Thursday, 20 September 2012

An unprecedented sea blockade off M’tivu

War on terror: Part 47


Soon after the then Rear Admiral Somathilake Dissanayake assumed the Northern Command, Kankesanthurai was quickly transformed into a fortress to face a possible LTTE onslaught. The SLN feared that KKS could be targeted by a strong raiding party comprising attack craft and explosive-laden stealth craft. On Dissanayake’s directions, every available weapon was moved to the coast. In an exclusive interview with The Island, the outgoing SLN Chief Vice Admiral Dissanayake said that he had believed in maximum fire power. The SLN had a range of about 500 ‘big’ guns deployed along Kankesanthurai coast to target enemy vessels.  

by Shamindra Ferdinando

SLN headquarters Jan 15, 2011: Vice Admiral Somathilake Dissanayake succeeds VA Thisara Samarasinghe as the 17th Commander of the silent service.

As the army made crucial territorial gains on the Vanni front, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa urged the LTTE leadership to surrender or face the consequences. The Gajaba Regiment veteran said that the SLA had cut off Kilinochchi from three sides and was poised to overrun the town. Rajapaksa recalled LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s claim that the liberation of Kilinochchi was nothing but a day dream of President Mahinda Rajapaksa (Fall of K’nochchi imminent, Gota asks LTTE to surrender: Army regains Paranthan, Iranamadu junctions, poised to intensify operations east of A9––The Island Jan 2, 2009).

The SLA brought Kilinochchi under its full control on Jan. 2, 2009 as the LTTE rapidly retreated on the Vanni east front fueling speculation among the military top brass that a sea rescue attempt of the top LTTE leadership was inevitable. The SLN was under heavy pressure to ensure that the LTTE wouldn’t succeed in either breaking out through a naval cordon off Mullaitivu or taking advantage of civilians fleeing in boats. The military felt that the LTTE would mount an all out attack on SLN units deployed off Mullaitivu to facilitate the evacuation of the LTTE leadership. The SLN top brass acknowledged the possibility of a last ditch rescue attempt by the LTTE as President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa ruled out a ceasefire under any circumstances. They insisted that the Tigers trapped on the Vanni east front were left with no alternative but to give themselves up unconditionally.

The then SLN Chief Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda took a series of measures to thwart a possible LTTE breakout. The then Director General Operations (DGO) Rear Admiral D. W. A. S. Dissanayake was given the unenviable task of spearheading the operation in his new capacity as the senior officer in charge of North (COMNORTH). Dissanayake succeeded Rear Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe on Jan 9, 2009.

In an exclusive interview with The Island on the eve of his retirement, Vice Admiral Dissanayake said that it was the most challenging task given to him during his over three decades long career. In fact, it had been one of the most difficult challenges faced by the SLN during the conflict, Dissanayake said, adding that the failure on their part to prevent the LTTE leadership from fleeing the country could have had catastrophic consequences.

Having served as the 17th Commander of the SLN in the 3-star rank of Vice Admiral since Jan 15, 2011, Dissanayake, WV, RSP & Bar, VSV, USP, ndc, will retire on Sept 26, 2012.

Shortly after the conclusion of the conflict in May 2009, Dissanayake received the appointment as Chief of Staff in July 2009.

Sea barrier off Mullaitivu

The writer had an opportunity to observe the naval blockade in place in the last week of April 2009. At Chalai and Chundikulam off Mullaitivu, the SLN set up temporary bases to launch small boat operations in support of Fast Attack Craft (FACs) deployed to check LTTE movements. Addressing a group of visiting journalists at Chundikulam, the then Northern Commander Dissanayake declared that LTTE leadership couldn’t have cut through the SLN cordon. Dissanayake said that the SLN was fully equipped to meet the LTTE challenge on the Mullaitivu seas, though some claimed that Prabhakaran would be able to escape. A confident Dissanayake said that the SLN had deployed a sizeable force comprising a range of craft off the no-fire zone on the north-eastern coast.

The military felt that the loss of about 500 LTTE cadres in the bloodiest single battle on the Vanni east front in the first week of April, 2009 would prompt the top LTTE leadership to flee the country. A three-day offensive launched by three fighting formations, 58 Division, 53 Division and Task Force VIII on April 1, 2009 caused the rapid collapse of the LTTE’s conventional fighting capability. Fearing a possible LTTE attempt to escape, the SLN conducted a 24-hour watch. The battle, which claimed the lives of experienced LTTE commanders, including Theepan caused irrevocable damage to the outfit. (Tiger force annihilated near Mullaitivu no-fire zone––The Island April 6, 2009).

The SLN had over 80 vessels, including Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) deployed off Mullaitivu. The SLN had to watch two fronts. On the one hand, the SLN had to ensure that the LTTE wouldn’t attempt to deploy a fast ship to evacuate Prabhakaran and his family. Two fighter jets were kept at China Bay to face any eventuality. And on the other hand, the SLN was under tremendous pressure to prevent the LTTE leadership from mingling with civilians and fleeing Mullaitivu in boats. The LTTE could also have mounted an all out suicide attack on the SLN cordon with all its remaining assets hence give an opportunity for the senior leadership to escape.

The outgoing SLN Chief said that anything would have been possible if the SLN had made the slightest mistake. In spite of severe constraints, those officers and men deployed on the Mullaitivu front had performed exceptionally, he said. The OPVs had been out at sea, whereas the Special Boat Squadron (SBS) and the Rapid Action Boat Squadron (RABS) were positioned closest to the LTTE-held land. The FAC squadron was deployed between SBS/RABS and the OPVs.

Dissanayake said that those SLN units deployed close to the LTTE-held area ensured that civilians fleeing the fighting on the ground could either move southwards off Mullaitivu or northwards to take refuge in the government-held area. The Island extensively reported the situation at the sea as well as Chundikulam. (The view from the sea dated May 3, 2009 and Sea escape not a reality––The Island April 30, 2009).

The SLN had two boat points at Chalai and Chundikulam to coordinate operations. The then SLN spokesman Captain Dasanayake had been based at Chalai. The LTTE probably abandoned its plans to evacuate its leadership and decided to go down fighting due to the effective SL cordon off Mullaitivu.

Civilian factor

Despite offensive operations against the LTTE trapped on the ground, the SLN facilitated the transfer of the war wounded out of the battle zone as well as the unloading of food stuff. Under the supervision of the SLN, the ICRC managed to evacuate hundreds of men, women and children from Mullaitivu beach until the suspension of the operation in early May 2009. The SLN operation off Mullaitivu was conducted under the watchful eyes of the international community. Dissanayake said Mullaitivu mission was irrefutable evidence that the GoSL and its forces had never targeted civilians. The GoSL’s readiness to accept presence of an Indian medical team as well as the ICRC at Pulmoddai, north of Trincomalee and ICRC throughout the final offensive meant that the Sri Lankan military didn’t try to hide anything.

In fact, the Tigers could have easily surrendered to the SLN through the ICRC if they had really wanted to do so. Or, they could have given themselves up to advancing troops without hoping for a miraculours escape.

Arrest of Soosai’s wife

Recalling the interception of a boat carrying Sea Tiger leader Soosai’s wife, Dissanayake said that her capture would have embarrassed the LTTE. The veteran of many sea battles said that the SLN had tried its best to treat civilians as well as LTTE combatants as best as it could during the final phase of the conflict. Like the army on the ground, SLN officers and men rescued civilians fleeing the war zone in boats even at the risk of their lives, Dissanayake said, dismissing ongoing efforts to haul Sri Lanka up before an international war crimes tribunal as nothing but a witch-hunt. The fact that nearly 300,000 men, women and children were rescured and about 12,000 LTTE cadres survived fighting on the Vanni east front was Sri Lanka’s best defence, he said. Those who accused the GoSL and the military of indiscriminate offensive action had conveniently forgotten that those who once waged war against the State were now leading normal lives, he noted.

April 19th 1995 blasts

Dissanayake said that the war had been a tragedy due to political and strategic miscalculations until Nov 17, 2005, when Mahinda Rajapaksa became President. Recalling the resumption of hostilities by the LTTE on April 19th, 1995, after a 100-day truce, Dissanayake said that the LTTE had striven to utilise every opportunity to consolidate its power. The then Lt. Commander Dissanayake was the Commanding Officer of a Chinese built gunboat, Ranasuru blasted by LTTE suicide cadres at midnight April 19th, 1995. The LTTE blew up two gunboats, including Ranasuru. Dissanayake rescued a colleague at the risk of his life. About a week later, the LTTE shot down two Avro transport aircraft killing about 100 officers and men. Dissanayake was onboard the ill-fated naval vessel when the LTTE triggered massive explosions to begin one of the bloodiest phases of the conflict. In spite of on-and-off setbacks, sometime debilitating debacles, the military had never given up, he said. "Our fighting forces were committed, though some felt we could never defeat the LTTE, which was considered invincible. A section of the media and politicians, too, helped propagate this myth."

Dissanayake has been credited with the first successful interception of an LTTE vessel way back in 1984 north of Kankesanthurai. "We exchanged fire for about 90 minutes. At the end of the battle, four LTTE cadres surrendered, while 15 died," the SLN chief said, adding, "I was a lieutenant and had seven sailors under my command assigned to Diyakawa, a patrol craft of British origin. Subsequently, I had the opportunity to join the FAC fleet. I was chosen over and above some of those in two previous intakes."

The LTTE vessel was on its way to Tamil Nadu when Diyakawa intercepted it. Responding to a query, Dissanayake said that those onboard the enemy craft had been armed with 303 rifles, whereas they (SLN) carried semi automatic weapons. Diyakawa is still in use.

Ground reality

Dissanayake said that during his deployment in operational areas, particularly in the northern theatre, he had felt resentment of ordinary fighters towards some of their seniors. Those deployed at the frontlines always felt that they were neglected, whereas the officers depending on their seniority and ranks lived a life of luxury. They expressed their anger through verses written in bunkers, ‘bathing points’ and other places. Dissanayake said that soldiers reacted angrily due to them being deprived of even basic facilities. He referred to a verse he came across at isolated SLA base at Komari point, south of Kalmunai point, Jaffna in the late 80s. "I was the Commanding Officer of a Fast Attack Craft deployed in the northern theatre. One day I secured my vessel off the base and went to the only well available for hundreds of men deployed there under difficult conditions. A notice put up near the well directed that officers and men should utilise time allocated for them to use the well. There were four lines written just under the notice suggesting that they (ordinary soldiers) didn’t care even if the Tigers targeted the officers at the base."

Dissanayake said that was the situation all over the place at that time, though it improved subsequently. On the instructions of the incumbent Defence Secretary, security forces had taken measures to improve the conditions at bases, he said. The Defence Secretary is of the opinion that soldiers should feel at home even during their deployment in operational areas.

Similarly, officers and men had expressed their patriotic feelings through poems, Dissanayake said, stressing the importance of promoting patriotic feelings among the people, though the LTTE no longer posed a conventional military challenge. It would be a big mistake to forget the past, he said, asserting that the country should remain ready to face any eventuality.

 On the eve of his retirement, the Vice Admiral launched  Sindupathi Kavu Gee, Harshanata Liyu Gee and Irahanda Pamanai CDs and a collection of lyrics composed by him at a function held on Sept 13, 2012 at Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajapaksa Theatre with President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the chief guest. Dissanayake said that he had never expected such a launch when he began writing poems during his deployment in various parts of the country and also overseas. One of his poems written about ten days after the killing of Prabhakaran on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon on May 19, 2009, tell us how the LTTE leader had protected his children, while using children of his community as cannon fodder. He has also written a song celebrating the Navy’s hunt for the LTTE fleet on the high seas during 2006-2007 period.

Dissanayake emphasised the importance of discipline at all levels. Responding to a query, Dissanayake said that during his tenure as the Commander of the Navy every effort had been made to improve facilities provided to both officers and men. It was the SLN’s priority at the conclusion of the conflict, he said, adding that nothing could be as important as rectifying irregularities at every level to ensure transparency.