IN what is billed as the biggest LTTE attack since the beginning of the ethnic war in Sri Lanka, over 2,000 LTTE rebels attacked the sprawling Mullaitivu army camp in the North early on July 18. Before the surprised garrison could react, heavy mortar shelling knocked down the camp's communications tower, temporarily cutting off communications. After hours of fierce fighting, the rebels broke into the camp from two fronts. Initial reports said over 400 soldiers were killed in the surprise attack.
It was only at dawn that air force MI-24 helicopter gun ships strafed rebel positions within and outside the camp. By then the soldiers had re-grouped and re-established communications using hand-held equipment and were directing artillery and air strikes on rebel positions. At least 10 soldiers were killed and 51 injured, 20 in friendly fire. Gunboats from the eastern Trincomalee naval base attacked the rebel boats trying to attack the camp from the sea, killing 14 rebels and destroying five boats. In retaliation, suicide divers blew up a navy gunboat with 40 sailors on board.
"Once the Tigers infiltrated into the camp, the soldiers were forced to disperse. But the soldiers re-grouped and successfully repulsed a major attack, and later got together in one part of the camp. They are much stronger now," said military spokesman Brigadier Sarath Munasinghe.
By the afternoon of the same day air force MI-47 helicopters landed an estimated 180 men of the elite special forces south of the camp. But attempts to remove the dead and wounded were stalled when the helicopters came under fire from the rebels. "The reinforcements are moving towards the camp to marry up with the soldiers there. They are coming under attack by the Tigers. We have no figures for dead and injured as of now. We can only do that once the reinforcements enter the camp," the spokesman said.
Officials said that 300 more special forces' troops were stationed off the Mullaitivu beach in a naval landing craft, as special forces tried to clear an area of the beach for landing.
The rebels claimed they killed 500 soldiers and removed substantial arms and ammunition. "The LTTE has removed three armoured vehicles, large quantities of heavy weapons including two 122 mm artillerypieces," an LTTE statement issued in London said. The LTTE radio, Voice of Tigers, claimed that only 40 of its cadres were killed in the attack. "This is one of the biggest victories for us in this war," it said.
The 20 sq km Mullaitivu camp was the brigade headquarters and manned by just over 1,000 troops. The thickly-forested northeastern area is the final fallback position of the LTTE. For close to a decade, they had maintained a major camp complex there code-named "One Four base". LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran conducts his separatist war from here after he was forced to flee Jaffna.
"It is sheer nonsense for the LTTE to claim that 500 soldiers have been killed. I can't divulge numbers but I can categorically deny that 500 have been killed," the military spokesman said. Military intelligence sources in Colombo claimed that intercepts from rebel radio communications indicated that up to 150 rebels were killed.
The massive attack comes after a series of defeats for the LTTE. The army earlier this year completed the capture of Jaffna peninsula, the jewel in the crown of Prabhakaran. Tens of thousands of civilians defied LTTE threats and stayed back in military-controlled areas, further denting his reputation.
"Make no mistake. This is a desperate bid by Prabhakaran to win back some of the prestige he lost when Jaffna fell. The LTTE would have lost a large number of its cadres by launching this type of attack," the spokesman points out.
The attack comes five days before the 13th anniversary of the 1983 anti-Tamil riots in Colombo. Hundreds of Tamils were killed, houses and businesses destroyed when the majority Sinhalese, incensed at the killing of 13 soldiers by the LTTE in Jaffna, went on the rampage. Thousands of Tamils fled the south of the country to the Tamil-dominated North and East during the riots and an equal number of Tamil youth crossed over to India to join the various rebel bands.
And it's not the end yet. Says Dr Palkiasothy Saravanamuttu, research consultant at the Centre for Policy Research and Analysis, Colombo University: "The armed forces can still turn a potential setback into a window of opportunity by killing as many LTTE cadres as possible. Given the deadlock over the government's political package, it would seem that conflict resolution now revolves around which side can kill more."