Friday, 28 September 2012

A spate of military debacles in North

War on terror revisited: Part 50


An LTTE fighting formation on parade in Kilinochchi during Ceasefire Agreement brokered by Norway.

For want of a proper strategy, successive governments failed to meet the LTTE’s battlefield challenge. The SLA struggled in the face of LTTE tactics and combined operations launched by the Sea Tigers and others. The raids on Pooneryn-Nagathevanthurai in the Vanni mainland and Mandaithivu Island highlighted the need to change battlefield tactics. The storming of SLA defences at Sandillipay-Alaveddi in Waligamam, Jaffna revealed the vulnerability of troops advancing into areas held by the LTTE. Despite on and off debacles, those in power never bothered to take meaningful measures to rectify the shortcomings.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

A Court of Inquiry (CoI) appointed by the then Army Chief Lt. Gen. Cecil Waidyaratne to probe the worst single debacle faced by armed forces during the conflict up to Nov. 1993 exposed the negligence on the part of all levels of the SLA.

The CoI headed by the then Brig. T. N. de Silva found fault with several senior officers, including the then Brig. Lionel Balagalle (Director, Directorate of Military Intelligence), Brig. S. H. S. Kottegoda and Maj. Gen. Rohan De S. Daluwatte for their failure to thwart the multi-pronged LTTE attack. However, the CoI conveniently ignored the laxity on the part of Lt. Gen. Waidyaratne as well as the then General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Joint Operations Command (JOC) Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe.

The CoI revealed the chaotic situation in the Northern Province, where the SLA was struggling vis-a-vis growing LTTE threat.

The LTTE also destroyed a nearby SLN detachment at Nagathevanthurai aborting an ambitious GoSL attempt to cut off the enemy’s main supply route/access to the Jaffna peninsula. Although the CoI didn’t make any reference to the swift collapse of the SLN patrol station at Nagathevanthurai that particular operation codenamed ‘Frog Jump’ had been directed at both Pooneryn and Nagathevanthuai. The SLA and SLN lost 700 officers and men during the Nov. 1993 battles.

Had there been a joint inquiry conducted by all three services, the then government could have rectified the deficiency in joint offensive/defence strategy. Unfortunately, the Pooneryn debacle revealed serious differences between senior officers. A case in point was the then Northern Commander Daluwatte alleging that withdrawal of five battalions under his command to facilitate elections in the Eastern Province contributed to the crisis. Lt. Gen. Waidyaratne pointed out that he couldn’t have ignored a directive issued by GOC, JOC Gen. Wanasinghe for re-deployment of troops in the East ahead of elections. Waidyaratne asserted that the Northern Commander could have done his duty with men and material available for his command. An angry Waidyaratne placed the number of troops under Northern Command at 31,370 at the time of the attack.

The CoI also revealed that disciplinary action hadn’t been taken against those responsible for the previous debacle on the night of July 25, 1993 at Janakapura, where the LTTE overran the camp causing heavy losses. The LTTE killed 42 army personnel, including an officer and wounded 29 at Janakapura. A CoI, which investigated the circumstances under which the LTTE had stormed the SLA base at Janakapura, blamed the then Northern Commander Maj. Gen. Daluwatte and three others for the debacle, which also resulted in the loss of arms and ammunition worth about Rs. 20 mn.

The then President D. B. Wijetunga received the CoI report titled Pooneryn debacle on Dec 31, 1993. Lt. Gen. Waidyaratne, in the report commissioned by him alleged that army officers had been very complacent with the firm conviction that no amount of indiscipline or incompetence would be held accountable (Pooneryn debacle as outlined by Cecil – The Island Nov 28, 1994).

Waidyaratne replaced

The situation continued to deteriorate rapidly in the northern theatre with the LTTE launching attacks on selected targets both in the northern and eastern provinces. The Pooneryn-Nagathevanthurai debacle raised the number of personnel killed and missing in action to 1271 in 1993, the bloodiest year up to 1993. The number of the wounded was placed at 1,445. Later it was revealed that among the dead and wounded were recruits undergoing training.

On Dec 17, 1993, President Wijetunga announced the appointment of Maj. Gen. Gerry de Silva as Lt. Gen. Waidyaratne’s successor with effect from Jan 1, 1994. Interestingly, the announcement was made before Lt. Gen. Waidyaratne handed over ‘Pooneryn debacle’to President Wijetunga (Gerry appointed new army chief – The Island Dec 18, 1993).

The Second Gemunu Watch officer to command the SLA, Lt. Gen. de Silva took over the 90,000 strong force in the run-up to the Aug. 2004 elections. The ruling UNP and the Opposition SLFP didn’t care what was going on in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Both major political parties played politics at a crucial time at the expense of the war effort. A group of retired service commanders, Air Vice Marshal Paddy Mendis, Lieutenant Gen. Dennis Perera, Rear Admiral Basil Gunasekera, Rear Admiral Alfred Gunasekera and Air Vice Marshal Harry Goonetilleke proposed the setting up of a War Council to defeat terrorism.

The move gathered momentum due to the LTTE’s impressive battlefield victory on the Vanni front. The UNP and the SLFP ignored the proposal, though the retired group of service chiefs discussed the issue with both parties. Both parties felt that such an arrangement could hinder respective political strategies. On the other hand, the ruling UNP was in the midst of a political storm with one-time UNP rebel Gamini Dissanayake having talks with President Wijetunga to come back as the leader of the party. The UNP simply ignored the crisis in the North as it strove to strengthen the party in the face of increased political threat from CBK. In fact, negotiations between Dissanayake and President Wijetunga’s camp dominated the scene, while the war effort lost its importance (Gamini’s return to UNP imminent – The Island Jan 23, 1994).

Catholic clergy in peace bid

The military leadership soon realised that the UNP wasn’t keen on a major offensive, though it received the green light to launch a limited operation off Vavuniya in late April 1994. Codenamed Operation Jayamaga, it didn’t bother the LTTE so much, though the government tried to portray it as a huge success. In the run-up to the Operation Jayamaga the Catholic clergy had talks with the LTTE leadership in Jaffna in a bid to arrange a truce between the government and the LTTE. Sarvodaya leader A. T. Ariyaratne, too, was involved in the negotiations. The SLAF flew the then Anglican Bishop of Colombo Rev Kenneth Fernando and Sarvodaya leader Ariyaratne to Palaly in the first week of Feb 1994 for talks with the LTTE in Jaffna. Their visit followed the then Archbishop of Colombo Rt. Rev Nicholas Marcus Fernando meeting the LTTE (Anglican Bishop, A. T. in Jaffna for talks – The Island Feb 7, 1994). In spite of all peace efforts, low intensity fighting continued in the Northern and Eastern Provinces in the run-up to parliamentary polls on Aug 16, 1994. A few hours before the polling started, the LTTE sank two ships, one belonging to the SLN and the other of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority at the Kankesanthurai harbour. The then SLFP-led PA’s victory at the parliamentary poll caused chaos in the UNP. President Wijetunga openly sided with rebel Dissanayake, who was named the UNP presidential election candidate in the first week of Sept 1994. The UNP believed that Dissanayake could face CBK’s challenge at the Nov 1994 presidential poll. The LTTE, too, seemed to have felt that a victory for Dissanayake could make things difficult for it, particularly due to his good relations with India. The LTTE assassinated Dissanayake in Oct 1994 and paved the way for yet another round of talks with the GoSL. The LTTE-People’s Alliance honeymoon lasted for about 100 days. A cessation of hostilities, which came into operation in the first week of Jan 1995, collapsed on the night on April 19, 1995 when LTTE frogmen blasted two gunboats of Chinese origin. Just over a week later, the LTTE shot down two Avro transport aircraft killing 102 officers and men. The LTTE stepped up the offensive. The SLA was struggling on all fronts. In the wake of missile attacks on the Avros, the SLAF suspended flights to Palaly. The CBK administration buckled under heavy LTTE pressure. Obviously, the SLA couldn’t thwart LTTE moves, particularly in the north, where the SLA faced the daunting task of countering raids by amphibious forces. Obviously, the SLA had not adopted remedial measures even after the Pooneryn debacle.

The GoSL faced an unprecedented crisis in the Northern Province, with the LTTE making an attempt to cut off the Jaffna peninsula. Having destroyed the isolated SLN base at Nagathevanthurai, the LTTE controlled the Jaffna lagoon, though the SLA was present at Elephant Pass. The SLA base at Pooneryn didn’t pose any threat to Sea Tigers operations in the Jaffna lagoon. Most importantly, the LTTE had deployed shoulder fired heat seeking missiles in the Jaffna peninsula. Unprecedented missile attacks on Avros in April 1995 prompted the GoSL to acquire anti-missile equipment. But the LTTE was on the offensive.

Mandativu debacle

On the night of June 1995, the LTTE struck in Mandativu island. Within 12 hours, the LTTE killed 105 Gemunu Watch (GW) volunteers, including the acting Commander Kithsiri Dharmawardene, holding the rank of Captain. He was posthumously promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. The LTTE thwarted reinforcements from moving into Mandativu. The LTTE success at Mandativu highlighted the SLA weakness, whereas the LTTE showed exceptional fighting skills as against the army’s volunteers. In spite of repeated warnings that regular troops were needed at Mandativu, the SLA ignored the danger. The SLN escaped as it pulled out its troops from Mandativu during the previous year. The 10 GW had to be replaced due to heavy losses suffered by the formation. The LTTE issued a statement from London claiming that it had lost only eight cadres, including seven ‘officers.’ Although the SLA remained silent on the issue of its personnel falling into the hands of the LTTE, the enemy captured over 30 soldiers during raids on Janakapura (July 1993) Pooneryn (Nov 93) and Mandaitivu (June 1995). The LTTE used some of the Inshore Patrol Craft seized from the SLN to carry out the attack. Later 10 GW troops claimed that fixed wing aircraft believed to be Argentine Pucaras flew over the island, though they didn’t engage the enemy (Army death toll rises to 105 – The Island June 30, 1995). Fearing LTTE missile attacks, the SLAF didn’t engage enemy targets either on the ground or boats ferrying captured arms, ammunition and equipment from Mandaitivu island to Jaffna (Mandaitivu attack: LTTE SAMs prevented air cover being given – The Island July 3, 1995). Under heavy pressure in the north, the SLA vacated some of its isolated bases in the East to reinforce northern forces. Among the vacated bases were those in the Vakarai area. Thousands of troops moved out of the Batticaloa District leaving the LTTE to regain control of the area. The SLA was under pressure both in the north as well as east.

‘Leap Forward’

On 9th of July 1995, the SLA launched its first major offensive in the north in a bid to restore civil administration in the Jaffna peninsula, but it couldn’t be sustained. At the onset of the offensive, the LTTE withdrew giving confidence to those spearheading the operation launched. On the sixth day of the operation, the LTTE mounted a multi-pronged assault targeting SLA deployed at Sandilippai-Alaveddi area forcing troops to retreat. Unable to repulse the attack, the SLA called for urgent air support. In spite of the LTTE missile threat, the SLAF launched attack aircraft from Palaly air base. An LTTE missile blew up an IA 58A Pucara, a twin-turboprop aircraft over Sandillippai forcing the SLAF to suspend operations. The aircraft was one of the four acquired at a cost of $ 11 mn from Argentina in late 1992. The SLA lost over 100 officers and men during the week-long operation, while the number of wounded was estimated at 200. The SLA initially said that adjustments would be made in the deployment to retain the newly liberated area (No pull out from liberated area – The Island July 19, 1995). A few days later, the SLA quietly abandoned that area. It was nothing but a major embarrassment for the government and the military. The SLA acknowledged that perhaps the timing of the operation had gone wrong. What it didn’t say was that the LTTE was rapidly building up its forces in the Jaffna peninsula for a major offensive. It wasn’t too difficult to realise that Palaly air base was the primary target, though there could be diversionary attacks, most probably on Elephant Pass. Amidst accelerated LTTE preparations, the LTTE intensified attacks in other parts of the country. On the morning of Aug 7, 1995, a bomb explosion outside the Office of the Chief Minister of the Western Provincial Council Susil Premjayanth killed 23 persons and wounded about 50. The bomb was hidden in a cart of king coconut which was being pushed by an LTTE operative when it prematurely exploded. (Bomb blast in Colombo kills 23, nearly 50 wounded –The Island Aug 8, 1995).

On the morning of July 30, 1995, a pressure mine blast off Valaichenai claimed the life of Brig. Nalin Angammana, the General Officer Commanding (GOC) Army’s Third Division. Brig. Angammana was returning to his base after inspecting an SLA detachment which was attacked by the LTTE a few hours before. The SLA was on the defensive on all fronts, though it realised a major effort was needed to regain the initiative. But the LTTE planned to deliver a knockout blow in late July as the SLA was busy preparing for its most ambitious ground offensive in the entire conflict, Operation Riviresa to liberate the Jaffna peninsula.