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The ride to Kilinochchi and beyond

B. Muralidhar Reddy

Kilinochchi proved to be the one of the toughest targets so far for the Sri Lanka troops. Colombo now has the unenviable task of ensuring the basic needs and safety of the internally displaced people while targeting the Tigers in their remaining bases.

On January 6, four days after the Sri Lanka military marched into Kilinochchi, the political head the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, B. Nadesan, dismissed it as an “insignificant development in the three decade long liberation struggle.” He asserted that with the support of the “Tamil community,” the LTTE would overcome all current and future challenges. Five weeks earlier, LTTE chief Velupillai Prabakaran had declared that a capture of Kilinochchi was but a “day-dream” of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

There is little doubt that Mr. Rajapaksa’s dream has now turned into a nightmare for Mr. Prabakaran. By all accounts, the loss of Kilinochchi, which served as the LTTE’s administrative and political “capital” after the military took over Jaffna in 1995, is a devastating blow to the Tigers — politically and militarily.

It is true that the Sri Lanka forces had gained and then lost control of Kilinochchi just over a decade ago. However, there is a qualitative difference in the manner in which they have ousted the Tigers from Kilinochchi now. The fall is the culmination of a 20-month-long systematic and arduous military campaign. Unlike the current one, none of the previous military campaigns of the Sri Lanka military since the departure of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in early 1990 was aimed at the “complete elimination” of the Tigers from the Wanni.

The Rajapaksa government made the political determination in mid-2006, after the start of the current phase of hostilities in July 2006 in the wake of the closure of the sluice gates of Maavilaru in the east by the LTTE, that there could be neither peace nor development as long as the Tigers are not eliminated militarily. Army chief Sarath Fonsenka, who nearly lost his life in a suicide-bomb attack by a woman LTTE cadre in April 2006, drew up a grandiose plan with the backing of the political leadership to oust the Tigers from the east first and take the war into the LTTE heartland in the Wanni in the north.

Thus was born in February 2007 the 57 Division of the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) with a clear mandate to advance in a methodical manner from west of Vavuniya into the LTTE strongholds. The move came even as the SLA was engaged in ousting the Tigers from the remaining bases in the east which was declared “liberated” in July 2007 and polls were held for the Eastern Provincial Council (EPC) in May 2008. Despite the deficiencies in the functioning of the EPC and the factional fight within the rebel Tiger outfit, the LTTE has not been able to regain its lost bases in the east. Seven months after establishment of 57 Division, the General Fonseka created Task Force 1 (now elevated to the status of 58 Division) with a directive to march along the Mannar-Pooneryn (A-32) road. The 57 and 58 Divisions covered a distance of 63 km and 82 km respectively before closing in on Kilinochchi.

The brief to the troops was to cause maximum damage to the LTTE in terms of its human resource power and infrastructure. They crawled their way through, amid fierce resistance from the Tigers. They had to neutralise LTTE bases beginning in the west of Vavuniya and the Mannar rice bowl. Wiser from past mistakes, the troops operated in small batches of four to eight and avoided battalion marches into possible Tiger traps. The gains have indeed been impressive. The areas wrested by 57 Division include the Madhu Church complex, the towns of Palampiddi, Thunukkai, Uilankulam, Mallavi, Terumurikandy and Iranamdu Junctions.

The battle path of 58 Division along Mannar-Pooneryn road (A-32) running along the coastal belt was considered to be strategically important as it connects the LTTE’s main sea supply route across the Palk Strait. Some of the important areas taken from the LTTE by the Division included Adampan, Andankulama, Parappakadattan, Vellankulama, Nachchikudha, Manniyankulama, Chempankundu, Devils Point, Pooneryn and Sinna-Paranthan.

The vast area captured by the two divisions from LTTE control reflects the nature of the torturous military campaign. The 57 Division claims to have captured an area of 1,624 sq km. Its troops reported the death of 4,974 Tiger cadres. The 58 Division troops “confirmed” the death of over 2,000 Tiger cadres. In the absence of an independent mechanism it is impossible to verify the claims and counter-claims.

There are discrepancies in the figures claimed by the military, as is evident from the fact that the number of bodies of Tiger cadres handed over by the two divisions to the International Red Cross Committee (ICRC) was under 600. The military insists that at least 10 LTTE cadres were killed for every soldier dead in the battles. While it is difficult to hazard a guess on the numbers of those killed, from the desperate efforts that are being made for over a year now by the LTTE (as per the University Teachers for Human Rights-Jaffna reports on Wanni) to forcibly recruit cadres, it is evident that the Tigers have suffered heavy casualties.

There are no clear estimates of the losses suffered by the military, either. However, there is one crucial difference in the capacity of the Sri Lanka military and the LTTE to deal with manpower losses. The three wings of the military together account for over 200,000,and as per military intelligence estimates the strength of Tiger cadres post-Kilinochchi is down to less than 2,000. With loss of territory all round, the Tigers are now believed to be confined to an area of 40 to 45 sq km, mainly in the jungles of Mullaithivu.

Kilinochchi proved to be the toughest for the troops in their entire campaign till date. In the last phase it took over one and a half months for the troops to gain entry into Kilinochchi as the Tigers did all they could to halt the march of the military. Torrential rains partly helped the Tigers. As the troops neared the town in the last week of November, the Tigers raised a 40-km-long ditch-cum-wall stretching from Kilaly to Kilinochchi. The military was surprised by the Tigers’ capacity to raise such an obstacle, which measured up to 15 feet at some points. They kept raising new mounts as the military march progressed from different directions.

Lt. Gen. Dias, who commanded the 57 Division, told visiting journalists at Kilinochchi: “The LTTE could not have raised such a ditch and earth wall without the help of heavy machinery and thousands of manual labour. We are sure that the thousands of civilians must have been deployed for the job for weeks.”

Even as the Tigers tried their best to stop the military from entering Kilinochchi, they were dismantling the entire infrastructure of the town that they could carry away. The civil-administrative infrastructure that could not be carted away was destroyed.

The city’s main water supply tank, 40 feet long, was blasted and power-supply cables were slashed. Journalists who visited the town on January 4 returned with the impression that Kilinochchi had been hit by a programmed earthquake. It appeared to be a town without a soul. Asbestos roofs, doors, windows and all conceivable fittings from every house and establishment had been neatly ripped apart and carted away.

Besides the damage to the infrastructure of the city, the government’s biggest concern is the fate of the citizens of Kilinochchi. Going by even accounts given by the LTTE, the civilians had fled long before the military reached there. Amid the bustle of military trucks rolling in and men in uniform marching, the only sign of life in the city is stray dogs and cows. There are no estimates of the number of civilians stranded in the war zone. The Rajapaksa government has the unenviable task of ensuring the basic needs and safety of the internally displaced people while targeting the Tigers in their remaining bases.

After Kilinochchi, the armed forces are on their way marching into the bases of the Tigers in Elephant Pass and Muhamalai across the Jaffna peninsula. In a few weeks, the LTTE cadres will be confined to the jungles of Mullaithivu. But the organisation is expected to retain some residual fighting capability — in the guerrilla mode and through its trademark human-bomb terrorism. To consolidate the military victories it is imperative that the government also addresses, more or less simultaneously, the legitimate grievances of the Tamils and generate a consensus for an enduring political solution to the ethnic conflict.

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