By Rohan Abeywardena and Tissa Ravindra Perera
If the previous Friday was a very significant day for the Army with the capture of the LTTE symbolic capital Killinochchi, about whose defence the Tigers had boasted so much, this Friday`s liberation of the stretch of A-9 Highway on the neck of Jaffna along with the eight kilometer width of land, was even sweeter.
During a period of nearly nine years since the fall of the Elephant Pass to the LTTE in April 2000, the soil of this approximately 20 kilometre long stretch, is literally soaked with the blood of combatants of both sides. In at least five previous attempts to advance on this stretch, from the peninsula, from the time of Chandrika Kumaratunga`s rule had all ended unsuccessfully.
In the first major attempt to retake this stretch under the command of Maj. Gen Sunil Tennakoon in April 2001 during President Chandrika`s regime, the Army suffered about 600 casualties before Operation Agni Kheela was abandoned.
During those several attempts from the Army alone, some 70 officers and 700 other ranks have laid down their lives, while many more suffered injuries. The Tigers have never disclosed their true casualties.
The fall of Elephant Pass (EPS) in April 2000 too, was very costly to the Army not only strategically, in losing this Gateway to Jaffna , but even in terms of men and material. As recounted by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in his address to the nation on Friday to announce the significant victory, in 2000 during the EPS debacle, 359 military personnel were killed, 349 were listed as Missing in Action and some 2500 were injured.
In the five day operation to finally take back this stretch from Monday to Friday this week, compared to previous forays, the casualties this time was minimal. The 55 Division which took the stretch north of A-9 lost five soldiers, while 58 others were injured, nine of them seriously. The 53 Division which captured the area south of A-9 lost 12 soldiers and 67 others were injured, most with minor wounds.
On Thursday on this stretch, the victorious Forces took back the town of Palali. But though many are not aware, this town has some significance in the life of Army Commander Lt. Gen Sarath Fonseka. In September 1993 when much of the Jaffna peninsula was under the LTTE control, the Sea Tigers based at Kilaly were a big nuisance to the Security Forces based at Pooneryn, across the lagoon, staging frequent night raids.
In order to teach the Sea Tigers a lesson, Operation Yal Devi was launched from Elephant Pass to destroy the Tiger infrastructure at Kilaly, and some say to recapture the stretch up to Chavakachcheri.
The Operation Yal Devi was launched on September 28, led by then comparatively young Col. Sarath Fonseka. As Col. Fonseka led his men, the first day everything went smoothly and the advancing force camped near the Pallai railway station that night, but for their bad luck the following morning their tried and tested commander was badly injured when an enemy shell landed in his vicinity. With him out of the battle field, all hell broke loose when the LTTE launched an attack on the advancing column. In the ensuing chaos the Army lost the lives of more than one hundred of its men and many more were wounded.
According to an officer who was injured in that battle, things became so disorganised with the lacuna created in the command structure by the unexpected and sudden departure of Col. Fonseka, the enemy even managed to drag away some of the Army injured. Among the officers killed on that day was young Lieutenant Jayatillake, a nephew of Lt. Gen Hamilton Wanasinghe On the third day, however the Army resumed the Yal Devi advance and completed its task of destroying the Sea Tiger facility at Kilaly and returned to base at EPS on October 02.
Incidentally Gen. Wanasinghe also lost his son-in-law Brig. Bhatiya Jayatillake during the debacle at Elephant Pass seven years later. Like many others who lost their lives during the fall of EPS, he too died of dehydration as the enemy had earlier managed to capture Iyakachchi from where the EPS base obtained its water supplies.
According to Wanni Security Forces Commander Maj. Gen Jagath Jayasuriya, with the capture of the last remaining stretch of A-9 Highway that was in the hands of the LTTE this week, as many as eight fighting divisions are now free to encircle the last remaining stronghold of the enemy, the Mulaitivu District. Even the fall of Mulaitivu Town was imminent with troops of the 59 Division taking much of the last defence bund there by Friday.
Gen. Jayasuriya said he wouldn`t be surprised if the captive civilians and ordinary Tiger cadres revolted against the LTTE leadership at any time now, because of the precarious state they have got themselves into.
In his command area alone, he said this week they had handed over to the ICRC more than 50 bodies of LTTE cadres they had recovered during operations.
Some units of the 58 Division that were marching north on the A-9 since the capture of Paranthan the previous Wednesday recaptured Elephant Pass this Monday after nearly nine years, effectively cutting off the main supply route to Tigers stationed from there to Muhamalai, leaving them with only one supply line to the region from Mulaitivu along the Vettilaikerni coast.
The Peninsula based 55 and 53 Divisions commanded by Brig. Prasanna de Silva and Brig Kamal Guneratna which captured the LTTE First Defence Line at Muhamnalai last November after heavy fighting too, got activated once again and resumed a fresh drive at about 10:00 p.m. on Monday. This was also the first major push by these two divisions coming under the new Jaffna Commander Maj. Gen. Mendaka Samarasinghe.
The 55-2 Brigade under Col. Kapila Vidurapola and 55-3 Brigade led by Col. Mahinda Weerasuriya initially grabbed 3.5 kilometres from Muhamalai to the mangroves. These two brigades included Eighth Wijayaba, Seventh Wijayaba and Sixth Infantry Regiments.
The 53 Division which advanced along the stretch south of A-9 consisted of Air Borne Brigade commanded by Col. Shantha Dissanayake. Lt. Col. Jayanath Jayaweera led 53-3 Brigade, which included First Gajaba, Fifth Gemunu, Fifth Wijayaba. They were backed by the Fourth Armoured Corp, Mechanised Infantry Battalion and the Artillery Regiment.
By 5:30 a.m. the following day, both Divisions broke through Tiger defence line along an eight kilometer stretch from Kilaly amidst heavy fighting. By 10:00 a.m. the 55 Division completed the capture of their sector of this defence line, which was about 3.6 kilometres wide. The 53 Division which had a 4.4 kilometre width section of the defence line to overcome, completed the task by 6:00 p.m. Both Divisions accomplished their initial tasks with minimum of casualties, despite Tigers training heavy artillery and mortar fire at the advancing troops. The Tiger strength in this region, which had been already depleted took a severe beating during January 06 fighting.
According to intercepted Tiger communications 35 of their cadres were killed in the areas that resisted the advance of 55 Division, while in the 53 Division sector about 40 LTTE cadres had been killed and more than 50 injured. They had deployed 15 vehicles to evacuate their casualties.
On January 07 troops advanced a further two kilometers destroying all obstacles on the way. And they completed the day by reaching within 1.5 kilometres of Pallai Town. By then the LTTE resistance was breaking down and their cadres were fleeing.
Along the way the 53 Division captured the G-7 Tiger camp at Muhamalai, Echo Nine base at Kilaly, and two satellite camps Delta Two and Echo Three. The fighting in G-7 Camp even ignited its armoury, causing ammunition boxes to explode over a long period.
Their well fortified bunkers were linked through trench lines, but the troops of the Divisions over came all of them. On Thursday (8), as troops kept up their advance after the capture of Pallai, the Army lost a senior officer, who had played a pivotal role in this Eelam War IV. Lt. Col. Nalinda Kumarasinghe Commander of Fifth Gemunu Regiment was killed with two others when they were blown up by an enemy booby trap. He was also the highest ranking military officer to be killed in action during the Eelam War IV.
As these two divisions were advancing towards Elephant Pass, the 58 Division, which earlier on Monday captured EPS, dispatched small teams of commandos from the Second Commando Regiment northward toward Iyakachchy. They linked up with First Wijayaba Regiment troops who were advancing from Iyakachchy to Elephant Pass, thus completing the capture of the entire A-9 since the departure of the IPKF in 1993.