"The fall of the peninsula is a psychological and political setback rather than a mere military defeat. This is attested to by the LTTE's (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) repeated calls for negotiations only on the condition that the army withdraws from Jaffna. Without the peninsula, the LTTE cannot make a credible claim for a separate state," says Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu of Colombo University.
The prolonged army pressure on northern Jaffna forced the LTTE to appeal for third party mediation to end the conflict on April 30. The government, however, dismissed the appeal as an LTTE move to portray itself as a peace-loving outfit to the international community. Also, whenever the LTTE had called for a truce earlier, it used the time to recoup and replenish its armoury before resuming hostilities against the government.
It took the army two major operations to recapture the Jaffna Peninsula and isolate it from the northern mainland. The first, Riviresa One, launched in early October last year, took 50 days to recapture the Valikamam area of the peninsula, including Jaffna town. The casualties on both sides were the largest ever in a single military operation. By that yardstick, Riviresa Two, launched on April 19, the first anniversary of the beginning of Eelam war III when the LTTE broke off a 100-day cease-fire and peace talks with the Chandrika Kumaratunga government, has so far been easy game for the military.
In the latest manoeuvre, an estimated 20,000 troops moved into the rebel-held areas of the peninsula from four different directions. Two columns broke out from positions captured during Riviresa One and moved southwards towards Chavakachcheri, the main town in the Tennamarachi division of the peninsula. Another column moved north from the Elephant Pass army camp which is situated at the neck of the peninsula, cutting off the main Jaffna-Colombo road. The fourth column moved south-east from the sprawling Palali air and army base towards Vadamarachi region, aiming to capture Sea Tiger bases in the coastal towns of Valvatithurai and Point Pedro. But the main thrust was to capture Kilali—to cut off the peninsula from the mainland. It is from Kilali that both the rebels and the civilians have been crossing the Jaffna lagoon to and from the mainland for the last four years. "The LTTE was caught by surprise. We faced some resistance on the first day and a little bit on the second. Other than that we had no problems," says Anurudha Ratwatta, deputy minister of defence. A week after the offensive was launched, Kilali was captured, cutting off the LTTE's withdrawal route. The only way out now is from the sea off Vadamarachi. The LTTE appears to have decided against putting up resistance, as it did during Riviresa One, in a bid to save its fighters. Most of its military hardware was pulled out of the area before the operation was launched. The LTTE lost half-a-dozen training camps and a number of weapons factories as well as a major part of its transportation fleet.
The government won another major psychological victory when the civilians, forced to flee the Valikamam sector by the LTTE during Riviresa One, refused to do the same this time. The civilians not only ignored rebel demands that they flee to the mainland, but started to return to the Valikamam area.
The LTTE had wrested control of Jaffna Peninsula and most of the northern province after the Indian peace-keeping forces withdrew from the north and east of Sri Lanka in March 1990. President Ranasinghe Premadasa's government, holding peace talks with the rebels at the time, had handed over control of these two areas to the rebels without a single bullet being fired. But the rebels withdrew from the talks in June 1990 and relaunched the war. The army had to painstakingly regain every inch of the north and east. It concentrated on taking control of the politically important eastern region, allowing the rebels freedom to set up a virtual mini-state in the north, the Jaffna Peninsula being the crown jewel.
A substantial part of its training facilities as well as manufacturing plants for war material, such as motors and anti-personnel mines, were set up in the peninsula. It had an efficient revenue collection system. With free access to the Jaffna hospital, the LTTE had sufficient medical supplies, while the diversion of government food supplies intended for the civilians, provided food for the cadres.
"It has been a strange situation by any standards. Nowhere else in the world has a war been conducted in this manner. For years we have not only been feeding the Tigers but also paying for the treatment of injured cadres," says a military officer. "The crazy situation was that the government was spending billions on the war but at the same time spending millions to sustain the Tigers."