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Tamil Tigers fighting a defensive battle
B Raman
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September 10, 2008
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which is increasingly under pressure due to a war of attrition waged against it by the Sri Lankan Armed Forces in the areas controlled by it in the Northern Province, launched a surprise land-cum-air attack on a vital military complex of the armed forces at Vavuniya, about 260 km North of Colombo, in the early hours of September 9.

Even after allowing for the usual exaggeration by the spokesmen of the Armed Forces in projecting the progress made by them, it is evident from independent reports that the LTTE [Images] has been forced to fight a defensive battle to retain the territory under its control and to prevent a weakening of its conventional capability due to the loss of its weapons holdings during the battle and its inability to replenish them through smuggling from abroad.

While the morale of the LTTE's experienced officers and cadres remains high, it has not been able to reverse the tide of the battle against the armed forces. Even its wing responsible for mounting acts of terrorism in Sinhalese territory has been facing a difficulty in mounting spectacular terrorist strikes due to a shortage of cadres trained in suicide terrorism and low stocks of explosives.

While the Army's oft-repeated hopes of being able to defeat the LTTE decisively on the ground by the end of this year seem over-optimistic, the tide of the war continues to be in favour of the army.

There are two questions involved -- defeating the LTTE conventionally, and destroying its capability for continuing its struggle for Tamil Eelam through acts of terrorism. The achievement of both these objectives will depend upon a critical weakening of the morale and motivation of the LTTE officers and cadres, leading to increasing desertions and splits in the organisation.

There are no signs of such a weakening of morale and motivation. Despite the repeated and ruthless use of air strikes against the LTTE by the Sri Lankan Air Force and despite the vast superiority in numbers and equipment of the armed forces due to regular flow of supplies from Pakistan, China, Israel and even India, the LTTE has been fighting doggedly, inflicting increasingly heavy casualties on the Army, which is not admitted by the government.

Thus, the attrition is on both sides. The only advantage enjoyed by the Army is that it is able to make good the attrition through material procured from Pakistan, China, Israel and India with money given by Iran, whereas the LTTE has not been able to make good the attrition.

The continuing strong morale and motivation of the LTTE officers and cadres and their ability to take the armed forces by surprise became once again evident from the spectacular and audacious attack jointly mounted by the planes, artillery and suicide commandoes of the LTTE on the Vavuniya military complex, which co-ordinates the operations of the Armed Forces against the LTTE. It was as spectacular and audacious as a  similar attack on an SLAF base at Anuradhapura in October last year and as well-planned and well-executed.

The operation, which lasted about three hours, started with a sustained artillery attack in the dead of night followed by bombing by two aircraft (Zlin 143) of the LTTE and this was followed by the infiltration of the complex by 10 suicide commandoes (Black Tigers), five of them women. All of them died during the attack, but not before killing 11 security personnel and badly damaging the equipment kept in the complex, including an Indra radar supplied by India.

Among those injured were two Indian radar technicians. It is not clear whether they had been permanently attached to the radar station or come there on a short visit to do the periodic maintenance of the radar. The injuries sustained by the two Indian technicians were not life threatening, but required initial hospitalisation at Colombo.

While the LTTE has stated that both its aircraft returned safely to base, the SLAF has claimed that one of its fighter planes (F-7s), which had taken off from the Katunayake airfield near Colombo on getting information of the approach of the LTTE planes, managed to chase one of them as they were returning to their base after the bombing and shot it down over the skies in the LTTE-controlled Mullaittivu area. However, the SLAF spokesman (Squadron Leader Sanjaya Adhikari) admitted that it had no video coverage of this engagement in proof of its claim.

As it did after the Anuradhapura raid of last year, the SLAF has tried to project the LTTE raid as a fiasco which failed in its objective. However, independent reports say that as had happened in the past, the SLAF was once again taken by surprise and was slow to react. The LTTE aircraft managed to drop their load of bombs in the vicinity of the radar station and flee from the scene without being intercepted by the SLAF planes.

While the Air Force version of the incident claimed that the Indian-supplied radar did not suffer any damage, the version given by the Sri Lanka [Images]n Navy in its web site did admit some damage to the radar, but it claimed that it was slight. A blog run by the Sri Lanka Naval Intelligence said: 'Reports indicated that the radar system was slightly damaged after a bomb fell close to it. Two Indian nationals operating the radar system were injured in the blast.'

The two LTTE aircraft were over the complex for about six minutes. During this period, any SLAF aircraft taking off from Katunayake could not have reached Vavuniya and intercepted the LTTE aircraft.

While the Sri Lankan Armed Forces repeatedly exaggerate their successes and play down their losses, the LTTE generally gives a factual account of the battles. Even if it did badly in the battles, it does not try to cover up its failures. This is one of the reasons for the high credibility enjoyed by the LTTE's statements in the eyes of its cadres, the Tamil population and diaspora abroad. The LTTE version of the Vavuniya operation has more credibility than the version put out by the Sri Lankan Armed Forces.

Even if it is established that the radar has been severely damaged, if not destroyed, this should not affect the ongoing ground operations of the Sri Lankan Army. The mastery of the skies enjoyed by the SLAF during day time ensures that the LTTE planes do not pose a threat to the troops engaged in battle. The absence of a radar would not also affect the punitive air strikes made repeatedly by the SLAF on LTTE-held positions. The successful Vavuniya raid would be a morale-booster for the LTTE cadres, but would not turn the tide of the battle against the armed forces.

(The writer is additional secretary (retired), Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India, New Delhi [Images] and, presently, Director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: 

B Raman
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