Batticaloa, The Lost Citadel

Despite setbacks, as has been its practice, the weakened LTTE has resorted to terrorist and guerrilla tactics and is far from being wiped out. It still retains the capacity to inflict significant damage in attempts to regain its declining control.
Batticaloa, The Lost Citadel

Situated in the central part of the Eastern Province covering a land area of approximately 2633.1 square kilometers and 299 square kilometers of internal waterways, Batticaloa district is strategically crucial for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). According to a 2004 report, out of the 18,000 active cadres of the outfit, about 7,500 were from Batticaloa and Ampara districts, indicating that the Eastern region had become the provider of one of the largest segment of LTTE cadres.

Further, according to estimates, more than 2,000 cadres were recruited or conscripted from this region after the 2002 Cease-Fire Agreement (CFA), in comparison to about 500 to 600 recruited from the rest of the North-East. With a total number of 255,000 tsunami-affected persons and an extreme paucity of educational, social and economic resources, Batticaloa constituted the LTTE’s major recruitment base, despite the challenge created by its breakaway faction led by Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan @ ‘Colonel’ Karuna. The Batticaloa district cadres of the LTTE played a vital role in the war to safeguard the Wanni heartland and in major offensives against government troops in the North which led to the fall of Elephant Pass and other key garrisons in April 2000.

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With an estimated population of 579,469 – including 426,896 Tamils, 151,487 Muslims and 1,162 Sinhalese – Batticaloa is the only Tamil majority district in the Eastern Province, with 71 percent Tamils, followed by Trincomalee (34 percent) and a still smaller minority in the Ampara district with only 20 percent of Tamils in its population. The LTTE had the support of a large section of the population in the district, including some Muslims. Corroborating this, I.M. Ibrahim, Secretary of the Mosque Federations of Ampara district, while addressing senior LTTE leaders at a meeting between LTTE and Muslim community leaders of Batticaloa and Ampara districts on February 21, 2005, had declared: "First they divided us. Then they divided you. Sinhala leaders will always deny our rights. Tamil Muslim unity should be the foundation of your liberation struggle." [Significantly, however, the LTTE was responsible of a complete ‘cleansing’ of the Northern areas of all Tamil Muslims in 1990].

Since its re-entry into the Batticaloa district after the withdrawal of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in December 1989, the LTTE dominated the Batticaloa district, controlling four of the 14 Secretariat Divisions – Porathivu Pattu or Vellavely, Manmunai South West or Paddippalai, Manmunai West or Vavunathivu and Koralai Pattu South or Kiran – as well as part of Eravur Pattu or Chenkalady. Such was the LTTE dominance that government agencies in the area worked under the rebels’ instructions. LTTE often summoned meetings of government servants and blamed them for their inadequate support to the outfit’s activities and programmes.

The split in the LTTE in 2004 marked a turning point in the region, and in the LTTE’s history. With its Batticaloa-Ampara ‘commander’ ‘Colonel’ Karuna forming his own military front, the Tamil National Front (TNF), and later a political party, the Tamileela Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP), the outfit lost its supremacy in the East. As one commentator noted in May 2004, some 70 percent of the LTTE political offices in the Batticaloa district remained unoccupied and the bulk of its military and administrative organisation in the area collapsed following the split. The LTTE also started losing the people’s support and public confidence in its capacities to sustain its struggle to achieve a separate Tamil homeland. 

The LTTE’s attempts to regain supremacy following the split have been countered by the Karuna faction, which has eaten into the LTTE base in Batticaloa. Since March 2004, there have been 43 reported clashes between the TNF and LTTE in the Batticaloa district, in which the LTTE lost almost 100 cadres, including its Eastern Political wing leader, Kaushalyan and his deputy Nedimaran. 

According to data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management, the LTTE has lost almost 2,923 of its cadres since January 1, 2005, in fighting across various theatres, of which 640 (approximately 21 percent) have been killed in Batticaloa district alone. The number of LTTE cadres killed in the district in 2005 was 33, rising to 348 in 2006. With 259 cadres already killed in the first four months of 2007, it is evident that the LTTE has lost its advantageous position in area region, as government troops, with implicit support from the Karuna faction, secure the upper hand in the current ‘undeclared war’.

As the Mahinda Rajapakse government intensifies its war against the LTTE, the military has forced the rebels to withdraw from critical areas formerly under their control and the LTTE ‘citadel’ in Batticaloa has virtually collapsed. Operation Niyathi Jaya (Definite Victory) launched by the Army on January 4, 2007, to evict the LTTE out of the Eastern region has pushed the outfit almost entirely out of the region. The Army gained full control of the 41 kilometre A-5 Badulla-Maha Oya-Chenkaladdy road on the morning of April 11 2007, after 14 years, thus confining the LTTE to some 150-square kilometres in the Thoppigala jungle. The operation launched by the SFs on February 24, 2007, to liberate Batticaloa South, West and the area south of the Thoppigala jungle had cleared 700 square kilometers by April 11. Troops have established control over settlements including Koduvamadu, Thamparaveli, Pankudaveli, Illupayadichenai and Karadiyanaru south of the A-5 road in the Batticaloa district. Since the launch of humanitarian operations by the troops following the closure of the Mavil Aru anicut (Dam) in July 2006, troops have captured Mavil Aru, Sampur, Verugal, Kadiraveli, Palchenai, Vakarai, Panichchankerni, Kaddamurivuakulam, Kirimichchikulam and areas south of the A-5 Maha Oya–Chenkaladdy Road. The operations have cleared areas extending between Yan Oya, north of Nilaweli in Trincomalee and Velaveli in Batticaloa. 

In separate clashes in the district in 2007, security forces have also inflicted heavy casualties on the embattled rebels. Major clashes between the Army and LTTE in 2007 include:

April 2: Troops killed at least 23 LTTE cadres during clashes at Unnichchai, a LTTE strong hold. 

March 21: More than 30 LTTE cadres were reportedly killed during clashes between troops and the outfit's cadres at various locations. 

March 13: Two top level LTTE intelligence wing operatives, identified as Vendran and Illakkian, were among eleven cadres killed during air strikes in the Thoppigala jungles. 

March 11: Troops killed nearly 20 LTTE cadres and injured many others in the Unnichchi, area between Chenkalady and Mahaoya. 

January 21: SFs confronted a group of about 75 LTTE cadres who were attempting to escape towards Thoppigala from the Vakarai area and killed at least 18 of them. 

Despite these setbacks, as has been its practice, the weakened LTTE has resorted to terrorist and guerrilla tactics and is far from being wiped out. It continues to carry out sporadic attacks in the district and has intensified its efforts to intimidate the masses by carrying out murderous attack against civilians and through forcible conscription in the region. Thus, on April 13, 2007, LTTE cadres shot dead five members of a family, including a three year old child, at Chenkalady. In an earlier effort to create ethnic unrest, the LTTE killed six Sinhalese aid workers who attended construction work at the "Village of Hope", a housing scheme built for orphan children at Mailambaveli in the Eravur area on April 1, 2007. Two other aid workers were injured in the incident. March 29, at least ten civilians were killed and seven others were injured in two separate mortar attacks by the LTTE on the Sittandi, Sandiliveli and Morakottanchchena villages. 

In other significant actions, on March 27, 2007, the LTTE carried out a suicide attack targeting the Army main base at Chenkalady, killing three members of the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), a 12-year-old boy and two security force personnel. Five civilians, two Army soldiers and two Policemen were also injured. In a more daring and desperate attack, the Ambassador of Italy, Pio Miriani, and US Ambassador, Robert Blake, were injured in an LTTE mortar attack targeting helicopters carrying Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe along with the foreign diplomats on February 27. The mortars were launched as the two helicopters landed at the Webber stadium in Batticaloa town. 

With 300 to 350 cadres still holed up in the Thoppigala jungles, a substantial reserve of fighters in the North, and a country-wide capacity to deliver high intensity terrorist attacks, the LTTE still has the capacity to inflict significant damage in attempts to regain its declining control. 

Ajit Kumar Singh is Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal

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