May 8, 1997
Barring the spectacular assaults by the LTTE on the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) garrison at Paranthan early this year and the two smaller attacks later on police posts in the Amparai division of Batticaloa district, there is a lull on the ground. While carrying out hit-and-run attacks in the eastern province, the Tigers have avoided contact with the SLA. On its part, the SLA earned another feather in its cap by opening the lateral route (A 30) from Vavuniya to its coastal garrison in Mannar without firing a shot.
As for completing the military conquest of the northern Jaffna peninsula, what remains is the clearance of the land route (A9) from Vavuniya to Kilinochchi, a distance of 70 km through thick bush Tiger territory. Last year, the SLA took one division of troops and nearly two months to cover roughly 15 km of the road from Elephant Pass to Kilinochchi through the Paranthan crossroads.
After Jaffna, Kilinochchi was LTTE’s next administrative headquarters, the operational heart being relocated in the Mullaittivu jungles. This was one of the reasons why the LTTE had to remove the SLA coastal base at Mullaittivu in July 1996, in what was one of the most sensational attacks of this century.
The compulsion for opening the land route to the North has been mounting, especially after the horrendous losses suffered by the Sri Lankan Air force (SLAF) in keeping the lifeline open to the Palaly air base. SLAF is also required for ground support to troops, aerial bombardment, surveillance and casualty evacuation.
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Last week, SLAF lost an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) on a reconnaissance mission along the A9, preparatory to the offensive. So far this year, aircraft losses have been staggering; two Y12 and two AN32 transport planes, one Pucara fighter, three UAVs, one Kfir jet fighter, one Mi 24 gunship and two Mi 17 helicopters.
The sea route from Trincomalee to Kankesanturai is vulnerable to interdiction by Sea Tigers and is no longer a cost effective alternative/addition to the airbridge. The Sri Lankan Navy (SLN) has also lost several patrol boats and ships in harbour and transit through suicide attacks. Two land routes have been on the cards for clearance — the A32 from Mannar to Pooneryn and the A9 Vavuniya-Elephant Pass highway. While the former will be easier to secure, it is the more challenging central route which is strategically vital for both sides.
In all likelihood, the SLA will launch this last major operation from two directions: their firm bases of Kilinochchi in the north and Vavuniya in the south. Approximately two divisions of troops plus one or two loose brigades will be required for the oper-ation. The complementary thrusts will effect a link-up depending on the resistance offered by the Tigers.
The LTTE will selectively resist this advance with all its might. Their defences will hinge on Mankulam on the junction of A9 and A34 linking it with Mullaittivu. The other strong points will be Kokkavil, Pullayankulan and Omantai, forcing redeployment of artillery. The Tigers will not only defend these townships but also attack rear areas and the exposed flanks of the advancing columns. Because of the foliage, both artillery and air support will be ineffective.
Holding the 70 km stretch of a tricky jungle road will be infinitely more difficult than securing it. At least one division of the SLA will be required to picket and post the cleared strength of the road and will become the target of constant LTTE attacks. The SLA is already very thin on the ground in the east. This will put on additional strain on troops, while no doubt reducing the logistics burden of the air and sea maintenance of the north. The new land route will give greater operational flexibility to the SLA. It will also reinforce the government’s commitment to tame the Tigers while keeping open the doors for negotiation in conformity with the carrot-and-stick policy of President Chandrika Kumaratunga.
The choice before the Government whether or not to lunch the offensive is difficult. On the one hand, it wants to remain militarily dominant and on the other, present a humane face to the Tamils of the North who will be the main victims of the projected operations. All this at a time when many Tamils are returning from the Vanni jungles to the north, and Jaffna is inching towards normality, though reconstruction has not started.
International donors, while committing funds, have not released them. Finally, there are strong indications that indirect talks between warring sides are imminent following the Fox Mission which has brought the Sinhalese political parties on a common grid for negotiating with the Tigers. The latter have also shown much greater restraint, pushed as they are, against the wall. Kumaratunga has reaffirmed her resolve to find a `positive way for peace and reconciliation through constitutional reforms’. The prevalent lull on the ground, bipartisan approach to negotiating with the LTTE and constraints of military resources may put on hold the long-awaited offensive linking the Northern peninsula with the mainland.
The author is retired as Major General from the Indian Army
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