For Prabhakaran struggling to stall a relentless multi-pronged ground offensive, the unprecedented raid in the last week of Nov. 2008 on Mumbai couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Terrorists struck India’s financial capital Mumbai where they massacred over 160 civilians, including foreigners shortly before Prabhakaran’s plea for immediate Indian Intervention was made. In his much anticipated Heroes’ Day speech, beleaguered Prabhakaran pleaded with India to come to his rescue. What Prabhakaran and his followers here and overseas wouldn’t have anticipated was a massive terrorist attack in India.
The Mumbai massacre derailed an LTTE attempt to force India to throw its weight behind a UN move to arrange a truce. The sea-borne raid embarrassed the Indian leadership. India didn’t want to interfere in Sri Lanka, while vowing to deal with those who had carried out the commando-raid on Mumbai.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa assured the armed forces chiefs that the ongoing war against terrorism wouldn’t be stopped under any circumstances. He faced a fresh battle on the political front with the UNP striving to engineer crossovers from the government. The UNP wooed Karu Jayasuriya’s ‘Democratic Group’, which supported the war effort. Jayasuriya returned to the UNP’s fold in the second week of Dec. 2008 in the wake of the army’s failure to liberate Kilinochchi ahead of Prabhakaran’s Heroes’ Day speech on Nov. 27, 2008. Both the UNP and the JVP felt that the offensive was on the verge of collapse. The Colombo based diplomatic community, too, believed that the army was overstretched on the Vanni front.
In spite of strong opposition, General Officer Commanding (GoC) 57 Division, Maj. Gen. Jagath Dias remained confident of liberating Kilinochchi. The Gajaba Regiment veteran spearheaded operations on the Central front in line with the then Army Chief, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s overall plan. His task was to liberate Kilinochchi at any cost. Under Fonseka’s gifted leadership, the army brought the war very much closer to an end.
Karu J switch sides again
Karu Jayasuriya made his move in the second week of Dec. 2008 while the UNPwas alleging that the army had been forced to fight according to a political agenda and major battlefield setbacks were due to political interference. The UNP also lambasted Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa for bungling the war effort and corrupt practices. Addressing the media at Sirikotha on Dec. 10, 2008, the newly appointed UNP Deputy Leader declared that he had left the government as he could not bring himself to serve what he called the dictatorial Rajapaksa regime. Much to the embarrassment of the UNP leadership, MP Jayasuriya, in response to a query by The Island, admitted that President Rajapaksa’s government had the strength to finish off the LTTE. Having cleared the Eastern Province, the war was coming to a rapid end, Jayasuriya said. His remark ran counter to the UNP’s claim that the government was bungling on the military front. (New UNP dy. Leader says forces on the verge of finishing off Tigers–The Island Dec 11, 2008).
Breakthrough on central front
Having suffered heavy losses, the LTTE abandoned Therumurukandi Junction on Dec. 10, 2008. The LTTE continued to offer strong resistance to the 57 Division tasked with liberating Kilinochchi. The LTTE thwarted three major assaults mounted by the 57 Division on Kilinochchi but by the last week of Dec. 2008 Prabhakaran was no longer in a position to face two major assaults simultaneously. Although the LTTE realised Task Force I (TF I) and the 57 Division were about to launch major operations targeting Paranthan and Kilinochchi, it couldn’t move in reinforcements. In fact, the LTTE didn’t have any reserves at that time. And it was facing a severe shortage of ammunition. The LTTE made a desperate bid to replenish its military supplies on Dec. 20, 2008. The navy intercepted a 35 to 40-metre-long fast moving LTTE vessel off Mullaitivu. The LTTE was trying to bring in fresh supplies through Alampil-Nargarkovil stretch along the northeastern coast. The Dec. 20, 2008 battle was the first confrontation between the navy and vessel carrying ammunition since the destruction of the last of the LTTE’s big ships on the high seas on Oct 7, 2007 (Navy sinks LTTE supply ship off Mullaitivu coast––The Island Dec 21, 2008).
Paranthan, Kilinochchi, Elephant Pass liberated
Having consolidated Sinna Paranthan, TF I engaged LTTE positions both south and north of Pooneryn-Paranthan (A 35) road. The LTTE couldn’t organise a successful defence due to rapid movements made by the TF I. The infantry and the 2 Commando Regiment fought side by side to destroy LTTE units defending Paranthan. The 9 Gemunu Watch (9GW) and 2 Commandos advanced towards Paranthan amidst fierce enemy resistance in the night. TF I troops also consolidated positions along the southern edge of the Jaffna lagoon. They threatened LTTE fortifications at Elephant Pass. TF I troops spearheaded by 11 Sri Lanka Light Infantry (11 SLLI) attacked LTTE positions between Paranthan and Kilinochchi. The Tigers under tremendous pressure in Paranthan gradually abandoned their positions north of Kilinochchi between Kilinochchi and south of Paranthan. On the midnight of Dec. 31, 2008, 9GW and 2 Commando Regiment cut off the A-9 road two kilometres north of Paranthan. TF I troops, including 6 GW, 12 GW and 17 GW crossed earth bund to enter Paranthan. The liberation of Paranthan dashed LTTE hopes of saving the remaining sections of the A-9 road under its control. The LTTE had no option but to withdraw from the area south of Paranthan. The LTTE retreated towards the east. While battling LTTE units on the northern edge of Kilinochchi, TF I rapidly pushed towards Elephant Pass, north of Paranthan.
The LTTE was in total chaos. Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s army was about to regain the A-9 road. 11 SLLI fought its way across open paddy lands destroying several enemy strong points to reach Kilinochchi. Having dislodged the LTTE from the road between Paranthan and Kilinochchi, 11 SLLI crossed Karadipokku Bridge to seize the LTTE headquarters complex in the heart of Kilinochchi town. It was the venue for many meetings between the LTTE and visiting foreign diplomats, particularly Norwegian diplomats as well as members of the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission (SLMM) during 2002-2004 period. TF I also secured one-time LTTE political wing leader, S. P. Thamilselvam’s house. The LTTE’s Kilinochchi court, too, was secured by TF I.
On the night of Jan. 1, 2009, the 57 Division fought its way in to Kilinochchi town forcing the LTTE to vacate the town, hence bringing the entire A-9 road between Vavuniya and Paranthan under the army. The 57.1 Brigade troops (4 Sinha Regiment and 9 Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment) were the first to enter Kilinochchi. On the afternoon of Jan. 1, 2009, the 57.4 Brigade (8 Sri Lanka Light Infantry and 7 Sri Lanka Light Infantry) liberated Iranamdu area. The main body of the 57 Division entered Kilinochchi in the afternoon.
The ditch-cum bund, which was breached by the army extended from the edge of the Jaffna lagoon via Akkarayankulam to Iranamadu, west of the A-9. The army suffered heavy damage in overcoming the obstacle. The 57 Division had breached a section of the bund about a week before TF I liberated Paranthan. The four Brigades attached to the 57 Division were commanded by Col. Herendra Ranasinghe (57.1), Brig. Senarath Bandara (57.2), Col. Dhammika Jayasundera (57.3) and Col. Senaka Wijesuriya (57.4). Brig. Aruna Wanniarachchi functioned as the Deputy to Maj. Gen. Dias. The SLAF stationed Air Commodore Sumangala Dias assigned to the 57 Division at the height of the battle for Kilinochchi to coordinate air operations.
Lt. Gen. Fonseka directed TF I to secure Elephant Pass immediately after the formation liberated Paranthan. TF I regained Elephant Pass swiftly as the Tigers withdrew towards the east leaving their second line of defence to face 53 and 55 Divisions. They overran the LTTE’s first line of defence during the third week of Nov. 2008. On Jan. 5, 2009, they crushed the second LTTE defence line to link up with TF I which liberated Elephant Pass. The link-up took place on Jan. 9, 2009. It was a turning point for the army. During President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s administration, the army lost control of the A-9 in June 1990. During President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s tenure, the army made an attempt to regain the A-9. Operation Jayasikuru launched in May 1997 to restore the overland supply route ended in disaster.
President appeals to LTTE again
President Rajapaksa reiterated his call for the LTTE to surrender immediately after restoration of the A-9 road. He urged LTTE fighting cadre to desert its leadership and surrender. Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, too, asked the LTTE combatants to give themselves up. However, the government insisted that there would be no role for a third party to arrange a ceasefire on the Vanni front. Defence Secretary Rajapaksa told this writer on several occasions at the height of the war that the government wouldn’t give in to pressure for a ceasefire under any circumstances.
The fall of Kilinochchi demoralised the LTTE beyond measure. It had established Kilinochchi as its main administrative centre in the early part of 1996 after the army liberated the Jaffna peninsula. It was the army’s biggest achievement during the CBK’s presidency. Unfortunately, the army couldn’t exploit its success for want of a cohesive strategy. The LTTE overran the army base at Mullaitivu on July 18, 1996, which herald a new phase in LTTE operations in the Vanni mainland. The army took years to recover from the Mullaitivu debacle.
Prabhakaran’s last interview
Prabhakaran remained confident of his ‘earth bund’ strategy to thwart Lt. Gen. Fonseka’s efforts to liberate Kilinochchi. The LTTE military command felt that massive earth bunds could prevent the army from seizing Elephant Pass, Paranthan and Kilinochchi. In Nov. 2008, Prabhakaran went on record saying he would never allow Kilinochchi to fall come what may. In an e-mail interview with Chennai-based Tamil magazine Nakkeeran, Prabhakaran, while admitting that the army had entered LTTE held areas, declared that capturing their ‘administrative capital’ Kilinochchi was still a distant dream for the government. “Sri Lankan forces have entered parts of our homeland and are stationed in close proximity to Kilinochchi town. But, capturing Kilinochchi is just a day dream of Mahinda Rajapaksa.”
SF on ‘Rain of mortars and artillery’
Lt. Gen. Fonseka, in response to a query by this writer immediately after the liberation of Kilinochchi, said that the army conducted operations under a ‘rain of mortars and artillery’ since the launch of the 57 Division on the central front in March 2007. During the Vanni battles, both east and west of the A-9 road, some 12,000 officers and men were wounded due to intense mortar and artillery fire. The LTTE couldn’t have liberally fired mortars and artillery if it hadn’t had a steady supply of arms, ammunition and equipment. Had there been an effective blockade on supplies, the army could have liberated the LTTE held areas with relative ease, Lt. Gen. Fonseka said. The Sinha Regiment veteran paid a glowing tribute to the SLAF for backing fighting formations throughout the eastern campaign as well as the ongoing Vanni offensive. The army chief declared that the LTTE was now trapped in an area smaller than Thoppigala (Mahinda’s ‘daydream’ comes true––The Island Jan 3, 2009).
Lt. Gen. Fonseka was of the opinion that the LTTE could never have waged high intensity battles without having a secure supply route. He pointed out that regardless of sinking LTTE arms ships on the high seas, the enemy had plenty of ammunition and explosives to inflict heavy damage on the army. On many occasions, an irate Lt. Gen. Fonseka queried how his troops could constantly come under ‘rain of mortars and artillery’ if the LTTE’s supply line had been cut off.