IT'S a twin therapy that's running out of time. Three months short of the deadline for a sweeping devolution package,the preparatory military mop-up operation in northern Sri Lanka is turning out as messy as ever. Although billed as the 'final offensive' against the Tamil rebels, the body count is high on both sides and the army is still some bloody battles away from clinching a vital strategic victory.
The trophy in this battle is the last 72 km of the main highway linking the northern Jaffna peninsula to the Sinhala-dominated South. If the army's Operation Jayasikuru (Victory Assured) succeeds, the LTTE rebels would be restricted to the thick jungles of Mullaitivu in the northern mainland, cut off from the most populous Tamil areas.
"Our calculation is that when we complete the operation, there would be no more than 40,000 people in rebel-controlled areas and we'll have got land access to the Jaffna peninsula," says deputy minister of defence General Anirudha Ratwatta. The offensive, the second largest in the 14-year-old separatist war, was launched in May with a tentative four-month deadline. The plan was to hem in the Tigers through monsoon offensives from army-controlled areas in the north and north-east. And, at the end of it, to wrest the first road-link in a decade to the populous Jaffna peninsula—the heart of the rebel movement captured 18 months ago.
"The land link is important both politically and militarily. Politically, it's a precursor to local government elections and the impending devolution package. Militarily, it would result in savings in logistical expenditure. The operation would trifurcate the northern mainland, thus restricting the mobility of the rebels," comments Iqbal Athas, defence analyst for the Sunday Times.
The operation would hopefully be completed just in time for the government to unveil its new constitution in October which, in response to the demand of the minority Tamils, devolves administrative and police powers to the northern and eastern provinces where these Tamils are in a majority. It would also help strengthen the hands of President Chandrika Kumaratunga against hardline Sinhala nationalists who see devolution as separatist in spirit.
The rebels, in turn, retaliated in two sharp counter-attacks. The first attack, codenamed 'Do or Die', was launched three weeks after the government offensive. After a fierce artillery and mortar attack on army defences, the rebels broke through and attacked the army's mortar and artillery position in the rear of the advancing troops. For 18 hours, the LTTE held the area, cutting off the column advancing along the highway by half. The rebels concentrated on the tactical headquarters, the artillery and armour brigades. The attack left 180 soldiers dead, 320 injured and 27 missing in action. However, the LTTE failed to capture the six brand new artillery guns rushed to the front straight from Colombo. Two weeks later the rebels launched counter-attack 'Do or Die 2'—targeting the long-range mortar position. The tactical headquarters were destroyed again, one of the five motor launches captured, 75 soldiers killed and 196 others injured.
"The rebels want to stall the offensive because opening a land route to Jaffna will foil their strategy of sapping the government's military strength and creating a logistical crisis," says D. Sivaram, a specialist in rebel military strategy. The first 50 days of the operation took heavy toll on both sides. The army lost 409 soldiers, 1,166 others were injured and 27 went missing. On the rebels' side, military intelligence says 1,500 out of an estimated 7,500 rebels in the area have either been killed or badly wounded.
However, the rebel counter-attacks have so far only delayed the operation rather than stop it completely. "In these 50 days, the LTTE has been able to stall the offensive and prevent the link-up. It appears the army has been compelled to delay capturing the main road," says Athas.
Senior military officials say that before they clear the road by linking up with the army garrison in the main northern town of Kilinochchi, it would try to cut off rebel leader V. Prabhakaran's 14 base in the Mullaitivu jungles. "We expect a few more counter-attacks from the rebels," says Brig Shantha Kotegoda, commander of one of the divisions that is fighting along the main highway and has so far faced both counterattacks. The other division comprises the elite commando and rapid deployment brigades and is yet to face the enemy.
Military analysts in Colombo now expect the rebels to launch an all-out attack on a target in the war zone. "It's clear the LTTE is finalising plans for a big attack. We've information that they are training up to 3,000 cadres for a major attack," says Sivaram.
But the military seems to be well-prepared. "We are happy when they come and fight us. That way we can kill larger numbers," Kotegoda concludes.