In the wake of modest success on the central (57 Division) and western (Task Force II) flanks, the then Army chief, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka opened a new front in the North of on April 23, 2008. The elite 53 and 55 Divisions advanced from their 8 km-wide frontline from Kilaly extending to Kadolona in the early hours of Wednesday and reached the LTTE’s first line of defence without much difficulty. Having secured about 700 m, troops were in the process of consolidating their positions when the LTTE launched a devastating artillery and mortar barrage, causing heavy loss of life. They were forced to retreat leaving bodies of some of their colleagues on the battlefield. The LTTE returned the bodies through the ICRC. (Government jolted by outcome of Muhamalai battle—The Island April 25, 2008).
The capture of Madhu on April 24, 2007 by the 57 Division didn’t lessen the demoralizing impact the Jaffna catastrophe had on the war effort.
LTTE propaganda picture of women cadres in the process of recovering bodies of SLA personnel killed on the northern front
In the immediate aftermath of the Jaffna debacle, Lt. Gen. Fonseka declared that the setback suffered on the Jaffna front wouldn’t impede the ongoing military action to bring the Tigers to their knees. The veteran of many battles emphasized that a multi-pronged ground offensive was on track, hence the LTTE couldn’t change the outcome of eelam war IV. He said that Wednesday’s battle involved five battalions of the 53 and 55 Divisions, while denying reports as regards deployment of the Mechanized Infantry. Rejecting LTTE claims that over 150 officers and men died in the high intensity battle and over double that number wounded, the Army chief placed the number killed at 47, 300 wounded and 33 categorizes as missing. He declared that the LTTE was not what it used to be, while reiterating his commitment to finish off terrorists during his tenure as the commander (Fonseka: Northern offensives on track-The Island April 26, 2008).
May 2008 Vanni east: Prabhakaran pays his last respects to Balraj, posthumously promoted to the rank of ‘Brigadier’
Having launched the 57 Division (Mar. 2007) and TF II (Sept 2007), the Army raised the 59 Division in late 2007 to undertake one of the most difficult tasks on the battlefront. Lt. Gen. Fonseka picked Armoured Corps veteran Brigadier Nandana Udawatta as the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the 59 Division. The 59 Division launched offensive action in early Jan. 2008 on the Eastern front. Brig. Udawatte was given the daunting task of capturing the Andankulam and Nagacholai forest reserves to reach Mullaitivu. The 59 Division troops had to fight in extremely difficult conditions. The Mullaitivu jungles deprived them of effective armour and artillery support. Speaking on the Eastern front, Lt. Gen. Fonseka said that since the launch of operations in Jan. 2008, the 59 Division had advanced about 4.5 km by the beginning of the last week of April, 2008. The Army chief said that the Eastern front was about 12 km wide and the 59 Division was positioned about 2 km south of a major LTTE base. Referring to operations on the Central, Western, Eastern and northern fronts, the war veteran said that the enemy couldn’t successfully resist the army on four different fronts simultaneously. Unfortunately, the April 23, 2008 debacle forced the SLA to suspend major offensive operations on the northern front, until the middle of Nov. 2008. Having overcome fierce attacks spearheaded by elite enemy units specializing in jungle warfare, the 59 Division brought the LTTE’s Munagam base under its control on May 30, 2008. It was a significant victory. Although the LTTE compelled the army to halt major offensive operations on the northern front, three fighting formations now threatened its bases both east and west of the A9 road.
LTTE suffers another setback
The LTTE’s No 2, Kandiah Balasegaran aka ‘Brigadier Balraj’ was spared the shame of seeing the ultimate decline and fall of the tigers in May 2009. Balraj, regarded as one of the best field commanders credited with a spate of major achievements, including the overrunning of the strategic Elephant Pass base in April 2000, died of a heart attack at Puthukkudiyiruppu in the Mullaitivu District on May 20, 2008. He died as the LTTE was making a desperate bid to resist troops advancing on the Munagam base. Balraj hadn’t been involved in counter attacks, though he sometimes supervised their defenses both east and west of the A9 road. During Ranil Wickremesinghe’s tenure as Prime Minister (2002-2004), the LTTE, with the help of Norway, sent him for heart surgery in an expensive Singaporean medical facility. In spite of the death of Balraj, the LTTE had thousands of battle hardened cadres and a group of experienced commanders.
Govt. offensive on track
The Colombo-based diplomatic community felt the LTTE had the wherewithal to derail the government offensive. A section of the Tamil media as well as the TNA, which in late 2001 declared the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil speaking people, too, remained confident of halting the government offensive. A section of the international community, the TNA and the media undermined the military effort. They never realized President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political will to sustain the offensive, regardless of the consequences. The President’s position was strengthened by Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who worked overtime to ensure that combined security forces action remained on track. The Gajaba Regiment veteran had the difficult task of maintaining a strong link between the military leadership and the President.
In the wake of securing of Madhu and the debacle on the northern front, the Army captured Palampiddi on May 16, 2008, (57 Div), Mundumurippu on May 23, 2008 (57 Div), Periyamadu on May 15, 2008, Adampan on May 9, 2008 (TF I), Mullikandal, Minnaniranchan and Marattikannaddi on June 24, 2008 (TF I) and the Mannar rice bowl comprising 10 villages on June 29, 2008 (TF I), before the two fighting formations linked up on the following day southwest of Periyamadu. While the two formations established one continuous defence line west of the A9, the 59 Division on the Eastern front battled it out on its own. By end of June, 2008, Brig. Udawatta’s Division had bagged the Munagam base. It would be important to mention that the 57 Division and TF I conducted operations independently of each other, though they linked up on June 30, 2008.
First PC polls in the East
Having liberated the Eastern Province on July 11, 2007, the government launched a rapid resettlement and reconstruction project, paving the way for elections for the Eastern Provincial Council on May 10, 2008. President Mahinda Rajapaksa surprised the Opposition as well as the international community by accommodating the breakaway LTTE faction headed by one-time LTTE field commander Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan on the UPFA ticket. It was perhaps the most significant political development since the conclusion of major military operations in the Eastern Province. The fielding of Karuna’s TMVP (Thamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal), overshadowed all other issues as the UNP-SLMC combine targeted the UPFA. The JVP contested on its own, whereas the TNA boycotted the election at the behest of the LTTE. While the political parties campaigned in the East, with the JVP lambasting India for facilitating the UPFA-TMVP marriage, the Army intensified operations in the Vanni theatre.
Defence Secretary Rajapaksa, on the eve of the Eastern polls, emphasized the importance of the TMVP’s entry into national politics. Noting that the TMVP had contested local government elections in the Batticaloa District in March 2008, the Defence Secretary said that the TMVP’s move would hasten the collapse of the LTTE, at that time struggling on three fronts. The government strategist said that the EP poll was in line with the overall government strategy aimed at defeating the LTTE (TMVP in polls overshadows all issues-The Island May 9, 2008).
On the eve of the polls, the LTTE triggered a blast near the Ampara clock tower killing 16 persons and causing injuries to 30. The bomb was concealed in a parcel left inside a café near the clock tower. About five hours before polling began, the LTTE infiltrated the strategic Trincomalee harbour to carry out a daring attack. Frogmen, used high explosives to blast the SLN vessel A 520. The vessel, formerly ‘MV Invincible’, built in 1971 had been taken into custody in 2003, while carrying 254 illegal Pakistani immigrants off Tangalle and subsequently handed over to the SLN on a court order. The LTTE also fired seven rounds of 81 mm mortars at Pannalagama, a remote village in the Ampara district. LTTE attacks failed to derail the election process. The UPFA emerged victorious at the election, the first since the de-merger of the Eastern Province from the North in Oct. 2006.
The Army scored significant victories in all fronts in the month of July, 2008. Although the LTTE mounted a series of attacks in the Eastern and Northern Provinces, it couldn’t prevent the Army from achieving critically important military goals. The 57 Division liberated Naddankandal on July 11, 2008. On the western flank, Brig. Shavendra Silva’s troops overran Viddattaltivu, a Sea Tiger stronghold on July 16, 2008. The LTTE held the coastal town since the withdrawal of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in early 1990. On the Weli Oya front, the 59 Division captured Michael and Sugandan bases, on July 4 and July 27, respectively, hence giving the Army a commanding position.