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Selected Writings by Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki)

Blinded in the Wanni quagmire

29th June 1997

The LTTE’s second counter attack on the troops of Operation Jaya Sikurui was predicted and expected. The Division 55 headquarters under Brigadier Shantha Kottegoda was overrun and destroyed again —exactly two weeks after it was overwhelmed by the Tigers at Thandikulam.

The Brigadier has once more managed to make good his escape from the overrun headquarters. Sources close to the army in Vavuniya say that 116 soldiers were killed in the attack. The LTTE, meanwhile, has claimed that it has captured one 120 mm heavy mortar, 300 rounds of artillery ammo, ‘other heavy weapons’, Main Battle Tanks and military vehicles. It has also stated that it has captured four artillery pieces from the army since Operation Jaya Sikurui was launched last month.

The Directorate of the Military Intelligence sent up a report last week of an impending LTTE assault on the army’s positions between Omanthai and Periyamadu. Yet the Tigers could not be stopped from wreaking havoc on Tuesday.

In fact, a Tamil weekly carried a lead story last week quoting LTTE’s military commander Balraj in Mankulam that the LTTE’s attack on Thandikulam-Nochchimoddai was only an experimental one and that his organization was about to unleash more destruction on the army in the coming weeks.

Here, I have to reiterate a point I made three weeks ago in these columns. The Sri Lankan intelligence establishment is basically intelligence blind in the Vanni. Its ‘humint’ (hard intelligence gathered by operatives in the field) by all accounts seems to be almost nil. And its electronic intelligence gathering capability is poor. Hence it can only make general predictions but is in no position to come up with precise information of any impending Tiger offensive.

The army was able to draw the Tigers into a bloody trap in Weli Oya in 1995 because the information about the attack was from a very reliable source in the LTTE itself — a girl who was training for the operation. The intelligence had come through her father who had special access to the secret camp where his daughter and other girls were being prepared for the assault on Weli Oya. The girl’s father was a member of the civilian militia which the Tigers raised in 1992. This militia formed the back bone of the LTTE’s first logistical system. Those in the militia were not expected to carry cyanide or take the Tiger oath.

One of the first things the LTTE did when it uncovered the intelligence network through which vital information from the Vanni had passed on to the Sri Lankan intelligence establishment which had led to the bloody fiasco in Weli Oya, was to disband the militia (The girl, it appears, had been found innocent).

The LTTE’s intelligence wing has devoted much energy since the organization pulled out of Jaffna to neutralize the minor ‘humint’ capability the Sri Lankan side had nurtured and sustained in the Vanni until 1995.

Prabhakaran’s highly effective personal security intelligence unit was also engaged in the same task. The Sri Lankan intelligence establishment has become near blind in the Vanni as a consequence.

The carnage in Periyamadu and Omanthai on Tuesday was thus almost inevitable — though expected.

The attack began on the army’s defences west of the Omanthai-Puliyankulam road at Kappachikkulam. The columns of Jaya Sikurui appear to have reached Periyamadu in a flanking movement to the left from Rambaikulam which is less than a kilometer from Omanthai in the second phase of Op. Jaya Sikurui. The army may have assumed that its positions on the trunk road had to be defended from Tiger assaults from the western flank — and hence the protrusion to the west, defined by Kappachikulam and Periyamadu. The LTTE has large bases in an around the dense jungles of Palamoddai which lies about three kilometres south west of Periyamadu. (Prabhakaran and Uma Maheswaran established one of the first military training camps of the LTTE in 1977 in Palamoddai)

Here it is important, in my view, to correctly understand the location of Periyamadu. There has been some confusion in many quarters about the geographical aspect of Op. Jaya Sikurui due to a clear but somewhat inevitable difficulty in getting the bearings of the spot right. This is mainly owing to fact that there are at least three places in the Vanni which are called Periyamadu. The best known of these is, of course, the large Muslim village on the road from Palampidddi to Vidaththalthivu north west of Madhu. The second is an insignificant silted little tank which lies a few kilometers northeast of Puliyankulam in the dense jungles above the road from Nedunkerni. This exists today only on some un-updated grid maps of the Vanni. The Periyamadu that was catapulted to the headlines in the aftermath of Op. Jaya Sikurui’s progress from Omanthai towards Puliyankulam is a minor settlement west of the Jaffna road between Pandikku Eyithau Kulam (4.5 k.m north of Omanthai) and Panikkaniraavi (4 k.m south of Puliyankulam).

Three kilometers on a dilapidated dust road to west, between these two villages, takes one to Periyamadu. The EROS had a small farm here in the early years of the Tamil militant movement. (The very few who carried arms in those days usually took a detour from Rambaikulam along the Koliyakulam-Periyamadu path to avoid chance confrontations with the police on the main road.)

Once defences at Kappachikulam were overwhelmed by the LTTE with heavy mortar fire, and probably artillery fire, Omanthai to the southeast and Periyamadu stood exposed to the attacking Tiger hordes.

The main assault was from the general area of Palamoddai.

Contrary to earlier reports, both counter attacks on Div.55 headquarters had been led by Jeyam.

It is understood the LTTE’s military commander Balraj (the supreme commander is Prabhakaran) co-ordinated the assault from a temporary base near Mankulam. Jeyam was the deputy commander of the Charles Anthony ‘Brigade’ which is now operating in the Trincomalee district under its commander Sornam. (A section of the ‘brigade’ carried out the ambush on the army patrol in Pulmoddai in Trincomalee last week in which 27 soldiers were killed). Both Balraj and Jeyam are veterans in ‘Vanni warfare’ which requires, as one can discern in the confusion over Periyamadu, a very sound knowledge of the complicated tank networks and dust roads in the jungles of the region. Jeyam was out of action for many months following serious injuries he sustained when Mullaithivu was overrun last year. Sources in Vavuniya say that Bhanu (who was the LTTE’s commander in Jaffna in 1992-94) is awaiting his turn with a special ‘battalion’ to take on the columns of Jaya Sikurui in the coming weeks.

The government is relentlessly pushing the army into the Vanni quagmire. The effects of this would be evident soon. Seventy four policemen deserted their posts at Omanthai and returned to Vavuniya town on Thurday, handing in their weapons to the senior officers there. Top police officials were having a hard time trying to persuade them back to Omanthai. While offering stiff resistance to Operation Jaya Sikurui Tigers have been able to kill 122 security forces personnel elsewhere in the north and east between May 13 (the day the Op. began) and June 24.

But these are minor matters and very much part of any military situation, say strategists who think Op. Jaya Sikurui is inexorable. They point to the depletion in LTTE’s manpower being induced by the conventional might of the Operation and argue that it is only a matter of time before Prabhakaran’s military machine grinds to a halt.

In conclusion, I can only say that those who still hang on to this line of thinking, despite the stark military realities of Eelam War Three, may be having their coffee and liqueur at Sri Lanka’s last chance hotel.

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