The fall of Elephant Pass
In a dramatic turn of events, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) captured the strategic Elephant Pass military base at the entrance to the Jaffna peninsula on 22 April, in Operation Oyatha Alaigal III (Unceasing Waves), thrusting President Chandrika Kumaratunge’s People’s Alliance (PA) government into a new crisis.
Elephant Pass has been a defence base for Jaffna since 1760, during Portuguese rule. A military camp was built in 1952. The Sri Lankan Army held the base even when the LTTE controlled the peninsula from 1986 to 1995. The camp was a vital spring board for Army offensives such as Operation Yal Devi (name of Colombo-Jaffna train) in September 1993 and Operation Sath Jaya (Truth’s Victory) in July 1996. Over 1,000 Tigers died in an attempt to take the camp in July 1991.
According to the LTTE, its forces killed more than 1,000 Sri Lankan troops in 48 hours of heavy fighting forcing the military to abandon the Iyakkachchi-Elephant Pass complex and to retreat north towards Jaffna town.V.S.SAMBANDAN
in Colombo Copyrights © 2000, Frontline
THE end-game in Sri Lanka's protracted separatist war seems to have started. The 'ever-in-flux' military map of the island-nation underwent its most drastic change this April, when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) took control of the once-imp regnable Elephant Pass military complex.
What was considered the most fortified military camp in the island the government troops virtually gave away even as an impending siege loomed large on the complex. "It is a repeat of the Vanni," a top Army officer told Frontline, indicating that the Army had pulled out of the northern garrison as it did in the face of a series of LTTE advances in the Vanni last year.
On April 22, the Tigers moved into the twin complexes of Iyakachchi and Elephant Pass, pounding the government positions even as the government troops made a "tactical withdrawal" for "readjusting their defence lines". Unfortunately for the Sri Lankan de fence apparatus, it could well turn out to be a "readjustment" which changes the military balance very significantly in favour of the LTTE. Retaking Elephant Pass, heavily fortified and with concrete bunkers capable of withstanding bombing, is going to b e a difficult task for the security forces. The sprawling complex was a key bulwark for government troops in countering the military aggression of the LTTE. Terrestrial incursions into the peninsula from the mainland were consistently thwarted by the ove rwhelming presence of two top divisions of the Sri Lankan Army in the Iyakachchi-Elephant Pass sector.
Elephant Pass, referred to as EPS in the jargon of the military conflict, was the most talked-about complex. Any discussion on the progress of the conflict would invariably veer round to EPS. "As long as EPS holds, the Tigers would find it difficult... T he Tigers can't get past EPS...If EPS falls, the war is done for..." were oft-repeated theories voiced by military observers. And, of course, "a bloody battle over EPS" was the scenario most expected.
As it happened, the LTTE made the EPS takeover simple and straight. Rather than flush out the camp by employing its earlier tactics of deploying suicide-cadres on the camp boundaries, followed by an intense attack, the Tigers got EPS without even gettin g close to its boundaries. For the Army made a pull-out to "save its troops for a later attack."
The Mullaitivu model of overrunning an Army camp has clearly become passe. Indicating both a change in tactics and, at a larger level, a change in the very nature of the armed conflict, the Tigers lay siege on military positions north of the EPS. Supply lines were cut off and a slow choking of the base was in prospect when the northern road link from Iyakachchi to government-held Jaffna was cut away. An alternative supply route was opened, but military sources said that could at best be temporary.
In terms of the nature of the warfare, the situation has changed significantly since the early 1990s with the weapons that lead to a stand-off turning to be crucial. Once an army position came within the LTTE's artillery range, the situation turned probl ematic. As the security forces exceed the rebels in sheer numbers, the losses are also significantly higher on the government side for every successful strike by the Tigers.
A stunned Sri Lankan defence establishment maintained a deafening silence on the Elephant Pass debacle on April 22. A day later, the silence was shattered by a communique from the Defence Ministry which said "heavy fighting was on" in the sector and that the troops had "readjusted defence lines north of Elephant Pass" and "vacated" the southern sector. Not much reading between the lines was required - Elephant Pass had moved into LTTE control.
The Tigers proclaimed their victory as one "facilitating the LTTE to gain its strategic goal of liberating Jaffna." In a statement released through their international headquarters in London on April 22, the rebels said: "The LTTE's Special Forces and co mmando units stormed into the Yakachchi (sic) military base in early hours of the morning in a multi-pronged assault and overran the well-fortified camp after several hours of intense fighting. The LTTE commandos, who penetrated central base, destroyed s everal artillery pieces, tanks, armoured vehicles and ammunition dumps. Overwhelmed by the fury of the Tiger assault, the Sri Lankan troops who desperately held the base without supplies and reinforcements for the last two days fled in total confusion."
"With the fall of Yakachchi and with the collapse of the command structure of its defending troops, the LTTE combat units moved swiftly and stormed into Elephant Pass from different directions. Unable to withstand the LTTE's multi-pronged assault, the Sr i Lankan troops ran amok in chaos. The majority of the soldiers of the 54 Division fled through Kilali lagoon in the midst of heavy fire from LTTE fighters suffering heavy casualties."
At a press conference addressed by the Army, Navy and Air Force bosses, the Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Sirilal Weerasooriya, expressed the confidence that they would hold the peninsula from further LTTE advances. Chief of the Army Staff Maj. Gen. Lionel Ba lagalle said that while Elephant Pass was "certainly an important location as far as Jaffna is concerned, it was not the only location to put our defences."
Making it clear that holding Jaffna peninsula was the Army's priority, Lt.Gen. Weerasooriya said: "We have to ensure that the LTTE is not able to get Jaffna now." Placing the onus on the over four lakh civilians in Jaffna as well, the Army Commander said that they would have to "weigh the pros and cons" of their conditions before 1995, when the Tigers' writ ran across Jaffna, and after 1995, when the Army wrested control over the peninsula and "restored electricity and other essential services."
On the rationale for ordering the Army pull-out from Elephant Pass, the Commander said that the withdrawal occurred in the face of an impending siege of the complex by the guerrillas. "It is better to save our forces and use it later," he said. Earlier, the LTTE had taken control over the Iyakachchi camp just north of Elephant Pass, and given the fire-power of the Tigers the presence of troops would have resulted in heavy casualties, it was reasoned.
There are conflicting versions on the military hardware that has fallen into the LTTE's hands. Informed sources in Vavuniya, quoting the clandestine Voice of Tigers, said that the Tigers' list of armaments included five artillery guns - three 152mm guns and two 122 mm guns. Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya, however, said that "only one gun was lost to the Tigers". The other guns were "disabled" by the troops withdrawing from Elephant Pass, he said.
Popular reaction to the reversal faced by the security forces is predictably varied. Muted silence and disbelief in the Sinhala-majority south contrasted with passive enthusiasm in the Tamil-majority areas in the north and east. "In the areas held by the Tigers they would be celebrating," informed sources in government-held eastern Batticaloa district said.
Some political observers feel that the time is right for the government to call for a cessation of hostilities and look beyond military gains and losses. The reasoning here is that sustained militarisation would only make the conflict drag on. The Sinhal a hardliners, who have been calling for an escalation of the military offensive, did not immediately react to the Elephant Pass reversal.
Describing the Elephant Pass development a "national disaster" The Island newspaper said in a hard-hitting editorial: "Whatever the military euphemisms that were used...it is apparent that it is the biggest military debacle Sri Lankan forces have faced in the 18-year-old conflict." The State-run newspapers were yet to comment editorially on the situation.
In the face of the reverse, the military said it would "change its tactics" to counter the advances made by the Tigers and prevent them from taking Jaffna. However, apart from saying that firepower would be stepped up to counter the LTTE's mortar assault s, the Army bosses did not disclose any details of a changed course. He said that according to intelligence reports, the LTTE used in the Elephant Pass offensive eight 60 mm mortars, one 122 mm gun, multiple-barrel rocket launchers and one 144mm gun.
"Militarily, ups and downs are there," the Army commander, who ordered the pull-out on April 21 said. "As far as we are concerned, we have lost a few kilometres." On the possible future course of the northern battles, which have been raging with increase d intensity since end-March, Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya merely said: "We have to contain the LTTE's firepower."
A routine court of inquiry will undoubtedly take stock of the situation. Fresh recruitment to the Army, which faces the twin problems of manpower shortage and desertion, is also scheduled for mid-May. On the frequently raised issue of conscription, the A rmy chief said that it was a decision to be taken by the policy-makers.
On the number of battle casualties, he denied LTTE claims of over 1,000 soldiers killed and said that in a single day's battle, 88 soldiers were killed and "less than 100 missing in action" on April 21. The Army chief said that "only one division," which was maintained at the Elephant Pass complex, was withdrawn.
From being a stretch of shallow waters that separated northern Jaffna from the rest of the island in pre-colonial days, Elephant Pass has come a long way. It evolved into the military epicentre of the separatist war. The shallow waters through which elep hants were once used to carry goods into the Jaffna peninsula, giving it the name Elephant Pass, have been a silent witness to the ebbs and flow of the northern conflict.
Elephant Pass, the terrestrial gateway to the Jaffna peninsula, is now under the control of the Tigers. The development is all set to change the military course of the whole conflict.
The taking of Elephant Pass
For the first time in the history of the 'Tamil Eelam war', the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam has seized control of Elephant Pass, the gateway to the Jaffna Peninsula. A graphic account of the Tigers' strategy and its successful implementation.
Copyrights © 2000, Frontline
THE military balance in Sri Lanka's Tamil-dominated Northern Province has undergone a drastic transformation after the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) seized the vast military complex in the area around Elephant Pass, or Aanai Iravu as it is know n in Tamil. The Elephant Pass isthmus was of strategic importance as it linked the northern mainland known as Wanni with the Jaffna Peninsula. Both the Jaffna-Kandy road, the A-9 Highway, and the railway line to Jaffna run through Elephant Pass, and the narrow strip of land was in a sense the gateway to Jaffna.
The fall of Elephant Pass marked the first time in the history of the "Tamil Eelam war" that the area had come under the LTTE's control. The Dutch colonialists first built a small fortress in 1776, which was converted in modern times into a resthouse for tourists. After Independence a permanent garrison was set up there to check illicit immigration, smuggling and unlawful transport of timber. As the intensity of the ethnic conflict escalated, the strategic importance of Elephant Pass also increased. The small camp gradually expanded into a sprawling complex. At one time, the Elephant Pass base and the satellite camps covered an area about 23 km long and 8-10 km wide.
To celebrate the capture of Elephant Pass, the LTTE organised a flag-raising ceremony at 9 a.m. on Sunday, April 23. According to Tiger media outlets, hundreds of LTTE cadres and a large number of Tamil civilians who serve as members of an auxiliary forc e known as "Thunaippadai" watched as the crimson-and-gold LTTE flag was hoisted by 'Colonel' Bhanu. As Bhanu, 38, stepped back and saluted the flag, LTTE fighters fired ceremonially in the air, and seven artillery field guns fired three shells each. Ther eafter, Bhanu addressed the gathering.
In his speech, Bhanu said this was only the first step in "the war to liberate our homeland" and there would be "many more battles". The valour and sacrifices of the LTTE fighters, he said, had made it possible to realise the "dream of annihilating Aanai Iravu". The camp, established by the Dutch over 200 years ago, had for long remained "a symbol of alien domination" and divided the Tamil people of the peninsula from the mainland, Bhanu said, and added: "Now it is no more. After we transport all that n eeds to be removed from here we will raze this place to the ground except for a small structure to remind ourselves of this oppressive symbol... Our enemies will not be allowed to return and occupy this place in the future."
Paying tributes to the memory of "all our comrades who laid down their lives in this battle and the campaigns before," Bhanu said that the LTTE fighters had succeeded because of the "very intricate attack plan drawn by our national leader and commander-i n-chief (Velupillai Prabakaran), the smooth execution of the plan by his lieutenants and the courageous fighting done by the cadres." The victory, he said, was a sign of "more things to come". Sweets were then distributed.
What followed immediately afterwards was rich in symbolism, and marked a defining moment for the LTTE. Groups of hand-picked civilians and some Tiger cadres in uniform walked along the Elephant Pass causeway on the isthmus that links the Wanni area with the peninsula. One group walked northwards from the mainland to the peninsula, and another went southwards from the peninsula to the mainland. The significance of this "walk" was that for the first time in living memory there were no barriers or men in k haki to stop the people crossing to and from the peninsula. For the Tamil civilians, a symbol of oppression had been eradicated.
Ten years ago Bhanu had been in a similar situation. On September 26, 1990, the 350-year-old Fort in the heart of Jaffna town had fallen to the LTTE; triumphant Tiger cadres led by Bhanu raised the LTTE flag at the Fort. Bhanu, who hailed from Ariyalai, was then Jaffna district commander. He had earlier served as Mannar commander. However, when an operation led by him against an army outpost at Thachan Kadu failed, resulting in the death of many LTTE cadres, Prabakaran demoted him. Bhanu was sent to the Wanni area for a while, but a few years later his position was restored and he was entrusted with a crucial assignment.
Bhanu was ordered to raise an artillery unit for the LTTE, and this he did competently. Initially, the LTTE depended on artillery seized from the army after successful raids; later the LTTE procured artillery equipment on the black market and transported them by sea to Wanni. The LTTE allegedly recruited foreign mercenaries on a contract basis to teach them the finer points of artillery deployment. Today, the LTTE's artillery unit is named after former Jaffna commander Kittu, and is still commanded by B hanu.
Pleased with Bhanu's work, Prabakaran is believed to have directed him to establish an armoured unit. Again, in the initial stages the LTTE could use only a few armoured cars and tanks seized from the armed forces. It is also rumoured that a renegade Sin hala army officer imparted some rudimentary training to the Tigers on the use of armoured vehicles. Later vehicles were purchased in the international arms market and shipped to Wanni. The armoured unit, named after former Mannar commander Victor and com manded by Bhanu, is still in a fledgling state.
The artillery and armoured units played a crucial role in the fighting in the Wanni region. They were responsible for checking the advances of the armed forces. In recent times the style of LTTE fighting in positional warfare situations has undergone a d ramatic transformation. Owing to their artillery power and armoured vehicles, the Tigers can hold off the army from afar with the minimum number of casualties. The nature of the war is increasingly becoming conventional, with heavy reliance on stand-off weapons.
In the recent fighting around Elephant Pass, the LTTE's artillery and armoured units again played a big role and enabled the LTTE to seize control within a short period with relatively few losses. In fact, Bhanu was given the honour of raising the flag a s an acknowledgement of the contribution of the Kittu and Victor units. Interestingly, Prabakaran does not hoist the flag or pose before the LTTE's video cameras after a victory. He lets his deputies who fought on the battlefield take the credit. It is, however, stated that it is Prabakaran who plans and coordinates operations.
THE recent LTTE victory at Elephant Pass was the result of an elaborate but simple strategy drawn up by Prabakaran. It is said that Prabakaran analyses the LTTE's military defeats for mistakes and draws lessons from them for use in subsequent campaigns. In that respect, a failed attempt by the LTTE to capture the Elephant Pass camp in July-August 1991 must have yielded many lessons. That campaign was codenamed "Tharai, Kadal, Aahayam" (Land, Sea and Air) and lasted 53 days. The LTTE, by its own admissio n, lost 573 cadres; more than 1,500 others were injured. In terms of manpower and morale, these were crippling losses.
The Sri Lankan armed forces were able to beat back the LTTE that time owing to two factors. The first was the tenacity of the besieged troops led by a talented officer Sarath Fonseka and the grit with which they held on despite the overwhelming odds. The second was Operation Balavegaya, led by the late Generals Denzil Kobbekaduwe and Vijaya Wimalaratne. They established a beach-head at Vettilaikerny on the east coast and then fought their way through to the army personnel trapped inside the Elephant Pas s camp. Thereafter the camp was converted into a large base by absorbing almost all the buildings in the vicinity, including the salterns and the school. Satellite camps were established at Vettilaikerny, Kattaikadu and Pullaveli. Thus, a safe supply rou te by sea and land was ensured. After Operation SathJaya in 1996, Paranthan and Kilinochchi, to the south of Elephant Pass on the mainland, too were linked up with Elephant Pass. The Kilinochchi-Elephant Pass-Vettilaikerny base became a sprawling complex that housed an entire division and was considered impregnable.
Given these circumstances, Prabakaran resorted to a strategy to take Elephant Pass by gradually encircling and enfeebling the troops inside by cutting off supplies and strangulating the base. The idea was to avoid a frontal assault that would have led to the loss of many lives, since the armed forces had numerical and logistical superiority.
The LTTE strategy was made easier by the second phase of Operation Oyatha Alaigal (Unceasing Waves) in September 1998, in which Kilinochchi was taken. Thereafter the LTTE began to creep in on Paranthan, to the south of Elephant Pass on the mainland. In a series of short, swift campaigns that went unreported in the Colombo media, the camps at Karadipokku, Paranthan Junction, the Paranthan Chemical Corporation complex and finally at Umaialpuram, between Paranthan and Elephant Pass, were taken. Umaialpuram and Iyakachchi were the two points where the troops at Elephant Pass could get drinking water. (The water within the Elephant Pass base was too brackish for consumption.)
THE first stage of the LTTE campaign to take control of the peninsula was launched on December 11, 1999 (see "Tactical Shift", Frontline, January 7, 2000 ). The camps at Vettilaikerny and Kattaikadu on the east coast and Pullaveli to the north of E lephant Pass were taken in a land-sea joint campaign. An unsuccessful assault was conducted on the western flanks of Iyakachchi, but no direct attack was launched on the main base at Elephant Pass. The Iyakachchi camp, five km to the northwest of Elephan t Pass, is situated along a bend on the A-9 Highway. With the fall of Vettilaikerny, Kattaikadu and Pullaveli, the land-sea supply routes to Elephant Pass were cut off, and the only way through was along the A-9 Highway from Chavakachcheri. The LTTE cond ucted some limited operations that were aimed at stepping up the pressure on Iyakachchi without achieving any breakthrough.
Meanwhile, the 53rd Division of the Sri Lanka Army was brought in to relieve the pressure on the 54th Division deployed in the Elephant Pass sector; it was stationed at the Pachilaippalli and Vadamaratchy East Pradeshiya division camps. The 53rd Division was an elite force that had been trained by the United States and Pakistan.
The second stage of the LTTE campaign, a multi-pronged assault, unfolded on March 26, 2000 (see "Another offensive", Frontline, April 28 ). A joint operation led by Vasanthan of the Charles Anthony Infantry division and Veerendran of the Sea Tigers took control of the Chembiyanpattru-Maruthankerny-Thalaiady complex that housed the 3rd operational headquarters on the Vadamaratchy east coast. These were on the land strip between the Bay of Bengal and the Jaffna Lagoon. The army then vacated the camp s at Maamunai and Amban; the soldiers relocated to positions to the west of the lagoon.
Simultaneously, a squad from the LTTE "Siruthai" (Leopard) Commando brigade raided Pallai, the largest junction to the north of Iyakachchi on the A-9 Highway, and decommissioned at least 11 pieces of artillery. A contingent led by the LTTE's deputy milit ary chief Balraj then took a swathe of the Jaffna-Kandy road between Pallai and Eluthumattuvaal. These included the areas around Arasakerni, Ithavil, Indrapuram. Muhamaalai and Kovil Kadu. With this, the LTTE effectively cut off the main road link betwee n the Elephant Pass/Iyakachchi camps and Jaffna. On April 10, the armed forces recaptured a major portion of the road but failed to dislodge the Tigers completely.
There was, however, a circuitous route that helped maintain a road link. At Pallai, a road branched off westwards from the A-9 Highway towards Kilali via Puloppalai and then headed north towards Kachchai and Allippalai; from there it ran east towards Kod ikamam, at which point vehicles could get back onto the Jaffna-Kandy road again. However, this route came under intense pressure from the LTTE which fired artillery barrages at Kilali from Pooneryn across the lagoon.
Also on March 26, the LTTE's Kilinochchi commander Theepan led a team of men across the dried-up Chundikulam lagoon on the southeast of the peninsula and established positions in the Mullian and Vannankulam region. But the team ran into the Forward Defen ce Lines and was prevented from advancing towards Elephant Pass in the Vathirayan area.
The third and decisive stage of the LTTE campaign was played out around noon on Tuesday, April 18. A Leopard commando raid saw the LTTE take control of the Maruthankerny causeway, which enabled it to proceed westwards on the Maruthankerny-Puthukadu Junct ion road, which links the east coast and the A-9 Highway. The Puthukadu Junction is between Iyakachchi and Pallai. The LTTE proceeded along the southern areas of Muhavil, Soranpattru and Maasaar, after demolishing a 40-foot bund put up by the army as a d efence measure. The Tigers headed south on the A-9 Highway and reached the northern sector of the Iyakachchi camp. In effect, Elephant Pass and Iyakachchi were marooned.
Thereafter, the LTTE mounted a fierce attack on the Iyakachchi camp from Kovil Vayal and Sangathaar Vayal. As the fighting intensified, the Tiger cadres to the southeast of Elephant Pass broke through and began assailing the camp. The armoured and artill ery units led by Bhanu pounded the base and inched forward. The telecommunication tower in the Elephant Pass base was damaged; all telephone lines to the north were severed.
At a critical juncture the bulk of LTTE cadres led by Balraj abandoned the A-9 Highway and joined the fighting around Iyakachchi after setting up two "cut out" posts to the north of Pallai and south of Eluthumattuvaal to prevent an army advancement. Heav y fighting in and around Iyakachchi began on April 20. The Tigers positioned themselves to the south of the camp and cut it off from Elephant Pass.
Iyakachchi fell on April 21. The LTTE entered the camp and destroyed ammunition dumps and buildings. Thereafter, the theatre of war shifted to Elephant Pass. The LTTE advanced on Elephant Pass from the north, northeast and southeast. There was heavy exch ange of fire all through that long night, and even as the fighting was on, the army began to move out. By 11-30 a.m. on April 22, the large garrison at Elephant Pass "vacated" it. The LTTE marched in at 2-30 p.m. the same day. The flag was hoisted on Apr il 23.
AFTER the LTTE's stage-by-stage build-up against Elephant Pass, the abrupt capitulation by the security forces came as an anti-climax. Curiously, however, the LTTE, which had until then put out news at each successful stage of the campaign, did not annou nce the fall of Iyakachchi on April 21; it announced that news along with news of the fall of the Elephant Pass camp. This perhaps implies that after taking control of Iyakachchi, the LTTE was supremely confident that Elephant Pass would fall soon or had advance knowledge that the troops there would withdraw within hours of the Iyakachchi debacle.
The security forces vacated Elephant Pass only after they received orders to that effect from the defence establishment. Army commander Srilal Weerasooriya instructed Chief of Staff Lionel Balagalle to issue the order, which was sent by personal courier to Elephant Pass. Commanding Officer Brigadier Egodawela received it at 10 p.m. on April 21.
The retreating troops initially started moving out to Pallai, 14 km away, along the A-9 Highway, but when the LTTE thwarted them, they took to a disused rail track and a sandtrack to its west. From Pallai, the soldiers headed west for the relative safety of Kilali. But when Tiger mortars pounded this route, the army used another circuitous route - a dirt track going northwest from Elephant Pass to Kilali through Kurinchatheevu, Oorvanikanpattru and Thanmankerny. On this longer route, however, many soldi ers succumbed to heat and dehydration, apart from the unceasing LTTE shells.
Nevertheless a good number of the troops moved out from Elephant Pass, mostly on foot. Before leaving, they spiked some artillery pieces, but even so the LTTE seized some powerful guns, including 152-mm artillery guns, and a number of tanks and armoured cars, besides other arms and ammunition. A preliminary list released by the LTTE reveals a mind-boggling armoury. Elephant Pass was in many ways a military debacle for Colombo.
ALTHOUGH there were more than 15,000 troops in the Elephant Pass base and there are fewer than 5,000 LTTE cadres in the peninsula, the army was defeated because it was a demoralised force. Many factors had contributed to the lowering of troop morale. The frequent change of commanding officers was one factor, and the LTTE's repeated victories against the elite 53rd Division, the "Pride of the Army", were another. The haphazard manner in which the 53rd Division was plunged into combat caused many problems at the top. One dissenting commanding officer, Brig. Gamini Hettiaratchy, was transferred. Another officer, Gen. Sisira Wijeysinghe, went on sick leave. Brig. Sivali Wanigaseker was sent in as acting command.
The defence establishment's decision to move the troops out of the Elephant Pass base was, however, forced on it primarily by a shortage of drinking water. The camp was equipped with machinery for desalination of water, but it had broken down and not bee n repaired. The availability of potable water in Umaialpuram and Iyakachchi had perhaps lulled the forces into complacency. However, when Iyakachchi came under siege, the water crisis in the overcrowded base became unmanageable. Ironically, the Elephant Base base had ample quantities of canned food and dry rations; after taking over the camp, the LTTE distributed these to civilians in the Wanni area.
Defence Ministry sources estimate that over 1,000 LTTE cadres were killed in the three phases of fighting from December 11, 1999. The LTTE claims that only 303 of its cadres were killed, including 35 casualties in the battle for Elephant Pass. The Tigers further claim that over 1,000 soldiers were killed; the Army, however, says that only 80 of its men were killed and over 100 are missing in action. Subsequently the Tigers returned through the Red Cross the bodies of 126 soldiers, of which 28 were ident ified. Among the top Army officers who were killed were Brig. Percy Fernando, Col. Bhatiya Jayatilleke, Col. Neil Akmeemana and Lt. Col. Hewage Hewawasam. On the Tigers' side, the women's brigade chief, 'Lt. Col.' Lakshiya, was reported killed.
The Elephant Pass debacle shocked people across the country. Sri Lankan Deputy Defence Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte, however, sought to put a brave face on the defeat. Addressing a ministerial function, he said that the "setback" at Elephant Pass ought to be seen as a "natural phenomenon in wars of this nature... We have to accept both victories and setbacks in the same manner."
In a televised address to the nation, President Chandrika Kumaratunga stated that her Government "has unequivocally decided to protractedly and relentlessly pursue with the military operations". Kumaratunga had made some abrupt changes in the defence str uctureure barely days before the fall of the Elephant Pass base, and established a National Security Council. Retired Chief of the Army Staff Rohan Daluwatte was placed in overall charge of the three Services. Gen. Janaka Perera was made Northern Provinc e Commander and General Sarath Fonseka the Jaffna Commander.
After a brief lull following the LTTE's taking of Elephant Pass, fighting erupted again. The LTTE called on all civilians from Pallai to Kodikamam, including Eluthumattuvaal and Mirusuvil, to relocate to safe areas. Thereafter, LTTE cadres moved along th e A-9 Highway and seized the camps at Pallai and Soranpattru north, which the armed forces abandoned after a brief show of resistance. The LTTE units then linked up on the A-9 Highway from the north of Pallai to the south of Eluthumattuvaal.
The Tigers then launched a two-track assault on Kilali. One column proceeded on the 18-km dirt track from Elephant Pass to Kilali along the coast. Another moved westwards from Pallai to Puloppalai and then on to Kilali. Both columns reached the Kilali ar ea, but as on May 5 they had not made further progress. A rumour, however, spread in Colombo, and a few newspapers carried reports, that Bhanu had been killed at Kilali. However, there has been no reliable confirmation of this.
The LTTE also opened another flank with an attack on Nagar Kovil on the Vadamaratchy east coast. The Tigers as well as the army were engaged in heavy exchange of fire in the Kilali, Nagar Kovil and Pallai-Eluthumattuvaal areas.
MEANWHILE, the armed forces have begun constructing massive defences along a diagonal line from Kilali on the west through Eluthumattuvaal to Nagar Kovil in the east. Further, several small camps like those at Varany, Mathagal, Chankanai, Vaddukkoddai, M ahiyapiddy, Navaly, Chulipuram and Kandarodai have been closed. Troops are being redeployed in the frontline areas. The army's immediate priority is to prevent the LTTE from advancing to Jaffna town or the Palali-Kankesanthurai tri-Services base complex.
There is intense speculation about how the LTTE will advance further. Will it head north on the A-9 Highway? Or will it proceed from Kilali to Chavakachcheri through Kachchai or Kodikamam? After reaching Chavakachcheri will it head for Jaffna or for Pala ly? Will it move north along the Vadamaratchi coast via Nagar Kovil and take control of Point Pedro, Velvettithurai and Thondamanaru? From Thondamanaru will it go for Palaly through Valalai or Jaffna through Atchuvely? Or will it move to Jaffna or Chavak achcheri from Ariyalai or Thanankilappu after bringing in the 1,000-plus reserves stationed under Karuna's command in the Pooneryn region on the mainland? All these questions trouble not only the army but also the civilians who do not want to be caught i n the line of fire. Given the intense artillery barrages, the civilians' plight is precarious.
The anticipated progress of the LTTE has also raised concerns about the future of around 35,000 troops in the peninsula. The fear is that the Tigers, with their rapid mobility and artillery firepower, could quickly take over the entire peninsula includin g Jaffna and Palaly and besiege the Palaly-Kankesanthurai complex. If that happens, there may not be time enough to evacuate troops from the peninsula. The Sea Tigers and the LTTE's anti-aircraft unit, which possess missiles, could restrict the troops' s ea and air movement. This would leave the troops marooned and defenceless. A "Dunkirk-like evacuation" may then become necessary and the possibility of securing India's assistance for this purpose is being explored.
There is however another view -that although the situation is quite bleak, the hysteria and panic about the necessity for a rescue operation are unfounded. Those who subscribe to this view believe that if troop morale is restored and adequate countermeas ures are taken, the LTTE juggernaut can be halted, and eventually pushed back. In any event, the belief is that there is no immediate cause for alarm about the fate of Palali. By May 6, Colombo appeared to be veering around to the position that the troop s were rallying gamely and that it would be possible to stop the LTTE's advance.
Whichever way the situation unfolds in the coming weeks, one thing is certain: while the guns around the gateway of Elephant Pass may have fallen silent after a long time, the Jaffna Peninsula will not see peace in the immediate future.