February 14, 2020
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Death Stripes

Firepower and superior tactics are the key to LTTE's bid on Jaffna

Death Stripes

When will Jaffna fall? That’s a question on every Sri Lankan’s mind. With the Tiger advance, the entire Jaffna peninsula is now cut off from the mainland. At Vavuniya, the last point civilians can travel to, the army has strengthened its defences. Beyond, it’s LTTE territory. The LTTE too has set up checkposts and shored up defences in areas they’ve captured from the Sri Lankan army. In fact, artillery guns captured from the Elephant Pass-Iyyakachi bases have been deployed north of Elephant Pass. After capturing the pass, the LTTE overran the Palai military base. Now, about 45 km of a densely populated stretch stands between a demoralised Sri Lankan army’s last line of defence and the Tigers. The rebels have been blasting sea-supply routes to prevent intervention by the Sri Lankan navy. Even the airforce has restricted operations due to the LTTE’s anti-aircraft fire capability. Psychologically, the Lankan army has already lost the battle. And it seems unlikely that the 40,000-odd soldiers will be able to resist the highly motivated Tigers.

Will India help in the evacuation of these soldiers should the need arise? The fall of Elephant Pass on April 21 was the beginning of the last phase of LTTE’s crusade to win back its former "capital", Jaffna, lost five years ago. "The LTTE attack on Jaffna will be clinical," says Iqbal Athas, defense analyst and columnist, Sunday Times, Colombo. "They cannot be seen killing the people for whom they are waging this war." The Elephant Pass area is uninhabited, just one village, Mullyan, stood between the Tigers and the army. So, the LTTE could unleash its firepower without any compunctions. But Jaffna is a heavily fortified area and home to about 500,000 residents. The 40,000 Sri Lankan troops in Jaffna have no fallback position and there is a great danger of civilians being caught in the crossfire.

The army base in Elephant Pass is now the Tiger’s operational HQ from where a multi-pronged attack on the peninsula is being directed. The war in the North has proven the LTTE’s awesome firepower and superior tactics. It’s come a long way from its inception in the early ‘80s, when it was just a rag-tag group of 45 people. The man behind it all, LTTE supremo Prabhakaran, say intelligence reports, was seen in the Vanni jungles celebrating the victory with his troops. Ever since the Lankan army recaptured Jaffna in 1995, Prabhakaran had gone into hiding. Paranoid about being caught or killed, he would move from one location to the other every night. But during this time he assiduously built up LTTE’s conventional capability. According to Athas, "The first time LTTE demonstrated its conventional capability was when it overran the highly fortified Mullaittivu military base on July 18, 1996." Four years later, the Tiger armoury included mobile rocket launchers and a variety of artillery guns that even the Sri Lankan army doesn’t have. In retrospect, that was the first sign of LTTE’s intention to drive itself into a power position which would ultimately give it a higher stake in the negotiations for a final peace settlement.

Prabhakaran’s plan entailed control over the Jaffna peninsula as it was thought of being the only way to secure LTTE plans in any final peaceful settlement. The grand finale of this strategy was taking over Elephant Pass as that would open the gate to the Jaffna peninsula. But the question is, why was the Lankan army not prepared to face the assaults when all this was an open secret? In November 1999, Prabhakaran launched Ooyada Alaikal or Operation Unceasing Wave. The objective was Jaffna. After capturing 1,000 square km of territory in the Vanni area (north Sri lanka) the LTTE advanced towards the Elephant pass. By the second week of December, they had captured the northeast coastal belt of Vettilikerni. This was the main supply base for Lankan forces in Elephant Pass and Paranthan, a strategic junction south of Elephant Pass.

The government responded by pumping in more troops. By March 2000, three elite divisions of the Lankan army were positioned there. The intention was to effect a clinical strike to evict the rebels from the Elephant Pass area. "This operation was timed for March 26. It was delayed by two days at the request of a senior army officer. And surprisingly, the LTTE launched its attack the same day," says Athas. Clearly, army dissension, desertion by soldiers and the failure of the government to either manage the conflict or plan successful military operations enabled the LTTE to attain its objective.

And though Colombo hasn’t sought help yet, India might well be compelled to launch a diplomatic initiative if the LTTE advance continues. For, at stake is not only the lives of Sri Lankan soldiers, but also of the 500,000 denizens of Jaffna.

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