Sri Lanka Army push stalled

[TamilNet, Saturday, 02 August 1997, 23:59 GMT]
A renewed Sri Lankan attempt to capture the town of Puliyankulum was stopped on Thursday night, the LTTE said Friday. The sudden lunge towards Puliyankulum comes several weeks after the Sri Lankan operation 'Jaya Sikuru' stalled following two fierce LTTE counter attacks. The Sri Lankans said there had been fighting in the area, but did not admit to a renewed push being stopped.

On Thursday night, Sri Lankan troops in armoured vehicles and backed by artillery had launched a sudden push towards Puliyankulum town. The LTTE said its troops had "hit back decisively, halting the invading forces in their tracks".

Puliyankulum is meant to be the linking up point for two Sri Lankan columns that had pushed out of the Vavuniya and Manal Aru military complexes. The thrust from Vavuniya was intended to capture Omanthai town, and Nedunkerni town was the target for the other Sri Lankan column. Both were captured after weeks of intense fighting.

There was a lull in the fighting as the Sri Lankans 'consolidated their defences'. The SLA said its progress was slow as the Sinhalese troops were taking all precautions to prevent infiltration by Tamil Tiger units. Despite the precautions, the LTTE did infiltrate in battalion strength to smash the SLA 55th Brigade HQ, killing over 300 Sinhalese troops and destroying two massive ammunition dumps and 5 tanks, while losing 80 fighters.

Another pause followed as the Sinhalese troops attempted to regroup and reorganise their offensive. Almost immediately after the operation resumed, the LTTE launched a second fierce counter attack on a newly established firebase, overrunning it after opening a 2.5 km breach in the SLA flank. At least 100 Sinhalese soldiers were killed and the Tigers withdrew taking captured artillery, mortars and vehicles with them. 85 Tigers also died in the attack.

When the second counter-attack was initiated, the two Sinhalese columns were said to be converging on Puliyankulum from the south and the north-east respectively. In fact the Sri Lankan Army spokesmen announced in Colombo that the two columns had already linked up within the town.

The LTTE counter attack brought the operation to a grinding halt with the two columns short of reaching Puliyankulum. The gap between the two sides is said to be wide enough for the LTTE to comfortably march battalion-sized forces through.

Thursday's sudden offensive would have been timed to catch the LTTE off guard and allow the armoured column to punch through Tamil lines to link up with the other column. The LTTE are loath to launch hastily prepared counter-strikes in the dark, especially with insufficient intelligence, and prefer to stage a limited defence and avoid head-on confrontations until sufficient reconnaissance has been done.

However, an LTTE official told us that a Sri Lankan thrust had been anticipated due to increased Sri Lankan shelling in the area and observed Sri Lankan troop movements, adding that the LTTE had zeroed in artillery and mortars on likely approach routes to Puliyankulum.

When the Sri Lankans moved out of their forward lines on Thursday night, the Tiger gunners had laid down a barrage, targeting these approach routes, and the Sri Lankans had been forced to fall back to their lines before launching a ferocious shelling of the surrounding areas in a bid to seek out the Tamil guns.

The Sri Lankans acknowledged that heavy fighting had occurred in the area, but claimed they had repulsed an LTTE attack on their positions instead. The Sri Lankans claim their troops had exchanged artillery fire with the Tigers, and called in helicopter gunships. The SLA says that 17 soldiers were killed and that 'ground troops confirmed 50 Tigers were killed'.

The Sri Lankans did not say how their troops were able to 'confirm' Tiger casualties given the distance and the darkness. Following exchanges of artillery fire, the SLA routinely claims that LTTE gun positions were 'neutralised' by helicopter gunships. However the Tamil guns fall silent simply because the Tigers relocate the weapons to prevent the SLAF from destroying them.

The LTTE now has at least three 122mm howitzers, two of which were captured last July and another this July. The Tigers have deployed these weapons as well as 120mm and 81mm mortars with deadly effect in the past year. For example, several months ago, the LTTE launched an artillery attack on Vavuniya air force base, slamming 28 out of 30 rounds into the airbase buildings and runway.

Sri Lankan analysts believe that the Tiger howitzers are fired from mobile platforms, thereby making their 'neutralisation' extremely difficult. The Tigers have been able to slow Sri Lanka's operation 'Jaya Sikuru' by simply dropping a handful of shells into vulnerable staging areas.

The Sri Lankan military also said that their troops continued to 'dominate areas ahead of their defences'. This is an euphemism for launching heavy artillery barrages into the surrounding areas to deter LTTE infiltration or attacks. The LTTE said that shelling of the nearby towns of Kanakarayankulam, Karipattamurippu, Oddusuddan and Puliyankulum had continued till late into the Thursday night.


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