Sri Lanka Armed Forces Suffer Debacle
D. B. S. Jeyaraj
15 October 2006, Sri Lanka Sunday Leader
"It was the day of the Tiger on Wednesday, 11
October 2006 ...The seeming docility of the LTTE had given the wrong picture
to the GOSL. The strategic withdrawals by the LTTE in recent times had
bolstered this feeling. Even during the current battle the Tigers had let
the army move in without much resistance. An overconfident army had either
walked into or been lured into a deadly trap..."
Muhamalai Video Footage
LTTE hands over 74 SLA bodies to ICRC
Tamil Tiger fighters kill 129 in fresh clashes with Sri Lankan army
(Daily Telegraph) "...The Sri Lankan army has suffered its worst
casualties for four years after two days of clashes with Tamil Tiger
rebels left nearly 129 soldiers dead and 300 wounded..."
Sri Lanka military's 'bloody nose' - BBC "this was a Sri
Lankan government offensive, in which the military has received a bloody
nose, having underestimated the strength of the rebels."]
It was the day of the Tiger on Wednesday in the northern theatre of war. The
'defensive' offensive launched on October 11 by the 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
Pirapaharan in a day of fierce fighting from dawn to dusk in the Kilaly -
Muhamalai 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 130 soldiers were
killed and 519 wounded while the LTTE suffered 22 deaths and an unknown number
of 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.
Both sides strengthen defences
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
The night of October 10 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.
By 6. 30 am there was forward movement by troops on all three fronts. K- fir
bombers and Mi 24 helicopter gunships engaged in aerial bombardment to help
facilitate troop movement on ground. Naval gunboats fired from the sea at
coastal points between Nagar Kovil and Thalaiyaddy.
The LTTE also began firing their artillery. By 7. 30 the Nagar Kovil troops
called it a day and turned back. It was an apparent manoeuvre to divide enemy
attention. Naval gunboats however continued to patrol the coast along
Vadamaratchy east and Pachilaipalli.
Troops moving out from Eluthumadduvaal did not focus on Muhamalai as expected.
The army had already advanced about 800 metres into LTTE controlled Muhamalai
and reached the outer perimeter of LTTE lines. Instead of pressing home this
advantage further, the armed forces veered south - westwards and continued.
The troops moving along the coast from Kilaly also changed course. These
personnel moved inwards in a South - Easterly direction. Both columns were now
spreading out and advancing in the region between Muhamalai and Kilaly. If this
advance was successful, the troops could go around Pallai and reach the A- 9
highway or Jaffna - Kandy road at a point close to Iyakkachchi. From there it
would have been only a 'short, short way' to Elephant Pass.
The troops were also using a lot of battle tanks, armoured cars, armoured
personnel carriers and heavy vehicles like bulldozers to clear the way. After
pathfinder troops advanced the tanks and armoured cars followed and established
a safe route through the underbrush . Then bulldozers cleared and flattened the
area as far as possible. The main formations of infantry troops then advanced
along ground cautiously.
The LTTE resistance to these rapidly advancing columns seemed feeble. The
artillery fire lacked vigour. Earlier attempts to advance through Muhamalai via
the A - 9 axis had seen the LTTE deploying innumerable claymores and anti -
personnel mines along the route. This time the mines and booby traps were
conspicuously scarce. It looked like the army was going to repeat its Mawilaru,
Muttur, Sampur, Muhamalai successes.
The GOSL and its armed forces had certainly been confidently cocksure in the
recent past. It considered the limited successes it had enjoyed earlier as a
predictable pattern. The GOSL has been engaging in propaganda that the Tigers
were at a low ebb. This propaganda was widely believed and had led to a strident
demand in the south, that an all out war be conducted against the LTTE. As
former air force chief and father of present air force commander, Harry
Goonetilleke observed the "Government believed its own propaganda."
The seeming docility of the LTTE had given the wrong picture to the GOSL. The
strategic withdrawals by the LTTE in recent times had bolstered this feeling.
Even during the current battle the Tigers had let the army move in without much
resistance. An overconfident army had either walked into or been lured into a
By 9. 30 am the GOSL troops seemed to have penetrated nearly 2 - 3 miles deep
into Tiger territory in the Pallai region. Some vanguard troops were even
further up from the main body. It was around this time that the roaring Tiger
pounced. The advancing troop formations were breached in three points.
The vanguard column was attacked at a certain point and pressured to retreat
sideways. The troops found a chain of deadly mines being triggered like some
gigantic fireworks display. LTTE firing intensified. A whole company was wiped
out. The main advancing body was attacked frontally . Tigers also attacked the
military in the rear. It was a virtual encirclement of GOSL troops.
The fighting soon transformed itself into artillery and mortar firing. The LTTE
kept up an intense barrage. One tank was demolished. Three other armoured
vehicles were greatly damaged. The intense battle went on for five hours till 2.
30 p.m. The air force flew only one sortie during this period. It was unable to
engage in customary indiscriminate aerial bombardment because it may have hit
GOSL troops. Helicopter gunships were worried about getting hit by LTTE's
surface to air missiles. The army was all alone.
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 own troops. The army was therefore
restricted initially to field artillery and mortars. The LTTE apparently
advanced to comparatively close quarters and fired RPGs and 60 mm shells from
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
gradually subsided after 2. 30 p.m. Intermittent artillery fire of low intensity
continued throughout the night. It continued even on Thursday (12).
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 the 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 took those with minor injuries
and dead bodies along the road in Jaffna to Palaly.
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 the
end of Oct 12, an accurate picture began emerging.
At least 130 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 by the LTTE's
Paavannan who usually interacts with international organisations. One of the
bodies retrieved by the LTTE was not given to the Red Cross on time due to a
A total of 519 soldiers were injured. Of these 283 were brought to Colombo and
40 to Anuradhapura. Colombo residents saw and heard ambulances and sirens
throughout night and day. The other injured soldiers, many of them walking
wounded, are in the Palaly hospital.
According to LTTE defence affairs spokesperson Ilanthirayan, there may be more
dead soldiers whose bodies are yet to be located. Some of the injured soldiers
could succumb to their wounds. He said the final tally of dead soldiers could be
over 200. It must be noted that according to some reports, the army says 78
personnel are still "missing."
Interestingly enough some GOSL and defence spokespersons are saying that the
LTTE suffered more than 200 deaths. 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 Ilanthirayan there were 10 LTTE deaths at the end of October 11.
With some of the seriously injured dying, the toll had risen to 22 the following
day. There is a strong possibility that the Tiger casualty figures
could go up in the coming days. The number of injured LTTE cadres is not
known. Of those killed, the most senior Tiger so far is a woman 'Capt'
Isaichelvi. Among those killed at least four were from the auxiliary force
known as "Makkal Sirappu Padai."
Tigers guilty of deception
Given the recent LTTE track record there is a strong possibility that the Tigers
are deliberately playing down their casualty figures. The glaring
disparity between GOSL and LTTE casualty figures make many suspicious.
There was a time when the LTTE never hid its casualty figure, but in recent
times, the Tigers have been guilty of deception. Even if the LTTE is being
economical with the truth, in this instance the "supressed" figures may
not be large because of the nature of fighting.
The GOSL was advancing and the LTTE defending. The defender is usually at
an advantage. The army was also practically encircled at one point.
Also the Tigers seem to have used mortars and RPGs with deadly precision,
thereby killing and injuring many soldiers. It must be remembered that
hand to hand fighting was virtually non-existent. One story doing the
rounds among defence circles in Colombo was that the LTTE had fired some
sophisticated artillery or missiles never used earlier
At least one soldier was taken alive by the LTTE. Samantha Weerasinghe of
the Fourth Gemunu Watch is now undergoing treatment at the Kilinochchi hospital.
The ICRC has inspected the 18 year old youth. According to Colombo sources
the Fourth Gemunu Watch has been practically decimated. The special
airborne and mechanised units have also been affected. It is said that soldiers
of the 53rd Division comprised the assault force numbering over 5,000.
Major loss for LTTE
Significantly the LTTE suffered a major loss before Wednesday's fighting.
On October 7, Lt. Gen. Akbar of the LTTE was killed along the Muhamalai FDL as a
result of an army shell. Akbar who is a Batticaloa Tamil was the head of
the Victor anti-armoured artillery unit, which specilises in combatting tanks
and armoured vehicles. Akbar who joined the LTTE in 1990 got married in
2003. He was from its inception, the chief of the Victor unit. It was
named after former Mannar Tiger commander Victor.
This unit known generally among LTTE cadres as the "RPG Commando" had its roots
in the "Col" Kittu artillery unit and its baptism of fire was during "Operation
Sathijaya." It then became a sub-division of the "Imran-Pandian" until
named after two of Pirapaharan's trusted bodyguards. By 1997-98 the
anti-armoured artillery unit began functioning independently under Akbar.
Members of this unit have vertical and not horizontal stripes on their uniforms.
Though many stalwarts of this unit like Maj. Navachandran, Lt. Col. Manivannan
and Lt. Col. Chutta are no more. Akbar had survived despite being a
veteran of many "Jayasikuru" and "Oyatha Alaigal" battles.
Akbar's death at a critical time may very well have affected LTTE fortunes as
the Victor unit was of crucial importance in countering army advances. His
death however seems to have inspired his unit members to perform well during
war. Instead of being a bad omen, it seems to have become the 'blood
sacrifice' made to the gods before war to ensure victory. This was a
practice in the lost martial tradition of the Tamils that is now being revived
by the Liberation Tigers.
Whatever the statements made by GOSL and defence spokespersons about the armed
forces responding to attacks by the LTTE on the Kilaly-Elathumadduvaal-Nagar
Kovil FDL, it was common knowledge before hand that a major onslaught of a
'defensive-offensive' nature was imminent. The objective was to take Elephant
Pass before talks began in Geneva.
It was only last week that this writer drew attention to this prospect in these
columns. A brief excerpt: "Mahinda and his minions are more concerned with the
taking of Elephant Pass before talking in Geneva. Against that backdrop
the Elephant Pass offensive seems a definite possibility unless extra-heavy
international pressure is exerted on Colombo to desist. Poor Norway is powerless
in this. Only the super powers and regional powers can restrain the Rajapakse
regime in this. If the IC is really genuine about a political settlement some
positive, pre-emptive pressure on Colombo is a pre-requisite."
At a time when the country was being carried away with the belief thatthe Tiger
had become a kitten (Koti dan poos patiyek) this writer warned that such an
assumption was wrong. "There is also an unknown factor. Colombo's
calculations are based on the assumption that a military success over the LTTE
is inevitable in Elephant Pass. The best laid plans of men and mice go awry.
Whatever the crowing in Colombo, the Tigers are still not a spent force. They
have 'lost' battles, but not the war. It is also a moot point as to whether
Velupillai Pirapaharan would continue to let the Rajapakses and Fonsekas
define the venue and terms of conflict. There may be unexpected twists and turns
on the road to Elephant pass," was what I wrote last week.
It became soon apparent that a major offensive was being planned. Military
vehicles had been moving south along the Jaffna - Kandy road, bringing in men
and material to Kodikamam - Mirusuvil - Varany region. Some vehicles had taken
stuff to Ariyaalai and Ariyaalaimunai, its coastal point along the Jaffna
lagoon. Vehicles had also moved along the Jaffna - Point Pedro road and then
de-toured to Varany on the Point Pedro - Kodikaamam road. The vehicular movement
indicated that war materials were being brought from Palaly - Kankesanthurai in
readiness for a large - scale operation.
The GOSL denied charges of an offensive being planned. It was acknowledged that
war materials were being moved to the frontline, but the explanation proffered
was that depleted stocks were being replenished as a matter of routine and not
for offensive purposes.
The LTTE also warned of an imminent GOSL offensive under the pretext of
combatting alleged LTTE attacks. Tiger political commissar Suppiah Paramu
Tamilselvan asked the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) to go to the
frontlines and ascertain for themselves who the real aggressors were. The GOSL
however refused to provide access to the SLMM. The excuse was that their safety
could not be guaranteed. This act showed that the GOSL was hiding something.
Sea - borne attack
The armed forces also commandeered more than 200 boats belonging to Gurunagar -
Pashaiyoor fisherfolk. Marine exercises were undertaken with these boats on
October 9 and 10, in the Jaffna lagoon. It appeared that the armed forces were
planning to launch a sea - borne assault, across the lagoon to Poonagary on the
lagoon. Since the waters were shallow, heavy naval boats could not be used and
hence the lighter fishing boats it was felt. Intensive aerial bombardment and
artillery firing on Poonagary and adjacent Kalmunai strengthened this belief.
On Tuesday (October 10), the GOSL authorities in Jaffna announced a 45
hour curfew from 8 a.m to 5 a.m and on Thursday ( 12), in certain places
like Koilakkandy, Thanankilappu, Kachai etc. These were all vantage points on
the peninsula from where a lagoon crossing to the mainland could have been done.
It was widely believed then that an amphibean operation was to be conducted
The conduct of President Mahinda Rajapakse provided further clues about
Colombo's intentions. When representatives of the four Co - Chairs of the peace
process met Rajapakse, they requested the GOSL to refrain from undertaking
military operations, because talks were scheduled on October 28 and 29.
Rajapakse however parroted his familiar stance about reserving the right to
defend the country from LTTE attacks. If that was one indication, there was also
the symbolic gesture of climbing the cockpit of an Israeli K- fir Jet. These
bombers have wrought much civilian destruction and the pilots responsible are
potential contenders for a war crimes trial. Yet Rajapakse deliberately
identified himself with these embodiments of aerial terror.
Against that backdrop, there seems little chance of the campaign for war
ceasing. There may be a lull in the fighting, but the GOSL will certainly
continue with 'defensive - offensive' operations. The Rajapakse regime is built
on a war agenda. Rajapakse and his sidekicks have gone too far in projecting
themselves as latter day Dutugemunus to hold back now. The Rajapakse regime has
enhanced its image in the south, that it will not bow down to Tiger might. It
cannot go for talks after a resounding defeat.
In the self - perception of the GOSL and its armed forces, too much is at stake
to call off war now. More battles are likely to follow, until a decisive
stage is reached. The LTTE too cannot lower its military resistance. This
situation cannot change for the better until and unless the international
community is serious and sincere about ending the war and promoting peace in Sri