Incisive Strategy & Tactics behind the Defeat of the LTTE in 2006-09

Serge De Silva Ranasinghe …  This article was first available online at jir. on 11 November 2009, where it carries this title: “Good Education: Sri Lankan military learns insurgency lessons”*++*

A SUMMARY: In May 2009, the Sri Lankan government declared victory in the country’s brutal civil war. Sergei De  Silva-Ranasinghe examines the effectiveness of the military tactics that helped defeat the LTTE. … While The Editor Thuppahi has imposed highlighting to stress some key aspects

Sri Lanka’s victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009 offers insights and lessons in confronting an intractable and formidable insurgency. To achieve victory, Sri Lanka expanded its army and adopted new tactics for the largest military campaign in the country’s history. Determined leadership and superior manpower were ultimately decisive in a war that killed as many as 22,000 rebels and over 5,000 soldiers.


The maps indicate the Sri Lankan military’s advance through the country, the various operations that led to the capture of insurgents and the LTTE’s gradual downfall over the past four years.


In many respects, the final phase of Sri Lanka’s long-running conflict with the LTTE was very different from other insurgencies. Although infamous as a pioneer of asymmetric tactics, including suicide bombings, the LTTE had transformed itself into a relatively conventional enemy by the time the conflict re-escalated in 2006. Having developed a separatist state, complete with ground, maritime and air forces, it was determined to hold territory and had be- come dependent on maritime supply lines.

The Sri Lankan military exploited these vulnerabilities, using its superior manpower in a war of attrition on the front lines, while special forces aggressively raided LTTE rear areas. At the same time, the navy exploited the advantages of fighting on an island by cutting the group’s maritime supply lines. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Sri Lanka’s military campaign was its success in containing the LTTE and preventing it from sustaining a campaign across the country.


A key reason for Sri Lanka’s victory over the LTTE was the ability of the country’s political leadership to harness the required financial and human resources. This effort was led by Mahinda Rajapakse, who was elected president in November 2005, and immediately appointed his brother Gotabaya Rajapakse, a retired lieutenant colonel, to the key position of defence secretary. Known as a pragmatist and a reformer, Gotabaya Rajapakse promoted General Sarath Fonseka (at the time a lieutenant general, now chief of defence staff) as the commander of the army. Together, they oversaw a major expansion and restructuring of the military.

The LTTE was led by Velupillai Prabhakaran, one of the founders of the Tamil separitist movement. A ceasefire in December 2001 had left Prabhakaran in control of much of Sri Lanka’s northern and eastern provinces and enabled the LTTE to develop its separatist state.

However, there was disharmony in the LTTE between northern Tamils, who dominated the group, and their ethnic counterparts in the east. In 2004, an LTTE commander in the east, Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan (alias ‘Colonel’ Karuna Amman), broke away with around 3,000 fighters. The so-called Karuna Group disbanded its forces and went underground with 500-600 fighters, before defecting to the government.

Fearing infiltration by the Karuna Group, the LTTE could no longer rely on the loyalties of eastern Tamils and consequently recruitment diminished. Hence, the LTTE strength in the eastern province never regenerated to more than around 4,000 fighters. Most LTTE senior commanders in the east were northern Tamils who could not compete with the Karuna Group’s intimate local knowledge of the population and terrain.

The LTTE’s ability to control the eastern province was further undermined by demographic obstacles. Large populations of ethnic Sinhalese and Muslims were strongly anti-LTTE and the Tamil population was increasingly divided be-tween loyalties to the LTTE and the Karuna Group. Unlike the northern province, which is overwhelmingly dominated by ethnic Tamils, the eastern province turned into an increasingly hostile environment for the LTTE.

Escalation in the east

Given this weak position, it is perhaps surprising that the group chose to re-escalate the conflict in the east in August 2006, when it closed the Mavil Aru sluice gate, depriving over 20,000 farmers in government-controlled areas of irrigation water. Consequently, the government was forced to launch a limited military operation to capture the sluice gate.

The LTTE further escalated hostilities in 2006 by launching a major offensive against five military bases south of Trincomalee, a strategic port town in the eastern province, with the apparent objectives of distracting the military away from Mavil Aru and isolating Trincomalee’s naval dockyard so that it could not be used to supply the nearly 50,000 troops defending the northern Jaffna peninsula. Nonetheless, the LTTE was defeated at Mavil Aru, and its offensive south of Trincomalee was repelled.

The Sri Lankan military subsequently retook the initiative by launching its own offensive in the eastern province. Over a period of time, key LTTE-controlled areas started falling into army hands, such as Muttur and Sampur, Verugal Aru and subsequently Vakarai, its last semi-urban stronghold in the eastern province. Similarly, the Sri Lanka Police’s (SLP) paramilitary arm, the Special Task Force, overran 12 LTTE camps in the southern recesses of the eastern province, which channelled insurgent units towards the remote Toppigala jungles, the last LTTE redoubt in the eastern province.

Meanwhile, with the Karuna Group harassing its supply lines and attacking isolated outposts, the LTTE in the eastern province increasingly operated more like a conventional army of occupation, rather than an insurgent force,      arresting and killing Tamils suspected of being Karuna loyalists or informants.

The army \exploited its inherent advantages to push the rebels towards the Toppigala jungles, which were overrun by August 2007. The army’s victory in the east led to the recapture of an estimated 6,500 sq km of territory previously controlled by the LTTE, destroyed the group’s conventional military capability in the region and left it unable to conduct anything more than low-intensity operations.

Thereafter, the eastern province was largely held by the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF), Sri Lanka Navy (SLN), SLP and the Civil Defence Force militia (formerly known as Home Guard) in collaboration with the Karuna Group. This enabled the army to concentrate its troops for the much larger campaign looming in the Vanni, the LTTE’s main stronghold in the island’s north.

Conventional enemies

The army went on the offensive in the north in March 2007, at a time when the LTTE was still being encircled and reduced in the east. Progress was initially slow as the LTTE fought hard to hold its territory. Gen Fonseka told Jane’s: “The LTTE for the last so many years had been holding onto this land and believed in not giving even an inch of land. They thought they had developed a conventional army capability. They never wanted the army to capture even a small village.”

In anticipation of a prolonged and bloody military campaign the LTTE developed a series of static defence lines. Three-metre-high earth embankments, known as bunds, and ditch-cum- bund (DCB) fortifications were built using civilian labour. They usually stretched for several kilometres and were designed to forestall or delay the army by inflicting heavy casualties. The army encountered numerous such obstacles. For example, the 55th division overran 14 bunds and DCBs when it recaptured the LTTE’s positions in the south of the Jaffna peninsula and advanced down the northeastern coastline. The 59th division encountered six earth bunds and DCBs near and alongside the northeastern coastline. The largest LTTE DCB fortifications stretched 22km from Nachchikuda to Akkarayankulam, with a 12km long DCB line in defence of Kilinochchi, the de facto rebel capital.

Describing how the LTTE defended its positions, Gen Fonseka said: “wherever there were large open areas, the LTTE constructed bunds, and fire positions and a lot of artillery fire was targeted onto the area in front of the bund. The whole area in front of the bund was fully mined, a large amount of anti-personnel mines, even anti-tank mines, and so it becomes like a killing ground.”

At the same time, the static nature of the LTTE’s defensive lines allowed the Sri Lankan military to bring the full weight of its superior firepower to bear. While the army used artillery and other indirect fire weapons to reduce the LTTE fortifications, the SLAF provided additional close air support as well as aerial reconnaissance.

The LTTE offensive strategy was based on conventional artillery barrages followed by infantry assaults. The first major rebel offensive in the north was launched on 11 August 2006, when the group presumably hoped the Sri Lankan military was distracted in the east. It began with a massive artillery bombardment on the Muhamalai defence line, which divided the LTTE forces on the Jaffna peninsula from government forces to the north, followed by amphibious attacks at other strategic locations.

While the rebels made initial gains, the army held its ground and launched counter-attacks, which rapidly evicted the LTTE from its newly captured positions. Heavy fighting continued at Muhamalai until the army recaptured its original positions on 26 August.


Boots on the ground

This set the pattern for the conflict, with the LTTE launching localised counter-attacks, and sometimes pushing the army back. However, the army’s setbacks were always temporary and the LTTE suffered heavy casualties in the process. Ultimately, the military’s increasing superiority in manpower would eventually turn the war in its favour.

The army’s initial success, in the east and Jaffna peninsula, helped boost recruitment from 7,457 enlisted soldiers in 2006, to 36,021 in 2007, and 33,457 in 2008. New offensive formations were raised – the 57th division in February 2007; 58th division (initially known as Task Force 1) in Sep- tember 2007; the 59th division in January 2008, Task Force 2 in November 2007; Task Force 3 in November 2008, and Task Force 4 in December 2008.


These new formations benefited from the expansion of the Special Infantry Operations Team (SIOT) programme. First introduced by Gen Fonseka in 2002, the SIOT concept emphasises small unit infantry operations. The SIOT training programme involves a one-month basic commando endurance course, with graduates receiving four and a half months of additional training in jungle warfare, explosives handling, medic training and using signals communica- tions to co-ordinate artillery and airstrikes.

Upon completion of training, the SIOTs were deployed to offensive formations, with each rifle company allocated six teams that acted as reconnaissance units and field instructors to uplift infantry standards and impart their skills. Over 30,000 infantrymen were SIOT trained by the end of 2008. Gen Fonseka told Jane’s: “They were very well trained soldiers who could oper- ate independently for a limited time. When the war started, we could push them into jungles ef- fectively, supported by Special Forces and Commandos, which put the LTTE off-balance on the ground.”

The new divisions undertook the bulk of the fighting in the north. The 58th division focused on sealing the northwest coastline and opening a direct road link to the Jaffna peninsula. The 57th division’s main goal was the capture of Kilinochchi, and the 59th division concentrated on sealing the northeastern coastline and capturing the LTTE command and logistical headquarters at Puthukudirippu. Meanwhile, the 53rd and 55th divisions, which previously gar- risoned the Jaffna peninsula, forced the LTTE to commit forces to prevent a breakthrough on its northern front.

To a large extent the army’s numerical superiority ensured it could maintain the initiative, despite heavy casualties. From 2006-2009 the army claimed to have lost 191 officers and 5,082 other ranks killed, and 901 officers and 27,221 other ranks wounded (an approximate killed to wounded ratio of 1:6). Officer casualties were so high that over 1,500 sergeants and corporals were commissioned to meet shortages and operational exigencies.

Gen Fonseka told Jane’s: “With only one division [57th] northwest of Vavuniya, we were killing about 10 terrorists a day. When we inducted the Mannar division [58th], then again they were also killing about seven to eight LTTE [per day], so then we were killing over 15 LTTE a day. When I inducted the eastern flank division [59th] in 2008 January, they were also killing about seven to eight cadres a day, so it went up to about over 20 a day.”

The LTTE only belatedly realised that it lacked the manpower and material resources to face a massive and sustained conventional campaign. From a recruitment and retention perspective, the loss of the eastern province and the deaths of many experienced LTTE fighters formed a critical blow to its finite manpower resources. This may explain why most of the remaining LTTE fighters in the eastern province, estimated at between 600 and 800, were ordered to return to the Vanni.

Sri Lankan troops fire a multi-barrel rocket launcher at Tamil Tiger targets close to Thoppigala, about 240 km (149 miles) northeast of Colombo, Sri Lanka, 10 July 2007

The LTTE suffered steadily higher casualties throughout the conflict. The army claimed to have killed over 1,700 LTTE fighters in 2006, over 4,800 in 2007, over 8,300 in 2008 and more than 7,200 in the first five months of 2009. The LTTE resorted to pressing thousands of Tamils into service, but the group could do little to replace its fallen veteran commanders and fighters.

Behind enemy lines

Beyond major conventional engagements, the LTTE also used tactics such as commando assaults, suicide bombings and assassinations behind enemy lines. The Tigers were already renowned for such operations, with possibly the highest-profile attack carried out by Black Tiger suicide commandos being the assault on the Bandaranaike International Airport, which is also home to the SLAF’s Katunayake Air Base, in July 2001. Eight SLAF and three Sri Lankan Airlines aircraft were destroyed and others were damaged. The LTTE has also carried out numerous high-profile assassinations in the course of the three-decade conflict, being the only insurgent group to assassinate two heads of state.

However, although such attacks were used during the 2006-2009 war, they did not alter the course of the war. Attempts to assassinate Gotabaya Rajapakse and Gen Fonseka failed, although the army’s deputy chief of staff and two ministers were killed. The most successful Black Tiger attack was carried out against Anuradhapura Air Base in October 2007. Although devastating, the raid did not inflict the same kind of damage as the July 2001 assault. A Sea Tiger attack on the naval base at Galle in October 2006 damaged, but did not destroy, SLN vessels.

The LTTE’s bombers and assassins were supplemented by the group’s nascent air wing. Flying civilian light aircraft adapted to carry improvised bombs, the Air Tigers scored a series of propaganda successes and forced the SLAF to spend large amounts of money on anti-aircraft defences. However, the Air Tigers had little real impact in terms of destroying key targets or inflicting casualties.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the LTTE campaign was its failure to mount sustained guerrilla operations behind the frontline. The LTTE attempted to infiltrate guerrillas through army lines throughout the 2006-2009 war, but these teams were often rapidly eliminated owing to constant army offensive operations and adequate troop density in cleared areas. In the closing months of the war, when it had become clear that the LTTE was near defeat, the group made desperate attempts to infiltrate fighters through the frontlines merging with thousands of civilians crossing over to army lines at night. Some LTTE infiltrations caused problems, but again the army had sufficient reserves in rear areas to eliminate these groups.

In contrast, Sri Lankan special forces proved effective in projecting force behind LTTE lines. The Commando Regiment was expanded from three to five regiments and the Special Forces Regiment grew from three to five regiments. Operating either in four- or eight-man teams, special forces were used extensively, frequently infiltrating LTTE-controlled areas to gather intelligence, jamming communications, attacking listening posts, and ambushing rebel reconnaissance teams, convoys and field commanders.

Gen Fonseka told Jane’s: “We had eight-man teams operating very effectively, infiltrating LTTE lines and hitting them from the flanks and rear and inflicting a lot of casualties. In the jungle they also found that our soldiers were hitting them from all directions. So they found it very uncomfortable in the jungles. Sometimes they used bulldozers to clear the jungles to create a field of fire to ensure that we did not have cover to hit them from the flanks or rear.”

These operations forced the LTTE to restrict the movement of its field commanders and redeploy over 5,000 fighters that were sorely needed at the frontline to undertake sweeps and force protection duties in rear areas.

The Vanni Pocket

The LTTE found itself increasingly encircled after the 58th division sealed the northwest coast and linked up with troops on the Jaffna peninsula. The battle for Kilinochchi raged for over two months, but the LTTE finally withdrew in December 2008, when the 58th division’s advance towards Paranthan, a key road junction north of Kilinochchi, threatened to encircle the rebel capital. The LTTE then conducted a fighting retreat eastwards, resisting pressure from seven army divisions and taskforces that were advancing nearly 1km a day on all fronts.

As the battle shifted to the northeastern Mullaitivu jungles, the LTTE resorted to desperate delaying tactics that included the use of CS gas, and blasting the Kalmadukulam Tank (reservoir) embankment releasing torrents of water. It also attempted, but failed, to blow up the Iranamadu Tank embankment. However, these delaying actions failed to stall the army advance, which by late January 2009 had contained the LTTE into a shrinking area referred to as the ‘Vanni Pocket’ around its urban strongpoint of Puthukudirippu.

From late January to April the LTTE launched at least four major counter-attacks interspersed by numerous smaller local counter-attacks to breakthrough army lines and escape into the Mullaitivu jungles. Anticipating such a move, one infantry division and four special forces squadrons were deployed as strategic reserves to counter LTTE penetrations. In one major attack, the LTTE pushed back Task Force 4 around 4km from its original positions.

In late April, at the battle of Anandapuram near Puthukudirippu, the army inflicted the worst battlefield defeat of the entire conflict on the LTTE, killing over 600 veteran fighters and forcing the LTTE to retreat into its last stronghold, the government-demarcated ‘Civilian Safe Zone’.

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, left, shakes hands with Sri Lankan Army commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka during a visit to newly liberated areas from Tamil Tiger rebels in Killinochchi, about 240 km (150 miles) north of capital Colombo, Sri Lanka, 16 April 2009.

End game

The final phase of the Sri Lankan war was marked by increasingly desperate attempts by the LTTE to encourage international intervention that would impose a ceasefire and force the government to end its offensive. To this end, the group exploited the civilian population that remained trapped in rebel-held ter- ritory. Realising the growing humanitarian crisis was the best chance of attracting foreign intervention, the LTTE tried to prevent the ci- vilians from fleeing so they could act as human shields. At the same time, pro-LTTE diaspora Tamils tried to mobilise opinion against Sri Lanka.

Tamil civilians held as hostages (willing and/or unwilling) flee LTTE space … april & May 2009

There was also the possibility that regional power India would intervene, as it had done in the past, especially if it came under significant pressure from its own Tamil population. How- ever, the conflict’s impact on India had already been limited by the sealing of the northwest coast, which prevented large numbers of Tamils fleeing across the Palk Strait. Meanwhile, India’s Congress government, which tacitly supported Sri Lanka in the sphere of strategic intelligence, maritime co-operation and air defence, showed no interest in saving the group that sent a suicide bomber to kill Congress’ then-president Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. The Sri Lanka conflict barely registered as a political issue during India’s March-April general elections, with only fringe politicians in Tamil Nadu openly sup- porting the LTTE.

While the Sri Lankan government came under growing international pressure to cease op- erations amid concerns over civilian casualties, it remained determined to conclusively defeat the LTTE. To minimise these civilian casual- ties, the military sent special forces, commandos and around 70 highly-trained and experienced army snipers to neutralise LTTE targets in the Civilian Safe Zone. In the final months, the snipers claimed daily tallies averaging between 30-60 confirmed kills (army snipers accounted for over 2,800 kills during the conflict). Frontline infantry units supported by commandos and special forces secured the Civilian Safe Zone segment by segment and evacuated hundreds of thousands of civilians.

On 19 May, the army finished clearing remaining pockets of resistance and succeeded in eliminating the LTTE senior leadership, including Prabhakaran, along with the majority of its remaining hardcore fighters, bringing the conflict to a decisive end.

The definitive conclusion to this conflict, with the LTTE’s leaders killed or arrested, appears to have ended the insurgent’s group activity, for the time being and perhaps permanently. Since the defeat, there has been only sporadic Tamil vio-lence in Sri Lanka and the remnant of the LTTE living overseas has attempted to rebrand itself as a government in exile claiming to have renounced violence. The tactics and strategy adopted by the Sri Lankan military and unified leadership shown by the Rajapakses, despite international criticisms over the conduct of some operations, therefore appear to have been highly successful in ending a sporadic, three-decade civil war. ■


*++* The intricate & difficult task of converting De Silva-Ranasinghe’s three-column article into a form suited to Thuppahi was handled by Retd Gp Captain Kumar Kirinde.

The Editor, Thuppahi has also taken the liberty of adding some of his stock of illustrative photographs to underline the points made by De Silva-Ranasinghe. A whole heap of illustrations and essays can also be found in the two volume book presented by Vijitha Yapa Publications as TAMIL PERSON & STATE, ESSAYS …. and …. TAMIL PERSON & STATE. PICTORIAL (Colombo 2014).



Filed under accountability, atrocities, authoritarian regimes, Eelam, ethnicity, historical interpretation, insurrections, landscape wondrous, life stories, LTTE, military strategy, performance, photography, politIcal discourse, power politics, security, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, Tamil civilians, tamil refugees, Tamil Tiger fighters, trauma, unusual people, war reportage, world events & processes

5 responses to “Incisive Strategy & Tactics behind the Defeat of the LTTE in 2006-09

  1. A comment from ‘tangential Tamil sniper’. Serge De Silva Ranasinghe’s account is compelling, BUT incomplete. Did the Sri Lankan (or better word is, Sinhalese) army show any iota of moral strength to their vanquished rivals? I opt for the use ‘Sinhalese army’, because the ethnic composition percentage in the armed forces, misrepresents the ethnic composition of the island.

    Serge should have addressed the two following questions.
    (1) What happened to the LTTE souls who surrendered?
    (2) How those who surrendered were treated by the Sri Lankan army in the post May 19, 2009 days? How many among the surrendered were killed without due investigation?

  2. Rex Olegasegarem

    It is disappointing that the Thuppah’s blog is resurrecting the unfortunate war that ended about 15 years ago. It is an “old hat” now. Why not deal with the corruption perpetrated by the subsequent Rajapakse Governments leading to the rejection of the Rajapakses especially by the youth. . To the credit of Ranil Wickremasinghe , he has brought about some normality with his political skill although still protecting the Rajapakses . The Rajapakses deserve to be made accountable for past atrocities and corruption.

  3. This is my view of Rex’s thoughts. He is partly correct and partly wrong. Mistaken assumption of Rex is that Tuppahi’s blog has to play the role of a journalist. But, by training Michael Roberts is a historian and one of the functions of historians is to chew their favorite cuds till their death. Michael’s favorite cuds for over two decades is LTTE and Prabhakaran. As such, he is entitled to chew what he opts for.

    Now, to a point, which I had missed in my earlier comment, but reminded from Rex’s observations about the Rajapaksa tribe. In the original article by Serge (written in Nov 11, 2009), one can note that he had quoted Sarath Fonseka repeatedly. Michael, in his highlighting had conveniently forgotten to make a note of Sarath Fonseka’s 2016 observation on the vanity of Rajapaksas. I quote from AFP newsreport, published in the Hindu (Chennai) newspaper, dated May 4, 2016.

    “Sri Lanka’s former army chief told Parliament on Tuesday that a bomb blast apparently targeting former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother 10 years ago was an ‘inside job’ to win sympathy for the then-ruling family….’No terrorist will set off a suicide bomb 25 meters away from the intended target’, Mr. Fonseka told parliament during a debate on scaling down military security granted to the former strongman leader….”

    I wonder how will Serge respond to this belated revelation by Sarath Fonseka. Will Tuppahi’s blog tackle either Sarath or Serge on this issue for some clarity?

  4. Hiran Halangode

    My response to Mr. Sachi Sri Kantha is that Terrorism affects everybody and doesn’t differentiate ethnicity, religion, caste, politicians or communities. There are no good or bad terrorists, ONLY DEAD TERRORISTS.
    The LTTE killed more Tamils than the Security Forces. Note that they killed Tamil politicians, academics and many innocent Tamil civilians including the old, the feeble, the weak and the young who opposed them.
    Who would join the Armed Forces when such terror was unleashed on their own communities. What happened to all the other Tamil militant organisations including, (to one Mr. Sri Kantha’s) TELO organisation. Tamil politicians, like their Sinhala, Muslim and Burgher comrades, must put Country before their party or their community interests. Sri Lanka belongs to all communities and not to the majority or the minorities. So, as long as we are divided and have no unity in the country, we will face further violence and remorse.
    Over 12,000 Tamil youth were rehabilitated and released to the community at government expense. Be grateful and not resentful.
    Remember over 370 LTTE suicide cadres over a period of 23 years killed scores of combatants, civilians and innocent bystanders including those Tamil civilians who were saved by the Security Forces whilst escaping from the ruthless terrorists. In conflict it is difficult to separate the innocent from the ruthless terrorist cadres.
    Yes, the country leadership must apologise for the deaths of the innocent, but the public must be reminded that the sacrifice and dedicated service of the Security Forces is forever remembered.
    Thus it is time to forgive (individually) and reconcile (collectively) to live peacefully and not to spread hatred, contempt and disgust. May all beings be HAPPY.

  5. I appreciate Hiran Halangode’s thoughts on my views, for it’s twisted fibs on history. First, he should contemplate who played the government-sponsored role of ‘terrorists’ in 1950s, before LTTE originated? The ethnic proportion of the armed forces in the island was distorted to Sinhala-Buddhist recruitment in 1962.

    Hiran is entitled for his own views. And I cannot engage in teaching or correcting his distortion via this readers’ comments section of Tuppahi blog. But please permit me to rebut an allusion to my namesake mentioned as “to one Mr. Sri Kantha’s) TELO organisation”. As far as I know, there was one N. Srikantha in TELO militant group. I’m NOT related to this Sri Kantha individual. And I was NOT a member of any Tamil militant group in the past or present.

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