Elephant Pass has been a defence base for Jaffna since 1760, during Portuguese rule. A military camp was built in 1952. The Sri Lankan Army held the base even when the LTTE controlled the peninsula from 1986 to 1995. The camp was a vital spring board for Army offensives such as Operation Yal Devi (name of Colombo-Jaffna train) in September 1993 and Operation Sath Jaya (Truth’s Victory) in July 1996. Over 1,000 Tigers died in an attempt to take the camp in July 1991.
In late March, the LTTE landed forces on the eastern coast of Jaffna and led by Task Force Commander Balraj, captured a section of the Kilinochchi-Jaffna road between Muhamalai and Palai, cutting off the main supply route to Elephant Pass. An Army operation to dislodge the Tigers achieved only a limited success.
The LTTE advanced south-west from the eastern coastal Maruthankerni area on 18 April and broke through Army defence to capture the key Puthukadu junction, bringing under control a six-km stretch of Kilinochchi-Jaffna road, between Palai and Iyakachchi. On 20 April, the Tigers turned south-east against Iyakachchi camp which was a defence base for Elephant Pass. The camp fell after heavy fighting and the Tigers moved further south.
The Elephant Pass base was encircled and all access routes were cut-off. Most of the troops in the camp escaped the onslaught and withdrew along the road leading north-west to Kilali. Deputy Defence minister Anuruddha Ratwatte says 358 soldiers including 21officers died. Some 2,240 soldiers and 128 officers were wounded and 346 are missing. The Tigers say they captured 152mm field guns, military vehicles and other heavy equipment. After raising the LTTE flag at Elephant Pass the Tigers moved west and overran Palai on 30 April.
The fall of Elephant Pass has sent shock waves through the government establishment. President Chandrika rushed back on 27 April from Britain where she was undergoing medical treatment. Appearing on Rupawahini TV on 30 April, she declared that the setback at Elephant Pass will not deter the government. Blaming everyone else for the debacle, she said there will be no peace talks unless the LTTE laid down arms. Two days earlier, the Colombo UN office had announced that its programmes in Jaffna, including landmine clearance, were suspended. UN emergency relief operations, however, would continue.
A delegation of the main opposition United National Party (UNP) led by Ranil Wickremasinghe met the President on 2 May to discuss the current status of the war. The President pledged to keep the opposition leader informed of the developments in Jaffna and the decisions of the government. Mr Wickremasinghe urged the government to remove censorship on the local media, which he alleged is leading to rumours and confusion.
The next day, President Chandrika introduced Emergency regulations (see Briefing May 2000) extending censorship to Sri Lanka-based foreign journalists. Apart from news relating to the war, comments about the President, government, judiciary and the constitution will be subject to censorship rules. The government set-up its own Media Information Centre at the Information Department in April.
The government declared that the country is on "war footing" giving itself powers to acquire buildings and other assets of persons found guilty under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and to force people to become involved in any service in the national interest. Development work considered non-essential are suspended for three months to divert funds to the war effort. Reports say that all ministries have been ordered to cut expenditure by 6%.
Armed force reserves have been called for service and reservists asked to report at the nearest military base before 10 May. There are also plans to increase the National Defence Levy to 6.5% from 5.5% to raise the immediate need of Rs 12 billion ($170 million) to acquire arms. Deputy Finance minister GL Peiris says Rs 10 billion ($143 million) worth additional treasury bills will be issued.
A new excise duty on cigarettes and liquor is expected to bring in Rs 1.5 billion. According to press reports, Defence Secretary Chandrananda de Silva is negotiating with governments of Britain, Czech Republic, Iran, Israel, Russia and Singapore for new weapons and equipment. Meanwhile, Pakistan has denied sending a ship load of arms to Colombo.
Concern has been expressed by governments and NGOs over the deteriorating situation in Sri Lanka. The Hong Kong-based Asia Human Rights Commission (AHRC) says continuing the war for political reasons must end and has urged the government and the LTTE to seize the opportunity for peace offered by the Norwegian involvement. AHRC has called on UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to decisively intervene as in several other conflicts.