By D.B.S. Jeyaraj
Medical personnel travelling last week from Government controlled Vavuniya to the hospital in Tiger controlled Puliyankulam were surprised to find the town deserted and hospital closed.
It was then that they came to know of the latest orders issued by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to the helpless civilian population under their control in the Northern mainland known as Wanni.
All civilians living between Puliyankulam and Kanakarayankulam along the Jaffna – Kandy road known as A – 9 highway had been instructed by the LTTE to leave their dwellings and re-locate to areas between Oddusuddan and Puthukkudiyiruppu in the Mullaitheevu district.
Civilians living between government controlled Omanthai and Puliyankulam along the A – 9 highway had already been ordered to leave some months ago when hostilities escalated in the Vavuniya north region.
Now people living further up on the A – 8 had also been ordered to evacuate.
People living between Kanakarayankulam and Mankulam were also told by the tigers to be prepared to move out from their homes at very short notice.
Fearing the worst many people living in and around Mankulam had voluntarily commenced moving last week.
This latest civilian displacement was mainly due to rapid advances made by the Sri Lankan armed forces in the North.
It was a case of “Advantage Army” as a militarily out- manoeuvred LTTE began withdrawing from entrenched positions,
As far as the trapped civilians were concerned there was no possibility of their defying the LTTE diktat “en masse “ and so would have pathetically obeyed.
Nevertheless it would have been obvious to most civilians that the LTTE orders were a manifestation of weakness and not an indicator of strength.
The tigers were forcing people to move out because they knew they could not hold the army at bay.
Recent escalation in the fighting had brought the LTTE controlled areas of Vellankulam, Thunukkai, Mallavi, Vavunikkulam into the arena of conflict. People from these areas had started relocating to other areas.
Now in an anticipatory move the LTTE was ordering civilians along the A – ( highway also to move out.
Protracted fighting in areas to the west of the A – 9 in the Vavuniya and Mannar districts had seen the LTTE fighting fiercely to retain their positions.
Yet the past months witnessed the armed forces gaining the upper hand in a slow but relentless push for military supremacy against the LTTE.
Notwithstanding their dogged determination the tenacious tigers were no match for the armed forces and their superior manpower, firepower, armour power and airpower.
This superiority however should not detract from the fact that the armed forces have also displayed high morale and vigorous determination in persisting with their military objectives.
Military action in the northern mainland began in earnest in July last year.
At that time the forward defence lines of the armed forces in Mannar and Vavuniya districts were along the Vavuniya – Parayanalankulam road known as A – 30 and the Medawachiya – Mannar road known as A – 14.
Moreover some army positions were sandwiched between LTTE controlled areas in the South and north of Mannar district.
Currently the armed forces in Mannar and Vavuniya have advanced at least 60 – 65 km to the north of their original FDL positions last year. In addition they have also taken Mannar South from Arippu to Mullikulam.
If the name of the game is acquisition of real estate then it is estimated that the armed forces have wrested back at least 1300 sq km in extent from tiger control in the Wanni.
Though military positions are constantly fluctuating present estimates show that the armed forces control more than 90 % of Mannar district, 60 % of Vavuniya district and about 15 % of Mullaitheevu district.
The initial breakthrough came on Sep 2nd 2007 when the armed forces in a three – pronged operation took over the entire Musali AGA division south of the Aruvi aaru in Mannar.
Short - term objectives
Thereafter the short term objectives were Marudhamadhu known as Madhu and Adampan. The tigers proffered stiff resistance and fought back ferociously.
There was heavy fighting around Giants Tank known as Kattukkaraikulam in Tamil and Yodha Ella in Sinhala.
The fall of Madhu became inevitable when the armed forces took Periyathambanai, Sinna and Periya pandivirichaan etc and moved on three sides within 2 k m of the sacred Catholic church dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary .
The LTTE vacated the area and the armed forces moved into Madhu on April 15th this year. Two weeks later the armed forces took over the Giants tank and its environs in their entirety.
May 9th saw Adampan fall. Thereafter it was a series of successes for the armed forces as the tigers began vacating their positions in key areas like Palampitty, Periyamadhu, Nedunkandal etc.
The first week of July saw the armed forces gain full control of about 120 sq miles of paddy fields in the hinterland of Mannar. This region was known as the “rice bowl of Mannar”.
Long - term objectives
Now the stage was set a military campaign to gain full control of the key Mannar – Pooneryn road known as A – 32 highway.
The two long - term objectives of the army were to destroy the sea tiger bases in the coastal areas of Vidathaltheevu and Naachikudaa and to establish full control of the littoral along Mannar - Pooneryn road.
If and when the armed forces managed to eradicate LTTE sea power off the shores of Mannar district and take over the Mannar - Pooneryn road and littoral areas several advantages would be gained.
Firstly the maritime supply route from Tamil Nadu could be restricted if not stopped altogether.. Presently the LTTE gets most of its fuel, medicine , dry ration food and materials like metal for explosive devices etc from India.
Secondly it would be possible to establish a land - based route to Jaffna peninsula. Transport could be along the Mannar - Pooneryn road and from there by the short - distance ferry between Sangupiddy and Keratheevu.
Thirdly Government writ over the Mannar littoral would facilitate off - shore exploration for oil in the Mannar gulf basin.
Fourthly taking control of Pooneryn can eliminate the threat to Jaffna peninsula from the LTTE artillery battery located in the Kalmunai - Nagathevanthurai areas of Pooneryn. The tigers are able to target even the Palaly base from Pooneryn.
Fifthly the armed forces can use Pooneryn as a launching pad for further ground movements into tiger territory. If troops move east and reach Paranthan they have three further options.
1)Move further east by south - east along the axis of Paranthan - Mullaitheevu road;
2)move up north towards Elephant Pass;
3) move down south towards Kilinochchi.
It is against the backdrop of these strategic objectives that the march on Vidathaltheevu gathered momentum.
[Sri Lanka Army during Vidathaltheevu opeartion-pic:menik]
The Vidathaltheevu promontory was about two km away from the Pallamadhu junction on A – 32.
Vidathal is a thorny scrub (mimosa cinerea)found in many areas of the North – East. Vidathaltheevu means Island of Vidathal in Tamil
The Naayaaru river cutting across Naayaatruveli reaches the sea near Vidathaltheevu. The sea water level off Vidathaltheevu rises and falls with the tide.
The boats berthed in the water at dawn could lie in the sand at dusk . This ebbing sea is called “Vatruperukkukadal” in Tamil.
Vidathaltheevu has a natural harbour but marine access from the gulf of Mannar was made possible only through the construction of the Arnolda canal in the forties of the last century.
In recent times Vidathaltheevu had become the major sea tiger base along the north – western coast.
The tigers had set up an 8 km long defence line stretching from the banks of Naayaaru via Naayaatruveli to Piraamanaalankulam.
This LTTE line was a difficult obstacle to surmount and it appeared that the armed forces could be bogged down for quite a while.
It was at this juncture that the armed forces adopted a refreshingly new approach.
Instead of relying on their overwhelming military superiority alone the armed forces began displaying superior military tactics.
This remarkable change began paying dividends.
Troops moved clandestinely through jungle areas in a northward direction from points in Palampitty and Periyamadhu , both situated along the Iranai iluppaikulam – Pallamadhu road.
They succeeded in reaching Sirattykulam on the border of Thunukkai AGA division. Though located in the North – western sector Thunukkai forms part of the Mullaitheevu district.
After reaching Sirattykulam the troops changed direction and moved westwards from the east. They reached a comparatively unknown yet key location called Kooraai.
Kooraai was an irrigation settlement begun in the eighties of the 20th century. The work was not completed and the anecut construction of Koorai tank was abandoned.
Only some irrigation dept buildings and around 40 – 50 families remain to tell the tale of what could have been a flourishing settlement.
Once the armed forces reached Koorai they used it as a launching pad to mount two forward movements further to the west towards the A – 32 or Mannar – Pooneryn road.
One column moved through Aathimottai and interdicted the A – 32 at Kalliaddy.
The other column moved along Koyilkulam and Puthukulam and breached the A – 32 at Pallivaasalpitty.
A third column broke out from Periyamadhu and reached Pallamadhu junction by moving east..
This tripartite thrust saw the LTTE being checkmated.
Forging ahead on A-32
The tigers were now boxed in at Vidathaltheevu notwithstanding their elaborate defences further to the South of Vidathal.
The army was actually about 2 – 3 km ahead of Vidathaltheevu on the A – 32.
The tigers had no choice other than to withdraw from Vidathaltheevu by sea. This they did and when the armed forces moved in neither tigers nor their boats were there.
The next big town along the A – 32 was Iluppaikadavai where the LTTE had a large base housing elements of the Charles Anthony regiment. The tigers began withdrawing from Iluppaikadavai at the same time they were moving out of V’theevu..
Thus the armed forces continued their victorious thrust further north along the A – 32 and took Iluppaikadavai also.
Thereafter they advanced further up and crossed the Parangi aaru river.
By the last week of July the armed forces had taken Moondrampitty along the Mannar – Pooneryn road.
View Larger Map
The last big town on the A – 32 that falls under Mannar district is Vellankulam. Thereafter it is Kilinochchi district where the first big town is Mulangaavil.
The river Paali Aaru reaches the sea near Vellankulam.
It appears that the LTTE is ready for the long haul at Paali aaru – Vellankulam. Bunkers and trenches are being constructed and fortified.
The army is now confronting the LTTE at Vellankulam. Artillery shelling and aerial bombardment on Vellankulam has begun.
Though the LTTE is putting up a massive defence at Vellankulam on the A – 32 the armed forces could do a “Vidathaltheevu” and outmanoeuvre the tigers.
The forces could proceed North after taking Thunukkai and encircle Vellankulam without trying to break the defences to its south similar to that of the Vidathaltheevu operation.
While fighting continued in and around Vellankulam there were reports that the army had circumvented LTTE defences and were encircling the area from three directions.
If these reports are correct the army has technically entered Kilinochchi district. The fall of Vellankulam too would be inevitable.
Our Lady of Madhu
The fight for Vellankulam resulted in an interesting development.
When the armed forces began closing in on Madhu during April the Catholic clergy hierarchy in Mannar had taken away the sacred statue of Our Lady of Madhu to another place for safety.
This relocation of the blessed Mary statue was facilitated by the LTTE.
The statue was housed temporarily at the St. Xaviers church at Thevaayanpitty popularly known as Thevanpitty.
Thevanpitty is situated on a small road leading to the coast from Vellankulam.
With Vellankulam being targeted and shells falling on Thevanpitty the sacred statue became vulnerable.
So the “displaced” statue was brought back to the Bishop’s House in Mannar town.
Last Tuesday the Security Forces Commander in Wanni, Major General Jagath Dias officially invited Mannar Bishop most Rev.Rayappu Joseph to take over the Madhu shrine which had been repaired under the supervision of the Army .
The holy statue is likely to be enshrined in the Church again within the next few days in order to have the annual feast in mid-August with the participation of Catholic devotees from all four corners of the country.
LTTE Access to India
Meanwhile there is an impression in the South that all sea movement along the North – Western coast has been stopped for the LTTE after the fall of Vidathaltheevu. This is not correct..
While the loss of Vidathaltheevu would be keenly felt by the tigers ,sea movement along the North – western coast has certainly not been circumscribed.
There are coastal points like Naachikudaah, Pallikudaah, Valapaadu and Peimunai along the Kilinochchi district coast that are being utilised by the LTTE.
Increased sea tiger movement in the seas between Thalaimannar and Neduntheevu (Delft) in recent times indicate that LTTE marine movement is undergoing a sea change.
Since the LTTE needs north – western sea access to maintain contact with the Indian coast the tigers would most probably resist army advances further along the A – 32 fiercely.
While the bulk of LTTE sea supply is on the east coast between Challai and Alampil , India remains a chief source of supply of fuel, medicine, dry rations and metal for the LTTE.
Thus it is of paramount importance that the LTTE preserves and protects at least part of the 77 km long Mannar – Pooneryn road. Currently about half the A – 32 highway is under Government control.
Against this backdrop the tigers will try and defend Vellankulam – Paali Aaru and other points on the A – 32 to prevent further advances of the army along the North –Western coast into Kilinochchi district.
There is also another reason for the LTTE to fight it out ferociously at Vellankulam.
This is because of a road from Vellankulam that leads to Maankulam along the Kandy – Jaffna road or A – 9 highway.
Situated along this road are the important and relatively thickly populated towns of Thunukkaai and Mallaavi.
Holding off the army at Vellankulam could deter the armed forces from gaining control of one end of this minor yet geo- strategically vital road.
Even if the LTTE is able to contain the army at Vellankulam the threat to Mallavi and Thunukkai is by no means diminished.
This is because the armed forces have made significant strides on other related fronts.
In a limited replay of the Vidathaltheevu campaign the armed forces out manoeuvred the LTTE by getting off the beaten track and striking unexpectedly behind enemy lines.
Forces stationed to the north of Nattaankandal proceeded towards Thunukkaai through a place called Ottankulam.
The last week of July saw the army engaged in combat with the LTTE at Kalvilaankulam about 3km away from Thunukkaai.
Likewise forces stationed near Panankaamam in a surprise move proceeded through Paandiyankulam and reached the South of Vavunikulam.
[LTTE near Vavunikulam, Aug 1, 2008]
Panankaamam which is about 7 km away from Vavunikulam was the fiefdom ruled by the Wanni chieftain Pandara Vannian or Wanni Bandara who defied the British at the historic battle of Katsilaimadhu.
The latter part of July saw the armed forces and tigers embroiled in intense conflict around the Vavunikulam tank and its bunds
If the armed forces are able to move via the tank bund area to Paalaipaani or Kidaaipidithakulam then it would be possible to interdict the LTTE supply route along Vannivilaankulam - Moondrumurippu.
This in turn would affect tiger logistics drastically on the one hand while enhancing modes of supply for the army among various points in that sector.
Currently there is intense fighting in Vavuniya north areas like Navvi, Paalamottai, Vilakkuvaithakulam etc.
Supplies to the LTTE are brought along the Vannivilaankulam – Moondrumurippu road to sustain cadres fighting on the Paalamottai front.
If these supplies are interdicted then the LTTE has no choice other than to withdraw.
This “collapse” would result in the armed forces taking over Puliyankulam easily and then move along the Mullaitheevu road via Nainamadhu and occupy Nedunkerni .
Troops could also move up north along the A – 9 to Kanakarayankulam and Mankulam.
In addition the fall of Vavunikulam would also result in the armed forces being only about 4 – 5 km away from Mallavi.
Thus it would be possible to reach Mankulam via Mallavi if Vavunikulam falls.
If the fighting in Vavunikulam, Thunukkai , Mallavi proves successful the armed forces would most likely reach the A – 9 and take key spots like Mankulam, Puliyankulam, Kanakarayankulam etc.
The fighting in Vavunikulam has been intense with both sides incurring heavy casualties. The LTTE lost more than a 100 cadres including two of Lt. Col rank in the first two days of fighting.
Subsequently the tigers thwarted advancing troops through a counterstrike that killed more than 30 soldiers and injured over 60.. The tigers also seized a military vehicle.
Reaching A-9 Highway
The recent successes by the armed forces reinforce the assessment that the fall of Vavunikulam, Mallavi, Thunukkai etc are imminent. This could lead to the army entering the A – 9 area.
The LTTE decision to move civilians along the A – 9 further into the interior demonstrates that the tigers are not confident of preventing further advances by the army.
In such an eventuality it would only be a matter of time before the A – 9 highway from Vavuniya to Kilinochchi is under army control.
If the armed forces take the Mannar – Pooneryn road and then move east to Paranthan the LTTE at Elephant pass would be beleaguered.
In that case the tigers may have to vacate even Elephant pass or be caught there like an arecanut in a nutcracker.
If all these things happen the armed forces could accomplish the rare feat of regaining the A – 9 highway from LTTE clutches.
It would be difficult to specify an accurate timetable but there is the imperative of weather.
Once the monsoon rains commence in October conditions would be difficult for military movement. All rivers will be in spate and floods could occur.
Therefore the tentative deadline for full control of the A – 9 highway and areas to its west could be the ides of October.
LTTE: Down but not out
Thereafter the fighting could rage in the areas to the east of the A – 9. The LTTE it must be said are down but certainly not out.
There is also the suspicion that the tigers could launch a counter- strike against the rapidly advancing army.
The flip side to the military advantage gained is increased vulnerability. The armed forces have gained too much territory too soon and are yet to consolidate their hold.
With the army spreading thin they could be potential targets of tigers moving in clandestinely through jungle routes.
The creditable performance of the army in the fighting in the North – Western sector is due to the 58, 57 divisions and task force two.
Defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse flew to the frontlines of Mannar and Vavuniya on July 31st to meet the ground and field commanders of all three outfits. He congratulated those responsible for their praiseworthy performance.
The defence secretary also touched on an aspect of the conflict that is often ignored, overlooked or underemphasised.
This is the predicament of civilians displaced by the fighting.
The primary focus is usually on the fluctuating military fortunes of those engaged in armed confrontation.
The unfolding humanitarian tragedy of mass scale displacement is forgotten.
Gotabhaya Rajapakse drew the attention of military top brass to displaced civilian plight.
He urged that every assistance be rendered to these hapless people to reach the comparative safety of government controlled territory.
It is estimated that about 250,000 to 300,000 civilians live in LTTE controlled territory in the north.
Around 120, 000 people have been displaced in the past year of fighting. More than 50,000 were displaced in the month of July alone.
Given the fact that there is another segment of people displaced through earlier wars and by the Tsunami the total number of IDP’s in the Wanni at present is estimated at 170,000 to 175,000.
Most of the recently displaced were those living in areas regarded as “secure” for many years.
Places like Vellankulam, Iluppaikadavai, Thunukkai, Vavunikulam, Mallavi, Mankulam etc have been places housing thousands of previously displaced persons. Now all are affected and dispersing.
Non – Governmental Organization personnel with working experience in the Wanni opine that large numbers of the people there would like to relocate to the relatively safer and comfortable areas under Government control.
The steady trickle of people braving LTTE wrath and crossing over clandestinely by boat to Mannar Island indicates the desperate mood of the civilian population.
Restricted IDP movement
But the LTTE seems adamant in preventing such an outflow. The recent orders given to the people along A – 9 suggests that the LTTE would not want civilians to move into government areas.
Instead they want these people to move further into the interior of LTTE controlled areas. Apart from the lack of proper facilities and inadequacy of the authorities to cater to the needs of these IDP’s there is ever present danger.
Aerial bombardment and artillery shelling makes these people extremely vulnerable to physical danger.
Harsh policies adopted by the government in the name of security have limited the scale and scope of external assistance by NGO’s.
The local administrative machinery is hopelessly ill – equipped to handle the ever – increasing numbes of internally displaced.
The only humanitarian way out for these people is to let them relocate to Government controlled areas.
If and when that happens the NGO’s with their ample resources could move in and attend to the influx of IDP’s.
This is what happened in Batticaloa when more than 200,000 were displaced.
Tamil Rehabilitation Organization
The LTTE backed Tamil Rehabilitation Organization (TRO) has begun a fund – raising drive in the west for Mannar – Vavuniya IDP’s.
It is a moot point as to whether the TRO could utilise these funds without delay for those affected as access to the Wanni is limited due to Government directives.
The TRO itself has issued statements lamenting the increase in IDP’s and the inability to attend to their needs because of government regulationsl.
How then can the funds being raised abroad by the TRO be utilised for these IDP’s without delay?
The easy way out would be for the LTTE to relax its controls and allow “exit” to those who want to move out to government areas.
The total lack of care and concern showed by this government to those civilians living in the arena of war is indeed something which deserves severe condemnation.
Likewise the callous conduct of the LTTE towards displaced Tamil civilians is also reprehensible.
IDP’s are entitled to the right of movement. They should be allowed to move to areas of safety if they want to do so.
While the government heaps terrible consequences on civilians in the name of security the LTTE adds to their woes in the name of liberation. The IDP’s are caught in the middle.
The UNHCR drafted guiding principles regarding IDP’s emphasise that the displaced be allowed freedom of movement. Principles 14 and 15 are particularly explicit on this aspect.
The TRO very rightly points out that the government is restricting access to IDP’s thereby violating the letter and spirit of the UNHCR principles.
By the same token the LTTE is also violating the spirit and letter of UNHCR principles by restricting movement of IDP’s.
The TRO being exclusively focused on Tamil IDP’s should persuade the LTTE to revise its stance and allow Wanni civilians the same freedom of movement that was allowed the IDP’s of Paduvaankarai in Batticaloa.
[Civilians moving out from Moonraampiddi, Paaliyaaru, Kaneasapuram, and Theavanpiddi areas-pic:TamilNet]
Let my people go
“Let my people go” – according to the book of Exodus in The Bible - was the poignant request made by Moses to the Egyptian Pharoa.
That was a demand made to a despotic, alien ruler by the representative of an oppressed people.
Today the same cry “Let my people Go” can be articulated on behalf of the Wanni IDP’s to the LTTE hierarchy.
Sadly the LTTE and the Wanni civilians are all of the same ethnicity. Ironically the LTTE claims to be fighting for the Tamil cause.
Unlike the biblical Moses who pleaded with the alien Pharaoh to allow his people to go those advocating the humanitarian cause of Tamil IDP’s in the Wanni have to ask “our Boys” to permit “our people” to go.
This then is the difference that illustrates the terrible tragedy that has befallen the Tamils.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org