel and anti – vehicular mines. According to a defence –related source there are around 400 mines of varying types in a 150 metre distance.

Thirdly and most importantly there is the civilian factor. A very large number of civilians are interspersed and inter-mingled with tiger cadres. There is also much international concern (quite rightly) over civilian safety and protection. It is not possible to bomb or shell the target area with scant regard for civilians. In a sense the LTTE is holding the civilians as hostages and using them as human shields. But this is proving to be a restrictive factor. The Army commander himself is aware of this and has instructed his generals to proceed with utmost caution and care.

Against this background the Armed forces are constrained to proceed slowly yet steadily towards their military objectives. It appears that the Rajapaksa regime wants to announce the total seizure of all tiger – controlled territory by the Sinhala – Tamil New Year in April. This deadline may also be conducive to the President’s political calculations about staging a Parliamentary poll.

Rear Guard

Action

Meanwhile what of the tigers? The LTTE noted for its defiant spirit and resilience is certainly not going to simply watch and wait while its decline is accelerated. After botching up politically and messing up militarily the LTTE is now engaged in a politico – military rearguard action to extricate itself from the morass it has sunk into.

Militarily the LTTE has re-organized its defences in a bid to offer a last ditch stand in the Mullaitivu littoral. Ratnam Master the head of the LTTE’s special forces brigade is in specific charge of defences and counter – offensives. He is stationed at Iranappaalai. All senior leaders like Soosai, Theepan, Sornam, Bhanu, Jeyam, Ramesh, etc are directed and co-ordinated by Ratnam master.

It is however LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran who is the supreme commander and in overall charge of the military campaign. He controls it from a clandestine location. Prabhakaran does not communicate with anyone directly. It is intelligence chief Pottu Amman who functions as the “link” between the tiger chief and his subordinates conveying instructions from the leader and reporting back to him about ground realities.

Counter – Strikes

Apart from setting up defences and resisting military advances the tigers have also been conducting a series of counter – strikes and counter – attacks. The sea tigers under Soosai along with cadres led by Lawrence have combined on several operations targeting the 55 division positions in Chaalai – Chundikulam. There have been also many attempts at infiltration and ambushes.

Contrary to popular notions that the tigers are bottled up in this littoral strip and have nowhere else to go,  the reality on ground is different. While contingents of LTTE cadres are engaged in defensive and counter – offensive measurs a sizable number of tigers have managed to exfiltrate from the zone they are in and relocated to jungle areas of the Wanni. Intelligence reports state that the LTTE has infiltrated jungles on both sides of the A 9 highway or Jaffna – Kandy road. There have also been ambushes and limited skirmishes between tigers and soldiers in areas reportedly cleared of the LTTE

Despite the adverse military environment, there are also reports of arms and ammunition being brought to the Vellamullivaaikaal coast in small boats. The source of this supply is unknown but presumed to be the handiwork of KP. Another phenomenon is the regularity in which cadres are being taken away from Mullaitivu in boats. Their destination and purpose of travel is not known.

The tiger strikes and counter – offensives are yet to score decisively. Though damage is inflicted these attempts have not succeeded to the extent of dislodging the armed forces from entrenched positions or significantly demoralising personnel. Nevertheless the armed forces are expecting the tigers to throw in a lot of their decreasing resources and launch a major counter – offensive. Since such an attack is well – anticipated there is little chance for the armed forces to be caught napping.

Politico – Diplomatic

Offensive

If these are the developments on the military front with the tigers being basically on the defensive, the LTTE has on another front, set in motion a world-wide politico – diplomatic “offensive”. For this the LTTE is relying on the global Tamil community both in India and abroad.

The pivotal element that is central to this political offensive is purported concern about the fate of civilians. The undeniable fact of civilians being killed and injured on a daily basis and the pathetic plight of suffering people is highlighted and focused upon extensively. This sad situation has aroused much sympathy and concern among Tamils everywhere. The demand therefore is an end to this sorrow by bringing about a ceasefire.

Though the ostensible concern is for the civilian plight there is no denying that a permanent ceasefire will provide a reprieve and even respite for the beleaguered tigers. There is however little sympathy within the International community for this ceasefire demand to protect civilians. This concern itself is rather hypocritical as the LTTE is guilty of preventing a large number of civilians from leaving the tiger – territory.

Implicit consensus

The International community has seen through this bluff and is demanding that the LTTE release the people. There is also a request by some sections to declare a temporary truce with the sole purpose of facilitating a mass evacuation of civilians from the afflicted region. There is no support for a permanent ceasefire that could enable the LTTE to get off the hook. There is an implicit consensus among the international community that the Rajapaksa regime should not be hindered in any way in its fight to eradicate the LTTE. Of course, it’s a moot point as to whether such complete annihilation is possible but then that’s another story.

Though the International community and the Indian central and Tamil Nadu state governments are not in favour of a ceasefire that would help the LTTE, the global Tamil Diaspora and Tamils in India are of a different opinion. The vociferous elements among Tamils are engaged in a wide – spread, well – orchestrated campaign demanding an end to Tamil suffering in Sri Lanka.

In India, the Tamil Eelam support lobby and ultra – Tamil nationalists are whipping up protests and agitation on a large scale. The Tamil Diaspora is conducting many demonstrations and protests in many Western cities urging international intervention that would bring about a ceasefire. The revived spectre of self – immolation in support and in sympathy of “Eelam Tamils” has emotionalised the mindset of many, many Tamils. A large number of Tamils engaged in protests and demonstrations are not tiger supporters. They are essentially non – political but very concerned and troubled about the tragic plight of Tamil civilians.

Radicalisation process

While the efforts of Tamils in India and the world have failed to yield any concrete results so far, the radicalisation process set in motion by those attempts is considerable. Only the future would show the actual outcome of this radicalization process that is going on everywhere.

This then is the last ditch politico – military stand of the besieged Tigers. The bitter irony is that the LTTE may be losing militarily in northern Sri Lanka but is gaining politically among Tamils in India and the World.

D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at

djeyaraj2005@yahoo.com

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