Day of the Tiger in Northern Fighting
October 15th, 2006
By D.B.S. Jeyaraj
Last Wednesday was the day of the tiger in the Northern theatre of war!
The “defensive” offensive launched on October 11th by the Sri Lankan armed forces of the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) headed by President Mahinda Rajapakse was repulsed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) led by Velupillai Pirapakaran in a day of fierce fighting from dawn to dusk in the Kilaly – Puloppalai region of Jaffna peninsula.
The Sri Lankan Army commanded by Lt. Gen Sarath Fonseka suffered what was easily the single biggest debacle in recent times after the GOSL began its series of “Defensive Offensives” against the Liberation Tigers. At least 133 soldiers were killed and 519 wounded while the LTTE suffered 23 deaths and 101 injured cadres. Both sides have now returned to their earlier positions and are engaged in sporadic, low – intensity artillery fire.
The military advance was not unexpected as preceding events pointed to a high military build – up in the area. There had been intermittent exchange of artillery fire for many days between both sides along the Forward Defence Line (FDL) axis of Kilaly – Eluthumattuvaal – Nagar Kovil axis in the lower peninsula. There was also aerial bombardment of areas described as LTTE positions by the GOSL for many days.
The past few days had also seen a massive increase in military preparations by the GOSL.The tigers protested at this visible military build – up to Norway. At the same time the LTTE also began strengthening its defences.The GOSL denied that it was planning an offensive. It re-iterated that the armed forces would only defend themselves or enhance defence by “neutralising” LTTE positions. Since this has been the usual excuse of the GOSL in justifying military operations it was a foregone conclusion that a “defensive offensive” was on the cards.The real aim of the GOSL security forces was Elephant Pass.
Originally the operation was to commence on Monday Oct 11th. Protests made by the LTTE of an imminent offensive were denied by the GOSL. So the planned offensive was delayed by two days to stave off possible international pressure. Another reason was heavy rain on Monday.
The night of Tuesday October 10th saw the intermittent artillery fire escalating. The morning saw military movement on ground. Troops first broke out before dawn from the Nagar Kovil camp in Vadamaratchy East along the Peninsula’s eastern coast. Troops from Kilaly along the South – Western coast of the Peninsula commenced moving out at first light. Troops from the Eluthumadduvaal base in the Peninsula’s South started out after daybreak. All advancing troops had a pre – dawn breakfast of rice, fish and dhal before breaking out.
By 6. 30 am there was forward movement by troops on all three fronts. K- fir jet bombers and Mi 24 helicopter gunships engaged in aerial bombardment to help facilitate troop movement on ground. The weather however turned nasty with heavy ,dark clouds proliferating. The Air Force could only fly one major sortie that morning due to climatic conditions.
Naval gunboats fired from the sea at coatal points between Nagar Kovil and Thalaiyaddy on the Eastern coastal sector.
The LTTE also began firing their artillery. By 7. 30 am the Nagar Kovil troops called it a day and turned back. It was an apparent manouevre to divide enemy attention. Naval gunboats however continued to patrol the coast along Vadamaratchy east and Pachilaipalli engaging in occasional shelling. The navy aim was to prevent reinforcements from Chundikulam and Challai tiger sea bases from landing inside the peninsula.
Troops moving out from Eluthumadduvaal did not focus on Muhamaalai and Pallai as expected. The army had already advanced about 800 metres into LTTE controlled Muhamaalai and reached the outer perimeter of LTTE lines. Instead of pressing home this advantage further the armed forces veered South – Westwards and continued their march.
The troops moving along the coast from Kilaly also changed course. These personnel moved inwards in a South – Eastern direction.
Both columns were now spreading out and advancing in the Puloppalai region between Muhamaalai and Kilaaly. If this advance was succesful the troops could circumvent Muhamaalai and Pallai . By adopting a semi – circular route they could reach the A- 9 highway or Jaffna – Kandy road at a point close to Puthukkaadu Santhi or junction. An east bound road from the junction through Massar and Soranpattru reaches Thalaiaddy on the east coast.
The Puthukkaadu junction on the A – 9 highway is between Pallai and the Iyakkachi road junction about 3 miles way from Elephant pass. If the troops reached Puthukkadu junction and then the Iyakkachi junction, it would have been only a “short, short way” from there to elephant pass.
There were about 5500 combat and logistical support troops involved.The Air mobile brigade as well as the 3rd infantry brigade of the 55th division (533) comprised the main assault force. The 533 brigade consisted mainly of Gemunu Watch battalions. The mechanized units were also deployed heavily. Troops from the 55th division provided logistical support.
The troops relied heavily on the mechanized personnel and were using a lot of battle tanks, armoured cars, armoured personnel carriers and heavy vehicles like bull dozers to clear the way. Three companies oh highly specialised commandos numbering about 250 – 260 were in the vanguard. They belonged to the Air Mobile brigade and were known as Special Infantry Oriented Teams (SIOT).
The SIOT function was essentially that of pathfinding and trail blazing. Being in the vanguard the SIOT was expected to monito enemy position and gauge artillery and machine gun emplacements. They were required to direct covering artillery and mortar fire extended by personnel to their rear.
After pathfinder troops advanced the tanks , armoured cars andAPC persnnel carriers would follow establishing a safe route through the underbrush . Then troops would dismount from APC’s and other armoured vehicles and advance on ground.The main formations of infantry troops then advanced along ground cautiously. Once conditions were comparatively safe bull dozers cleared and flattened the area as far as possible to help consolidate captured areas.
The LTTE resistance to these rapidly advancing columns was carefully calculated. Initially tiger resistanceseemed feeble. The artillery fire seemingly lacked vigour. Earlier attempts to advance through Muhamaalai via the A – 9 axis had seen the LTTE deploying innumerable claymores and anti – personnel mines along the route. This time during the early hours of advance , the mines and booby traps were conspicuously scarce. LTTE cadres from the first and second lines of defence also fell back after a while.The troops were on the upbeat. It looked like the army was going to repeat its Maavilaaru, Muthur, Sampoor, Muhamaalai successes.
8.00 am was the H- hour for the army to commence a heavy onslaught of MBRL’s, heavy artillery and field artillery. Even as the armed forces began this tiger artillery across the Jaffna lagoon in Poonagary began firing 122mm and 130mm artillery. There is also suspicion among military circles that 155mm guns were also used.
Despite LTTE artillery counter -fire the troops continued. With the 1st and 2nd LTTE defence lines having fallen back the troops backed by artillery went forward. the advance was slowed down to some extent by tiger artillery as well as mines. Two MBT’s were hit by anti – tank “monster” mines. After the first tank was hit the second overtook it and proceeded to be hit in turn. A third moved in a different direction and fell into a well – camoflaged deep, pit. It was a tiger trap.
Despite these difficulties the army continued its advance as the LTTE had not offered stiff resistance, By 9. 30 am the GOSL troops seemed to have penetrated nearly 2 – 3 miles deep into tiger territory in the Puloppallai – Pallai region. Some vanguard SIOT troops were even further up from the main advancing body.
It was around this time (9.30 am) that the tiger roaring tiger pounced. The advancing troop formations were breached in three points.
The vanguard troops were was attacked at a certain point and pressured to retreat sideways. The troops found a chain of deadly mines being triggered like some gigantic firework. LTTE cadres virtually surrounded these troops and intensified firing.. A whole company was virtually wiped out while the other two sustained much damage.
The main advancing body was attacked frontally . Tigers also attacked the military in the rear. It was a virtual encirclement of GOSL troops.
The LTTE’s Victor anti – tank and armoured unit went into action. Despite losing its founder – commander Lt. Col Akbar to a random army shell on Oct 7th members of the unit fought fiercely. In addition to the earlier losses of three tanks to “monster” mines and an ambush a further three Armoured fighting vehicles (AFV) were hit by anti – tank RPG”s and destroyed. Six AFV’s comprising 5 Czhech built T – 55 ’s and two Russian built BMP’s were put out of action.
The Victor anti – tank and armoured unit also fired at Chinese built Armoured Personnel carriers with success. Three APC’s were totally destroyed while another three were partially damaged . The Victor unit had put six armoured fighting vehicles and six armoured personnel carriers out of action within a few hours of fighting.The armed forces have never sustained such massive losses in this manner before.
The infantry troops as well as the SIOT personnel to their credit did not turn around and run at the sight of strong tiger resistance. They tried to both hold on to territory and also advance. The fighting was intense from 9. 30 am to 11. 30 am. Troops found themselves attacked by tiny, mobile tiger groups who closed in and fired ruthlessly.
The LTTE also fired RPG’s , mortars and 60mm portable artillery. Troops were forced at times to move sideways. Very opften they found themselves victims to well – laid Johnny anti = personnel and also claymore mines. It appeared that the LTTE had planted them carefully in select locations and allowed troops to advance up to those places easily.
Another problem for troops was the placement of LTTE machine – gunners in well concealed fox holes. Some of these foxholes were behind GOSL column lines. These tigers inflicted much damage from their foxholes. The LTTE also engaged in sniper fire from tree-top positions.
By 11. 30 GOSL troops abandoned the idea of proceeding to Elephant Pass via Puthukaadu and Iyakkachchi junctions. They began withdrawing taking back as many as possible of the dead and injured.The fighting too transformed itself into artillery and mortar firing. The LTTE kept up an intense barrage. The total withdrawal of GOSL troops was complete by 2.00 – 2. 30 pm.
The entire battle was over in about six to six and a half hours. The tigers had triumphed in beating back troops.
[The President sat in the pilot seat of the Kfir jet when he paid a visit to the Air Force Base in Katunayake on October 10th - Pic by Sudath Silva, Courtesy of Daily Mirror.lk]
The Air Force which flew only one sortie in the morning could not help troops later.Weather conditions were bad for aerial attacks. Also the Pakistani and Ukrainian pilots flying the Air Force planes were unable to engage in customary indiscriminate aerial bombardment due to fear of hitting GOSL troops. Helicopter Gunships could have flown low and targetted tigers but were worried about getting hit by LTTE’s surface to air missiles. Naval gumboats were off the peninsulas eastern coast and useless to fighting in the western sector.The army therefore was all alon at its hour of need..
There was practically no close combat or face to face fighting. The bulk of the fighting consisted of tank and anti – tank firing, artillery shelling and mortar fire. The GOSL usually fires artillery barrages indiscriminately and intensely against perceived LTTE positions. Superior firepower is used to its advantage.
This however did not work out in this instance as the GOSL troops had advanced and were widely scattered. It was not possible to fire from Kilaly or Eluthumadduvaal at random for fear of hitting their own troops. The army was therefore restricted intitially to field artillery and mortars. The LTTE apparently advanced to comparatively close quarters and fired RPG’s and 60 mm shells from portable artillery.
The LTTE at one point advanced beyond original FDL’s into army controlled areas. They turned back after a while and began clearing operations. The heavy fighting subsided after 2. 30 pm. Intermittent artillery fire of low intensity continued throughout the night. It continued even on Thursday 12th.
The armed forces had incurred heavy losses. About 20 privately owned vans and mini – buses were commandeered by the armed forces to supplement army vehicles in transporting dead and injured back from the frontlines. Troops suffering major injuries were taken to the Varany camp in the Thenmaratchy sector. Three helicopters then air lifted them to Palaly . Thereafter they were flown to Colombo and Anuradhapura for treatment. Vehicles also took those with minor injuries and dead bodies along the road in Jaffna to Palaly.
The military hospital in Palaly was already overflowing with patients recovering from injuries sustained in previous rounds of fighting along the Kilaly – Eluthumadduvaal – Nagar Kovil axis. The GOSL had kept as many injured as possible in Palaly to prevent the actual truth about army casualties emerging.
With troops sustaining heavy damage on Oct 11th the military hospital was unable to accommodate all victims. So a hangar at Palaly Airport was converted into a makeshift hospital.
Initially GOSL and defence services spokespersons tried to obscure the truth. They gave ridiculously low casualty figures. Later the various security force websites began increasing casualty figures. Different news agencies quoting unnamed defence sources began giving out comparatively accurate figures. By Oct 12th /13th an accurate picture began emerging.
[74 dead bodies of Sri Lankan military being handed over to the ICRC by the LTTE, LTTEPS.org]
At least 133 soldiers had been killed.Of these 55 bodies were retrieved by security forces themselves. 75 were retrieved by the LTTE. 74 of these bodies were handed over to the Red Cross at the Kilinochchi playground on Oct 12th by the LTTE’s Paavannan who usually interacts with international organizations. One of the bodies retrieved by the LTTE was not given to the Red Cross on time due to a transport problem.
Later the LTTE said it was returning that body along with three other bodies of soldiers they had discovered later. According to LTTE defence affairs spokesperson Ilanthiraiyan there were 43 other bodies the tigers had located later. These were decayed and mangled. They were not in a condition to be transported and returned. The tigers themselves crenated them with military honours claimed Ilanthiraiyan.
The Defence ministry accepted the bodies returned through ICRC red Cross at Omanthai. But they refused to accept the LTTE claim that the 43 bodies found later by the LTTE were those of soldiers. The Defence ministry officially stated that three of the injured soldiers had died later. The official figure therefore was 133 dead.
The Defence ministry also said that all 78 persons first declared as missing in action were accounted for.Yet an internal Defence ministry circular stated that rwo officers and thirty – five men were yet “missing”. 12 officers were among the dead.
The official figures for wounded soldiers was 283. Yet the truth was that of 519 soldiers being injured. Of these 323 were brought to Colombo and 54 to Anuradhapura. Colombo residents saw and heard ambulances and sirens throughout night and day. The rest of the injured soldiers, many of them walking wounded, are in the Palaly hospital.
LTTE’s Ilanthiraiyan also said that there may be more dead soldiers whose bodies are yet to be located. Some of the injured soldiers also could succumb to their wounds. He said the final tally of dead soldiers could be over 200.
Interestingly enough some GOSL and Defence spokespersons are saying that the LTTE suffered more than 200 deaths. Defence spokesperson Brigadier Samarasinghe said that 196 tigers were killed and 312 wounded.
One newspaper has put the LTTE casualty figure at 400. One journal which usually goes to town with stories of security force victories remained silent. There were no stories from the battlefront. News Agencies which initially wrote about “contradictictory” claims of casualties on both sides had after 48 hours concluded that the armed forces had suffered a major debacle.
According to Ilanthiraiyan there were ten LTTE deaths at the end of October 11th. With some of the seriously injured dying the toll had risen to 22 on 12th and 23 on 13th. . There is a strong possibility that the tiger casualty figure could go up in the coming days. The number of injured LTTE was placed as above “muppathu” (thirty) by Ilanthiraiyan. It is learnt reliably that the number of LTTE injured is 101.
Among those killed the most senior tiger so far is a woman Capt. Isaichelvi. Of those killed at least four were from the auxiliary force known as “Makkal Sirappu padaiani”.They are also given Great Hero or “Maaveerar” status. The LTTE’s Imran – Pandian regiment. Sothia and Malathy womens brigades, Victor unit and auxiliary forces were engaged in the fighting.
At least one soldier was taken alive by the LTTE. Samantha Weerasinghe of the 4th Gemunu Watch is now undergoing treatment at the Kilinochchi hospital. The ICRC has inspected the 18 year old youth. According to Colombo based diplomatic sources about five to ten soldiers have been taken alive as unacknowledged prisoners of war by the LTTE.
At this point of time it is difficult to assess the exact number of losses and casualties on both sides. Perhaps the actual figures may never be known. There is however no doubt that in a conflict of see-saw fortunes the “victor” on Oct 11rh was the LTTE. It was truly the day of the tiger
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