THE massive army offensive in Jaffna appears to be finally paying off. With troops poised to take over the LTTE stronghold, rebel leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran and his band of die-hard followers have reportedly gone into hiding in the dense forests of Mullaitivu.
But while the Tigers may be down, they are certainly not willing to give up tamely. As usual, innocent civilians are bearing the brunt of their ire and frustration.
With a red alert in Colombo following the LTTE attack on vital oil depots last week, the Tigers are now striking at civilians in the southern part of the island. With this, they hope that some of the troops now at the gates of Jaffna town will be diverted to the south. On October 26, at least 24 peasants—including a woman and her new-born child—were massacred by women cadres of the Tigers in the hamlet of Herath Almillewa, north-east of Colombo. With this, the civilian death toll crossed the 150-mark since the army offensive started showing signs of success.
The government, on its part, is unwilling to concede any ground. While army generals talk of ‘reconsidering’ their strategy and the government considers the imposition of a nationwide emergency, the relentless pressure on Jaffna continues. While jubilation may be premature, the army top brass seems confident of capturing Jaffna town before the monsoon breaks at the beginning of the month.
"I am confident that we will achieve our objective before the rains," said army commander Lt-General Gerry De Silva.
This is by far the biggest offensive by the Sri Lankan Army. Launched on October 17, Operation Riviresa (Sunrise) is intended as an all-out attack on Jaffna town.
Over 25,000 fighting troops and armour, backed by helicopter gunships and ground attack aircraft, have been deployed for the offensive.
At least 9,000 of the estimated 14,000 LTTE fighters are in the peninsula, fighting back from heavily fortified defensive positions. "There is no doubt that this is the heaviest resistance we have encountered in the war. Resistance in earlier operations was chickenfeed compared to this," a senior army general said.
"The Tigers have booby-trapped buildings and laid a huge amount of antipersonnel and anti-tank mines. When our troops take cover in buildings they blow them up," the general said. The army, in turn, has stormed two major rebel defence lines, one of which was almost 30 miles across.
Understandably, casualties on both sides have been heavy. According to an army spokesman, the army lost four officers and 119 soldiers, with another 300 wounded, in the first eight days of fighting. LTTE losses are estimated at 400 dead and at least 500 wounded, though the figures could be higher.
The LTTE has kept to its earlier threat of attacking the capital if the army attacked Jaffna. On October 20, rebels broke into the heavily guarded Kolonnawa oil storage complex in Colombo and set 11 of the 45 storage tanks on fire.
Two kilometres away, another group set fire to three of the four huge oil storage tanks at the Orugodawatta facility. Massive explosions rocked the city and thousands fled their homes in panic. After a bitter fight inside the Kolonnawa complex, the army finally took control of the facility early next morning. This was the first time in 12 years that the LTTE had stormed a key installation in the capital.
At the request of the Sri Lankan Government, a group of Indian fire-fighters was flown to Colombo the same evening and by October 22 the fire was brought under control. The cost of the oil lost in the attack is estimated at $24 million while it will cost the government billions more to build new storage tanks.
Taking advantage of the raging oil fires, the rebels launched a simultaneous attack on four border villages in the eastern part of the island, killing 85 civilians. Observes Victor Ivan, editor of the political weekly Ravaya: "It is obvious that the attack on the oil storage facility and the massacre of civilians are desperate attempts by the LTTE to stop the Jaffna offensive."
But this time, the army seems to hold all the aces.