I have been writing a monthly assessment of the Sri Lanka situation for ‘Security Trends’ a strategic security journal published from New Delhi. They reflect my ability to assess the future course of events in Sri Lanka. These are written at the end of each month and contain an assessment on future trends. They are published here with the permission of the publishers. For copyright reasons the articles in this series may be reproduced with the permission of the publishers available at http://www.security-risks.com
As the existence of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the north became precarious, the continuing war affecting over 200,000 Tamils living in LTTE controlled touched off an upsurge of protest in Tamil Nadu with almost all political parties lending a hand. The LTTE happy at these developments tried to project its demand for immediate ceasefire through local politicians in the state. And M Karunanidhi, the chief minister, always sympathetic to the cause of Eelam Tamils, gave an ultimatum to the Centre threatening to pull out his Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (DMK) party members from the parliament by end October 2008 if the war was not stopped. Resignation of DMK members could have affected the survival of Dr Manmohan Singh’s ruling coalition in Delhi. So there was a flurry of diplomatic and political activity in Delhi, Chennai and Colombo.
However, the Centre managed to assuage the feelings of Tamil Nadu with some adroit diplomacy with Sri Lanka. After discussions with the Sri Lanka Presidential advisor Basil Rajapaksa at Delhi, the two countries issued a joint statement. Sri Lanka agreed to take all measures to ensure the safety and well being of Tamils affected in the war zone and speed up the devolution process for equitable rights to Tamils. India decided to despatch 80 tons of relief material to the affected people. Significantly the question of ceasefire did not figure in the statement.
The LTTE has continued to kindle the embers of sympathy in Tamil Nadu; even political parties distancing themselves from the LTTE have continued to keep the issue alive in their activities. However, in Sri Lanka the President has probably politically gained more mileage out of this as he had shown his ability to keep India politically at bay despite Tamil Nadu politicians pin pricks.
The rapid progress of the Sri Lanka security forces in the Northern Province ran into twin troubles to slow them down on their tracks during October 2008. The northeast monsoon rains came down heavily affecting the cross country mobility of the security forces operating west of A9 Kandy –Jaffna highway. The monsoon rains in spurts are likely to continue the whole of November which could slow down the operations of the security forces. The security forces encountered heavy resistance on a defence line approximately 13 km from Kilinochchi and suffered heavy casualties.
Despite establishing contact by mid September 2008, advancing troops were held up for nearly six weeks due to stiff resistance in the outer defences of the LTTE in area Akkarayankulam Lake, roughly 15 km from Kilinochchi, the administrative capital. The rains further added to their woes. After suffering heavy casualties the security forces managed to capture the heights of bunds around the lake only by end October. This should ease their forward movement whenever there is a break in the rainfall.
The advancing security forces in this sector encountered LTTE defences based on bunds across both the approaches west of Kilinochchi. One bund of about 17 km long extended from Nachchikuda on the north-western coast to Akkarayankulam. Task Force I advancing towards Pooneryn trying to by pass the heavily fortified Nachikuda base had to neutralise defences based on the obstacle at Kambivelliyavillu, Pandiveddiaru, Maninyankulam, Vannerikulam, and Jeyapuram with stiff opposition. Surrounded on three sides, the LTTE vacated the Nachikuda base on October 29. With the loss of this base the LTTE control on the northwest coast from Silvattuai to the Pooneryn salient is practically finished. This would result in denial of the coast to smuggle LTTE supplies as well as an alternate route to infiltrate Jaffna. The access to the road would also facilitate faster build up of offensive against Pooneryn located14 km from Nachikuda.
On the Welioya sector, 59 Division managed to further consolidate their area expanding it progressively. With the capture of Gajabapura, the division is established in secure area up to Nayaru lagoon. As the lagoon ridden Mullaitivu coast line would be affected by monsoon and as they troop strength is inadequate, the division is unlikely to launch major offensives at least till December.
A single light aircraft of the LTTE air wing on October 30 made a sneak raid and dropped two bombs damaging two turbines of the Kelanitissa power plant. This has resulted in interruption of electricity power supply for nearly six months. The same sortie also managed to bomb Thalladi military base in Mannar Sector. Despite detection by Sri Lankan radars and being airborne for more than one hour, the LTTE aircraft evaded the F7 interceptor. It failed to shoot down the raider as its missile could not lock on the taarget. This would indicate serious flaws in the security forces air defence system and poor training of pilots of air force. This air raid though not a major success would undoubtedly boost the morale of the LTTE.
However, the naval machine gunners on board two merchant vessels gave a better account in repelling a suicide raid by three Sea Tiger boats off Myliddy near Kankesanturai port in Jaffna peninsula on October 22. They sank one and drove off two other boats which tried to raid the ships carrying food supplies for Jaffna.
The LTTE appears to have cleverly used the ground and the monsoon rains to its advantage. It managed to inflict heavy casualties particularly in 57 Divisions battles based around the Akkarayankulam lake area. Only in the third week of October the Division could breakthrough the defences and push the LTTE from the defences. In a single operation in this area on Oct 19, the security forces lost ’33 soldiers as against the LTTE’s loss of 12 cadres. In addition 48 soldiers were injured and three were missing, which would mean loss of one company of troops. However, given the force level constraints and sheer numerical superiority of the security forces, it is doubtful whether the LTTE can afford to mount such costly encounters in future in this sector.
In this front, the LTTE appears to have used CS gas against the assaulting troops. CS is not a prohibited item in the international protocol on chemical warfare. Basically an irritant, a type of tear gas, it is used by police in some countries for crowd control. It is not clear how useful it is as without gas masks for the defenders.
After the successful suicide attack killing retired Lt Gen Janaka Perera and 27 other civilians on September 26 in Anuradhapura, the LTTE carried out another attack on Maithripala Sirisena, Minister of Agricultural Development Maithripala Sirisena, Minister of Agricultural Development & Agrarian Services Development and General Secretary of the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party in the outskirts of Colombo on October 9. However, except for the suicide bomber no one else was killed though five others were injured. The anti terrorism police have also recovered a cleverly improvised ‘book bomb’ from a Jaffna school teacher working in Bandarawela. This would indicate that despite the stepped up security the LTTE would continue its efforts at sabotage and suicide attacks.
The obstacle based defence extending from Nachikuda to Akkarayankulam and further up across the road communication up to A9 highway near Iranamadu indicate the LTTE had selected this line for halting the advancing Sri Lanka forces. Though the LTTE caused heavy casualties probably in the proportion of at least two Sri Lankan soldiers for every cadre killed, the laid back defensive position has given away too much territory at too low a price for the security forces. In the bargain the LTTE failed to defend the vital north-western coastal supply route from Silvatturai to Nachikuda vital for retaining their conventional capability. This would indicate perhaps the LTTE would cause maximum casualty in the operations in the coming weeks till the monsoon runs out of rains in December and then pull back to the jungles of Mullaitivu.
The slow and cautious progress of the security forces in earlier months for keeping the casualties low has resulted in their main battle for Kilinochchi to be fought in adverse weather conditions. As a result they have lesser air and artillery support and reduced mobility. As the A32 axis along the coast is wide open now after the fall of Nachikuda, we can expect the LTTE to take on the security forces in area Pooneryn. Loss of Pooneryn would mean the loss of LTTE ability to carryout artillery strikes against the Palali air base. This could also result in losing the ability to engage the administrative echelons of 53 and 54 divisions deployed against the Muhamalai-Elephant Pass/Nagarkovil front in the north.
The ability of the LTTE air wing to carry out sneak attack despite use of air defence measures should be a cause for concern for the Sri Lankans. We can expect the LTTE to carry out a dramatic attack against some of the valuable targets including VIPs, ports and defence headquarters in Colombo.
With the erosion of their ability in the Gulf of Mannar LTTE Sea Tigers appear to be trying to stage a comeback in northern coast line of Jaffna. Though risky, Jaffna coast provides alternate access to Vedaranyam in Tamil Nadu coast, east of the controversial Rama Sethu. We can expect this coast line to become active with more encounters between the Sri Lanka Navy and the Sea Tigers, as the LTTE’s logistic pressure increases. We can expect the LTTE to try to indirectly overcome this by whipping up agitation in Tamil Nadu by pro-LTTE elements. However, despite political polemics both the state and central governments appear to be firm in strictly curbing the resurgence of LTTE activity in Tamil Nadu.
According to the data of UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, as on Oct 24 in all 144,560 persons belonging to Kilinochchi district alone have been displaced due to war. This figure is likely to swell to over two lakhs in the coming moths and a major humanitarian tragedy may be in the offing. That could stir up political protests further in Tamil Nadu.