Karuna Amman came on clandestine Voice of Tigers (VoT) radio on the night of March 22, 1998 to explain LTTE efforts to thwart Operation Jayasikuru to restore the overland Kandy-Jaffna Main Supply Route (MSR). His statement was made in the wake of the LTTE scoring some significant battlefield victories. The SLA in Vavuniya quoted Karuna as having said that the Jaffna–Vavuniya road was soaked with the blood of LTTE cadres. The battle hardened LTTE commander emphasised the heavy price paid by the LTTE to resist the SLA advance. He placed the number of LTTE cadres killed during the May-Dec 1997 period at 1165. Karuna didn’t discuss the number of cadres killed during 1998 and the wounded on the Vanni front.
The majority of those killed during May-Dec. 1997 died in four large scale counter attacks launched by the LTTE on advancing troops.
Karuna was one of the senior commanders leading LTTE resistance against three fighting Divisions, 55, 56 and the elite 53 Division.
In spite of taking heavy losses, the LTTE managed to stall the SLA advance. By late March 1998, the SLA reported the loss of about 1,100 officers and men engaged in the Jayasikuru offensive since May 13, 1997.
Karuna didn’t refer to cadres killed in action against the 54 Division headquartered in Elephant Pass (Jaffna road drenched with Tiger blood, says LTTE with strap line Karuna admits 1165 deaths––The Island March 25, 1998).
Karuna was followed by LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. On May 13, 1998, Prabhakaran addressed Tamil speaking people for 15 minutes as regards the Jayasikuru offensive and what he called the heroic resistance offered by his cadres. The SLA monitored his speech both in Vavuniya and Jaffna. Prabhakaran said that the LTTE had sacrificed 1,300 men and women fighting Jayasikuru forces during the period May 13, 1997 to May 13, 1998.
A proud Prabhakaran declared that their National Liberation Army (NLA) had proved its fighting skills against the 30,000 strong SLA force on the Vanni front. It was an unprecedented announcement as Prabhakaran hadn’t issued a similar statement as regards other major battles fought in the north up to the launch of Jayasikuru on May 13, 1997.
Prabhakaran didn’t mince his words when he asserted the President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s government was in crisis due to its failure to achieve its political and military objectives. Vowing never to allow the GoSL to achieve its political and military objectives, the LTTE leader profusely thanked various LTTE units, including artillery, intelligence, anti-tank special unit, Black Tigers, anti-aircraft units and the medical unit for their roles on the battlefield.
The then SLA Chief, L. Gen. Rohan De. S. Daluwatte told this writer that regardless of LTTE resistance his troops would be able to complete the mission. A confident Daluwatte said that the LTTE had lost over 2,500 cadres at the hands of Jayasikuru forces (Jayasikuru operation kills 1,300 Tigers admits Prabhakaran-The Island May 14, 1998).
Lt. Gen. Daluwatte placed the number of officers and men killed on the front at 1,000. During that time, the SLA made a desperate bid to fill existing vacancies in fighting battalions by re-deploying deserters. By late May, the SLA had rounded up approximately 6,000 deserters for deployment in support of divisions engaged in operations in the north. Many died on the front, while hundreds were wounded in action. A general amnesty was offered to deserters on several occasions, while the police were directed to arrest them. Following a short refresher course, they were moved to frontline battalions.
Also in May, 1998, the LTTE assassinated the newly elected Jaffna Mayor, Sarojini Yogeswaran in Jaffna to further undermine President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s efforts to restore normalcy. The wife of assassinated TULF veteran, Vettivelu Yogeswaran contested for the Jaffna Municipal Council at the Jan 29, 1998 Local Government polls. Mrs. Yogeswaran turned down an offer by the then Security Forces Commander, Jaffna, Maj. Gen. Lionel Balagalle to provide bodyguards. She also asked the SLA not to set up a road block outside her residence. She obviously felt that the LTTE wouldn’t touch her, as long as she kept her distance from the SLA. Unfortunately, she thought wrong!
The LTTE’s strategy was multi-pronged. In the Jaffna peninsula, the LTTE conducted hit and run attacks on troops and targeted senior officers in spectacular attacks. The attack on Mrs Yogeswaran also wiped out senior army and police officers in charge of security in the Jaffna town area. In the Vanni, the group conducted high intensity operations involving multiple fighting formations. In the East, the LTTE conducted a low intensity campaign to keep the SLA busy, while on and off attacks in the south undermined the war effort. A case in point was a series of bomb attacks targeting Sri Lanka Telecom facilities at Kalutara, Kuliyapitiya, Nochchiyagama and Kadawatha. The situation was so serious the then Defence Secretary, Chandrananda De Silva was compelled to call an emergency meeting on June 2, 1998 to discuss the issue. The LTTE also targeted transformers belonging to the CEB. But its focus was on the Vanni.The LTTE was fighting four Divisions (three on ‘the Jayasikuru’ front and the other on the Kilinochchi flank simultaneously). All three Divisions received the backing of the artillery units and the armour as well as air support. The SLA also regularly called for multi-role Kfir aircraft and Mi-24 helicopter gunships to support ground forces. It wouldn’t have been an easy task in fighting four Divisions simultaneously, though the LTTE achieved that feat. Looking after thousands of wounded cadres would have been a tremendous challenge due to the absence of required medical facilities. Regardless of various constraints experienced by the LTTE, the group was in command on the Vanni front in early April 1998.
Jaffna destabilisation project
Although Jaffna remained under the control of the SLA, the LTTE mounted on and off attacks targeting troops of 51 and 52 Divisions deployed there. It was part of their proven strategy to destabilise areas held by the SLA. The LTTE leadership didn’t care a damn about the civilian factor. In late March 1998, a group of LTTE infiltrators mounted an attack on an SLA road block at Kodikamam in Tennamaratchchy. The attackers used a tractor belonging to a farmer to reach the road block. Those manning the check point didn’t realise the tractor was carrying LTTE cadres until they opened fire. The SLA lost two personnel, including a woman soldier, while five received gunshot injuries. Although the then Jaffna Commander, Maj. Gen. Lionel Balagalle played down the attack, the LTTE issued a statement from its London Secretariat situated at No 211, Katerine road, claiming that its forces had successfully targeted an SLA minicamp.
On April 28, 1998, the LTTE blasted the Verugal ferry across Verugal Aru two hours later troops had launched a clearing operation south of Foul Point and east of Muttur (Tigers blast Verugal ferry––The Island April 28, 1998).
The LTTE mounted a spate of attacks in areas outside the main theatre of operations in Vanni as part of a destabilisation campaign. The SLA found it difficult to release troops needed for offensive action in the Vanni due to sporadic incidents in various parts of the then temporarily merged Northern and Eastern Provinces.
On the afternoon of May 14, 1998, the LTTE assassinated Vadamaratchchy Brigade Commander (52.4 Brigade), Brig. Larry Wijeratne, one of the most popular officers among the Tamil community. Having met members of the Point Pedro Traders’ Association, the Brig. was returning to his headquarters when an LTTE suicide cadre attacked his vehicle. He was to hand over the Vadamaratchchy command to the then Colonel Sanath Karunaratne of the Sinha Regiment a few days later. In fact, Col. Karunaratne had been at 52.4 Brigade headquarters, when the LTTE struck. Troops under his command repulsed a massive LTTE attack on the Elephant Pass base in July 1991. Brig. Wijeratne functioned as the Vadamaratchy Brigade Commander since the SLA liberated the area in May 1996.
Troops under Brig. Wijeratne’s command killed many LTTE undercover operatives in Dec. 1997. He incurred the the wrath of the LTTE for a series of successful operations, which seriously affected the LTTE’s attempts to undermine the SLA presence in the area. Among the dead was Archunar or Arjun. He was perhaps the most important cadre to die at the hands of the SLA at Pulavarodai, Irumpumathavady on Dec 16, 1997. Archunar held the rank of ‘Lieutenant Colonel’. Three others, including one Thenamuthan also died in an LTTE hideout.
Just over two weeks before the assassination of Brig. Wijeratne, the SLA had recovered an LTTE suicide kit at Maduvil south. The recovery fuelled speculation that the LTTE was going for a high profile target. Brig. Wijeratne was the second officer holding that tank to die in the Jaffna peninsula, since its liberation in May 1996. On July 4, 1996, an LTTE suicide cadre assassinated Jaffna Town Commandant, Brig. Ananda Hammangoda at Stanley Road, Jaffna.
The government never realised the LTTE strategy. It only reacted to LTTE action thus giving the enemy an opportunity to pursue its military objectives.
SLA outside Mankulam
The SLA was bogged down outside Mankulam. In late May 1998, the SLA made yet another effort to push towards Mankulam and was beaten back. The SLA retreated leaving bodies of personnel on the Mankulam battlefields. The two-pronged advance ran into fierce LTTE resistance, while the LTTE boasted of its battlefield exploits through its International Secretariat in London (ICRC hands over 9 bodies to Army––The Island June 1, 1998).
Operational Headquarters refrained from issuing media statements since May 28, 1998 after the SLA had resumed operations targeting Mankulam. A section of the military top brass acted as if nothing were happening on the Vanni front. Fresh fighting erupted south of Kilinochchi on June 4, 1998, causing substantial losses to the troops, though Operational Headquarters remained mum (Fierce fighting between Tigers and troops at K’nochchi––The Island June 5, 1998). The situation continued to deteriorate in the north. The government was under severe pressure both on military and political fronts. May late May 1998, it was evident that the SLA was on the defensive and didn’t have the ability to conduct two large scale offensive operation on two different fronts. Unfortunately, the the government didn’t realise the actual ground situation. The SLA didn’t want to admit defeat. The top SLA leadership felt that it couldn’t give up the grandiose project to open the roadway to Jaffna.
Having decided to muzzle the media, Defence Secretary Chandrananda De Silva announced on June 5, 1998, President Kumaratunga’s decision to re-impose censorship. Army Deputy Chief of Staff and the Operations Commander, Colombo, Maj. Gen. Jaliya Nanmuni was appointed the Competent Authority. The government lifted censorship on Oct 10, 1996, which had come into effect on April 19, the same year. The censorship was imposed immediately after troops engaged in Operation Riviresa launched phased II of the offensive to bring Thennamaratchchy and Vadamaratchchy under government control. Director Information Ariya Rubasinghe declared that his outfit was not involved in the process of censoring and all articles should be submitted direct to the SLA (Military news censorship re-imposed––The Island June 6, 1998).
Due to the re-imposition of the censorship, The Island had to kill its first edition lead story, which dealt with bloody fighting south of Kilinochchi on June 4, 1998. The SLA lost at least 50 officers and men in clashes, while about 400 received injuries. Of the wounded, over 250 were airlifted to the National Hospital. The SLA withdrew leaving dozens of bodies on the battlefield (Fierce fighting in Kilinochchi––The Island June 6, 1998). The battle erupted after the SLA had mounted an operation to regain a 4 km long line of fortifications it had lost to the LTTE on Feb. 1, 1998. The operation was nothing but a disaster. In fact, it was to have a disastrous impact on the entire Kilinochchi front.
De-facto Defence Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte told parliament that censorship was a necessity. The then Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera on June 11, 1998 told a post-cabinet media briefing that censorship was necessary due to the battle against the LTTE reaching a critical state. The minister was responding to the SLBC providing latest updates on the battlefield situation by airing BBC ‘Sandeshaya’ and the corresponding Tamil programme regardless of the censorship (SLBC provides uncensored military news via BBC––The Island June 15, 1998).
SLBC continued broadcasts even after the Competent Authority directed it to stop relaying Sandeshaya. The SLA was deeply embarrassed. The failure on the part of the CBK administration to control part of its own propaganda outfit surprised the military. In 2002, the SLA stood accused of double standards, as regards the GoSL position on the state media when the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe ordered the closure of the SLBC’s Vanni Sevaya operated for the benefit of the military and the police. The decision to close down the radio station was taken consequent to the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) in Feb 2002. The government ignored the SLA’s request to resume the service, whereas the LTTE was allowed to import state of the art equipment from Singapore to upgrade the VoT.