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Cornering Prabhakaran

India Today – India’s most widely read magazine.: “Raj Chengappa”


Sri Lankan troops march to battle near the frontline in Kilinochchi province

Sri Lankan troops march to battle near the frontline in Kilinochchi province

It’s only when you fly over the Wanni jungle do you begin to understand why it’s taken the Sri Lankan armed forces months to wrest territory from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

And  why despite launching a decisive assault to recapture the crucial city of Kilinochchi, the LTTE’s headquarters in the northern province, the security forces have made slow progress.

They are still some 10 km from the main town which they had planned to take before they got bogged down by the north-east monsoon that has just set in.

The trees of the surrounding tropical jungle soar to over 60 ft in many places and the canopy is so thick and dense that even sunlight finds it difficult to penetrate.

These are the jungles that the LTTE has made its second home, melting into greenery whenever there is a major assault and setting up deadly booby traps and ambushes for government troops in pursuit.

It’s the reason why the Sri Lankan Air Force Bell 212 helicopter flies at tree-top height right through the 40-minute-ride from Anuradhapura to the frontlines of the battle.

As Squadron Leader Dakshin Pereira explained later, “If we fly higher we become sitting ducks to sniper fire—it gives the terrorists time to aim and shoot. When we fly just over the trees they have no time to cock their guns and fire.”

Suddenly the jungle thins out and a small clearing appears. Four armed soldiers guard its periphery as the helicopter swoops down and deposits us on wet ground.

Even the landing spots are decided in an impromptu manner and changed everyday to avoid detection and fire by the LTTE.

I am driven to meet Major General Jagath Dias, commander of the 57 Division, the main strike force of the army that has over 10,000 men with their armaments moving determinedly towards

The divisional headquarters is a makeshift row of zinc sheet-covered huts. Dias uses one of these as his office. It bristles with communication equipment and has a large map that is updated by the hour to show the progress of his four brigades.

Sporting a bushy moustache, Dias is hands on as is his boss Lt-General Sarath Fonseka who despite being away in the US on a well-earned holiday, calls everyday to check the progress.

Dias has fought the LTTE in previous years in many terrains.

He refuses to be rushed into an all-out assault to capture the town or occupy highways as in the past.

Instead, he uses guerrilla tactics that the LTTE had specialised in. So his men move out in platoons into the jungles, clearing the area of mines.

On the table is a large cross-sectional map with tiny blue flags to indicate where his platoons are engaging the LTTE.

At any given time, they are fighting at 30 different points, forcing the LTTE to spread out its defences.

Military balance

  • Sri Lankan Army: With five Divisions as its striking force, the army vastly outnumbers and outguns the Tigers but
    has chosen to keep its casualties low.
  • LTTE: Having lost the East, where it used to recruit most of its cadres from, the LTTE is down to 5,000 hardcore fighters. But is capable of stiff resistance.

Dias says, “We are deliberately drawing LTTE troops into the jungles as we find that they don’t seem to fight there as well as before. Now we are fighting a guerrilla war while the LTTE tends to rely on conventional tactics.”

I travel to the frontline by a Tata truck that has an armour-plate chasis to protect against mines. We whizz past abandoned villages.

My escort Colonel Priyantha Gunaratne points to LTTE bunkers and fortified bunds that the army had to destroy to overcome resistance.

He claims that the civilians were forced to leave their houses by the LTTE who used them as a human shield when they retreated and also to recruit their young.

They left their dogs behind and these have become a menace for the troops, poaching on their food and attacking some of them.

We reach Mallawi town, once a district centre, which now has most of its rooftops blown away.

In 2002, I had attended a press conference here held by LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran after the then government had declared a ceasefire.

He was in full command, having won in the previous years decisive military battles against a demoralised Sri Lankan Army that saw him gain control of districts in the North, East and parts of the West.

After 9/11, terror was a bad word and Prabhakaran cleverly sheathed his claws. For him, the ceasefire was an opportunity not only to set up LTTE’s civil control over the region but also consolidate its armed wing.

He formed a Tamil Eelam civil service cadre and police that even collected taxes and controlled law and order.

His dream of establishing an independent Tamil nation seemed real till Mahinda Rajapakse emerged as the President in late 2005 and months later scrapped the ceasefire agreement and launched an all-out war.

Fire power

Sri Lanka







Artillery guns



Attack aircraft



Fast-attack vessels



* Only for Divisions operating in the battle zone.

Mallawi was also a centre for NGOs who provided humanitarian aid to the Tamils living in the area.

They were asked to leave in September when the offensive began.

The Brigade Major Kaushal Gunashekara, who rides a Bajaj Pulsar with a gun-toting assistant seated behind, charges that many of them supplied arms and money to the Tigers.

He takes me to a graveyard for the so called LTTE martyrs where the stones are well-cemented, in contrast to the mud huts the residents lived in.

We reach the last checkpost where a platoon is getting ready to head to battle, donning their backpacks and helmets.

In their early 20s, they look sleep deprived but determined. The deep boom of artillery fire rends the air and it’s the first time I get a sense that I am in the thick of the battle.

I ask Lance Corporal Manjula Kariyawasam what he thinks of the LTTE. He says: “They fight well in the beginning but if you show stiff resistance they usually run away.”

The helicopter to ferry me back lands at a nearby field and when we board we find that our companions are three young soldiers, all nursing gory wounds and one lying on the floor of the chopper.

Just as we settle down, the pilot asks us to get off. Two soldiers had been grievously injured and they have been ordered to pick them up as well.

In five minutes, the chopper is back with the injured personnel and it is a disturbing sight.

ltte-sri_lanka-ceylon-tigers-strategy-attacksTwo of them, whom I just talked to, lie on the floor badly injured. One of them had his left leg blown away after stepping on a mine and also lost his right eye.

He lay on the floor with a drip bottle, blood still oozing from his wound. The other had pellet marks all over his body and his leg muscles seemed to have been destroyed.

We completed the journey back to base in pensive silence. This is a war where no mercy is asked or given.

Already, over 10,000 Tigers have been killed in the fighting in the past two years—reducing their strength of trained personnel to around 5,000.

The Sri Lankan Army too has lost over 2,000 of its men, a third of them to mine blasts. It is a fight to finish—a determined battle by the Sri Lankan Government to defeat the LTTE, regain territory and capture Prabhakaran—dead or alive.

A day earlier at his residence in Colombo, President Rajapakse told me: “For us this war will be over only when we get Prabhakaran and his key deputies.”

Under Rajapakse’s leadership, the Sri Lankan Government has made substantial progress in the conduct of the war. Much of it has to do with the decisive political will and the unwavering support to the armed forces.

What has helped is that by appointing his brother Gotabhaya as the defence secretary, there has been a rare unanimity of tactics and clarity of purpose.

This has seen the Sri Lankan armed forces take the Eastern province last year after successfully winning over Karuna, Prabhakaran’s former military commander, who joined forces with them to put the LTTE on the run.

The Government then held provincial elections in the East in May and Sivanesathurai Santhirakanthan alias Pillayan, a former LTTE child soldier and political leader who defected along with Karuna, emerged as the chief minister.

Meanwhile, Karuna was rewarded with a seat in Parliament under the nominated category.

Having secured the East and loosened the stranglehold the Tigers had in Mannar in the West, the Sri Lankan armed forces have restricted the LTTE’s writ to two major provinces in the North, Kilinochchi and Mullaittivu, the vital port town that the Sea Tigers use as a base.

Showing that they are still a formidable force to reckon with, the Tigers have put up stiff resistance in these two districts and then counter-attacked with terror strikes and air raids over Colombo.

The LTTE is said to have two light aircraft which they use with tremendous psychological advantage.

On October 28, the aircraft evaded radar detection and dropped a couple of bombs over Colombo resulting in a blackout for an hour.

Despite these strikes, experts agree that the LTTE is in a bad shape. Intercepts of their wireless communications show them urging their cadres to stay on and battle it out.

With the Government’s intelligence proving to be good, they have been able to strike decisively at key LTTE leaders even killing their political chief Thamilselvan recently.

Sri Lankan troops display captured LTTE firepower

Sri Lankan troops display captured LTTE firepower

Prabhakaran, who is on the run has withdrawn reportedly to the jungles around Puthukkudiyiruppu using the two lakh Tamil refugees as a human shield against Sri Lankan air raids.

Other experts though believe that the LTTE still has the capability of bouncing back and the Sri Lankan Army is being overstretched and would be bogged down in Wanni.

Signs that the LTTE was losing ground became evident when major political parties in Tamil Nadu, lead by the ruling DMK, protested against “human rights violations” of Tamils in Sri Lanka demanding a ceasefire.

With the DMK, a key ally of the Congress-led UPA Government at the Centre, threatening to have its MPs resign from Parliament and ministers quit the Union Cabinet, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh acted swiftly to quell the crisis.

He called up Rajapakse and gave him an earful about human rights violations of Sri Lankan Tamils and also about Indian fishermen near the Gulf at Mannar being shot at by the Sri Lankan Navy.

While not calling for a ceasefire, he reiterated India’s stand that there is no military solution to the ethnic crisis and that Rajapakse’s Government must come up with a credible political process.

Rajapakse though is sticking to his standthat he needs to continue the military operations against the LTTE and will not agree to a ceasefire.

He maintains that a political solution would emerge once Prabhakaran is defeated. As an example of his sincerity he points to the East where he claims to have restored the democratic process.

He also states that he has convened an all-party committee consisting of the major Sinhala parties to go into the question of devolution of powers to the Tamils.

The committee though has run into trouble with the United National Party, the main Opposition party, pulling out of the talks.

Meanwhile, the pro-LTTE Sri Lankan Tamil MPs have been as critical of the way Rajapakse’s Government has been conducting the war. R. Sampanthan, an MP and parliamentary leader of the Tamil National Alliance party, says that the all-party committee is “a charade and a hoax”.

He says, “The Government is intent on seeking a purely military solution. This war is against the legitimate rights of the Tamil people. The Government has never come up with a set of proposals that can constitute a political challenge to the LTTE.”

He is critical of Rajapakse’s showcasing the East saying, “The province doesn’t enjoy the powers as that of an Indian state like Tamil Nadu or for that matter a Union Territory of India. There is no autonomy or devolution of powers. The provincial government is a puppet in the hands of the Sri Lankan Government.”

India, which so far had nuanced its policy in Sri Lanka, is forced to make a strategic return into its affairs after the Tamil Nadu fallout.

After the failure of the 1987 Indo-Sri Lankan Accord and with the Indian Peace Keeping Force being asked to leave in 1990, India has been averse to intervene militarily again in Sri Lanka’s civil war.

It has refrained from selling arms to the Government, though of late it has assisted with intelligence and the supply of radars.

Initially, the Indian Government allowed Rajapakse to conduct war in the North with a relatively free hand as it looked upon the LTTE as a terrorist organisation which, among other things, had assassinated Rajiv Gandhi.

But now India is pressuring Rajapakse to come up with a parallel political process that would work for genuine autonomy for the Tamils.

While Rajapakse continues to have the support of the Sinhala majority, despite inflation being over 25 per cent, he is unlikely to let up on the military operations.

But if the war drags on till mid next year and casualties mount, then his Government would begin to feel the heat.

Prabhakaran knows that and has deliberately slowed down the pace of the battle.

He is now biding his time. In the past he has bounced back after being in a seemingly helpless position. But this time he is being confronted by a resolute Sri Lankan Government and an army whose morale is high and tactics that match his if not better than them.

Prabhakaran has never been in a situation as tight as this and is going to find it difficult to come out of the corner that he finds himself in.

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