Friday, 31 August 2012

A para-military force par excellence

War on terror revisited: Part 38

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Subsequent to the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) in Feb 2002, the LTTE launched a series of protests targeting security forces bases and police stations in the then temporarily merged Northern and Eastern Province.

The LTTE ordered students and their parents to lead the protest campaign. They stormed Point Pedro Brigade headquarters on Sept. 2, 2002 and the Valaichenai police station on Oct. 1, 2002, inflicting considerable damage on those facilities. Their strategy was simple. The LTTE obviously felt that a sustained protest campaign directed at troops and police deployed in the region in the wake of Pongu Thamil rallies would undermine the GoSL’s authority. The GoSL didn’t adopt counter measures to control the situation. Instead, it brought pressure to bear on the media not to highlight the deteriorating situation (Students in Point Pedro style attack on V’chenai police––The Island Oct 2, 2002).

The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), comprising representatives from five countries turned a blind eye to what was going on in areas under security forces control. The SLMM and local monitoring groups did nothing to discourage the LTTE from taking advantage of the CFA. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) openly backed the LTTE campaign, while a section of the UNP-led UNP administration, too, supported the project.

Close on the heels of the attack on the Valaichenai police station, the LTTE targeted an isolated base held by the elite Special Task Force (STF) at Kanjirankudah, south of Batticaloa. Several hundred civilians launched a protest campaign on Oct 9, 2002 shortly after an incident involving STF personnel and two LTTE cadres, M. Visuvanathan, in charge of Pottuvil and Christy Rajah. The LTTE exploited the situation to launch the protest. The LTTE used civilians as a human shield to advance into the detachment, though the STF fired warning shots into the air. But, once the STF realised the LTTE’s strategy, the commandos opened fire, killing several persons. Protesters fled carrying the dead and the wounded. The STF recovered seven bodies. Of them, two were identified as Vijayaprakash and Nagarasa. To the surprise of many, Vijayaprakash was identified as one of those held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), but released consequent to the CFA (Released LTTEer among attackers killed with strap line SLMM in crisis talks over Kanjirankudah confrontation––The Island Oct 11, 2002).

Although the government reacted angrily to the STF’s action, it helped the GoSL to stabilise the situation. People resisted LTTE attempts to use children in protests, in the wake of the STF taking a tough stand. The government gave an interesting twist to the Kanjirankudah incident. It alleged that the Presidential Security Division (PSD) had been involved in the attack, prompting both the President’s Office and the PSD to issue statements. The then PSD head, DIG N. K. Illangakoon, a former Deputy Commandant of the STF (present IGP) said that his officers hadn’t even visited the base ahead of the incident (PSD denies presence at camp attack––The Island Oct 13, 2002). Shortly after the incident, the GoSL appointed SSP Nimal Lewke, the then deputy commandant of the STF as the senior officer in charge of troops deployed in the Ampara-Batticaloa sector (SSP Lewke for Ampara-Batticaloa sector––The Island Nov 8, 2002).

JRJ decision

It would be important to examine the formation of the para-military unit during President JRJ’s time in response to the threat posed by the LTTE. In fact, the decision to establish the unit was of the most important move made by the JRJ administration. The STF played a critical role in the war against terror, particularly in the Eastern theatre, as well as special operations in the city and its suburbs over a long period of time. During the eelam war (Aug 2006-May 2009) and the post-war era, the STF facilitated the overall combined forces strategy. Interestingly, the US assessment of Sri Lankan military conducted in 2002 didn’t focus on the STF, though the para-military unit was an integral part of the combined security forces strength.

Gradual expansion

Let the formation and gradual expansion of the STF be discussed briefly as it celebrates its 28th anniversary tomorrow (Sept 1) with a series of religious ceremonies to invoke blessings on those who paid the supreme sacrifice for the country.

Although the JRJ administration deployed the STF in the Jaffna peninsula in the aftermath of the July 1983 riots, subsequently, it reviewed the move. Instead, the STF was given the responsibility to bolster security in selected parts of the Eastern Province. A landmine blast in the Jaffna peninsula, the first major strike directed at the STF may have prompted the defence hierarchy to review its strategies with regard to the STF.

The STF lost four personnel on Sept. 1, 1984 at Tikkam on the Point Pedro –Valvettiturai road due to a landmine explosion. The blast wounded nine men. They were the first to die and receive injuries while serving the STF. At the conclusion of the war, the STF reported 462 killed and 792 wounded during the war.

The number of dead and wounded suffered by the STF, when compared with the SLA, may seem insignificant, though the contribution made by the unit to defeating terrorism was DEFINITELY NOT. The SLA lost 6,000 officers and men during eelam war IV alone, while some 27,000 received injuries.

The STF was set up in the early 1980s on the recommendations made by a committee, which studied the growing threat posed by Indian trained terrorist groups. One of the key recommendations was the establishment of a Special Strike Force (SSF), to strengthen the police. The initial group comprised 60 policemen released by the department to receive training at Katukurunda and at the SLA Combat Training School at Ampara under the guidance of the then Majors Ananda Weerasekera (now retired) and S. Manawadu. The SSF operated under the command of the then ASP Bodhi Liyanage. SSF personnel initially used SLR rifles, though they gradually acquired a range of new weapons to meet the threat. Among the weapons were US manufactured M 16 and German Heckler and Koch. They also acquired a range of mortars, including 120 mm used by the SLA.

Initial deployment

The SSF’s initial deployment was in the Jaffna peninsula, with the focus on Point Pedro, Valvettiturai and Kankesanthurai. As terrorist threats increased, the SSF was directed to support the PSD, at the expense of other security commitments.

The unit was brought under the Defence Ministry and the then SP Zerny Wijesuriya was placed in charge. It was named the Special Task Force on May 5, 1984. Wijesuriya was replaced by the then SSP, Lionel Karunasena, who made a tremendous contribution during an early stage of the conflict.

Thanks to Ravi Jayewardene, the then Security Advisor to President JRJ, the STF had an opportunity to receiving training from ‘Kini Mini Service’ (KMS), comprising former members of the British Special Air Services (SAS). The British personnel imparted their knowledge and expertise on a range of subjects, including tactics adopted by anti-riot squads, weapons training, firing practices, counter terrorism search, handling explosives, mapping, use of compass and first aid.

As the security situation rapidly deteriorated in the North, the government pulled out the SLA from Batticaloa in February 1985 for re-deployment elsewhere. The STF was given the challenging task of combating the terrorists. The STF had its first base at Kallady, while the then ASP N.K. Illangakoon (present IGP), commanded the police commandos deployed in the Batticaloa theatre.

The STF received the appreciation of the government and the security community for saving the Eravur police station from the LTTE on April 3, 1985. Subsequently, the STF took over security in the Ampara District as it expanded its network of bases to Kiran, Karadiyanaru, Kalawanchikudi and Akkaraipattu.

In August 1985, the STF began direct recruitment to meet manpower requirements. As part of its overall deployment, the STF set up a new command structure to cover Batticaloa North and South with the then ASPs, N. K. Illangakoon and Jayantha Gamage, respectively, in command of the two sectors. The STF had to deploy troops in support of the SLAF in the Ampara-Batticaloa sector. Additional camps had to be established to thwart attacks on Sinhala and Muslim farmers.

Post-IPKF deployment

With the end of eelam war I, the signing of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord on July 29, 1987, paved the way for the second JVP-led insurrection. The beleaguered UNP regime ordered the military, police, including the STF to counter the insurgency. The STF closed down some bases and moved troops to Moneragala, Walasmulla, Morayaya, Tangalle, Matara, Wellawaya, Yalabowa and Thanamalwila.

The STF was accused of excesses on several occasions during counter-insurgency operations. The STF had faced similar allegations during eelam war I, though the government strongly backed the elite unit. However, ‘Bolgoda killings’ caused irreparable damage to the STF’s reputation in the mid 1990s ,when some officers and men were found guilty of extra-judicial killings in the city and its suburbs. During eelam war IV, an ‘STF operation’ in Trincomalee, too, brought disrepute to the force, though overall it has been a well disciplined unit.

The then President R. Premadasa had confidence in the STF and felt that police commandos could be entrusted with any task. At the behest of Premadasa, the STF protected top LTTE delegates involved in talks with his government (April 1989 to June 1990) in spite of a section of the officers strongly opposing the move. Among those who had STF protection was the London-based Anton Balasingham, a former employee of the British High Commission in Colombo subsequently appointed chief LTTE negotiator. When eelam war II erupted in the second week of June, 1990, the STF had to escort a small group of LTTE personnel from the Colombo Hilton to the Ratmalana air base. They were airlifted to Palaly and allowed to leave the base safely as Premadasa and his chief negotiator made a desperate bid to bring the LTTE back to the negotiating table. 

The LTTE was confident of victory. Prabhakaran spurned fresh talks and went all out in the East. The STF was given the task of regaining the Ampara-Batticaloa sector. The STF launched operations on two fronts, with one column advancing from Lahugala (Moneragala), and the other via the Yala sanctuary.

In spite of fierce resistance, the multi-pronged STF advanced gradually which forced the LTTE to retreat. Had the STF failed to move in on time, the LTTE could have overrun the isolated SLA base at Arugambay. The then STF Commandant, Lionel Karunasena, provided exemplary leadership under difficult conditions. Under his command, the STF conducted several major operations to weaken the LTTE in the Batticaloa-Ampara sector.

The government brought military trained police platoons under the command of the STF in 1991 to facilitate the restoration of civil administration.

The Sri Lankan military received a respite from January 1994 to April 1995 when President Chandrika Kumaratunga initiated talks. CBK’s peace initiative was even shorter than that of Premadasa. The LTTE launched eelam war III in April 1995, with devastating surface-to-air missile attacks on the SLAF and underwater attacks, targeting two gunboats anchored at the Trincomalee harbour.

Pukukunawa battle

The LTTE realised the need to weaken the STF presence in the East and threw some of its best cadres at STF bases at Tikkodi, Porativu, Ambalanturai and Pulukunawa, though it never succeeded in causing major damage. The LTTE’s major success was at Pulukunawa. In November, 1996, the STF had to call for the SLA’s assistance to save its base at Pulukunawa. It was the heaviest attack on an STF base during the entire war. The STF regained the camp following a bloody battle. Ironically, Karuna Amman, who led the LTTE against the STF in the East today, received protection from the STF. The STF never allowed Karuna to take the initiative, though the experienced LTTE battlefield commander fought hard.

The LTTE assassinated SSP Upali Sahabandu on Nov. 19, 1996 at Kalmunakudi in the Kalmunai police area. The STF veteran Sahabandu was on his way from Batticaloa to Ampara when a suicide cadre rammed an explosive laden motor cycle into the top policeman’s jeep.

Deployment in Vavuniya

The STF expanded its deployment in 1998 with troops moving to Vavuniya during DIG Nimal Gunatilleke’s tenure as the Commandant of the force. The STF took over security in Vavuniya and Murunkkan divisions. Then SSP K. M. L. Sarathchandra (later received appointment as Commandant), was in overall command of the two divisions.

A desperate government moved a contingent of STF personnel to the north during SLA operations conducted by the then Major General Janaka Perera. Although the STF wasn’t geared for conventional high intensity battles on the northern theatre, the government felt the STF could assist the SLA.

The LTTE couldn’t sustain the momentum of its offensive action in spite of the collapse of the SLA’s 54 Division headquartered at Elephant Pass in April 2000 due to valiant efforts by those who fought under the command of the then Majors General, Janaka Perera and Sarath Fonseka. The then CBK government sent the two Majors General after repeated attempts to halt the LTTE offensive on the northern front failed. The then Deputy Defence Minister, Anuruddha Ratwatte strongly pushed for military action in Jaffna, regardless of the consequences.

Norwegian CFA

The Norwegian-arranged CFA came into operation in Feb. 2002, thereby giving the STF an opportunity to rest and prepare for the next battle. Although the government felt the LTTE was serious about the Norwegian initiative, the armed forces and the police were suspicious. They knew it was just a matter of time before the LTTE launched eelam war IV.

The STF had a critical role to play in eelam war IV. STF veteran DIG Nimal Lewke was at the helm of overall operations as the Commandant of the elite fighting force. Lewke made a major contribution in Sri Lanka’s war against terrorism and was an immense source of strength to successive governments.

The then SSP R. W. M. C. Ranawana was in charge of operations in the Batticaloa-Ampara theatre. Among the senior officers deployed the Batticaloa-Ampara theatre were SSP Ranjith Perera, SP Wimalasena, SP Ayasa Karumarathna, ASP Hadjee, ASP Patrick Silva, ASP Sylvester Wijesinghe, ASP Kalum Gunathunga, ASP Padiwita, ASP Vidura Dissanayake, ASP Gunarathne, ASP Ratthepitita and ASP Senadeera. Although the STF focused on the East, it had a sizeable presence in the Vanni theatre, under SSP Jayaweera, in support of the SLA.

‘Niyathai Jaya’

After several limited operations in October and December 2006, the STF launched ‘Niyathai Jaya’ operation on January 4, 2007 to clear strategically located LTTE bases in the Kanchikudichchi-aru jungles. Experienced LTTE cadres operated from these bases targeting villages in Siyambalanduwa, Lahugala, Hulannuge, Bakmitiyawa, Pannalgama and Manthottama. The LTTE also destabilised Akkaraipattu and Pottuvil, causing fear among local communities.

Karuna’s split weakened the LTTE, particularly in the East. Along with Karuna, several hundred experienced cadres quit the organisation and some of them threw their weight behind the SLA, thereby causing a debilitating setback. The LTTE never recovered from the split caused by Karuna.

The STF had 13 bases at Akkaraipattu, Tirukkovil, Sagama, Kanchankuda, Sangamankanda, Urani, 10th mile post, Sengamuweva, Arugambay, Lahugala, Sasthraweli and Panama to meet the threat emanating from Kanchikudichchiaru. The STF threw everything it had to meet the daunting task of conquering the LTTE stronghold. Unlike previous forays, ‘Niyathai Jaya’ wasn’t an isolated operation, but an important element in the overall military strategy. The STF had to secure Kanchikudichchiaru and hold it whatever the consequences, while the army conducted large scale offensive actions in the Eastern theatre.

The STF engaged in ‘Niyathai Jaya’ on the third day of action reached Kanchi tank and located the LTTE ‘Mahaweera’ cemetery. The following day, troops secured the LTTE political office, Col. Thileepan medical centre, about 450 houses belonging to LTTE ‘Mahaweera’ families and ‘Ponweera’ families in Thangawelayudapuram. Troops also came across a large ganja (cannabis) plantation among other crops. They also found two booby trapped motorcycles, one lorry and a massive food store. The LTTE retreated, believing it could come back once the STF withdrew. But that was never to be. At the end of two-week long operation, the STF set up new bases at Rufus Kulam, Kotte Vihara, Kanchikudichchi and Thangawelayudapuram.

The STF also joined the SLA in a major clearing operation to regain the A5 highway (Chenkaladi to Maha Oya), which further weakened the LTTE’s position.

Once the combined security forces secured the East in mid 2007, the STF facilitated the resettlement process. Some international agencies expressed surprise at the speed the STF had carried out the resettlement process. Lewke left the STF on March 23, though he continued to serve the department in a different capacity. He was succeeded by K. M. L. Sarathchandra, another experienced officer, who oversaw STF operations during the Vanni offensive.

As part of a plan to improve and enhance effectiveness, the STF set up several specialised units, including VIP Division, Bomb Disposal Unit, Jungle Warfare Unit and ‘Cheetah’

Those picked for the ‘Cheetah’ unit received training in special weapons, naval training in coastal defence, life saving, jungle warfare and special training on the lines of the SLA Special Forces. The present STF spokesperson ASP, Sylvester Wijesinghe commanded ‘Cheetah’, which carried out several raids, targeting the LTTE.

The STF also set up a special motor cycle unit in 1996 and had a para troopers unit as well as SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics), to provide visiting foreign dignitaries and sports teams with security.

The valuable services rendered by the communication specialists, who intercepted LTTE messages, thereby providing STF bases advance intelligence regarding impending LTTE assaults, too, should be commended. They provided advance intelligence regarding LTTE attacks on Tikkodai and Ambalanturai during a critical stage of the conflict.

Post-war responsibility

The STF is expected to maintain a smaller force to meet post-war challengers. The present STF commandant Ranawana strongly believes in the quality of troops. The strength of the elite arm of the police department isn’t in numbers, he believes.

Ranawana, who has served the STF for 28 years out of his 33-year career, said that the force comprised over 7,000 officers and men, though there was provision for a strength of 10,000.

Recently, the STF showed its class when it swung into action at the Vavuniya prison, after LTTE suspects held there seized control of the facility.

Explaining the post-war re-deployment pattern, DIG Ranawana said that troops operated from 58 bases in all parts of the country.

(Next installment on Sept 3 will focus on some naval operations during the CFA with comments fromformer SLN Commander, Wasantha Karannagoda)