Sunday, 30 September 2012

Three significant battlefield victories

War on terror revisited: Part 51

By Shamindra Ferdinando

On the morning of July 28, 1995, sea borne LTTE cadres launched a multi-pronged assault on Weli Oya. The attacking force comprised several hundred experienced cadres, both men and women, carrying an assortment of weapons. They were supported by units which moved overland, through the Mullaitivu jungles. The LTTE was all out to destroy four SLA bases, including Janakapura, and the Weli Oya Brigade headquarters. The LTTE fighting formations, assigned for the task, included some of their best units, including those involved in the killing of 700 officers and men in a lightning assault on Pooneryn and Nagathevanthurai bases in Nov. 1993.

The LTTE wouldn’t have anticipated any serious resistance at Weli Oya due to deployment of volunteers in the area. The defenders comprised volunteers, national guardsmen, artillery and some engineering units. In spite of the deployment of relatively inexperienced troops in Weli Oya, the area was under the command of the then Brig. Janaka Perera, the senior officer in charge of the Sixth Brigade.  Having received information regarding a possible LTTE raid on Weli Oya, the Sixth Brigade was ready to meet any eventuality. Within five hours, the attacking force lost almost 300 cadres, including many of those leading the assault. Suicide cadres, assigned for special missions, such as targeting artillery pieces, also failed in their task.  The SLA lost only two men, while over a dozen received injuries.

Although, the SLA initially declared that the attack was repulsed by combined security forces, within 48 hours it emerged that Brig. Perera had only volunteers under his command. However, the SLN and the SLAF responded swiftly to prevent the LTTE from moving reinforcements in support of its beleaguered units. While the SLN deployed Fast Attack Craft (FAC) to prevent Sea Tigers bringing in reinforcements, the SLAF successfully targeted two vehicles carrying support units, hence easing pressure on those defending Weli Oya. Troops deployed at Kokkilai, Kokkuthuduvai, Jayasinghapura and Janakapura fought valiantly until the LTTE retreated leaving behind many bodies.

Troops thwarted an attempt by two LTTE women suicide cadres to blow themselves at artillery pieces. The women running towards the artillery pieces were shot at by troops, forcing them to detonate explosives packed jackets prematurely (LTTE suffers heavy losses in attack on army camps with strap line 200 bodies of Tigers recovered––The Island July 29, 1995)

From Special Forces to Weli Oya

It would be important to examine the circumstances under which Brig. Perera happened to be in Weli Oya to take on the LTTE. Army headquarters had moved Brig. Perera to Weli Oya for being critical of some of his superiors during a meeting with the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga at Temple Trees. The senior officer in charge of the Special Forces Brigade received marching orders on May 19, 1995. Brig. Perera was replaced by Maj. Gen. Siri Peiris.

Brig. Perera accused the SLA top brass of misleading the President. He dropped a bombshell when the President called the top brass for discussions at the onset of Eelam war III in April, 1995. The SLA top brass felt that Brig. Perera was trying to score a point. They moved him to Weli Oya, believing he would remain quiet. The Weli Oya Brigade was never considered crucial for the war against the LTTE. Troops deployed there were in a defensive position, with their primary task being to protect the villages there.

The LTTE obviously knew that the SLA had moved Special Forces from Weli Oya to Jaffna ahead of Operation Leap Forward launched on June 9, 1995. The SLA called off the offensive after the LTTE inflicted heavy losses on the SLA and also shot down an attack aircraft over Sandilippai-Alaveddy area. On the directions of Brig. Perera, the SLA brought some LTTE bodies to Vavuniya, where they were handed over to ICRC representatives to be transferred to the LTTE held area (Bodies of dead terrorists handed over to ICRC––The Island July 29, 1995).

The Weli Oya defeat was the worst debacle experienced by the LTTE during the conflict up to July 1995. In fact, the LTTE at that time suggested that the SLA’s counter attack was made possible due to it receiving a warning regarding a possible raid on Weli Oya. However, at that time, the SLA believed the LTTE was making fresh preparations for major attacks on Pooneryn and Elephant Pass. In the aftermath of the Weli Oya victory, Brig. Perera was asked to take over the Special Forces. The war veteran was placed in charge of the Reserve Strike Force (RSF) consisting of Special Forces, Commandos and Air Mobile troops. Brig. Wasantha Perera was asked to replace Brig. Perera as the senior officer in charge of the Sixth Brigade.

The Weli Oya battle exposed the LTTE’s limitations. In fact, the fighting skills displayed by volunteers, as well as artillery and engineer units highlighted the importance of battlefield leadership. They proved that the so-called invincibility of LTTE forces was nothing but a lie propagated by the group as well as those supportive of its Eelam project. Troops forced attackers to drop their weapons and run for their lives. They left bodies scattered all over the battlefield.

Focus on Jaffna again

In the wake of the Weli Oya debacle, the LTTE feared the SLA would again launch a major offensive in the Jaffna peninsula. As the LTTE anticipated, the SLA moved back to Chankani on Aug 21, 1995 amidst a rapid build-up of GoSL forces in the peninsula. Chankani was within the area captured by troops of disastrous ‘Operation Leap Forward’ but abandoned shortly after the LTTE launched a successful counter attack (Troops take Chankani––The Island Aug 23). The battle for Chankani claimed the lives of 13 civilians, while at least 19 received injuries. Thousands of people were displaced.

On the afternoon of Aug 30, 1995, the LTTE destroyed two fast attack craft off Mullaitivu in two separate incidents. The SLN lost 21 personnel in one of the worst attacks on the ‘silent service.’ The loss of two Super Dvoras sent shock waves through the SLN. The SLN lost its first Dvora on Aug 29, 1993.  The LTTE resumed hostilities on April 19, 1995 by sinking Shanghai Class Chinese gunboats in the Trincomalee harbour.

On the evening of Sept 20, 1995, Sea Tigers damaged another Dvora and Lanka Muditha in a confrontation off Kankesanthurai.

The SLN found it extremely difficult to provide the required security to supply ships due to the dearth of Fast Attack Craft (Tiger suicide boats blasted: Dvora, Lanka Muditha damaged–– The Island Sept. 22, 1995). The difficulties experienced by the SLN caused anxiety among the SLA top brass planning a series of operations to regain the Jaffna peninsula. The political leadership, too, was concerned about the rapid deteriorating situation in the northern waters. The SLN was on the defensive. The LTTE intensified attacks in the Eastern Province to distract the GoSL. On the night of Sept 29, 1995, the LTTE overran the Kalkudah police station, killing 22 personnel, including some homeguards. The then government imposed a censorship on all military/terrorist related news ahead of the Jaffna offensive. Obviously, the GoSL didn’t want to call off a major military onslaught in the Jaffna peninsula in the wake of terrorist attacks on the SLN and Kalkudah police station.

In the first week of Oct. 1995, troops launched ‘Operation Thunder Strike’ to liberate approximately 21 square km area. Brig. Janaka Perera was among the frontline commanders involved in the operation (Troops advance rapidly in major Jaffna offensive––The Island Oct 3, 1995). The LTTE retreated in the face of superior firepower, though it launched a massive counter attack on troops consolidating their positions at Ponnalaikadduwan-Navakkeri and Puttur west-Avarangal. The basic strategy was almost similar to the operation directed at troops taking part in Operation Leap Forward on July 14, 1995, also in the Jaffna peninsula. However, the LTTE plan went awry in Oct. 1995. Troops trapped the attackers and inflicted heavy losses on them before they withdrew leaving behind 120 bodies of men and women. Had the LTTE succeeded in its counter attack, it would have led to a catastrophic situation with the SLA forced to re-examine its plans to drive the LTTE out of the peninsula. The government censorship prevented the media from reporting losses suffered by armed forces as well as the lapses on the part of the military top brass.

Riviresa launched

In the wake of the success of Thunder Strike, the SLA launched Operation Riviresa on Oct. 16, 1995, to maximise territorial gains. Troops of Thunder Strike secured approximately 25 square kms south east and east of Palaly air base. ‘Thunder Strike’ lost 54 personnel, including two officers, while 130 received injuries. On the first day of Operation Riviresa, SLA lost 19 personnel, including one officer. The number of the wounded was placed at 157 including seven officers. On the second day, 19 personnel were killed and on the third day 14 personnel were killed. Two officers were among 42 personnel wounded on the third day.

The LTTE blew up a transport vessel in the Trincomalee harbour on the morning of Oct 17, 1995 (Black Tiger blasts transport vessel in Trinco harbour––The Island Oct 18, 1995). The vessel bearing the No 512 was targeted by a suicide cadre whose mutilated body and the damaged diving gear were found by the SLN. But alert sentries were able to kill another suicide cadre moving towards Fast Attack Craft anchored there.

On the night of Oct 20, 1995, the LTTE mounted a devastating attack on Orugodawatte and Kolonnawa oil installations (Oil storage tanks blown up by terrorist hit team––The Island Oct 21, 1995). The GoSL called for Indian help to put out the fire, while the SLA stepped up attacks.

Neerveli liberated

In spite of fierce LTTE resistance, the SLA gradually advanced towards in the general direction of Jaffna. The LTTE called for reinforcements from the Vanni to strengthen its defences. In the last week of Oct. 1995, the LTTE abandoned Neerveli, one of its strongholds in the peninsula. The SLA suffered heavy losses during the battle for Neerveli (Neerveli falls into army hands: Tiger defences crumble––The Island Nov. 1, 1995). The SLAF supported the offensive by carrying out a series of attacks, though it didn’t have either Israeli built Kfirs or MiG 27s. In the immediate aftermath of the liberation of Neerveli, troops captured two important junctions, Neerveli-Kopay junction along the main Jaffna-Point Pedro road and Urelu-Neerveli junction along the Jaffna-Palaly road (Troops capture strategic junctions outside Jaffna town––The Island Nov. 2, 1995).

Close on the heels of losing Neerveli, the LTTE abandoned a large base at Iruvalai, close to Neerveli junction. By then, the LTTE was preparing to abandon Jaffna. In spite of vowing to defend Jaffna, the LTTE ordered a phased withdrawal of fighting units across the Jaffna lagoon to the Vanni mainland. In fact, it was Suresh Premachandran, Jaffna District MP, who discussed the LTTE fleeing the advancing SLA with The Island (Terrorists abandon massive Iruvalai military base––The Island Nov 3, 1995).

Having failed to stop the SLA offensive, the LTTE and its agents and a section of international relief agencies urged the government to call off the offensive on humanitarian grounds. The CBK administration rejected the plea for a truce as the SLA advanced towards Jaffna (Govt ejects calls to halt Northern offensive––The Island Nov 9. 1995). The LTTE’s call for a respite was supported by some political parties, including the Ceylon Workers Congress.

The SLA withdrew from the Jaffna town in Sept 1990 during Ranasinghe Premadasa’s presidency.

Having rested for about a week, the SLA resumed operations on Nov 10, 1995 to bring Kopay North and Urumpirai under its control (Troops capture Urumpirai and Kopay north––The Island Nov 11, 1995).

On the morning of Nov. 11, 1995, the LTTE mounted two suicide attacks outside SLA headquarters in retaliation for the army’s offensive in Jaffna. Although the LTTE failed to cause any damage to military property, the blasts claimed the lives of a dozen civilians and wounded at least 60.

In mid November 1995, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) pulled out of Jaffna as the SLA prepared for the final phase of the offensive. (UNHCR pulls out of Jaffna-The Island Nov 16, 1995). Until Nov 14, 1995, the Operational Headquarters of the Defence Ministry hadn’t allowed the media to identify the senior officers leading the offensive. Brigadiers P. A. Karunathilake and Neil Dias commanded the two fighting formations advancing towards Jaffna along the western and eastern flanks, respectively. Brigadiers Anton Wijendra and Sarath Fonseka functioned as the deputies to Karunathilake and Dias, respectively. Brig. Karunathilake commanded the newly raised 52 Division, while Brig. Dias spearheaded the 51 Division.

By Nov. 20, 1995, troops were just 800m away from Jaffna city limits.

The LTTE shot down two aircraft, one Y 12 and one AN 32 in late Nov 1995 as troops prepared for the final assault on Jaffna town.

Despite the loss of aircraft, the 51 and 52 Divisions sustained the offensive. Having cut-off the access roads to Jaffna town, the SLA deployed the elite Reserve Strike Force (RSF) for combat operations in the town. Troops fought house to house towards the town as the LTTE collapsed. On the morning of Dec 5, 1995, the national flag was raised in Jaffna town. The SLA proved that the LTTE was not invincible.