Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Siege on Jaffna and assassination of a Navy Chief

War on terror revisited: Part 49


By Shamindra Ferdinando

Vice Admiral (VA) Clancy Fernando was assassinated on Nov. 16, 1992, around 7.45 am opposite Taj Samudra. The SLN Chief was on his way to headquarters from his Longden Place residence, Colombo 7 when an LTTE suicide bomber rammed his motorcycle into his car at near the Galle Face Green. Fernando was the only service commander assassinated during the entire conflict. Sri Lanka’s most successful Army Chief the then Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka was the only service chief to survive an LTTE suicide attack. The LTTE made its attempt on Lt. Gen. Fonseka on the afternoon of April 25, 2006, 14 years after VA Fernando’s assassination.

It would be pertinent to discuss the events leading to the assassination of a Navy Chief, who had played a critical role during an unprecedented siege on the Jaffna peninsula. The Nov. 16 assassination and a landmine blast at Araly point, Kayts on Aug 8, 1992, which claimed the lives of the then Northern Commander Maj. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Jaffna Security Forces Commander Brig. Wijaya Wimalaratne along with COMNORTH Commodore Mohan Jayamaha caused a debilitating setback to military efforts to weaken the LTTE in the Jaffna peninsula. In fact, the SLA didn’t engage in a major offensive for about a year after the Araly point tragedy.

Having beaten back an LTTE attempt to dislodge the SLA from Elephant Pass in July 1991, the SLA secured Pooneryn and Sangupiddy in an amphibious assault in late Oct 1991. The stage was set for a blockade on the Jaffna peninsula. The SLA leadership felt that the LTTE could be brought to its knees in the peninsula through an effective blockade. The SLA blocked Elephant Pass (EP), the gateway to Jaffna peninsula. The GoSL held Palaly, Kankesanthurai and Elephant Pass and the islands west of the peninsula, whereas the LTTE was in full control of the population in the peninsula. The LTTE maintained strong fighting formations in the Jaffna peninsula. All three military bases at Palaly, Kankesanthurai and EP had to be supplied by sea and air as the LTTE held all overland access routes. The SLA felt that the situation could be reversed if the SLN could effectively cut off LTTE movements to and from the Jaffna peninsula through the Jaffna lagoon. VA Fernando, who took over the SLN in July 1991 during the LTTE siege on Elephant Pass base, was given the uphill task of blocking the Jaffna lagoon. The then Chief of Staff Rear Admiral Fernando succeeded VA Ananda Silva, who relinquished duties even before Aug 1, 1991, the day he was to go on leave prior to retirement on Nov 1, 1991.

SLN moves to Nagathevanthurai

The SLN established a base at Nagathevanthurai, west of EP on the Vanni mainland with specific mission to thwart LTTE movements across the Jaffna lagoon. The SLN mounted operations in the wake of the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa declaring that civilians, too, wouldn’t be allowed to cross the lagoon under any circumstances. The LTTE experienced severe difficulties due to SLN action, which also caused deaths among the civilian community. Although the government offered safe passage for civilians through Elephant Pass, the LTTE warned people of dire consequences if they used the overland route under SLA supervision. The SLN launched patrols from Nagathevanthurai to intercept boat movements. Both the SLN and Sea Tigers suffered losses in confrontations. In spite of heavy criticism by the civil society, including the Jaffna University Teachers’ Association over civilian deaths, VA Fernando pursued the strategy. Captain D. K. P. Dasanayake, who had served at Nagathevanthurai during VA Fernando’s tenure as the Commander of the Navy discussed the circumstances under which they operated (Army eyes Pooneryn as Tigers retreat on all fronts –The Island Nov 13, 2008). Dasanayake asserted that the experience gained at the isolated Nagathevanthurai base during 1991-1993 period contributed towards the subsequent formation of the elite Special Boat Squadron (SBS) and the Rapid Action Boat Squadron (RABS). Dasanayake said that during the north-east monsoon, supplies required by the SLA at EP base had to be brought to Comar, situated between Pooneryn and K point and then moved overland to Nagathevanthurai before ferrying them to EP in Inshore Patrol Craft (IPC). When weather permitted, supplies were brought to Vettilaikerni on the Mullaitivu coast and moved overland to EP. As the SLA controlled EP as well as Ooriyan and Kombadi crossing points, the LTTE had no option but to use the Jaffna lagoon or withdraw its units operating in the peninsula. The LTTE deployed substantial number of fast moving craft to meet the SLN challenge. It was one of the bloodiest chapters in the eelam conflict, with both sides taking losses. Amidst mounting loss of life, the LTTE ensured that it would gain by operating an exclusive boat services across the Jaffna lagoon. Those civilians risking their lives to cross the lagoon had to use LTTE boat services even if they owned boats.

LTTE retaliation

During the 1991-1993 period, Nagathevanthurai remained the most dangerous place for SLN officers and men. Although the SLN was committed to sustaining the operation, it didn’t have the capacity to conduct an effective interdiction campaign. But the SLN continued operations. In the latter part of 1992, the SLN killed Charles, widely believed to be a senior Sea Tiger leader during a confrontation in the Jaffna lagoon. The assassination of VA Fernando took place in the immediate aftermath of an SLN patrol launched from Nagathevanthurai killing Charles. VA Fernando strongly believed that the LTTE could be overwhelmed by blocking overland, sea and supply routes. Despite severe constraints, particularly shortage of required assets for such a gigantic task, VA Fernando strove to achieve what was considered impossible. The SLN comprised 9,000 officers and men and didn’t have the strength for additional deployment in the northern theatre of operations. VA Fernando’s successor, VA Mohan Samarasekera inspected Nagathevanthurai base in early 1993. The SLN sustained the operation, though the army refrained from launching major offensive action until late September 1993. In support of the SLN effort, the SLA launched operation ‘Yal Devi’ targeting Kilali boat launching point in the Jaffna peninsula. It was the first major SLA action since the Araly point blast on Aug 1992. The SLA lost 125 officers and men as well as two precious T 55 main battle tanks of Czechoslovakian origin during five-day offensive. Nearly 300 officers and men received injuries. The SLA didn’t have the strength to hold Kilaly hence ‘Yal Devi’ troops returned to EP. The then Army Chief Cecil Waidyaratne exposed severe shortcomings by launching ‘Yal Devi’ which didn’t have any specific military objective other than to reach Kilaly and then return to EP (Tiger boat yard blasted: ‘Yal Devi’ operation ends––The Island Oct 4, 1993) Immediately after SLA withdrew, the LTTE moved back to Kilaly. Within two days, Sea Tigers resumed boat operations across Jaffna lagoon. The SLA chief never explained the rationale for the costly raid on Kilaly. The SLA’s adventure further strengthened the LTTE position in Jaffna. Still the SLN persisted with the operation targeting boat movements in the Jaffna lagoon. In support of SLN base at Nagathevanthurai, a second unit was established in early November 1993 at EP also to interdict boat movements (New naval base set up to curb LTTE traffic––The Island Nov 8, 1993).

The SLN on some occasions called for close air support during confrontations in the Jaffna lagoon. Unfortunately, the SLN and SLAF failed to coordinate operations and the Sea Tigers therefore could sustain movements across the lagoon. The SLN experienced some devastating attacks. On the night of Aug 26, 1993, Sea Tigers destroyed one Inshore Patrol Craft and damaged another killing five personnel, including the Commanding Officer of one of the vessels (Navy vessel destroyed, five killed in lagoon––The Island Aug 27, 1993). The ill-fated boats operated from Nagathevanthurai, at that time the focal point of SLN operations. The Sea Tiger operation was the most successful action against the Nagathevanthurai base up to late Aug. 1993. The LTTE conducted a series of operations in the north targeting the SLN.

On the night of Aug 29, 1993, the LTTE blew up a Fast Attack Craft (FAC) off Point Pedro killing 12 personnel (Explosive-packed Tiger boat rams Navy craft killing twelve––The Island Aug 30, 1993). The attackers removed FAC’s main armament as well as other weapons as the SLN kept its distance from the ill-fated vessel.

The Sea Tigers destroyed Surveillance Command Ship ‘Abitha’ and an Inshore Patrol Craft off Nainathivu in May and September 1991.

The SLN withered under Sea Tiger attacks. The GoSL struggled in the wake of growing threat posed by Sea Tigers. On Sept 3, 1993, the then President D. B. Wijetunga prohibited private boats, including fishing craft in the Mannar waters as well as Trincomalee. India objected to the GoSL move on the basis it denied Indian fishermen the right of passage for Indian vessels and also denied their right to operate in Kachchativu waters.

Although the military launched limited operations and SLAF mounted air strikes, particularly in the north, the LTTE continued its build-up. The LTTE felt it could direct a knockout blow by launching a multi-pronged attack on an isolated base, while SLA was struggling in the face of heavy setbacks. It would be important to mention that operation ‘Yal Devi’ was preceded by President Wijetunga setting up a Defence Coordinating Committee under the leadership of retired Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe to spearhead war. The formation of Gen. Wanasinghe committee took place about three weeks before the launch of operation ‘Yal Devi’ at first light on Sept 28, 1993. The circumstances under which Defence Secretary Wanasinghe was placed in charge of the war effort shoud be examined.

The SLA deliberately misled the people as regards its intention and objective in operation ‘Yal Devi.’ Gen. Waidyaratne in an interview with this writer strongly defended his decision to vacate Kilali after a Special Task Force formed especially for the operation achieved its target. The outspoken officer said that the Task Force advanced 18 miles northwest of EP destroyed Kilali boat point and returned to base (Army Chief explains decision to vacate Kilali––The Island Oct 1993).

SLA conveniently forgot that operation ‘Yal Devi’ was a failure and it could influence a major LTTE operation. The military and political leadership ignored the danger. It wouldn’t have been too difficult to guess the LTTE strategy. The Tigers needed to restore main supply route to the peninsula. Having failed to dislodge the SLA from EP in July 1991, the LTTE eyed Nagathevanthurai-Pooneryn base complex, which was an integral part of the overall military strategy in place in the north. The LTTE wanted to destroy a section of the ring of military bases around the Jaffna peninsula. The SLA remained inactive, whereas the LTTE was busy preparing for a massive assault. The SLA turned a blind eye to signs of increased LTTE activity and did absolutely nothing until the LTTE launched multi-pronged assault on Nagathevanthurai-Pooneryn base complex.

‘Frog Jump’

In the second week of Nov 1993 the LTTE mounted multi-pronged Operation ‘Frog Jump’ targeting Nagathevanthurai SLN detachment and Pooneryn army base held by two infantry battalions and support units. The LTTE quickly overran the SLN defences at Nagathevanthurai. At the time of the raid Nagathevanthurai base comprised about 280 officers and men. Attackers seized five Inshore Patrol Craft, arms, ammunition and communication equipment and almost everything they could lay their hands on as the defenders had fled. The SLN couldn’t provide reinforcements. The SLA based at nearby Pooneryn, too, couldn’t come to the SLN’s rescue as troops there were under a fierce attack. Although a section of the troops managed to hold onto a part of the camp, the attackers quickly overran fortifications. The GoSL lost about 650 officers and men in the worst debacle experienced during the entire conflict up to that time. The losses suffered at Nagathevanthurai-Pooneryn complex was greater than at Elephant Pass in July 1991. However, the LTTE, too, lost as many as 450 cadres and many wounded during confrontations at Nagathevanthurai –Pooneryn sector. In spite of being surrounded by some of the best LTTE units and reinforcements finding it extremely difficult to reach the besieged base until it was too late, troops resisted fiercely. But at the end of the day, the LTTE achieved its objective. The SLN decided against setting up a new base at Nagathevanthurai fearing it couldn’t be defended in case of another attack. The SLA re-established Pooneryn, though it couldn’t in anyway interfere with LTTE movements in the Jaffna lagoon hence an ambitious attempt to isolate Jaffna based LTTE went awry.

The Jaffna lagoon route lost its importance in December 1995 when troops engaged in Operation ‘Riviresa’ brought the Jaffna town under its control.