After 16 days of bloody battle, IPKF finally captures LTTE stronghold Jaffna
After 16 days of bloody battle, the Indians finally captured Jaffna, the stronghold of the Tigers. But the losses have been heavy and could mount further. A report on the conflict and its implications plus exclusive eyewitness account and action pictures from Jaffna.
The comparison may be odious, but the daily 5 p.m. briefings at the new Indian High Commission chancery in Colombo on the Indian Army’s operations in Jaffna contained some chilling parallels. The disputed body counts, the territorial tug of war, an invisible enemy, and above all, the growing realisation that it is a war where victory and defeat can mean much the same.
Across the lushly-carpeted, lagoon-laced countryside of the Jaffna peninsula in northern Sri Lanka, the thunder of gunfire was slowly stilled last week. The Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), after 16 days of battle in unfamiliar terrain, finally wrested control of the Tigers’ lair, the labyrinth of narrow, winding lanes and concealed bunkers that make up Jaffna town, the heavily-fortified and thickly-populated stronghold of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
But Operation Pawan, as the IPKF’s activities in Sri Lanka is code-named, is a chapter of Indian military history that will contain none of the honour and glory of a victorious campaign. Notwithstanding the fact that the IPKF fought against daunting odds and under severe constraints, the “liberation” of Jaffna last week was essentially what one IPKF officer described as “a dirty little war, and that too by proxy”.
For two long weeks, the 20,000-strong IPKF, taken from the Indian Army’s 4th, 36th and 54th Divisions, slowly and steadily inched its way across the heavily-mined and booby-trapped areas around Jaffna. Through a withering fire-storm, their five-pronged operational axes then linked up, enabling them to corner the 2,500-odd Tigers holed out in their Jaffna redoubt, many of them the same guerrillas that the Indian Army had obligingly trained in Tamil Nadu to combat the Sri Lankan security forces.
The irony has stretched to tragic dimensions. Despite its vastly superior numbers (India Today sources put it at as much as 30,000 apart from the paramilitary contingent), unlimited fire-power and acknowledged professionalism, the IPKF has suffered unexpectedly heavy losses in the fortnight of fierce fighting. Officially, at the end of the 16-day siege of Jaffna, the IPKF admits to 214 dead, including 15 officers, two of them colonels.
Another 36 soldiers are missing, captured and presumably killed by the Liberation Tigers, while over 700 IPKF personnel have been wounded in the action. Unofficially, however, army sources admit that the death toll in the first Indian Army operation that has taken place on foreign soil since 1975, could be closer to 400.
In military terms, those are somewhat inglorious statistics, but then, it was also an inglorious war. Less than three months earlier, the Indian Government sent in, at the request of Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene and under the stated terms of the Indo-Sri Lankan accord, a 6,000-strong army contingent that was, paradoxically, called the Indian Peace Keeping Force.
The main brief was to provide protection to the Tamil-dominated population of Sri Lanka’s northern province. But only two months later, the IPKF suddenly found itself locked in incongruous combat with the LTTE, which is militarily the most powerful of the Tamil militant groups and which regards itself the self-appointed protector of the local Tamil population.
That tragic turnaround put the IPKF in an unenviable military position – facing guerrilla fighters, many barely in their teens including young women, in a heavily built-up and densely populated urban area already fortified and extensively mined during the three-year-old battle between the militants and Sri Lankan security forces.Admitted Lt-General Depinder Singh, general officer commanding, Southern Command and the overall force commander of the IPKF: “Urban guerrilla war is a comparatively new phenomenon as far as the Indian Army is concerned.”
More important, the IPKF was hamstrung by their strict orders to avoid heavy civilian casualties and extensive damage to buildings. “Ours had to be a proportioned response. There was large-scale mining of the Jaffna area and almost every building was booby-trapped. The LTTE made extensive use of these buildings and used the civilian population as prophylactic protection. Our progress, therefore, was necessarily slow,” says Major-General A.S. Kalkat, director of military operations, Southern Command.
The IPKF, moreover, appears to have miscalculated not only on the fierce resistance put up by the Tigers but the extent of their weaponry as well. Every road leading into Jaffna was pitted with powerful Claymore mines or huge drums filled with explosives buried under the ground.
The buildings were booby-trapped with highly sophisticated bombs that were capable of being detonated by remote or radio control from a distance of over a kilometre. In one such explosion that was set off under an army convoy, 29 IPKF personnel were blown up and an equal number were seriously wounded. The IPKF then requested for a regiment of T-72 tanks to counter the mines.
Apart from the mines, the highest number of IPKF casualties were from LTTE snipers located in buildings and even tree-tops, equipped with sophisticated, high-powered rifles with telescopic infra-red sights. At least five helicopters of the Indian Air Force were badly damaged by snipers when they were dropping troops in designated areas. Finally, the IPKF had to induct six armour-plated Mi-24 helicopter gunships since none of the Mi-8s or Chetaks could fly below 2,000 ft without the risk of being shot at.
The extent and range of the LTTE arsenal made a mockery of the Indian Government’s much-publicised arms surrender by the militants in early August. Arms caches were scattered all over the Jaffna area, many wrapped in water-proof packaging and secreted in the myriad lagoons that dot the countryside.
The Tigers had a vast arsenal of Chinese-made AK-47 assault rifles, one of the most effective weapons in urban guerrilla warfare, Soviet-made RPG-7 anti-tank rockets, mortars firing 60 mm bombs and shoulder-fired rocket launchers.
“They were not very accurate in their marksmanship but they fought like tigers,” admits Brigadier Kulwant Singh, deputy divisional commander, Southern Command and one of the key strategists in the battle for Jaffna.
The fiercest battles between the Indian Army and the Tigers were fought at Kopai North, Kokuvil and Kurruparai where the LTTE managed to stop the IPKF advance in its tracks. Says Havildar Raosaheb Gaekwad, 38, of the Maratha Regiment: “The people we were fighting were no more than kids. But they seemed to have unlimited ammunition. It was a constant barrage.”
Over 100 paratroopers from the 1st Para who were dropped by helicopters on the night of October 11, in the open ground around the Jaffna University area were caught in a merciless cross-fire and suffered the worst casualties of the entire operation. Unofficial sources say over 30 soldiers were killed and 18 soldiers taken prisoner.
Sepoy Lok Ram, 38, of the 1st Para regiment was one of those wounded in the paradrop. Says he: “We thought everything was fine but when we were sliding out of the seventh helicopter, we suddenly came under heavy Are from all sides. It was an impossible situation as people would come out of the houses and fire at us and then disappear. There were gunmen on tree-tops, even on top of coconut trees. Since we were not using heavy weapons, it was impossible to advance. We were surrounded by an enemy we could not even see.” The paratroopers were pinned down for 24 hours and were eventually rescued by Indian Army tanks which provided them cover to escape.
Major Anil Kaul, 40, of the armoured regiment, was the first officer to be wounded during the extensive deployment of tanks to rescue IPKF personnel who were cornered by the Tiger guerrillas. Says he: “The Tigers had a contradictory approach. Their movements, the way they took Are, showed professional training. But their tactics were not those of a professional army. We were not fighting a uniformed enemy equipped with the same kind of weapons.”
Though part of their training includes urban combat, the Indian Army’s strategic planning has never included the kind of urban guerrilla warfare that Jaffna entailed. Says Havildar Kuldeep Singh of the Sikh Light Infantry, who was badly wounded in the face during the action: “We were pinned down for 12 hours by snipers firing at us from all sides. Five men from our unit died. It was very difficult. We have not been trained for this kind of battle – and we were also ordered not to use any heavy weapons.”
The other handicap is their lack of knowledge of the local terrain. Eighteen IPKF soldiers who have been taken prisoner by the Tigers were forced to surrender after the convoy they were in lost its way.The last four trucks in the convoy got separated from the rest and were caught in a cross-fire and pinned down. Of the 24 soldiers travelling in the trucks, five were killed and two were seriously wounded. The remaining 18 were forced to surrender after they ran out of ammunition.
The IPKF’s problems were compounded by the fact that it was impossible to distinguish between the Tigers and the Tamil civilians. One senior officer entered a Jaffna house as part of the house-to-house search operations and found it empty except for a young woman. The moment he turned his back to leave, she whipped out a Sten gun and shot him in the back.
Says Sepoy Govindan of the Madras Regiment: “It was impossible to say who was a Tiger and who was not. Everyone, male or female, above the age of 10, could be armed and dangerous. We saw little girls producing guns from under their frocks and shooting at us. How do you fight them?”
Very carefully, is the answer that most IPKF commanders reluctantly give. Says Brigadier Manjit Singh of the 41st Infantry Brigade: “They are good fighting men, who are also very highly motivated. And we were fighting with one hand tied behind our backs.”
In their efforts to minimise damage to buildings and civilians, the IPKF’s most powerful weapons were the 105 mm light field artillery, Carl Gustav rocket launchers and the 105 mm guns on their T-72 tanks. Admits Brigadier Kulwant Singh: “We were fighting under constraints that we are not used to.”
The turning point in the battle for Jaffna came when the IPKF, under Colonel ‘Tippy’ Brar, broke out of the Old Dutch Fort area on October 20 after being cornered for over two days, to link up with the other advancing columns of the Indian force and effectively seal off the Nallur area where the Tigers were concentrated.
On October 26, Jaffna fell to the IPKF and the guns were silenced, but the war is far from over. To date, the IPKF claims to have killed over 700 Tigers but, as Major-General Kalkat admits: “We have no actual count since we were busy in advancing and not stopping anywhere to count bodies. All I can say is that their losses were much higher than ours.”
But even if their estimates are approximate, the total Tiger strength in Jaffna was estimated at around 2,500, apart from the sympathisers and collaborators from among the local population. In fact, it has been established that many teenagers actually joined the LTTE while the battle was raging and India Today actually met a number of young women LTTE fighters bristling with lethal weaponry.
The IPKF claims to have taken around 80 Tigers prisoner, which means that at least 1,500 Tigers have managed to evade the IPKF noose and mingle with the locals or have escaped to other areas, LTTE chief Pirabhakaran and other key leaders like Dilip Yogi, Anton Balasingham and the Jaffna commander Mahattaya are believed to have slipped out of Jaffna to regroup in one their many hideouts in the Mannar, Batticaloa, and Vadamarachi areas.
The Indian Army’s miscalculation of the Tigers strength and resistance has already had its first casualty in the form of Major-General Harkirat Singh, the man initially put in charge of Operation Pawan. Because of his inability to take over Jaffna quickly, as originally anticipated, Harkirat was made the scapegoat and replaced by Kalkat.
But having lost total faith in the Indian Government and engaged in combat with the IPKF, the Tigers are certain to carry on their guerrilla war using the hit-and-run tactics similar to the terrorists in Punjab. The only difference is that they will be facing the Indian Army who privately admit that they could be bogged down in northern and eastern Sri Lanka for at least another two years.
In fact, according to top level defence sources, the Indian Army is in the process of setting up a reserve Southern Command headquarters sector in northern Sri Lanka under Lt-General Khajuria, a former director of Military Intelligence, which obviously means they are prepared to stay around for some time.
Despite the fact that the Indian Army is now left with no southern reserve divisions and at least 30,000 Indian troops will be tied up in Sri Lanka for an indefinite period, that strategy is inevitable. Like the Sikh terrorists in Punjab, the Tigers know the terrain intimately and can mingle with the local population without detection. Whether out of fear or sympathy, they also have the support of the local population.
Also, despite the Indian Navy’s blockade of the Palk Straits, a number of boats have managed to slip through the cordon and reach the Tamil Nadu coastline. That could also mean that boats carrying arms and ammunition can still get through to the Tigers.
In any event, the Tigers seem to have no shortage of ammunition at the moment. The LTTE’s Jaffna commander and currently the number two man after Pirabhakaran, Mahattaya, told India Today last week: “We are short of weapons though we have plenty of ammunition. But the IPKF is fooling itself if it thinks it has cut off our supply lines.”
There are also signs that the LTTE will link up with the outlawed Sinhalese extremist group, the JVP, which has been responsbile for a number of recent killings and bomb explosions in south Sri Lanka, including the one that almost killed President Jayewardene and key members of his cabinet last August.Similarly, the powerful bomb that ripped through the office of the assistant high commissioner of India at the tourist resort of Kandy in southern Sri Lanka last week is one indication of the Tigers’ capability to strike at Indian targets outside the northern and eastern provinces either on their own or in collaboration with the JVP.
The IPKF’s immediate goal in the north is to isolate the LTTE leadership from the cadres or wipe them out in the belief that the less committed members will surrender under the terms of the amnesty they are being offered.
That, however, could be wishful thinking. None of the key leaders, specially Pirabhakaran, will allow themselves to be taken alive. If cornered, they will almost certainly swallow the cyanide capsules that is their trademark. Pirabhakaran as a martyr to the Eelam cause is as potent as Pirabakaran alive.
However, Mahattaya told India Today on October 27: “We will be willing to a cease-fire under three conditions. The Indian Army should cease-fire immediately. The IPKF should return to the camps where they were prior to October 10, and only then will we be willing to talk about surrender of arms.”
However, those are conditions that the Indian Government will obviously not agree to. Nor is it clear whether Mahattaya is speaking for a section of the LTTE or even Pirabhakaran. In any event, the task before the Indian Government is to win over the local population in northern Sri Lanka.
The Indian Government is already flooding Jaffna with food and medicines. It will also undertake a crash programme to rebuild damaged houses, as well as set up projects to ensure employment for the local population.
Last week, in an attempt to bring about normalcy and get the economic wheels moving again, Indian doctors and government engineers were flown in to restore essential services like hospitals, electricity, water-supply and food distribution. This will be followed by all-out efforts to set up the ill-fated interim administration and raise a Tamil police force for the north.
But the success or failure of that mission will largely depend on the kind of damage there has been to civilian property and the number of civilian deaths during Operation Pawan. IPKF sources claim that civilian casualties were unavoidable considering the type of war they had to fight, but insist that the numbers are minimal.
However, many independent reports from Jaffna have spoken about large-scale civilian deaths but in the welter of propaganda and counter-propaganda being put out by the Indian Government and the Tigers, it is impossible to establish the truth.
Certainly, India Today was eyewitness to one incident when Mi-24 helicopter gunships bombed and strafed the town of Chavakacheri, 32 km east of Jaffna and 20 civilians were killed. The Indian Government first denied that helicopter gunships were being used in an offensive operational role.
Once it became clear that the eyewitness reports would appear in the Indian press, they finally admitted that the incident had taken place but still claim that it is the only one of its kind. They also claimed that only an “isolated building” where suspected Tigers were hiding had been shelled. India Today was witness to the fact that shells had landed in the main marketplace and the main bus-stand where large numbers of civilians had gathered.
The Tigers, in their propaganda war from Jaffna, claimed that over 200 civilians have been killed by the IPKF and numerous buildings, including the Jaffna Hospital, destroyed. The Catholic Church in Jaffna has put the number of civilian deaths at 100.
Some western journalists who entered Jaffna after the battle started, have returned with horror stories of IPKF troops going berserk after their comrades were killed and accused them of shooting innocent people and of raping Tamil women. The Tigers refer to the IPKF as the Innocent People Killing Force.
Till the Indian Government started flying in journalists and photographers into Jaffna, the Tigers were clearly winning the propaganda war. The only way for journalists to enter Jaffna was with the LTTE.It is difficult to establish whether the so-called victims of IPKF atrocities were tutored by the Tigers or were genuine. Jaffna Hospital, which the Tigers claimed was bombed by the IPKF, was free from any major damage when journalists were taken there last week.
Certainly, judging by the ferocity of the action, civilian deaths would have been impossible to avoid. But on the other hand, the Indian Army is not a rag-tag indisciplined outfit like the Sri Lankan security forces. It is a highly professional and disciplined force that has been compared to the best in the world.
Says Lt-General Depinder Singh: “I cannot believe that Indian troops will ever go berserk to the extent of raping or killing women as it is against our ethos and our culture. Further, as the heavy casualties to our officers and JCO’s indicate, they led from the front and therefore the question of indiscipline just does not hold water.”
Yet, there can be no denying that the local Tamil population currently views the IPKF with suspicion and even hatred, though they also see them as tools in a larger geo-political strategy. Says Dilip Yogi, one of the top LTTE leaders: “We do not blame Rajiv but his advisers who are misleading him on the situation. We do not blame the Indian soldiers, they are only carrying out orders. But we will never surrender. We can keep fighting for another 10 or 20 years. For every Tiger killed, another is born.”
Clearly, the IPKF has an unenviable task ahead and in private, senior army officers are already making comparisons with Vietnam and Afghanistan. But that is more the fault of South Block than the soldiers who are merely carrying out the orders of their political bosses.
The Indian Government’s main bungle was in not disarming the militants when they had the chance immediately after the signing of the accord, IPKF officers say they were instructed to turn a blind eye to the arms that the militants had cached away or were even openly flaunting. Obviously, New Delhi had been over-confident of handling “the boys”.
New Delhi’s next and most serious blunder was in their attempts to cut the LTTE down to size and prop up the other rival militant groups in the classic political strategy of divide and rule. “The idea was to reduce the dominance of the Tigers since the other groups were under our control and thus ensure that the interim administration and the provincial council had more people who would abide by Delhi’s directives,” says a senior intelligence source.
But that strategy backfired when the groups engaged in a bloody internecine battle which left hundreds dead and a larger number of civilians killed in massacres. That one aspect alone destroyed the image of the IPKF as a force that would ensure security for the Tamil population, and the Tigers played on that with considerable effectiveness.
Now, having taken Jaffna with such heavy cost – an estimated Rs 3 crore a day in terms of money, apart from the loss of lives – the politicians are once again back in the game. New Delhi’s strategy is to fully disarm the militants, a near-impossible task, and win over the local population by ensuring that:
- There is no colonisation by the Sri Lankan Government in the eastern province;
- Tamil refugees in India are returned to Sri Lanka as early as possible;
- The devolution package envisaged in the accord is fully implemented;
- The merger of the northern and eastern provinces under one administrative unit takes place;
- A Tamil police force is set up as quickly as possible; and
- Tamils are permitted to enrol in the Sri Lankan Army.
Says an Indian High Commission source: “We have extracted all these assurances from the highest levels of the Sri Lankan Government. If Colombo reneges on any of the conditions, they are in worse trouble than before. With 20,000 Indian troops sitting in the country, it will lead to another Cyprus-type division. We are confident that Jayewardene will not allow that to happen.”
Fortunately for New Delhi, the reaction in Tamil Nadu to the IPKF offensive against the Tigers has been muted. In a recent poll in the state, 67 per cent of those interviewed said that Rajiv had not let down the Tamils.
A majority also believed that the LTTE was responsible for starting the trouble and that the IPKF should stay on in Sri Lanka. The Karunanidhi-led opposition DMK has, however, launched a massive protest campaign against the IPKF offensive that could snowball in coming days.
Says party President M. Karunanidhi: “We will continue our agitation till the Indian Army stops its actions in Jaffna.”Adds party General Secretary K. Veeramani: “The Mossad stood to gain by their actions in Sri Lanka. The Indian Government, on the other hand, is spending Rs 3 crore every day of the taxpayer’s money for their operations.”
But the fact that the major offensive against the Tigers is over could blunt the thrust of the anti-IPKF movement, unless, of course, there are confirmed reports of large-scale civilian killings by the IPKF.In any case, if Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran, currently undergoing medical treatment in distant Baltimore, puts his weight behind the Indian Government, public opinion in Tamil Nadu will remain subdued. Rajiv in fact met MGR in New York last fortnight and is believed to have solicited his full support.
The danger is that with the LTTE having lost Jaffna – a major psychological defeat – New Delhi might be tempted to ignore them altogether in their future negotiations on the composition of the interim administration and the provincial councils.
That may prove another fatal mistake. The LTTE may have lost much sympathy for its intransigence and brutality, but the Tigers are still seen in northern Sri Lanka as the only people who gave their lives to protect the Tamils against the Sri Lankan security forces when other groups like the Tamil United Liberation Front were safely ensconced in Colombo or Tamil Nadu.
But the key issue is that with the most dominant Tamil group having taken on the Indian Army, the accord itself could be the biggest casualty. The Tigers have resumed their battle for Eelam and thus rejected the accord.
Jayewardene stated last fortnight that the elections to the provincial councils in the northern and eastern provinces will only take place “after the complete cessation of hostilities, the surrender of all arms and other weapons in the hands of the terrorists and the resettlement of all those who had been displaced owing to violence”.
By even the most conservative estimates, to fulfil any of those conditions will take at least a year, at most, forever. Under the terms of the accord, elections to the provincial councils were to be held within three months, that is, October 29, or, “in any event before 31st December”.
That is now clearly impossible and the actual elections could be stalled indefinitely. Further, Indian negotiators are now unlikely to even consider the LTTE in any future provincial council set-up, which will rob it of much of its credibility in the eyes of the Tamil people.
Already, in Colombo, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party leader Srimavo Bandaranaike has challenged the constitutionality of the Provincial Council Bill in the Supreme Court. The bill, in any case, requires a two-thirds majority in Parliament to become part of the Constitution.
That step could now prove a major hurdle with the anti-accord JVP having started a terror campaign against ruling party MPs, having already killed three and, in other cases, members of their families. Under that kind of threat, their support for the bill is in serious question.
However, Jayewardene, by staying away from the Vancouver Commonwealth meeting, has demonstrated that he means to stick by the accord and use all his considerable political guile to keep his party and cabinet in line.
For him, considering the widespread opposition to the accord by the majority Sinhalese, the accord was as much of a gamble as it was for Rajiv. “The average Sinhalese may be gloating over the fact that we are doing their dirty work for them, but the fact is that Jayewardene is determined to ensure the accord works, however long it takes to implement,” says an Indian High Commision source in Colombo.
But so far, none of the initial clauses of the accord – the lifting of the emergency conditions in the north and east, the provincial council elections and the interim administration, disarming the militants – has been implemented.
If the Tigers continue to hold out against the IPKF, which is more than likely, the accord could collapse by default. The IPKF may have cleared one dangerous minefield but another, infinitely more dangerous one, lies ahead.
– with S.H. Venkatramani in Madras and M. Rehman in Pune