ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, October 15, 2006
Vol. 41 - No 20
Situation Report

Muhamalai debacle: The shocking story

  • President, NSC and JOH were not aware of Wednesday's ill-planned operation
  • Hundreds of soldiers trapped in the killing fields of the LTTE
  • Disastrous operation reverses military successes of recent weeks and embarrasses Govt.

By Iqbal Athas

Norwegian Ambassador Hans Brattskar's telephone rang on Wednesday morning. It was a senior member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) complaining that the Security Forces had launched a major military offensive.

Infantry backed by battle tanks and armoured personnel carriers were advancing from their defended localities at Muhamalai towards guerrilla positions. Air Force Kfir jets were bombing areas nearby. Artillery and mortar were raining on their bunker lines and behind, he said.

A photograph in a Tamil website shows Tiger guerrillas in the process of retrieving one of Army's Main Battle Tanks that was stuck in a soggy ditch.

The caller protested that this was despite assurances given to Mr. Brattskar by their Political Wing leader, S.P. Tamilselvan, last Tuesday that the LTTE would accept "unconditionally" the dates suggested by the Government (October 28 and 29) to resume peace talks in Switzerland. He said the attack had come despite an LTTE warning that the Security Forces were preparing for a major offensive from Muhamalai just days earlier. This charge was strongly denied by the Government.

Later that morning, Mr. Brattskar wanted to ascertain the factual position. He raised issue with Palitha Kohona, Secretary General of the Government's Peace Secretariat during a previously scheduled meeting. It was meant to discuss matters relating to the upcoming round of peace talks. Last Tuesday, Mr. Brattskar had, in fact, used his satellite telephone to speak to Mr. Kohona from Kilinochchi. That was to tell him that the LTTE was willing to resume talks and had accepted the dates offered by the Government. An official announcement in this regard was made in Oslo by the Royal Norwegian Government only thereafter.

Mr. Kohona flatly denied the Security Forces had launched any fresh offensive. He would have known if there was one. It was his Secretariat that had set out the Government's official position vis-à-vis military action against the LTTE. Their website said the Government reserved the right to counter measures if the guerrillas undertook actions of "an offensive and provocative nature." Moreover, he was present when President Mahinda Rajapaksa told envoys of Donor Co-chairs on Monday that the Security Forces would not carry out any offensive military operations against the LTTE in the run-up to the peace talks. That was a credible assurance coming from the highest in the land. He, however, re-iterated the military's right to retaliate only if attacked.

The guerrillas are seen with a gun removed from the same MBT.

If there were any "offensive" or "provocative" acts and a retaliatory response by the Security Forces, Mr. Kohona would have known. He was also conscious of President Rajapaksa's firm assurance to the Donor Co-chairs. Hence, his strong denial that there was a military offensive under way.

That no doubt would have left the much maligned Norwegian Ambassador perplexed. Having succeeded in getting the protagonists to resume talks, sorted out dates and a venue, there was now a fresh obstacle. The guerrillas were claiming they were under attack from the Security Forces. The head of the Peace Secretariat, one of the key Government agencies he dealt with, was vehemently denying it. Evidently, Mr. Brattskar could not ascertain the ground situation from members of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) since they were not present in the area.

It was the Government Peace Secretariat, and not the Ministry of Defence, that gave the reason for this on Wednesday evening. "The Government cannot guarantee the safety of the Ceasefire Monitors in the Muhamalai area due to sporadic shelling and attacks by the LTTE," a statement said. Such a situation, quite clearly, has arisen for the first time during the ceasefire. As Eelam War IV continued, the role of the SLMM had diminished.

As hours ticked by the confusion began to spread. Has the Government launched a military offensive to seize more guerrilla territory ahead of the peace talks? Was this the reason why the Government declared that it reserved the right to retaliate if the LTTE resorted to "offensive" or "provocative" action? These were among the many questions raised in Colombo's diplomatic community, media circles and civil society groups.

Their concerns were heightened by the first known account to enter the public domain through the pro-LTTE website Tamilnet. A report on Wednesday morning said the Army has launched ground troop's movement into LTTE-controlled territory with heavy artillery and MBRL (Multi Barrel Rocket Launcher) fire since 6.30 a.m. Wednesday. Pointing out that the SLMM had been notified of the attack; the website quoted their "Military Spokesman" Irasiah Ilanthiriyan as saying that the new offensive, shattering peace hopes, comes few hours after an official announcement by Norway that the parties agreed to meet in Switzerland.

If there was a major military offensive, which indeed has turned out to be the case, the political leadership was completely unaware. So were high ranking officials except for one who had tried to persuade an "over enthusiastic" military official, awaiting an extension of service only few weeks later, not to go ahead. Like many others during past occasions, did he under estimate the enemy capability? Much has been said on this subject in The Sunday Times in the recent weeks. Even this official was unaware of the magnitude of the measures planned and how they were to be executed.

The Joint Operations Headquarters (JOH), the unified apparatus of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Police, tasked to jointly carry out counter terrorist operations, The Sunday Times learnt, was unaware. Nor was its head, Chief of Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Donald Perera. It has come to light that air support to take on specified targets was sought and obtained from Commander of the Air Force, Air Marshal Roshan Gunathilaka. It has also come to light that some of the senior officers engaged in the action expressed serious reservations earlier but were over ruled.

Even the National Security Council chaired by President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Wednesday morning, The Sunday Times learnt, was not in the picture. "If they, particularly President Rajapaksa, were aware, he would have called a halt to it. He is very pleased and proud of the successes of the Security Forces. That showed he was willing to face threats of violence but wanted to negotiate a political settlement. He made his commitment known both to the people and to the international community," said a source at the Presidential Secretariat. Those remarks, later confirmed by The Sunday Times, showed that other military top brass were blissfully unaware that whilst they were at the NSC, something disastrous was taking place in the battlefields of Muhamalai.

Official silence was broken when a staff member of the Media Centre for National Security (MCNS) sent out SMS messages on a mobile phone to media personnel, particularly foreign correspondents. It said "LTTE attack Muhamalai, Nagerkovil and Eluthumaduval FDLs since last few days and strong build (sic) in front of FDLs. Tps (troops) retaliate."

Late Wednesday afternoon the MCNS said in a news release: "the security forces have not attacked any area in the North and East. The Government forces have no intention of carrying out such attacks." It added: "Security Forces successfully repulsed continued LTTE attempts to breach the Muhamalai forward defences since last (Tuesday) night. To counter the intensity of these attacks the assistance of the Air Force was sought."

The MCNS statement declared, "the Government believes that the LTTE is engaged in a calculated attempt to mislead the International Community by propagating false media reports through Tiger sympathetic media groups." There was also a significant assertion in the MCNS statement. This was a line which said, "The Government categorically stated in the conditions to resume talks that the Security Forces retain the right to retaliate if the LTTE continued with their attacks." This is the first official confirmation that that the right to retaliate is very much a condition for resumption of talks.

As for the denials, whether the MCNS was unaware of the goings on at Muhamalai battlefields on Wednesday morning, like the Joint Operations Headquarters (JOH), remains an important question. Or, were they forced to do damage control without knowing the fuller picture? The questions are best left unanswered.

For many days from last week, Security Forces have been directing artillery and mortar fire from their defended localities that straddle the one time Entry-Exit point at Muhamalai towards Tiger guerrilla positions. By hindsight, it became clear this was to soften up guerrilla targets. I cannot comment on whether the Security Forces offensive was prompted by guerrilla build-ups and attacks. However, it was planned to be launched last Monday and had been delayed by two days. From morning until late afternoon on Monday, there had been very heavy downpours, signs that the North-East monsoon was setting in. Nor can I give a detailed account of the debacle, how exactly the fighting broke out and ended in just over two hours, the shortest but the worst during the four-year-old ceasefire. This is due to severe constraints.

However, it can be said that the action against the LTTE was carried out by the Army's 53 Division which has been placed in a reserve role in the Jaffna peninsula. That was made up of the Air Mobile Brigade and 533 Infantry Brigade. They were supported by men of the 55 Division that has been tasked for a holding role.

On Tuesday night, Special Infantry Oriented Teams (SIOT) from the Air Mobile Brigade moved out of the defence lines. They had stealthily walked towards the guerrilla defence lines and were helping in directing artillery and mortar fire. They were also providing the required battle field information on the radio to their commanders. That included enemy disposition, machine gun emplacements and mortar positions.

On Wednesday morning, troops finished an early breakfast of tuna fish curry, dhal and rice. Backed by Czech-built T-55 Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) and Chinese-built armoured personnel carriers they moved out. The break out was two pronged -- from the general areas of Kilali (east of A-9 highway) and Muhamalai. The H hour, the time when concentrated artillery/mortar fire had to be directed to enable the mechanized and infantry units to attack guerrilla positions was 8 a.m.

When a couple of minutes to 8 a.m. approached, artillery and mortar fire at guerrilla positions were increasing. The loud explosions reached a crescendo. It was then that some of the mechanized columns faced trouble. One of the MBTs was hit by an anti tank mine. The track was destroyed and the tank was immobilised. Another MBT that overtook the damaged one faced the same fate. Another fell into a soggy ditch, a tank obstacle near the guerrilla lines. Three more tanks were disabled. Three armoured personnel carriers too were hit. Infantry movement at this point was slowed down by heavy barrages of RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade) and mortar fire.

Yet, the troops pushed ahead bravely. After the mechanized units burst through a part of the guerrilla defences, infantry troops dismounted in order to engage them. This was in an open area. Within seconds, it became clear the troops had moved into a guerrilla killing field. Mortar fire began to rain on the concentration of troops. Just then, guerrillas also opened up on them with Machine Gun fire. Troops fell dead on the ground. Some who ran for cover stepped on the heavily mined areas. At some points, troops were fighting close quarter battles. They had dislodged the guerrillas from some of their bunkers and occupied their defence lines. Most of the soldiers, who saw their colleagues fall dead, were so strong willed that they pushed forward to fire at their enemy. In the process, many of them sacrificed their lives.

But soon troops began to realize they had unwittingly walked into a trap and began a tactical withdrawal. Communications were cut off. There was a paucity of information and confusion reigned. Later that evening troops had all reached their original positions, giving up the areas they captured, some of the mechanized vehicles and other military hardware. The battle had just ended in a little over two hours. Yet, field commanders found it difficult to discern a fuller picture of what had happened and what went wrong. They had a bigger priority on hand - rush the large number of injured for treatment. Several private buses were requisitioned and the casualty evacuation exercise began.

A hangar like building, located adjoining the Control Tower of the Air Force base in Palaly, was immediately converted into a temporary hospital due to pressure on the Army Hospital in Palaly. This building was once used as a reception hall for passengers taking flights. A serious lapse, in planning the military attack seems the failure to give consideration to casualties if a serious eventuality occurred. Was it over confidence and an under estimation of the enemy capability? Even ambulances were in short supply and there were no arrangements in Colombo to receive a large number of casualties. From the two hospitals, cases that needed greater medical attention were flown in Air Force flights to Anuradhapura and Colombo.

With the task of dealing with casualties over, it was only on Thursday that battalion commanders got down to the job of taking a count of their men. The purpose was three fold - who were missing, who were known to be killed and how many were exactly injured. Even yesterday, a full and clear picture has not emerged in terms of statistics. Figures available on Thursday night showed that 8 officers and 47 soldiers were killed. A further 78 including four officers were declared missing in action. But the same night the LTTE handed over to delegates of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) the bodies of 74 troops. They were in turn handed over to the Army at Omanthai (Vavuniya) in the presence of members of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission. This LTTE handover of bodies proved wrong the MCNS claim that there were no Security Forces attacks in the North and East.

The figures available show 129 soldiers were killed. Three more wounded soldiers died on Friday. The LTTE said the body of another soldier had been recovered on Thursday evening. It is not clear whether it has been handed over. That would bring the total to 133 dead. Whilst one soldier is in LTTE custody, in terms of these figures, two are not accounted for. Senior Army officials say the figures could become higher when a final count is made. But this cannot be verified. Even in official accounts, the figures are not fully reflected. A situation report circulated to senior political and military leaders on Thursday declared two officers and 35 soldiers missing - just half the number of 72 bodies returned by the LTTE on Thursday night. The Army strongly denied LTTE claims that more bodies of dead soldiers lay in the "no man's" land that divided their defence lines from the rebels.

Soldiers injured, according to figures available, have been placed at 483. Of this number, 283 are described in military parlance as P 1 and P 2. They are considered serious cases. The three deaths reported on Friday would bring this number down to 280. The rest are P 3 or those who received minor injuries. Here again some officers argue the figures are higher but this cannot be verified.

The guerrillas remained silent over their casualties. A guerrilla radio intercept by a security arm spoke of 23 dead and 101 wounded. But Security Forces claim the number was over 200. However, this cannot be independently verified.

The LTTE, which suffered one military reversal after another, sought to make capital out of Wednesday's incidents. Several pro-LTTE websites, particularly ones in Tamil, ran video footage of burning battle tanks and the bodies of soldiers to gain propaganda mileage. Guerrilla vehicles escorting the ICRC convoy carrying the bodies of the dead soldiers were bedecked with white flags and moved slowly along the A-9 highway from Kilinochchi to Omanthai. Prior announcements were made for civilians to view this and learn more about the LTTE's latest "achievements."

Even if they threatened to pull out of the upcoming talks if attacked by the Security Forces, the LTTE still wants to travel to Switzerland. The mood that was one of despondency for them seems to be now upbeat. Whether they would make it, their turn to place preconditions cannot be ruled out.

More than anything else, Wednesday's ill planned operation conducted without the knowledge of the political leadership and against the wishes of senior officials has clearly embarrassed the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government. Its credibility has been brought to question in the eyes of the international community. The great sacrifices made by the Security Forces and the Police to deliver success after success, to give the Government a stronger bargaining position at the talks and the Sri Lankan public a greater morale boost have now taken a nose dive.

There was compelling need for a careful appreciation of ground realities before engaging in last Wednesday's military action. Firstly, the LTTE complained in writing to the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) that the Security Forces were planning an offensive operation. This was strongly denied by the Government. In the wake of this, the Army's Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) reported that the LTTE had fortified their defence lines in Muhamalai. They also reported that cadres had been pulled out from other deployments and assigned to the defence lines in fear that a major attack was in the offing. Did not the military action require a more careful study and endorsement by the political and defence leadership?

If there is one glaring fact Wednesday's incident reveal, it is the wide gulf between the political and military leadership. The former does not seem to have proper and closer control. Any deterioration of the situation, no doubt, would not be in the best interest of the Government or the public who have voted it to power.

Gaining a military edge over the LTTE, by weakening it, is no doubt a key aspect. But to a Government that has committed itself to a negotiated settlement, the political aspects matter equally. One cannot be ignored at the expense of the other.

With the series of military successes, the Government was sitting pretty. President Mahinda Rajapaksa was riding a very high wave of public popularity. Just one ill conceived military action that led to a major reversal threatens to undo all that.

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Copyright 2006 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.