Half an hour later, heavily armed troops, backed by T-55 main battle tanks and Chinese built T-85 armoured personnel carriers, fanned out towards the southwest. As dawn broke, helicopters scrambled to provide close air support. Operation Thunder Strike had begun.
It was only after the troops had covered a kilometre that the LTTE responded with sustained mortar fire. But this time, the army's superior fire-power forced them to retreat. By late afternoon, the army had achieved its objective: capturing an area of 24 sq km. The toll: 51 rebels, 19 soldiers. Although the main objective had been achieved, military spokesman Brigadier Sarath Munasinghe was far from complacent. "We have learnt our lessons," he said. "We are waiting for the LTTE counterattack." And the LTTE did not disappoint. Around 2 am on October 3, hundreds of Tigers stormed the newly established defences of the army on two fronts, the first led by Balaraj, the LTTE's deputy military commander, and the second by Sornam, commander of the elite Charles Anthony brigade.
The army was ready and waiting. Heavy artillery and mortar fire rained on the rebels. One rebel group broke through the defences but the troops linked up behind them, trapping them inside. At daybreak, three hours after the battle started, the LTTE called off the attack, leaving behind scores of casualties. The army counted 149 bodies.
"This is the biggest beating suffered by the LTTE in the peninsula," said Munasinghe. "The LTTE admitted that it lost 260. But we feel it is a little more, about 300. I think a similar number were wounded, more than 60 per cent seriously," said Army Commander Lt-Gen Gerry De Silva. For the rebels it was the second major debacle since they resumed fighting on April 19. Two months ago, the army successfully repulsed a major attack on the north-eastern Weli-Oya area, killing close to 200 rebels and injuring hundreds more.
The main objective of Operation Thunder Strike was to expand the western frontlines, thereby securing Palali air base from LTTE mortar fire. Five soldiers were killed and 40 others injured when the LTTE fired mortars on the runway and other vital installations at the air base earlier. The new forward lines also give the army more room when it launches the long-awaited offensive to recapture the entire peninsula from the rebels in the next few days. "It will definitely happen unless the LTTE withdraws or surrenders," De Silva told newspersons on October 10.
The military has been amassing troops and supplies in the Jaffna peninsula for months to launch the biggest ever military campaign in the country's history. The original date for the offensive was September 10. That would have given the army at least a month to take the heavily defended peninsula before the north-east monsoon made the terrain unfavourable for heavy armour and air movement.
But the LTTE successfully upset the army's schedule by attacking the army's supply line to the peninsula. With no safe road link, the army would be totally dependent on the navy for supplies. Realising this, the LTTE concentrated on suicide attacks on naval convoys.
While the army was celebrating the success of Operation Thunder Strike, the Sea Tigers struck off the coast of north-eastern Mulativu. Just past midnight, a dozen Sea Tiger fast-attack craft took to the seas and ambushed the navy's largest landing craft which was taking troops on leave from the northern Kankasanthurai port to the eastern Trincomalee harbour. This was a big blow for the navy, which has lost a dozen fast-attack crafts, two supply ships and two gunboats since April this year.
The military suffered another unexpected setback when an Antonov-32 military aircraft crashed into the sea in bad weather. One of the three new aircraft bought by the air force three months ago, the plane was equipped with anti-missile systems and would have been indispensable in bringing in urgent supplies and evacuating injured troops during an offensive. Although the air force has equipped most of its aircraft with American anti-missile systems, the Antonov-32s were expected to be in the forefront during the offensive.
SOME analysts see these setbacks as a blessing in disguise. "I just cannot understand why the military wants to launch this offensive with the monsoon about to break. If they launch it in March next year, they have nine months of good weather in front of them," says former Air Force Commander, Air Vice-Marshal Harry Goonetilake.
But the army is undaunted. "I don't think the monsoon will affect the momentum we have gained in the peninsula in the sense that our infantry can battle in any weather," says De Silva. "There is no doubt that with superior numbers and superior fire-power the army will capture Jaffna despite the monsoon. But the question is, how are they going to hold it?" asks Goonetilake. The LTTE is expected to put up a tough fight before retreating into the dense jungles of Mulativu in the northern mainland, from where it will launch a guerrilla war against troops occupying the peninsula.
The government's strategy is to first deprive the rebels control of land. The rebels took control of the Jaffna peninsula and the northern mainland in June 1990 when they broke off peace talks with the then president, Ranasinghe Premadasa, and restarted the war. The military has regained some of the peninsula since then, but has been preoccupied with clearing the politically sensitive eastern Trincomalee and Batticaloa districts.
By the middle of 1994, the army had taken control of the east and was preparing to take on the LTTE in the north. But the Government postponed the planned offensive when general and presidential elections were called. The LTTE infiltrated the east again during the peace talks with newly-elected President Chandrika Kumaratunga. By the time the LTTE unilaterally broke the cease-fire and walked out of the peace talks on April 19, it had reestablished itself in the east.
The military changed its tactics and decided to take on the LTTE in their northern stronghold, leaving large areas of the east under LTTE control. Says the army commander: "When we decided to take the battle to the north, we realised that there would be voids in the east because we had to move 50 per cent of the manpower in the east to the north. This is probably why the LTTE made an impression in the east. Our aim is to dominate the Jaffna peninsula and when that is completed, the troops will go back to the east.''
It is a high risk strategy. Losing control of land would deprive the LTTE not only of a certain legitimacy, but also of access to medical and training facilities and large sums of money in the form of taxes. This would once again force the LTTE to indulge in guerrilla warfare instead of conventional warfare against army camps in the north.
"However important Jaffna is to the LTTE, their bottom line would not be the defence of Jaffna pass but the denial of total control of the homeland to the Sri Lankan Army," says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu of the Centre for Research and Policy Studies at Colombo University.
The army thinks otherwise. "The LTTE will try to defend Jaffna at all cost," De Silva emphasises. "That is their heartland, that is where the LTTE movement began. They are not going to give it up without a fight. We are expecting that. On our part, when we get to Jaffna it will prove to them that they have been thrown out of their stronghold, their heartland, and they are going to lose credibility with the Tamil people whom they have so far professed to protect."
On balance, the Jaffna offensive seems unavoidable. But there is no denying the LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran's ability to set the terms of battle. As Saravanamuttu notes, "Whatever strategy the Government uses, it will be an uphill task to take and hold what the Tigers call the Tamil homeland."