Tiger manoeuvres trouble gateway garrison
[TamilNet, Thursday, 16 December 1999, 18:53 GMT]
The Sri Lanka Army has been expecting a head on attack on the main gateway to Jaffna since reports began emanating from the Vanni that the Liberation Tigers were raising a large conventional force for an unprecedented offensive. The Elephant Pass-Paranthan base complex was therefore heavily fortified and well trained infantry units were deployed there to face the anticipated assault. But the Tigers, however, have entered Jaffna through a strategic side gate to suit the manoeuvre warfare tactics of their Operation Unceasing Waves III.
Elephant Pass was traditionally the main all weather entrance to the peninsula.
However, years before the opening of the macadamized highway (the old Kandy road) through the jungles of the Vanni, travel between the north and the east was mainly along a coastal road, linked at frequent intervals by ferries plying the estuaries of the numerous lagoons which dot the east coast.
This coastal road was much in use, particularly as a short cut to the eastern sector of Mullaithivu, for many years after the opening of the A9 - the new Kandy road until the late seventies. (The old Kandy road was abandoned due to frequent flooding. The SLAÌs Operation Jayasikurui moved along this route in its second phase, taking Karapukkuththi and Karippattamurippu).
The coastal road branches off southeast from the A9 at Iyakkachchi junction towards Kaddaikadu on the coast. Here it turns south along a short, narrow strip of land between the estuary of the Elephant Pass lagoon and the Bay of Bengal that links the peninsula with the mainland. This is Chundikulam.
The coastal villages of Vettrilaikerni, Aliyawlai, Kodukkilai, Uduththurai, Vembadi, Vaththiraayan, Maruthankerni, Thalaiyadi, Sembiyanpattu, Mamunai, Kudarappu, Nagar Kovil, Amban, Kudaththani, Manatkaadu and Vallipuram lie between Pt.Pedro and Kaddaikadu-Chundikulam (given here in a south to north order).
The Liberation Tigers have entered Jaffna by taking the coast between Chundikulam and Maruthankerni.
The strategic side gate is now in their hands. (The SLA acknowledges this typically by saying that it made a tactical withdrawal from Kaddaikadu and Vetrilaikerni.) It is a convenient opening which allows the Liberation Tigers to pour their conventional warfare resources directly into Jaffna.
The Tigers are obviously exploiting this tactical advantage rather than trying to achieve a massive concentration of forces ahead of Elephant Pass as they did when they overran Kilinochchi in September 1998.
According to residents in the area, the LTTE's fighting units have further advanced north on the coast from their positions in Kaddaikadu by attacking the main SLA camp in Maruthankerni.
If the Tigers are able to defend and hold their territorial gains on Jaffna's southeast coast, it is bound to give them a clear advantage in the manoeuvre warfare tactics of Operation Unceasing Waves III.
They can either advance further north on the coast towards Pt.Pedro or turn west from their current positions to cut off the Kandy Road between Palai and Elephant Pass.
This can severely threaten the SLA's hold on the Thenmaradchi division of the peninsula and isolate the Paranthan-Elephant Pass base complex.
The SLA's calamities have been further compounded by the fact that all parts of the Elephant Pass base complex have now come within range of the LTTE's artillery units, including those firing the ubiquitous 81 mm medium mortars.
Meanwhile, the SLA finds itself hard pressed to concentrate its Jaffna forces to counter attack the LTTE's beach head on the peninsula's southeastern coast and the fighting formations that are attempting to break through key SLA positions such as Thalaiyadi and Maruthankerni junction.
This is so because the Tigers appear to have infiltrated into Thanangkilappu which is less than eight kilometers southeast of Jaffna town by the lagoon.
The SLA spokesman's statement that four soldiers were killed and seventy were wounded in confrontations here confirms the situation. Heavy shelling and firing was heard in the area last night as well.
Is Thanangkilappu going to be another beach head intended for an operation directed at Jaffna town? Will the Tigers bring in more troops to build pressure on the main road to Chavakachcheri with an eye to crippling SLA's logistics in this part of the penininsula?
The SLA is in a quandary.
This is the first time that it is facing the conventional strength of the Liberation Tigers on multiple fronts simultaneously.
The SLA's high command is also apparently concerned that the Iyakkachchi junction and its environs now stand directly exposed to a concentrated LTTE assault.
The main sources of fresh water supply on which more than ten thousand government troops at Elephant Pass depend are located here and in Paranthan. The water sources in most parts of the base are brackish.
The LTTE's attempt to lay siege to the Elephant Pass-Paranthan garrison, one of the largest military bases of the Sri Lankan Army, can said to be complete if Iyakkachchi too were to be overrun.
The Tigers say that they have destroyed the Pullaveli SLA camp in the interior which is not far from Iyakkachchi and are advancing further west towards that junction.
Although the SLA denies this, it is very obvious from the situation report presented yesterday (Dec.15) by the SLA spokesman that large scale engagements are taking place in the general area northeast of Elephant Pass.
Seven soldiers were killed and 142 were wounded of whom 77 sustained serious injuries in confrontations in Vettrilaikerni, Kaddaikadu and Pullaveli according to him. These surely are not the consequence of negligible skirmishes with small bands of enemy troops.
Even the SLA spokesman's figures unequivocally indicate that large fighting formations of the LTTE with logistics flowing from the rear are engaged in offensive operations on the coast and the interior, close to the Elephant Pass base.
The objective of the LTTE's manoeuvre tactics are therefore patent. They cut off the ultimate life line to the base in the first phase of the offensive by taking Vettrilaikerni and Kaddaikadu.
This is considered the ultimate life line of the base complex because the eastern sea board offers the only logistically viable means of supplying the garrison on the gateway in the event of the trunk road to Jaffna and the Kilaly coast being effectively cut off by the Tigers.
The needs of the base cannot be met with the limited air lift capabilities of the Sri Lanka Air Force.
Though not prepared to under estimate the Liberation Tigers, the Sri Lanka Army commanders feel that the organisation may have sustained heavy losses and is not in a position to over stretch itself to directly take on this large base.
The Tigers laid siege to the Elephant Pass camp in 1991. It was held by a battalion and supporting elements of artillery and armour at the time. The LTTE lost more than 500 fighters trying to overrun the garrison.
The SLA saved the camp by securing a beach head at Kaddaikadu-Vettrilaikerni and fighting its way to Elephant Pass in the operation called Balavegaya.
Today the base is held by a full division and supporting units. It is not surprising therefore that the Tigers secured the same beach head for launching Operation Unceasing Waves III to isolate the Elephant Pass base and more importantly, to gain a strategic foot hold inside Jaffna.
When the Tigers left the peninsula in early 1996, the Sri Lankan government asserted that it was the beginning of their end.
Today, after four years, they have returned, their military skills enhanced and their arsenal augmented immensely in ways they may not have imagined had they remained in Jaffna.