By Rajan Hoole –
With the Army taking full control of Jaffna by April 1996, the LTTE’s intention of taking control of the North after breaking off negotiations a year earlier had been foiled. The LTTE’s withdrawal into the Vanni jungles had been a carefully planned one. It had taken along looted valuables, its materials and a good fraction of the civilian population. Within 3 months, in July, it attacked, using a large number of its suicide cadre, the isolated Mullaitivu camp on the east coast. Most of the soldiers and officers numbering about 1200 were killed. Among the weapons it captured were two pieces of heavy long-range cannon.
In the meantime, there were detailed reports of the LTTE’s fund raising, arms purchasing and shipping networks that were steadily increasing in range and sophistication. Regular mention was made in this connection of all parts of the world except perhaps China and South America. A particular instance of its potency was the pirating of a large quantity of shells bound from Zimbabwe to the Sri Lankan Government for the LTTE’s own use. In the meantime, the LTTE launched a propaganda blitz with virtual press-ganging to turn out fighters from a small, unwilling population under its control.
Tackling the LTTE thus required teamwork going well beyond party and personal loyalties. Had the Government taken timely measures to give confidence to the Tamil people, it could have got the international community to co- operate with it decisively. But the Government does not appear to have thought seriously in this direction until very late. Nor had it come to terms with the nature of the LTTE whose global arms network needed to be checked urgently.
In dealing with the problem, the President has been dependent on a closed circle of loyalists whose effectiveness and competence have left much to be desired. The Government had no policy framework to deal with the problem. This was very clear at the end of 1999. Meanwhile, the LTTE was using every possible means to destabilise the South. A debacle in the Vanni came in early November 1999 where the Government lost much territory north of Vavuniya. A military inquiry resulted in several high-ranking officers being placed on compulsory leave. But the public has not heard their side of the story.
Iqbal Athas has for example said (Sunday Times 7.11.99) that an intelligence warning was received two days in advance of the LTTE attack on Oddusuddan. He strongly hinted that the warning infuriated a politically ambitious VIP who wanted the warning ignored so as not to upset a planned advance in another sector. High-ranking professional regulars, he added, remained “tight-lipped”. Censorship was imposed the next day. Rather than this or that action, the more pertinent question is whether the particular strategy being used for a year to capture more territory in the Vanni, was further viable in the face of the LTTE’s new acquisitions and techniques. The coming months revealed the consequences of going on with a loose military structure that lacked the ability to pin responsibility for the disappearances in Jaffna as well as for the bombing of the Navaly Church.
The Government started blaming the military debacle of early November 1999 on collusion between the LTTE and a pro-UNP section of the Army. The Government media gave lead publicity to the CID being sent to question General Algama, a retired chief-of-staff, in this connection. Not a shred of evidence was found to substantiate this grave allegation. With the approach of the presidential election on 21st December 1999, the UNP candidate Ranil Wickremasinghe campaigned on a “bringing the
boys home platform” with a proposal to set up an “interim” administration of formally two years’ duration for the North-East. The LTTE was to be given pride of place in the arrangement. In the meantime on 11th December, the LTTE commenced an attack on Jaffna. The soldiers who were fighting to defend Jaffna were amidst confusion and uncertainty about their future role. But they held their own and enabled the poll to take place. However, there was complacency about the consequences of the LTTE taking over some strategic approaches to Elephant Pass and Jaffna Town.
To the residents of Jaffna this was a clear indication of a prelude to another attack on Elephant Pass and then on Jaffna itself. Some sent distress messages unable to understand the Government’s supineness. The Army’s defences on the eastern seaboard had already been “readjusted” after December’s attacks and it was clear to many civilians that the LTTE’s strategy would be to use the eastern seaboard as a launching pad. From here the LTTE could either move south-west towards Palai to cut off Elephant Pass from Jaffna, or move north-west along the coast towards Pt. Pedro. The Army was only reacting to the LTTE’s moves, readjusting and leaving its defences more exposed. It was difficult for the civilians in Jaffna to comprehend why with its superior manpower and access to up-to-date technology, the Government did not take any offensive action from November 1999 until towards the end of May 2000.
The Army had pulled back from the Vettilaikerni camp on the east coast in December, and unlike the civilians who anticipated the long term consequences of it, the Army was unprepared. An army officer in the North when asked by a civilian why they had during the three months not launched an operation to re- establish the Vettilaikerni camp, his response was, “Unlike for a guerrilla group, it takes the Army several months of preparation to launch an operation.”
The LTTE launched its final massed attack on Elephant Pass on 16th April 2000. One factor in the LTTE’s favour was that the forward defences at the Pass had been thinned down in January in order to reinforce other vulnerable sectors. In December, this sector had been strengthened with additional troops withdrawn from Paranthan. Once these defences were breached, the troops in the main complex came under fire from the LTTE’s newly acquired weapons. Whether the LTTE possessed multi- barrel-rocket launchers, which enabled tens of rockets to be fired in place of one, or something else, is unclear. These caused a large number of injuries rather than deaths and a large section of the 3800 troops had to be involved in casualty evacuation. The water supply to the troops from outlying wells was also cut with the fall of Iyakkachchi on the Jaffna road. The inadequate recognition of the strategic importance of the wells set the ground for the debacles that followed.
The LTTE had also for the second time in two weeks launched out from the east coast and blocked part of the A9 trunk road from Jaffna supplying Elephant Pass. According to some officers the Army made the mistake of supplying the Pass via an alternative dirt road, south-west of the A9, for too long rather than make a determined thrust to clear the A9 and re-establish the Iyakkachchi camp. The sandy nature of the track limited the supplies and the Army was badly short of containers to supply adequate water. All this contributed to the problems at the Pass.
General Percy Fernando who commanded the garrison was confronted by troops who demanded an immediate pull-out. He personally had to shoot some mutineers to restore order. A withdrawal from the Pass was ordered by the Army Commander about 20th April. At this time, General Janaka Perera, the deputy chief-of-staff, was sent to take charge of operations in the North. At Elephant Pass, in order to shore up the morale to enable an orderly withdrawal, General Percy Fernando himself went out to man the cannon and stayed to the end. He was while leaving hit by shrapnel from a shell fired by the LTTE, and later succumbed to his injuries.
It was a very tired group of men that withdrew from Elephant Pass, dehydrated and carrying their heavy packs. As shells fell around them, some threw their weapons and baggage and ran ahead. About six miles on they reached their lines. There being no transport available for such a large number, they had to walk 40 miles in all to reach Palaly Base. There were again no tents to accommodate them. Many of them refused to fight. The event also affected troops in other areas. Troops in a camp down Stanley Road near Jaffna Town packed their bags and went house by house telling people that they were going and that the LTTE would return.
The Army pulled back its defences to Palai. At this time the President and Foreign Minister were out of the country in England and India respectively for medical treatment. (The President suffered an injury from the suicide bomb attack in December.) According to Colombo’s lively grapevine, about half the MPs and several ministers were out of the country owing to adverse astrological predictions. There was no senior minister willing to address the nation and give reassurance. The service chiefs were persuaded to answer questions before television. The Army Commander described the withdrawal from Elephant Pass as tactical and said that they must have the confidence that they could hold on to Jaffna. He also made the startling revelation, which raised questions that were not asked, that the LTTE had superior firepower.
*To be continued.. next week “The Fall of Elephant Pass – 2”
*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder”. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here