As the Sri Lanka security forces move in for what they promise to be the closing call on the Tigers, Prabakaran’s dream of a Tamil Eelam looks farther than ever before.
The battle being waged by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to defend Mullathivu in the face of the Sri Lanka security forces’ onslaught may well be the last conventional military operation by Tamil insurgent leader Velupillai Prabakaran in the two-year-long “Eelam War IV.” Mullathivu is the LTTE’s last bastion, what is left from an original domain of nearly nine districts it had ruled for over a decade. The security forces are building up a four to six division-strong force for what they promise to be the closing call on the LTTE.
After the fall of Kilinochchi and Elephant Pass successively during the early part of January, the LTTE lost control of the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road, and with it lost the ability to have an impact on the lives of most of the people of the Northern Province. The LTTE had dominated the road, considered to be the lifeline for Jaffna, a city that had once flourished as a thriving business hub next only to Colombo. After driving out the LTTE from the A9, the security forces were focussing on three aspects — consolidating their hold on the highway by eliminating LTTE defences east of it, opening the axes of offensive to Mullathivu, and getting ready for a final offensive on Mullathivu.
During the first half of the month, the security forces eliminated the line of LTTE defences along the old Kandy-Jaffna road running parallel to the A9 to its east. With the clearing of the defences aligned from Iranamadu in the south to Vaddakachi and Dharmapuram in the north, the forces marginalised the LTTE’s capability to interfere with the A9. So the forces may well keep up the promise to open the road within a month for civilian traffic, thus providing much needed relief to Jaffna’s beleaguered citizens. Though the LTTE had stoutly defended its strong points such as Iranamadu and Dharmapuram, its intention was probably only to delay the start of the offensive on Mullathivu.
During these operations, the forces captured the LTTE’s main airstrip east of the Iranamadu tank on January 15. This was an important airstrip used by the tiny LTTE air wing for its plucky operations that caused more psychological impact than operational damage. It was built in a clearing of heavy undergrowth, cleverly using the old Kandy-Jaffna road passing through the area. The 1.5-km long and 40-metre wide airstrip was central to a complex of two smaller airstrips located to the north and south of the Iranamadu tank. These were captured in earlier months. Five days earlier, the security forces had captured another battle-ready airstrip west of Mullathivu.
The six LTTE airstrips that have been captured so far go to show the enormous effort the insurgents had put into developing their air capability. Undoubtedly, the ceasefire period during the peace process was put to build up the ground infrastructure for air operations. These are a testimony not only to the LTTE’s technical capability but its relentless effort to build military capability regardless of peace parleys. Significantly, none of the two light aircraft used by it earlier for raids have been found. Presumably they were dismantled and mothballed in hideouts as the operational conditions and the active air and ground surveillance would have made it difficult to fly them out of harm’s way.
Mullathivu town, which is the focal point of the current offensive, is located on a narrow strip on the eastern coast of the Northern Province, flanked by the sea on the east and the Nanthikadal lagoon on the west. Its defence perimeter is made up of a complex of LTTE positions strung up as a crescent along the western edge of the lagoon starting from Puthukkudiyiruppu in the north to Tanniyuttu on the Mankulam-Mullathivu A34 road.
The security forces’ battle plans are built on three broad fronts. 55 Division coming from Jaffna along the northwest has blocked the escape routes through Chundikulam, a key Sea Tiger base. From the same direction, 58 Division is advancing along the A35 road fighting a series of delaying positions. From the west, 57 Division is playing a containing role with the LTTE cadres boxed in the jungles between Iranamadu tank and Mullathivu. The main offensive is being built up from the south with three task forces — which are formations smaller than divisions — and 59 Division. The task forces are combing the jungles while 59 Division is poised for the assault.
With such a large force confronting them, the LTTE cadres defending Mullathivu are facing a situation that is not dissimilar to what they faced during their defence of Kilinochchi, which crumbled after the government forces broke through the perimeter defences. Mullathivu might face the same fate with the final assault going through as a walk-in into a ghost town.
Humanitarian agencies have warned of an impending human tragedy with about 3.5 lakh civilians trapped in the battle zone, and the LTTE is being accused of using them as a cover. However, civilians have started flowing into the area controlled by the security forces in their hundreds, indicating that the LTTE is no more able to exercise tight control over them.
Thus, what is possibly Prabakaran’s last battle is likely to leave him in a position similar to what he was in 1987 — mauled badly and trying to cut his losses and live to fight another day. And, as earlier, the security forces are at his heels to catch or kill him, although the army commander, Lt. General Sarath Fonseka, says the Tiger chief might have fled the island for a safer refuge. After losing the precious lives 24,000 of his followers in nearly three decades of war, Prabakaran is still where he was to pursue his dream of a Tamil Eelam.
(Colonel (retd) R. Hariharan served as head of intelligence with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka during 1987-1990. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)