Feature Article

Creeping advantage in Jaffna

[TamilNet, Thursday, 10 February 2000, 23:59 GMT]
The conventional fighting formations of the Liberation Tigers operate in two strategic parts of the Jaffna peninsula. Although the LTTE has been moving its conventional fighting units into Jaffna since December, the Sri Lankan army has been unable to dislodge them neither from the southeast coast of the peninsula and its hinterland nor from the lagoon coast in Ariyalai east and Thanangilappu.

The former are attempting to move steadily towards Iyakkachchi and the latter pose a direct threat to Jaffna town. Very little is known from civilian or Sri Lankan military sources about what is actually going on the coast of the Jaffna lagoon between Kilaly and Ariyalai east. The SLA has so far tried to play down reports and indications that there is a strategically significant number of conventional combat formations of the Liberation Tigers inside the Jaffna peninsula.

However, a fairly clear picture can be pieced together from statements made by the SLA itself and reports about fighting in the area. The Tigers continue to hold the beach head that they established in the first phase of the offensive into Jaffna in December. The beach head is also a strategic corridor between the peninsula and the Vanni mainland.

The SLA claimed in December that it had launched a two pronged operation from the Elephant Pass base and its positions in Thaalaiyadi, on the peninsula's southeast coast to dislodge the LTTE from its beach head between Vettrilaikerni and Maruthankerni. Nothing was heard of this operation except that it had been launched.

sla_tank_madhu.jpgThe Sri Lankan army's elite fighting arm, the 53 division comprising special forces commandos, an air mobile and a mechanized infantry unit etc., was relocated to the Elephant Pass base from its home in Weli Oya when the LTTE turned Operation Unceasing Waves III in the direction of Jaffna. The positioning of the elite 53 division, modeled largely on the US special forces, at Elephant Pass in addition to the 54 division that normally mans the base was patently intended to thwart if not defeat the LTTE's designs on the southeastern coast of the peninsula and its hinterland. The units of Div. 53, some of which have been trained by US special forces, are deployed by the SLA to break into LTTE strongholds, capture and hold beach heads, spearhead offensives and for conducting deep penetration operations and out flanking maneuvers.

But obviously nothing substantial has been achieved by the special forces since December 11 when the threat to the Elephant Pass became real. There are regular reports from the ministry of defence and sections of the press in Colombo about operations and attacks by SLA troops against the positions of the Liberation Tigers to the east and immediately northeast of Iyakkachchi. It is clear that such actions by the army are limited and have not seriously damaged the defences of the conventional formations of the LTTE operating in this area.

There were reports by the MoD, for example, that government troops had taken on the Tigers in areas near Iyakkachchi such as Sangathaar Vayal. And then there were further reports that the SLA was bombarding or attacking LTTE positions in the same sector. In short, the statements of the Sri Lankan MoD reveal, upon closer scrutiny, that the Tigers are entrenched if not pushing ahead in the general area east and north east of the SLA base at Iyakkachchi.

It is also obvious that the LTTE units operating in this sector and the southeastern coast are conventional fighting formations. This is most probably why the SLA has not been able to make much headway in dislodging the Tigers from strategic points that pose a direct threat to the stability of the Elephant Pass base or even in pushing them back to a safe distance.

anti_air_craft.jpgThe LTTE, meanwhile, have continued to push into the eastern and northeastern environs of the SLA's base at Iyakkachchi. The latest SLA position to fall in the general area ahead of Elephant Pass is Kurinjathivu. The army acknowledged the situation indirectly by saying that its troops had attacked Tiger defences there.

The fact is that while the army has been unable to regain any of the positions it lost in the hinterland beginning with the camp at Pullaaveli almost for two months now, the LTTE has been able to concentrate its forces in the hinterland of its beach head and launch conventional attacks on the strategic satellite camps of the Elephant Pass base.

Although these did not move with the swiftness of the first phase of Operation Unceasing Waves III in the Vanni, the operations of the Tigers in the hinterland of Jaffna's southeastern coast have been steady and almost inexorable. It is clear that the SLA is unable to decisively concentrate its forces and fire power against the LTTE's beach head in the general area of Vettrilaikerni which is the basis of the lifeline of their large fighting formations in the hinterland, closer to Elephant Pass and Iyakkachchi. This is the case despite reports from the north that the SLA is pouring in more troops into sectors that have come under the direct threat of the Tigers.

jaffna_divisionsIf the induction of more troops and the presence of the elite 53 division in Elephant Pass have not been enough to neutralize the LTTE's conventional offensive capability in the area or destabilize their beach head, then what is wrong? The same question arises in reviewing the situation on the Jaffna lagoon coast.

The SLA called for air strikes on LTTE positions in Ariyalai east on February 3. This was the first instance of the SLA calling for air strikes by Kfir fighter bombers on LTTE targets inside the peninsula since it brought Jaffna under its military control in early 1996.

The military spokesman said that the army had bombarded these positions with heavy artillery. SLA sources were quoted in the Island as saying that there are a 'couple of hundred' Tigers operating with mortars, machines guns etc., in Ariyalai east and Thanangilappu despite daily attacks on them by government troops.

An MoD situation report during this period speaks of LTTE bunker lines in this area that had been attacked. So the army is dealing with conventional fighting formations of the Tigers in this region as well. The point again is that the SLA is unable to dislodge the these Tiger units that are dug in dangerously close to the Jaffna town despite the presence of two army divisions, the 51 and 52, overseeing the Jaffna lagoon coast.

The anxiety that seems to characterize the army's current much publicized drive to recruit 15000 soldiers would indicate that the problem is with numbers -that more troops will help the army to push the Tigers out of Jaffna.

The failure of Operation Jayasikurui to open the highway to Jaffna and the success of the LTTE's 99 November offensive in the Vanni have shown that the numerical superiority argument so favoured by western defence is fundamentally flawed. The simple point, as usual, is overlooked. That its conventional offensive capability and initiative have almost been neutralized seems to be the central problem the SLA faces in Jaffna now.


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