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Selected Writings by Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki)

The bloody lessons of Thandikulam

15 June 1997

The degree to which troops have been af fected by being constantly deployed in operations and by chronic logistical problems was quite evident when the LTTE overwhelmed the Nochchimoddai - Thandikulam area on Tuesday. Many may desist from expanding on the subject for self imposed stipulations about what they presume to be ‘national interests’.

The defenses of the army were preposterously weak in many areas contiguous with the Vavuniya town’s western suburbs. Some ex -Tamil militants who work with the army in the area say that it is absurdly suicidal to resist a massed LTTE attack on this part of the outer defenses of the cleared areas of Vavuniya. As they did in Mullaithivu, the Tigers completely overwhelmed the whole Nochchimoddai-Thandikulam complex before the troops or their commanders could react. Each attack group knew exactly what to take on inside the main defenses.

The four kilometre long Thandikulam -Nochchimoddai military complex and the villages contiguous with it to the west and northwest were dominated by the attack groups of the LTTE for more than twenty six hours. They were busy ransacking whatever was left of the army’s positions in this high security zone. The army had good reasons to feel quite secure in its defenses in the Thandikulam - Nochchimoddai area because it had been an absolutely uncontested part of the larger Vavuniya security zone since 1990. The western and northwestern FDL of this zone was expanded in several stages between 1992 and 94. The army in the Thandikulam - Nochchimoddai area had to face the LTTE directly only to the north in the direction of Omanthai until Jayasikurui began. And after that with thousands of troops massed up on the road all the way up to Periyamadu through Omanthai, there was little or no danger, logically that is, from the northern approach which had also become immensely secure.

To the east were Sinhala villages such as Mamaduwa and Mahakachchakodiya which were supervised by the Police and homeguards. Tamil groups in Vavuniya grumbled when the army tried to further secure its positions in Thandikulam - Nochchimoddai by resettling Sinhalese in the village of Kokkuveli east of the complex in 1993. To the west and northwest were well populated Tamil villages which had been little disturbed by the ravages of the Eelam wars. These were also well supervised and defended by the PLOTE and to some extent by the TELO. The EPDP also recently stationed some of its cadres in this area. Immediately to the south, of course, was the well defended town of Vavuniya with the sprawling Joseph Camp and the Eerattperiyakulam camp two miles further to the south by the trunk road. The Thandikulam-Nochchimoddai zone, therefore, was well covered and protected.

It was therefore assumed that the Tigers would find it very difficult to carry out reconnaissance work or infiltrate the Thandikulam -Nochchimoddai high security zone without alerting the local population - Sinhala and Tamil -on either side or the Tamil groups operating with the army. It was hence perfectly logical to locate the nerve centre - the head - of Operation Jayasikurui here. The whole thing looked so impregnable that visiting foreign diplomats were taken up to Thandikulam and even beyond. This is what gave the LTTE a near perfect advantage of surprise in the attack.

The Tigers have intimated supporters in the Wanni that they have brought back some very valuable military hardware from 55 division forward headquarters. They have not specified what these items are. (The complete list of material which the Tigers removed from the Paranthan - Elephant complex in January this year was not revealed immediately after the operation. Only two months later did they acknowledge three 120 mm heavy mortars that they had captured from the Umayalpuram camp in the western sector of the base). The LTTE may have also taken an officer of the army prisoner.

Ex-Tamil militant sources in Vavuniya who could listen to the ‘open’ conversations on the handsets of the attackers less than two kilometers away in Kurumankaadu, said that the Tigers who captured him had called their commander to find out whether they should bring the man back with them. “Only if he can be of any use” was the terse reply.

The LTTE is looking not only for special instruments and artillery pieces in the military bases which they overwhelm and destroy but also for Sri Lankan army officers with special skills. It has benefited greatly from what it has been able to extract from these officers through coercion and persuasion. (Some are even working with them).

Many officers and soldiers in Thandikulam - Nochchimoddai who were surprised and overwhelmed surrendered. The LTTE’s priority, however, was to remove hardware. And hence, as usual, very few prisoners, whose capture will not be acknowledged, were taken.

In fact many officers were able to flee the scene of Tuesday’s carnage to safety because of the confusion which arose in the first phase of the attack when a large number of civilians rushed towards Vavuniya from their villages to the west of the Thandikulam-Nochchimoddai military complex such as Patakaadu, Ganeshapuram and Samayapuram. Some security forces personnel, according to ex Tamil militant sources in the Vavuniya suburbs, had made good their escape by getting into civilian clothing apparently taken from the fleeing Tamil population.

The magnitude of the destruction that the Tigers have caused in Thandikulam-Nochchimoddai zone have led some to claim (an inevitable reaction of unimaginative official propagandists ) that the attack involved the best units of the LTTE. This, they say, will have a very deleterious impact on the organization’s well trained, battle hardened manpower in the short term. Nothing can be more naive or incorrect.

The reconnaissance(recce) work, planning, training and logistics for all LTTE operations in the Wanni directly or indirectly connected to the stalling of Op. Jayasikurui were handled by the LTTE’s headquarters. This apparently began a few months before Mullaithivu was overrun. It is understood that Prabhakaran had devised and put in place an unusually localised logistical system for the battles, assaults and counterstrikes in the Wanni for which he has been gearing his organisation since it withdrew from the peninsula.

The units selected and sent in for the Thandikulam -Nochchimoddai Operation were from some of the troops the LTTE had raised in 1995 -96, including several female groups. The latter were given some key tasks in the ‘interior operation’ in which the army’s 55 division headquarters and artillery positions were targeted.

The attack on Tuesday did not involve any of the LTTE’s battle hardened units except for some group leaders drawn from these for the operation. The Charles Anthony ‘brigade’ and the Jeyanthan ‘brigade’ still remain in the background engaged in other preparatory work.

The Thandikulam-Nochchimoddai attack is not the main operation that the Tigers have been preparing for since they overran the Paranthan- Elephant Pass complex. It is yet to come.

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