Sunday, 28 October 2012

A shocking change of Jaffna Command

War on terror revisited:Part 62


By Shamindra Ferdinando

Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka
Amidst fighting in the North, a group of US service personnel arrived in Sri Lanka in late July 2000 for joint exercises with Sri Lankan troops. The month long training programme got underway on July 31 at SLN and SLAF training facilities outside the Northern and Eastern Provinces. It was the third and the last exercise for 2000. The elite 53 Division comprising Special Forces, Commandos and Air Mobile troops had an opportunity to train with US personnel. The programme was in line with the Extended Relations Programme (ERP) under which the US provided advanced training to forces of friendly countries. The US accommodated Sri Lanka in the Pacific Command’s ERP in 1995 during President Kumaratunga’s time. Sri Lankan forces greatly benefited from the US programme, whereas the world solitary super power had an opportunity to learn from some of those involved in actual combat with terrorists. Sri Lanka also received 100 trucks used by the US Army in South Korea. The deployment of left hand driven trucks enhanced the mobility of the military.

After debacles at Elephant Pass, Chavakachcheri and Pallai in April-May 2000, the army took up positions along the general area of Colombuthurai, Puttur, Sarasalai and Chavakachcheri in Thennamaratchchy west and Ponnar, Muhamalai and Nagarkovil in Thennamaratchchy east. It faced strong LTTE forces across its forward defence lines. Although the troops advanced into areas dominated by the LTTE, they didn’t have sufficient numbers to engage in major operations.

Maj. Gen Janaka Perera on the northern front

As always, the SLA felt that it could depend on deserters to fill vacancies, particularly in fighting battalions. Following the debilitating setbacks since the launch of Operation Jayasikuru (May 13, 1997 to Dec 1, 1998), thousands of soldiers deserted, while some battalions ceased to exist due to heavy loss of life and injuries caused to officers and men. In June, July 2000, the SLA, with the support of the police, rounded up thousands of deserters and took them to various training centres. Adjutant General K. A. M.G. Kularatne said that raids conducted during June, July, 2000 had resulted in the arrest of about 5,000 deserters for re-deployment. He added that the operation would continue until the SLA met its target. The SLA went to the extent of having private security firms investigated for employing army deserters. Maximum pressure was brought to bear on security firms to hand over deserters or face the consequences (Deserters in training centres before re-deployment––The Island July 19, 2000).

Overall Operations Commander (OOC) and Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. Janaka Perera appeared on national television on several occasions to urge deserters to re-join their own fighting formations. The war veteran said that the SLA depended on them to bring the war on terrorism to a successful conclusion.

With the situation in Jaffna stabilising to some extent, SLA Commander, Lt. Gen. Sri Lal Weerasooriya went ahead with a weeklong official visit to Islamabad, where he met Pakistan military ruler General Pervez Musharraf. Having fought a series of battles in the northern theatre, the LTTE, too, appeared to have been tired, but remained strong on the Jaffna front. It was able to deploy all available forces on the Jaffna front as the SLA remained on the defensive in the Vanni, where the LTTE offensive in the first week of Nov. 1999 forced the SLA out of almost all areas the troops had regained during operations conducted since May 13, 1997. The SLA felt fairly confident that Jaffna forces could resist a fresh LTTE advance.

Change of command in Jaffna

In the last week of July, 2000, SLA headquarters recalled OOC Maj. Gen. Perera to Colombo after President Chandrika Kumaratunga scrapped the post of OOC created in the aftermath of the Elephant Pass debacle. The OOC was responsible for all combined security forces operations in the northern theatre, excluding Weli Oya. Security Forces Commander Jaffna Maj Gen Sarath Fonseka, too, was moved out of Jaffna. Many an eyebrow was raised over the unexpected move (Janaka Perera, Sarath Fonseka moved out––The Island July 26, 2000). While Maj. Gen. Perera returned to Colombo as the Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. Fonseka received appointment as Security Forces Commander, Vanni. The Sinha Regiment veteran succeeded Maj. Gen. Neil Dias.

Dias, who was the Deputy Chief of Staff at that time, functioned as Vanni Security Forces Commander in the wake of Maj. Gen. Wasantha Perera losing his command over the Nov 1999 Vanni debacle. He reverted to his substantive post.

President Kumaratunga acted on the advice of her advisors, who pushed for an immediate change in the Jaffna command, due to the OOC and SF Commander Jaffna being on a collision course over operational matters as well as war strategy. Whatever the reasons, their transfer affected the morale of troops deployed in the peninsula. Their transfer couldn’t have come at a worse time for the SLA, facing the uphill task of regaining lost territory in the peninsula.

Having moved the war veterans out of Jaffna, Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya appointed Maj. Gen. Anton Wijendra as Security Forces Commander, Jaffna. Wijendra functioned as the second-in-command of 52 Division involved in Operation Riviresa (Oct 1995-May 1996). Maj. Gen. Wijendra was also involved in Balavegaya I and Balavegaya II to relieve the Elephant Pass base and subsequently established overland route between Elephant Pass and Vettilaikerni (July/Aug 19991). In 1997, he served as the General Officer Commanding (GoC) of 55 Division deployed for Jayasikuru (May 1997 to Dec 1998), though he wasn’t in command during the entire operation. Immediately after the change of command, the SLA launched a limited operation targeting strong enemy forces operating in Sarasalai South. The SLA faced stiff resistance. The unexpected transfer of both Maj. Gen. Perera and Maj. Gen. Fonseka caused concern among a section of the forces deployed in the peninsula (Troops advance into LTTE held Sarasalai south––The Island July 7, 2000). The LTTE lost six cadres in action during the SLA push. Troops couldn’t move more than 500 meters (Six terrorists killed in Sarasalai battle––The Island July 28, 2000). In the immediate aftermath of the change of command in Jaffna, the SLA concentrated on Sarasalai, where regular confrontations caused minor losses on both sides (LTTE loses more cadres at Sarasalai-Army––the Island July 29, 2000).

The government also directed the SLN to scrap the post of Senior Naval Officer, Commanding Northern Naval Operations, a special post created on March 27, 2000 to deal with the Jaffna crisis. That particular position was established as the government and the SLN top brass felt the situation in the North couldn’t be handled without taking extraordinary measures. Rear Admiral H. R. Amaraweera functioned as the Senior Naval Officer in charge of the North. Commodore Sarath Weerasekera, too, was sent to Kankesanthurai. Both were recalled to Colombo. At the height of the battle, Commodore Weerasekera functioned as the Commander, Northern Naval Area. Rear Admiral Amaraweera received appointment as Director Naval Administration, whereas Commodore Weerasekera took over the Naval Welfare branch. Rear Admiral Wasantha Karanngoda succeeded Commodore Weerasekera (Top Navy officers in North transferred to Colombo: Post created to deal with Jaffna crisis scrapped––The Island Aug 2, 2000). The change of SLN command in the North took place two weeks after Majors General Perera and Fonseka had been moved out of Jaffna.

Civilians stranded

The government was under heavy pressure to facilitate civilian movement to and from the Jaffna peninsula. The government made a desperate bid to get the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) to arrange for a passenger ship to operate between Trincomalee and Jaffna. The ICRC emphasised that it couldn’t get involved as long as the LTTE didn’t give guarantee that it wouldn’t target the ship flying the ICRC flag. Tamil civilians launched protests, demonstrations and hunger strikes against the government’s failure to provide sea transport. The protests were held at the behest of the LTTE. They ignored the LTTE blockade on Jaffna. The LTTE shot down a civilian aircraft over Iranativu Island on Sept 29, 1998 and another on March 31, 2000 over Thalawa, Anuradhapura, compelling the government to suspend services. It would be pertinent to mention here that among the dead due to the Sept. 29, 1998 attack were 48 Tamil men, women and children. The diplomatic community, the TULF as well as civil society remained silent. In spite of the threat posed by the Sea Tigers, the government deployed newly acquired ‘City of Trinco’ on June 9, 2000 to move civilians between Trincomalee and Jaffna. Within several weeks, the vessel managed to move 3,000 civilians from Trincomalee to Jaffna (Over 3,000 civilians sent by ship from Trino to Jaffna––The Island July 27, 2000). The international community didn’t pressure the LTTE to provide a security guarantee to the ICRC. Although the SLN provided escorts to ‘City of Trinco’, the LTTE could have carried out a successful attack. Had that happened, President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s government would have found itself in a difficult situation.

After several rounds of talks, the LTTE assured the ICRC in late July 2000 that ‘City of Trinco’ operated by a private company wouldn’t be targeted. It was a tripartite agreement which involved the government, the LTTE and the ICRC and came into effect in early July (ICRC escort to ‘City of Trinco’––The Island Aug 2, 2000). The LTTE warned of dire consequences if the vessel was used by the military to move troops to the Jaffna peninsula or evacuate the wounded from the north. However, the LTTE refused to extend the agreement to cover ships deployed to carry food supplies to over 500,000 civilians living in the peninsula and the Jaffna islands. The LTTE insisted that all ships except ‘City of Trinco’ would be considered as legitimate military targets. The government was in a dilemma. On the one hand the LTTE instigated protests demanding that the government provide essential goods to Jaffna civilians and on the other hand, it threatened to attack ships carrying supplies for civilians. Due to the closure of the Jaffna-Kandy A9 road, supplies needed by the military and civilians had to be moved from Trincomalee to Kankesanthurai.

Parliamentary polls

The government feared a major LTTE attack ahead of the parliamentary polls in 2000. Intelligence services were of the opinion that the LTTE would make a second attempt on the life of President Kumaratunga, hence public meetings should be avoided. The LTTE targeted President Kumaratunga on the night of Dec. 18, 1999, two days ahead of the presidential poll. On the morning of June 7, 2000, an LTTE suicide cadre killed about 20 people, including Minister C. V. Gooneratne and his wife. The government also warned the SLA of LTTE attacks ahead of polls. The LTTE’s success in Nov. 1999 on the Vanni front prompted the PA to allege a conspiracy involving a section of the SLA and the UNP of causing a debacle to undermine President Kumaratunga’s presidential bid (President to avoid election propaganda rallies––The Island July 23, 2000). Intelligence services urged President Kumaratunga and prominent ministers to avoid public rallies, particularly protests. But, the PA ignored such warnings. On the instructions of President Kumaratunga, the party launched a series of demonstrations in support of proposed constitution reforms. The first demonstration drew A. H. M. Fowzie, Mangala Samaraweera, S.B. Dissanayake, John Seneviratne and Alavi Moulana (Politicos ignore security warnings, lead demos––The Island Aug. 3, 2000). The military believed that the LTTE could launch suicide attacks both in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, as well as South.

An LTTE suicide cadre detonated the explosives-packed jacket he was wearing when he was about to be checked by troops in Jaffna on Aug 3, 2000. Troops recovered a cyanide capsule and a hand grenade. The blast took place as Maj. Gen. Wijendra took over Jaffna Command officially (Suicide bomber blasts himself at checkpoint––The Island Aug 5, 2000). On July 17, 2000, troops, during an operation at Pulitherithtapuliyankulam, south of the Vavuniya-Mannar road, killed a senior LTTE cadre. Subsequently, he was identified as Thamil Amman of the Intelligence Wing holding the rank of ‘Lieutenant Colonel’. Troops recovered the body along with a pistol, hand grenade and a jacket packed with explosives when they searched the safe house used by the LTTE operative believed to be spying on a senior SLA officer holding the rank of Major General at that time (LTTE loses Vavuniya Intelligence chief––The Island July 27, 2000).

Mahanayakes praise Janaka Perera

In the first week of August 2000, Ven. Rambukwella Vipassi Mahanayaka Thera of the Malwatte Chapter declared his opposition to President Kumaratunga’s devolution plans. The Ven. Thera told Maj. Gen. Perera that there was absolutely no need for constitutional reforms if the government could properly conduct the war against the LTTE. Maj. Gen. Perera was there to pay homage to the sacred tooth relic on his return from Jaffna. The Mahanayake and the then Diyawadana Nilame Niranjan Wijeratne declared that the country was indebted to him for saving Jaffna during the April-May crisis (No need for constitutional reforms if war is properly conducted, Mahanayake tells Maj. Gen. Perera––The Island Aug 6, 2000). The Island report angered a section of the PA. Some alleged that the Army Chief of Staff was playing politics. He was accused of trying to exploit his sudden transfer to his advantage. The PA believed that SLA top brass shouldn’t in anyway get involved with those opposing proposed constitutional reforms. The meeting between Maj. Gen. Perera and the Mahanayake took place a few days before the PA suspended a debate on the proposed draft Constitution in the wake of protests. Interestingly, the TULF, too, rejected the proposed draft Constitution, accusing President Kumaratunga of diluting it at the behest of the UNP. President Kumaratunga faced trouble at two fronts. Her plan to introduce Constitutional reforms was facing strong opposition, whereas the LTTE continued its build-up in the North. On the night Aug 11, 2000, President Kumaratunga declared in an exclusive interview with Rupavahini that she would enact a new Constitution regardless of various obstacles. She lambasted the LTTE, the UNP and Sinhala racists for blocking her peace efforts.

Multiple rocket launchers enter battle

War on terror revisited: Part 61

Czech built RM 70 Multi Barrel Rocket Launchers (MBRL) were first deployed in Sri Lanka in late May 2000 in the Jaffna peninsula. Over the years, Sri Lanka strengthened the Artillery Regiment with the acquisition several launchers. MBRLs played a critical role during Eelam War IV.

A grateful President Chandrika Kumaratunga sent her confidant cum Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera to Prague to thank the Czech leaders for their timely help. The President also sent special envoys to Iran and Pakistan to thank their help at Sri Lanka’s hour of need. The then SLMC leader M.H.M. Ashraff was sent to Tehran, while Lakshman Jayakody visited Pakistan.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The then PA government delayed the acquisition of Czech-built RM 70 multiple rocket launchers until the collapse of the fully-fledged 54 Division headquartered at Elephant Pass, the gateway to the Jaffna peninsula. A stunned CBK administration made a desperate attempt to acquire the powerful system in the immediate aftermath of the withdrawal of the 54 Division in the third week of April 2000. A deeply worried SLA Commander, Lt. Gen. Sri Lal Weerasooriya sent the then Brigadier Sanath Karunaratne to the Czech Republic, along with an ordnance officer to expedite the airlifting of the multi barrel rocket launchers. A group of SLA personnel also received a crash course in Czechoslovakia to handle the system. It was the latest addition to the Artillery Regiment which comprised 120 mm, 152 mm and 130 mm artillery pieces and a range of mortars, including 120 mm and 82 mm or Chinese origin (Forces maintain supplies to Jaffna-The Island June 7, 2000).

Having commanded the Vadamaratchchy Brigade (51-4Brigade) in the aftermath of the assassination of his predecessor, Brig. Larry Wijeratne, Brig. Karunaratne was based at Army Headquarters, as the Director Training, when he ordered to proceed to Prague.

Brig. Wijeratne was assassinated on May 14, 1998. After he successfully completed his assignment in Vadamaratchchy, Brigadier Karunaratne was recalled to Colombo in the second week of Feb. 2000. Soon after the Elephant Pass debacle, the government gave the go ahead for the acquisition of the Czech weapons system. In spite of severe difficulties, Sri Lanka was able to airlift the vehicle mounted barrels and the ammunition to the Bandaranaike International Airport. Under heavy escort, they were moved to the Colombo Port before being loaded into a ship owned by a private shipping agency. The SLN provided heavy security to the ship carrying multiple rocket launchers.

The then Major Karunaratne captured the attention of the public for the heroic defence of the Elephant Pass base in July 1991. Troops led by the Sinha Regiment warriors held the base until the sea borne troops of Operation Balavegaya fought their way into the beleaguered base. Operation Balavegaya was the biggest amphibious assault conducted by the SLA under the command of Maj. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa.

RM 70s played a critical role in the defence of Jaffna. Their deployment boosted t the morale of the forces. The collapse of 54 Division had a devastating impact on the SLA, not only in the Jaffna peninsula, but in the entire war zone. The SLA lost its will to fight and at one point before the deployment of RM 70s, the SLA even mulled over the evacuation of the Jaffna-based forces in the first week of May 2000, though it simply didn’t have the means to implement it plan. With the deployment of RM 70s, Jaffna forces were able to gradually take control of the situation. The fact that RM 70s had been deployed in the peninsula gave a tremendous morale boost to the demoralised SLA, whereas the LTTE found it difficult to sustain its offensive in the face of unprecedented attacks (East European armaments bolster SLA fire power––The Island). Pakistan was the first country to send multiple rocket launchers for deployment in Jaffna to halt the LTTE’s advance.

Although the SLA had wanted to obtain the Czech system, the PA didn’t authorise the purchase. The political leadership felt the country couldn’t afford such expensive weapons systems. It would be pertinent to examine whether the outcome of the Jayasikuru offensive (May 13, 1997-Dec 2 1998) could have been different if the SLA deployed RM 70s on the Vanni front. The failure on the part of the SLA to accomplish the Jayasikuru objective to restore the Kandy-Jaffna overland Main Supply Route (MSR) paved the way for the LTTE to launch its own initiative. The SLA headquarters would be able to furnish information with regard to negotiations with Czech authorities on its plans to take delivery of RM 70s.

LTTE offers temporary ceasefire

On the night of May 7, 2000, the LTTE’s International Secretariat in London gave an ultimatum to the beleaguered CBK government. The UK turned a blind eye to what was going on. The LTTE offered to declare a temporary ceasefire to allow the armed forces and police to leave the peninsula under the supervision of the international community or face the consequences. The LTTE made its offer in the wake of persistent reports of the military deciding to vacate the peninsula. Army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Lionel Balagalle stood his ground: the army wouldn’t vacate Jaffna! The Maj. Gen. gave this assurance in response to a query by this writer (Govt. rejects LTTE offer––The Island May 9, 2000). The LTTE’s statement took the world by storm with many major international press agencies sending special correspondents to cover what was at that time thought to be the forthcoming fall of Jaffna. The then Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera, MP, told CNN that the LTTE offer wasn’t acceptable. But, the international media didn’t take Sri Lanka’s stand seriously. They felt the SLA couldn’t repulse the LTTE advance, though it vowed to fight. The collapse of the SLA makeshift main defence line at Pallai on May Day strengthened their belief that both Palaly and Kankesanthurai, the only supply routes available for Jaffna forces could be cut off within weeks. Close on the heels of the rejection by the government of the LTTE offer from London, the Tigers intensified attacks. The SLA barely managed to hold on to their positions, though at some locations the attackers made territorial gains (LTTE thrusts on Navatkuli Bridge repulsed––The Island May 13, 2000).

In spite of the change of command, with Majors General Janaka Perera and Sarath Fonseka being appointed the Overall Operations Commander (OOC) and Security Forces Commander, Jaffna, respectively, the LTTE sustained its offensive. The two military heavyweights with proven track record arrived in Palaly after the army had abandoned the sprawling Elephant Pass base. The loss of Pallai further aggravated the situation with the SLA under tremendous pressure to hold a defence line across the Jaffna peninsula to ensure the LTTE couldn’t target Palaly and Kankesanthurai with 130 mm artillery. The depth of the buffer zone had to be about 30 kms as 130 mm artillery had an effective range of 27 km but it could take targets even within a 30 km range

The SLA was in chaos. The government struggled to cope with the developing situation, which threatened to cause the complete breakdown of command and control structure in the peninsula. The LTTE plan was on track. It made a series of attacks deploying units in different sectors with those deployed at Ariyalai and Colombuthurai playing an important role. Both Palaly and Kankesanthurai were within their range. The SLA simply didn’t have a contingency plan. The situation was somewhat similar to circumstances under which the LTTE leadership had found itself in May 2009. Even if the government decided to evacuate the Jaffna forces it didn’t have the wherewithal to accomplish such a gigantic task. The SLN simply didn’t have the strength to carry out a large scale evacuation of troops in the face of the growing Sea Tiger threat. The SLAF was incapable of operating fixed wing aircraft due to missile threats. Although some speculated that India could have come to Sri Lanka’s rescue with ships for a mass evacuation operation the Sea Tigers could have targeted Indian vessels either approaching or leaving Kankesanthurai. TheLTTEwas no respecter of India or any other foreign power when it was desperate to achieve its military objectives. It wouldn’t have been feasible to carry out a large scale evacuation, while the LTTE was on the move on multiple fronts. In fact, the entire front would have collapsed if the government had made an attempt to evacuate troops. There would have been mass scale desertions with troops abandoning their frontline positions to board the first available ship!

Jaffna May 2000

The SLAF suspended flights to and from Palaly after the LTTE shot down an AN 26 aircraft carrying 40 security forces and police personnel on March 31, 2000. The aircraft was hit by a shoulder fired heat seeking first generation Soviet missile over Thalawa, Anuradhapura. The terrorist who had fired that missile is now in the custody of the Terrorist Investigation Department (TID). The same LTTE cadre admitted to having shot down a civilian aircraft over Iranativu Island on Sept 29, 1998. Since his arrest after the conclusion of the conflict, the terrorist under interrogation told the SLAF Air Defence how he had brought down those aircraft in a bid to isolate the Jaffna peninsula.

The situation in the peninsula deteriorated further, with the suspension of civilian ship movements to and from Kankesanthurai on April 9, 2000. The GoSL pleaded with the ICRC to deploy a ship to facilitate civilian movements. President Kumaratunga went to the extent of meeting an ICRC delegation at Temple Trees on March 29, 2000 to push for a deal (Government seeks to resume sea transport for Jaffna civilians––The Island May 10, 2000).

With civil administration on the verge of collapse, a TULF delegation comprising MPs, V. Anandasangaree, Joseph Pararajasingham, Mavai S. Senathirajah. P. Selvarasa and K. Thurairajasingham as well as the Acting Mayor of Jaffna N. Raviraj, at the behest of theLTTE, met the then Indian High Commissioner in Colombo, Shiv Shankar Menon (currently the National Security Advisor), to push for Indian assistance for the Jaffna population. Having met the Indian HC, the TULF’s Senior Vice President said that his party wanted India to provide humanitarian assistance to those affected by ongoing fighting in the peninsula. The TULF urged India to guarantee safety and security of the civilian population, supply of food and medicine to the needy and prevent human rights violations by the security forces. The TULF met the Indian HC in the wake of the ICRC urging both the security forces and the LTTE to safeguard the civilian population. The SLA reacted angrily to the TULF’s move. SLA headquarters pointed out that those shedding crocodile tears for the Jaffna population had ignored the fact that it was the LTTE offensive in Jaffna which was causing immense difficulties to the population (TULF meets Indian HC, urges India to provide humanitarian assistance––The Island May 13, 2000).

Norwegian action

Although the army continued to deny that the LTTE had entered the Jaffna town, a continuing censorship prevented the media from reporting that strong LTTE forces operated within the Jaffna Municipality limits. The SLA couldn’t dislodge them as the LTTE sustained an uninterrupted supply line across the peninsula. The SLN and SLAF couldn’t intercept that particular line of communication. By the second week of May 2000, the LTTE was in a commanding position in the peninsula. The Czech RM 70s were yet to arrive there. The LTTE forces were readying for a massive assault across the SLA’s defence lines from Kilaly extending upto Nargarkovil on the Vadamaratchchy east coast. A top level Norwegian delegation led by the then Norwegian MP Eric Solheim met Indian External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh and Lalit Mansingh on May 11, 2000 to discuss the situation in Jaffna (Solution lies with Lankans, India tells Norway––The Island May 14, 2000).

India had turned down Sri Lanka’ a plea for urgently needed arms to thwart the LTTE offensive. Colombo restored full diplomatic ties with Israel in the wake of India’s refusal to assist the army. The US swiftly welcomed Sri Lanka’s decision to establish diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.

In Colombo, President Kumaratunga summoned all political parties for consultations on May 15, while UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe sought a meeting between the PA and the UNP to discuss the crisis. Wickremesinghe said that he intended to meet President Kumaratunga with UNP Chairman Karu Jayasuriya and General Secretary of the party, Gamini Atukorale (CBK, Ranil summon separate meetings to discuss Jaffna situation––The Island May 14, 2000).

In the last week of May, 2000, the LTTE lost several dozens of experienced cadres during a series of confrontations on the outskirts of Chavakachcheri, west of Sarasalai. OOC Maj. Gen. Perera estimated the number of LTTE cadres killed during the confrontations at 150. He offered to return the bodies of 68 LTTE cadres through the ICRC. It was the first major success for the SLA after a spate of battlefield reversals since Dec 10, 1999, when the LTTE launched new campaign a targeting the Jaffna peninsula (Over 150 terrorists die in Chava battle, says Maj. Gen. Janaka Perera––The Island, May 29, 2000).

Censorship prevented the media from reporting the SLA’s withdrawal from Chavakachcheri, the second largest town in the Jaffna peninsula, shortly after the Elephant Pass debacle.

The SLN ferried more arms and ammunition to Kankesanthurai as battles raged in different parts of the peninsula (More armaments ferried to KKS by navy––The Island May 24, 2000). In the wake of the SLA’s success on the outskirts of Chavakachcheri, the SLA launched limited attacks in the general area of Chavakachcheri. The SLA faced fierce resistance and couldn’t make a breakthrough (Forces mount counter offensive––The Island May 30, 2000, Forces launch two-pronged assault on LTTE’s Chava positions––The Island May 31, 2000).

SLN lose more craft

The Sea Tigers deployed everything it had to intercept SLN convoys carrying supplies from Trincomalee to Kankesanthurai. In the first week of July 2000, Sea Tigers intercepted an SLN convoy 14 nautical miles east of Vettilaikerni and destroyed two Fast Attack Craft (FAC) escorting the supply convoy. In spite of losing two precious craft, the SLN managed to move supply vessels to Kankesanthurai (Forces maintain supplies to Jaffna––The Island June 7, 2000). Had the SLN failed to sustain the sea supply route to Kanesanthurai through enemy dominated seas, Jaffna forces would have collapsed.

On June 15, 2000, O.O. C. Perera was named the Chief of Staff of the SLA, though he was asked to continue as the senior officer in charge of the war effort in the Northern region.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Oslo-CBK peace initiative amidst war

War on terror revisited: Part 60

By Shamindra Ferdinando
LTTE fires 152 mm artillery piece captured from Elephant Pass army base (pic released by the LTTE International Secretariat in London)

Having survived an LTTE assassination bid on her life on the night on Dec 19, 1999, an irate President Chandrika Kumaratunga, in an exclusive interview with BBC, revealed secret negotiations she had had with the LTTE to allow LTTE theoretician, Anton Balasingham to leave the Vanni for urgent medical treatment abroad. President Kumaratunga named Norway as the go-between the GoSL and the LTTE, much to the embarrassment of Norway. Years later, Norwegian Minister Erik Solheim revealed how he had initiated secret talks through the Norwegian Ambassador in Colombo at that time Jon Westborg. Solheim was acting on representations made to him by the LTTE in Oslo. According to Solheim negotiations had been handled by President Kumaratunga and Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in the run-up to the assassination attempt. However, talks failed to produce an agreement on safe passage for the former British High Commission employee married to Australian born, Adele. (Negotiating Peace in Sri Lanka: Efforts, Failures and Lessons Volume II).

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), too, was involved in the abortive attempt to arrange for Balasingham’s safe passage. In her 2001 book, The Will to Freedom: an inside View of Tamil Resistance, Adele accused President Kumaratunga of having laid down unreasonable conditions, hence causing the collapse of her negotiations with the Tigers.

But, the LTTE managed to smuggle out the Balasinghams to a South East Asian country on a ship before British authorities could help them fly to London. In an interview with the UK based Tamil Guardian International, Balasingham revealed the role played by the UK in helping them to reach London. The attempt on President Kumaratunga was made after the Balasinghalms had left Sri Lanka. In fact, the British High Commission denied having any prior knowledge of the LTTE spokesman’s arrival in London during 1999 (Balasingham reveals British hand in secret journey––The Island March 26, 2000).

The attempt on President Kumaratunga’s life should be examined against the backdrop of the LTTE blaming her for the collapse of talks on safe passage for Balasingham. When the LTTE tried to assassinate President Kumaratunga two days before Dec. 21, 1999 presidential poll, the LTTE was in full control on the Vanni front. The LTTE was on the offensive when President Kumaratunga was recuperating at the Nawaloka Hospital, under heavy guard.

Tigers secure beachhead  in Jaffna

LTTE flag raised at Elephant Pass
By the time President Kumaratunga returned to Temple Trees following surgery at Nawaloka within 48 hours of the attack, the LTTE had established its presence in the Jaffna peninsula. The GoSL liberated the entire Jaffna peninsula in late May 1996, forcing the LTTE to withdraw across the Jaffna lagoon to the Vanni mainland. Having regained all areas it had lost to the Sri Lankan military during the period from May 1997 to Nov. 1999, the LTTE stepped up attacks on the peninsula. By the third week of Dec. 1999, the LTTE had secured a foothold at Thanankilappu, Jaffna. The LTTE gradually overcame SLA and SLN resistance to set up base at Thanankilappu. Sea Tigers ferried combat units across the Jaffna lagoon to Thanankilappu in the Chavakachcheri sector. The SLA was preoccupied with the deteriorating situation at Elephant Pass, where the 54 Division was under massive attack. The SLA failed to dislodge the group conducting operations in and around Thanankilappu.

While fighting continued on the northern front, one-time Norwegian Foreign Minister Knut Volleback visited Colombo on Feb. 16, 2000 to discuss ways and means of bringing the LTTE back to the negotiating table.

In March 2000, President Chandrika Kumaratunga prematurely retired seven SLA officers, including two Majors General and one Brigadier for their failure to thwart an LTTE offensive in Nov 1999 directed at the SLA deployed on the Vanni front. The government asserted that the situation in the Northern Province wouldn’t have deteriorated to such an extent if the SLA repulsed the LTTE offensive. They were found guilty by a tri-services Court of Inquiry. But, they were cleared of political conspiracy, though the PA accused a section of the SLA of having engineered the Vanni debacle at the behest of the UNP, a charge vehemently denied by the main Opposition party (Government retires seven army officers over Vanni defeat …but fails to link them with political conspiracy––The Island March 2000). Security Forces Commander Vanni Maj. Gen. Wasantha Perera, Maj. Gen. Gamini Gunasekera (General Officer Commanding 56 Division) and Brigadier T. Bohoran (General Officer Commanding 55 Division) and three officers of the Sri Lanka National Guard (SLNG) and one Sinha Regiment officer were sent out of the SLA.

LTTE secures second beachhead

In the wake of the LTTE strengthening its position at Thanankilappu and both east and west of Elephant Pass, the LTTE carried out its biggest amphibious operation on the night of March 26, 2000 to open a new front targeting Elephant Pass. The Sea Tigers deployed every available craft it had to ferry about 1,200 personnel from the Vanni mainland to the Vadamaratchchy coast. Obviously, the SLA didn’t anticipate such a large scale deployment of amphibious forces. The SLN couldn’t thwart the transfer of men, though Fast Attack Craft (FAC) intercepted some Sea Tiger craft off the Vadamaratchchy coast. Having secured Kudaarappu and Manmunai swiftly, the attacking force crossed the inland lagoon and marshy lands to reach an earth bund erected by the SLA at Massaar. The SLA retreated, paving the way for the LTTE to reach the Kandy-Jaffna A 9 road. Within hours, the LTTE cut off the road at Pallai. The LTTE evicted the SLA from the Pallai-Eluthumaduval sector. The rapidity of the LTTE assault took the SLA by surprise. It didn’t even have the time to react. Obviously, it didn’t have a contingency plan. Sea borne raiders led by Balraj, one of the most experienced LTTE commanders caused heavy damage to the SLA (LTTE mounts major strike on Elephant Pass-Jaffna MSR––The Island March 28, 2000, Navy intercepts boats carrying LTTE reinforcements with strap line Forces vacate Manmunai detachment––The Island March 29, 2000, Troops withdrawn from Maruthankerny––The Island March 30, 2000 and LTTE pours more reinforcements into peninsula battle––The Island March 30, 2000).

Although the SLA succeeded in regaining a part of lost territory, the LTTE continued to hinder supplies to the beleaguered troops deployed under the command of the 54 Division. The LTTE sustained offensive action on multiple fronts as demoralized troops abandoned their positions. Some even inflicted gunshot injuries on themselves to get themselves admitted to a medical facility. In the face of an unprecedented defeat, some senior officers sought medical leave. The SLA realized that it couldn’t reverse the situation in the Jaffna peninsula. By the middle of April 2000, the LTTE was able to cut off the 54 Division troops deployed in and around Elephant Pass. By then, the SLA had abandoned the entire area liberated during Operation Sath Jaya (July-Sept 1996). The SLA abandoned Elephant Pass on April 22, 2000. With that the 54 Division, which was established in the wake of the liberation of Kilinochchi in late Sept 1996, ceased to exist. The SLA never explained its failure to prevent the LTTE overrunning the 54 Division. It was the worst defeat experienced by the SLA since Independence. The Elephant Pass battle transformed the LTTE from a guerilla force to a conventional fighting force capable of conducting operations on multiple fronts. The SLA retreated leaving behind a massive stock of arms, ammunition and equipment, including artillery pieces. Some of the officers, including the last General Officer Commanding (GoC) 54 Division Maj. Gen. K. B. Egodawela survived the battle. Soon after the government authorized the SLA to vacate Elephant Pass on the late afternoon of April 20, 2000, Maj. Gen. Egodawela escaped ahead of troops. His deputy, Colonel Percy Fernando died while retreating with troops. At the time SLA abandoned Elephant Pass, President Kumaratunga was overseas.

PA, UNP under fire

The National Joint Committee (NJC) spearheaded a strong campaign in support of the SLA calling for an all out war against the LTTE. The NJC demanded that the PA adopt a tangible action plan to eradicate terrorism. Dr. Piyasena Dissanayake of the NJC was one of the very few people, who publicly condemned the PA and the UNP for failing to fight the common enemy. In the immediate aftermath of the LTTE stepping up operations targeting Jaffna in late March, 2000, Dr. Piyasena pointed out the absurdity in the PA and the UNP having talks with the LTTE through the Norwegians at a time the enemy was all out to strengthen its position in the Northern Province (PA-UNP talks while LTTE seeks military gains––The Island March 29, 2000).

The NJC appreciated Army chief, Lt. Gen. Sri Lal Weerasooriya’s declaration that the LTTE should be defeated, militarily. Making a passionate statement on March 16, 2000, the Army Commander said that the LTTE could be defeated if sufficient number of troops was made available for the fighting forces. Much to the embarrassment and anger of the political leadership, the Lt. Gen. strongly backed the four Mahanayakes’ call to destroy the LTTE (Army echoes Mahanayakas’ call to destroy terrorists––The Island March 19, 2000).

The NJC stoutly opposed the Norwegian intervention. The SLFP remained mum. No one dared to issue a statement on behalf of the SLFP as the SLA struggled on the Northern front. Having captured Elephant Pass, the LTTE brought in additional forces into the Jaffna theatre. Until experiencing the debilitating loss at Elephant Pass, the PA never thought of assigning Maj. Gen. Janaka Perera to take over the Jaffna Command. The PA also ignored Maj. General Sarath Fonseka. Maj. Gen. Perera was named the Overall Operations Commander (OOC) and sent to Jaffna. Maj. General Fonseka was named Jaffna Security Forces Commander. It was nothing but a great mystery why the PA had waited for so long to assign the experienced duo to counter the LTTE attack. President Kumaratunga and her advisors obviously didn’t realize the gravity of the situation. Having allowed the LTTE to take the upper hand in the northern theatre, the President emphasized in April that the SLA should regain what had been lost (President orders recovery of all lost areas––The Island April 23, 2000).

Interestingly, the President recreated the post of OOC, which she had scrapped on June 9, 1999. The appointment was made with effect from April 21, 2000, a day after the SLA had decided to vacate the base. The post of OOC was created on May 27, 1999. Seven days later Lt. Gen. Rohan De S. Daluwatte was named the first OOC and a member of the National Security Council (NSC). President Kumaratunga scrapped the post on June 9, 1999 citing an alleged attempt by some officials to prompt her to make an unnecessary appointment (Post set up, scrapped and restored––The Island April 23, 2000).

The prevailing censorship prevented the media from reporting what was going on in the North. The Operational Headquarters of the Defence Ministry engaged in a desperate damage control exercise.

The Operational Headquarters completely censored a statement issued by the LTTE Secretariat in London on the late afternoon of April 22, 2000 as regards the situation at Elephant Pass (Massive attack on Elephant Pass––The Island April 23, 2000).

Post-Elephant Pass  media briefing

Army chief, Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya and Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. Lionel Balagalle on April 24, 2000 declared in Colombo that Jaffna could be defended, though Elephant Pass had been abandoned. They asserted that the SLA could consolidate its positions at Soranpattu, north west of Iyakachchi thereby thwarting further LTTE advances (New strategy needed after Elephant Pass loss says army chief––The Island April 26, 2000). The then military spokesman Brigadier Palitha Fernando (now on Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s staff), explained the difficulties experienced by the SLA due to vacancies among fighting battalions. Brig. Fernando asserted that the shortage of manpower faced by regular fighting formations was acute when compared with the elite 53 Division. They were addressing the media at SLA headquarters on the night of April 24, 2000. They were joined by Vice Admiral Cecil Tissera and Air Marshal Jayalath Weerakkody.

Obviously, Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya and Maj. Gen. Balagalle underestimated the crisis. The SLA couldn’t hold Soranpattu in the face of coordinated LTTE attacks. The LTTE increased pressure on the SLA by returning bodies of officers and men through the ICRC. On one occasion, the LTTE handed over 126 bodies of those killed in and around Elephant Pass to the ICRC to be moved to Vavuniya (LTTE returns bodies of 126 army men through the ICRC––The Island April 24, 2000).

The army chief also downplayed the losses suffered by his troops. The LTTE issued a statement from London claiming that the 54 Division had retreated, leaving behind three 152 mm artillery pieces, two 122 mm artillery pieces, twelve 122 heavy mortars, one 25 mm cannon, several 50 calibre guns, rocket propelled grenades, armoured fighting vehicles, trucks and sophisticated communication equipment. Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya asserted that the failure to abandon the base, could have trapped thousands of personnel, causing a catastrophic situation (Pass withdrawal purely military, says Army chief––The Island April 25, 2000).

The Army chief stressed that he had never asked the government to impose censorship. The media raised the issue of ongoing censorship at the special media briefing called in the wake of Sri Lanka’s worst battlefield defeat.

Responding to a query, Air Marshal Weerakkody declared that Palaly was not under threat from LTTE field guns. The President was still away from the country.

The SLA suffered another heavy loss about a week after the Elephant Pass debacle. It abandoned its positions at Ittavil, Pulopullai and Pallai, leaving behind the bodies of officers and men. The retreating SLA didn’t even try to recover weapons or at least destabilize them. (LTTE captures Pallai––The Island May 2, 2000). The LTTE continued to return bodies of soldiers through the ICRC to humiliate the SLA (LTTE to return 50 bodies––The Island May 2, 2000).

In the first week of May, 2000, the government announced its decision to establish full diplomatic ties with Israel. The Foreign Ministry said that it was part of overall measures taken to strengthen Sri Lanka’s fight against terrorism. The PA never bothered to explain why it had waited till the LTTE threatened to attack Jaffna to resume full diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Suicide attack on CBK as Tigers peak on Vanni front

War on terror revisited: Part 59


By Shamindra Ferdinando

A visibly emotional President Chandrika Kumaratunga addresses the nation from Temple Trees. It was her first address after she survived an LTTE assassination attempt on her life on the night of Dec 19, 1999 at Town Hall, Colombo. Lt. Gen. Sri Lal Weerasooriya (left) and Air Marshal Jayalath Weerakkody look on.

Unceasing Waves aka Oya Alaigal was perhaps the LTTE’s most successful campaign during the entire conflict. The third phase of the offensive launched on Nov. 2, 1999 forced the army to vacate almost the entire area liberated in four offensives, namely Jayasikuru (May 1997-Dec 1998), Edi bala (Feb 1997), Rivi bala (Dec. 1998) and Ranagosa( March 1998-Nov. 1999) in both east and west of the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road. The LTTE blitz took the SLA by surprise.

The first phase of Unceasing Waves was directed at 25 Brigade comprising two regular infantry battalions of the Sinha Regiment and Vijayaba Infantry Regiment and support elements, on July 18, 1996. The base fell within seven hours!

Unceasing Waves II threw out the SLA from Kilinochchi in late Sept./Oct. 1998, causing massive loss of life. Unceasing Waves II pushed the SLA frontline northwards by about 4.5 km. The newly created 54 Division headquartered at Elephant Pass, never recovered from the loss suffered at Kilinochchi captured by Sath Jaya troops in late Sept 1996. The SLA paid a heavy price to liberate Kilinochchi, which became the LTTE nerve centre shortly after Riviresa troops liberated the entire Jaffna peninsula in late May 1996.

Although, in terms of territory liberated in the Vanni, Ranagosa was the most successful, it didn’t cause any damage to the LTTE, as pointed out previously in this series.

In fact, the SLA never had an opportunity to mount a counter-attack as LTTE combatants engaged in Unceasing Waves III executed a series of operations on both the eastern and western flanks. The deployment of the SLN and the SLAF on the Vanni frontlines made the situation worse. The SLN and the SLAF ground forces holding positions at critically important locations hadn’t been exposed to high intensity battles. They simply vacated their positions leaving behind arms, ammunition and equipment. Their retreat was so rapid that the LTTE failed to inflict heavy losses on those fleeing SLN and SLAF ground forces! The SLA was no better. The three Divisions, 55, 56 and the elite 53 miserably failed to halt the LTTE advance on both the eastern and western flanks.

Nov 23, 1999: Retired Maj. Gen. Lucky Algama at his Narahenpita residence immediately after the CID questioned him on his alleged involvement in a politico-military conspiracy to thwart President Kumaratunga’s re-election bid. Algama was assassinated on the night of Dec 19, 1999 by the LTTE. (Pic Jude Denzil Pathiraja)

The military lost 10 major bases within a week. The PA took cover behind censorship to hide the actual ground situation in the Vanni in a bid to prevent UNP presidential candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe from capitalising on the Vanni debacle. The PA obviously regretted calling for the presidential polls on Dec. 21, 1999.

By Nov. 15, the LTTE had advanced in a southwesterly direction from Oddusuddan on the A-34 road to the outskirts of Omanthai on the Jaffna-Kandy A-9 highway. The Tigers also moved southwards on the eastern flank to towards Weli Oya. Vavuniya, the southernmost town in the Northern Province, came under artillery and long range mortar fire.

The LTTE fired about 28 rounds of artillery on Vavuniya on Nov. 18, 1999 to cause an exodus of people (LTTE attacks Vavuniya with artillery––The Island Nov. 19, 1999). The attack on Vavuniya marked the resumption of the Tiger advance following a brief respite. The LTTE launched simultaneous assaults on military positions in the northwestern sector of the Vanni region, which comprised the districts of Mullaitivu, Mannar, Kilinochchi and Vavuniya. The Tigers captured several Army camps in those areas and took control of the famous Holy Rosary Church at Maruthamadhu, popularly known as Madhu. However, the SLA recaptured it within 48 hours. In the process, 38 civilians who had taken refuge in the Catholic Church were killed and 60 injured. The Army and the LTTE blamed each other for the killings. The LTTE also started attacking military positions on the island off Mannar on the northwestern coast.

Within three weeks the LTTE had regained almost all territory it lost owing to Jayasikuru, Edi bala, Rivi bala and Ranagosa troops. Having inflicted a humiliating defeat on the SLA, the LTTE began re-deploying forces for a multi-pronged assault on the 54 Division having its southernmost defences at Paranthan, Iyakachchi and Vettilaikerni on the Mullaitivu coast. The LTTE-re deployment made the entire Jaffna peninsula vulnerable. A demoralized 54 Division was not in a mood to engage in either offensive or defensive action. The 51 and 52 Divisions deployed in the Jaffna peninsula, too, weren’t going to meet the LTTE challenge.

PA’s folly

The then PA leadership never realized the LTTE strategy. The Kumaratunga administration conveniently blamed the unprecedented debacle on the UNP. The government went to the extent of alleging a conspiracy involving a section of the SLA and some retired officers involved in UNP politics. The PA alleged that those who engineered the Vanni debacle, intended to undermine President Kumaratunga’s re-election bid at the Dec. 21, 1999 polls.

On Nov. 1999, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), at the behest of the PA questioned retired SLA Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. Lucky Algama, regarding his alleged involvement in the so-called Vanni conspiracy. The PA felt that the Gemunu Watch veteran had influenced a section of the then Vanni command to vacate the area soon after the LTTE launched the offensive (CID to question Maj. Gen. Algama today––The Island Nov. 23, 1999). The PA assertion was influenced by the Maj. General’s decision to contest the next parliamentary polls. Algama was also involved in UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s presidential election campaign.

The SLA veteran was accused of conspiring with a section of the military in Weli Oya in Sept 1999. The government asserted that the UNP had engineered the debilitating Vanni setback to undermine the relationship between the military and the political leadership ahead of a crucial election. The outspoken Maj. General’s criticism of the war strategy as well as his consistent demand to do away with the censorship facilitated the PA’s cause.

The PA government didn’t want to be held accountable for the humiliating battlefield defeat at the time of the presidential election (CID questions Maj. Gen. Algama with strap line Involvement in conspiracy against state alleged––The Island Nov. 24, 1999).

The CID team was headed by its Director, SSP Keerthi Gajanayake. The police visited the Gemunu Watch veteran’s Narahenpita residence after he declined to present himself at the fourth floor. Having denied allegations as regards a conspiracy by the SLA to undermine Kumaratunga’s presidential election campaign, Maj. Gen. Algama told The Island that he would never fish in troubled waters. The CID conducted the inquiry parallel to one initiated by the SLA.

TULF move

On behalf of the LTTE, the Tamil United Liberation Front on Nov 22 reiterated its call for a third party mediation to resolve the national issue. The plea was made when a top level TULF delegation led by its General Secretary R. Sampanthan met President Kumaratunga at Temple Trees. The delegation comprised MP Mavai Senathirajah, MP P. Selvaraj and the then Acting Mayor of Jaffna N. Raviraj. In spite of the LTTE assassinating Jaffna Mayor Sarojini Yogeswaran, the widow of Vettivelu Yogeswaran on May 17, 1998 in Jaffna, the TULF had no option but to play ball with the LTTE. Sarojini’s successor Ponnuthurai Sivapalan, too, was assassinated by the LTTE. On Sept 11, 1998, Sivapalan, Jaffna town commandant Brigadier Susantha Mendis, and several senior police officers and officials of the Municipal Council were killed in a powerful blast in the Jaffna Municipal Council building at Nallur. Still, the TULF had to speak on behalf of the LTTE. The TULF move placed the PA leadership in an extremely difficult position. The PA feared any move on its part to initiate talks could be a serious impediment to Mrs. Kumaratunga’s re-election bid. The PA rejected the TULF move.

Talks between the PA and the LTTE collapsed on April 19, 1995 subsequent to a truce that lasted around 100 days.

On Nov. 26, 1999, LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran offered to return to the negotiating table provided there was third party mediation. Prabhakaran, over clandestine Voice of Tigers (VoT) declared that he was ready for third party mediation to resolve the national issue. In fact, the LTTE leader contradicted his previous position as regards the resumption of talks. Prabhakaran, during his ‘heroes week’ speech on Nov. 26, 1995, less than two weeks before the SLA wrested control of Jaffna town declared: "The door to peace would be closed as long as troops occupied the town. They may hoist the flag and light fire crackers, but we want to express one thing. As long as the Sri Lankan armed forces occupy Jaffna, the door to peace talks will always remain tightly shut."

The following year (1996), Prabhakaran insisted on the withdrawal of the SLA from Jaffna, Chavakachcheri, Point Pedro and Valvettiturai, captured during Riviresa offensive (Oct. 1995-May 1996) with a view to creating what he called a congenial environment with military de-escalation as a prerequisite for any third party mediated political negotiations (LTTE’s call for third party mediation contradicts its earlier stand on Jaffna––The Island Nov. 30, 1999).

In 1997, Prabhakaran rejected President Kumaratunga’s much-talked about devolution package. The LTTE chief declared that the so-called political package and the on-going military action were all part of the overall GoSL strategy.

The LTTE again reiterated its call for third party mediation in his ‘heroes’ week’ message in 1998. Unlike on previous occasions, the heroes’ week message was delivered from an unprecedented position of military strength. The LTTE was on top on the Vanni front.

The LTTE increased pressure on the government by releasing a small number of troops captured during Unceasing Waves III. But the group never revealed the exact number of officers and men taken prisoner during confrontations. The transfer of prisoners was handled by the International Committee of the Red Cross (LTTE offers to release two more servicemen––The Island Dec. 5, 1999).

Gross negligence

Inquiries revealed the failure on the part of the SLA high command to take counter measures in spite of observing a major LTTE build-up off Oddusuddan liberated in Dec. 1998. Had there been an effort on the part of the SLA to rectify weaknesses, the LTTE offensive could have been thwarted (Gross negligence of Vanni top brass led to swift collapse of frontlines––The Island Nov. 7, 1999). The rapidity of the LTTE advance stunned the SLA. At some bases, troops simply refused to fight. On the Vanni east, SLAF ground forces booed at their senior officers when they were told to take up frontline positions. All three services struggled to restore confidence among fighting men. The LTTE threatened Vavuniya on the main A9 road, whereas Weli Oya, east of the road, too, was under heavy pressure. The government felt a direct assault on Vavuniya could cause a catastrophic situation. The SLA didn’t have strong fortifications in Vavuniya as it had never felt the LTTE could roll back ground forces to such an extent. The government actually considered whether the Dec. 21, 1999 Presidential poll would have to be put off due to the precarious ground situation (Presidential election in the balance: Vavuniya comes under LTTE threat as two more strategic towns fall ––The Island Dec. 7, 1999). Voice of Tigers asked the people living in Vavuniya and its suburbs to leave the area. For some reason, the LTTE halted its offensive and diverted the bulk of its forces to finish off the SLA on the Jaffna front. Karuna Amman was at the forefront of the offensive. The LTTE mounted major offensive action on the Jaffna front on Dec. 11, 1999 with operations directed at SLA positions both east and west of Elephant Pass. The LTTE intended to create sufficient pressure on Elephant Pass, where the 54 Division was headquartered to force troops deployed south of Elephant Pass to retreat. The LTTE also fired artillery at densely populated areas to destabilize the peninsula (LTTE pounding residential areas-Army––The Island Dec. 20, 1999).

In spite of taking heavy losses, the LTTE continued attacks on SLA positions both east and west of Elephant Pass. Gradually, the SLA began to resisit, mostly on the eastern flank. The then Jaffna Security Forces Commander, Maj. Gen. Sarath Munasinghe couldn’t handle the situation. The SLA continued to downplay losses, though the LTTE’s London Secretariat issued statements regularly. The London Secretariat declared that the SLA was retreating and wasn’t in a position to resist the LTTE advance.

PA, UNP targeted

Sri Lanka was facing an unprecedented crisis. The SLA was under attack on the Jaffna front. It was on the defensive. The SLA deployed in Vavuniya, Mannar and Weli Oya, too, was on a defensive posture having experienced a humiliating defeat at the hands of the LTTE. The SLA didn’t have any reserve forces for deployment in the northern theatre, whereas the LTTE freely operated in the Vanni. It had the wherewithal to engage demoralised government forces. Amidst the crisis in the North, the LTTE struck in Colombo on the night of Dec. 18, 1999, two days before the presidential election. A lone suicide bomber targeted President Kumaratunga at her final propaganda rally at Town Hall, whereas another assassin blew up Maj. Gen. Algama at a UNP election rally at Ja-ela. The female bomber, who targeted the President, is believed to have come for a meeting with the supporters of an SLFP Minister. It was the second occasion, where the LTTE targeted a presidential candidate. In the run-up to the Nov. 1994 Presidential election, the LTTE assassinated UNP candidate, Gamini Dissanayake. Mrs. Kumaratunga was in the presidential fray for the first time in Nov 1994. In Dec. 1999, it was her turn to be targeted by the LTTE.

On the night of Dec 4, 1999, TULF General Secretary, R. Sampanthan made an important announcement as regards the Dec 21, 1999, presidential election. At the behest of the LTTE, the TULF veteran declared that Tamil speaking people would boycott the presidential poll. The decision was taken by the Central Committee of the TULF (TULF asks voters to reject both Chandrika and Ranil – The Island Dec. 5, 1999).

Jayasikuru called off, new military adventure launched

War on terror revisited: Part 58

by Shamindra Ferdinando

In the last week of Sept. 1998, the LTTE dislodged the SLA from Kilinochchi which had been liberated in Sept. 1996. Troops engaged in Operation Sath Jaya had paid a heavy price to bring Kilinochchi under government control.

The Kilinochchi Brigade abandoned its positions leaving bodies, arms, ammunition and equipment. The SLA lost about four and a half kilometres of straight road northwards from Kilinochchi in one of the fiercest LTTE attacks during the conflict on Oct. 27. The LTTE targeted both Kilinochchi and Paranthan Brigades. While the LTTE was attacking Kilinochchi and Paranthan, the SLA threw all it had at its disposal against strong LTTE fortifications at Mankulam (Tigers admit losing 240 cadres in Vanni; Over 300 Tigers, 150 soldiers killed says Defence Ministry––The Island Oct. 31, 1998). The SLA brought Mankulam under its control as troops re-positioned themselves at Paranthan. The SLA vacated Mankulam and Kilinochchi in mid 1990 on President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s watch. The LTTE exaggerated its battlefield gains by declaring that it had regained the entire 15 km Kilinochchi-Elephant Pass stretch, though it actually captured only four and a half kms (LTTE claims of controlling 15 km road denied: Troops withdraw to Paranthan––The Island Oct 2, 1998).

The SLA lost several hundred men during the fighting in Kilinochchi and Mankulam. The then Director of Information revealed that bodies of over 400 SLA personnel killed in the Kilinochchi-Paranthan theatre were received by the ICRC on behalf of the GoSL (400 bodies of soldiers handed over to ICRC––The Island Oct 1, 1998).

With the shocking battlefield defeat at Elephant Pass, the PA was forced to admit that restoring the Main Supply Route (MSR) to Jaffna was no longer feasible (Troops capture Mankulam with strap line Kilinochchi troops vacate positions––The Island Oct 1, 1998). Due to censorship, The Island had no alternative but to be restrained in reporting the crisis on the battlefront. The PA struggled on both the political and military fronts as the LTTE stepped up pressure on the SLA. During the battle for Kilinochchi, the LTTE wiped out some SLA platoons. The censorship prevented the media from reporting what was going on in the Vanni. But, sometimes the Competent Authority approved news items, which highlighted the actual ground situation. The Island published the following front-page report captioned (Another 74 bodies of soldiers handed over––The Island Oct. 3, 1998), approved by the Competent Authority: "The LTTE yesterday handed over another 74 bodies of SLA personnel killed in fighting at Kilinochchi through the ICRC to the SLA at Poovarasankulam, Vavuniya. Altogether 684 bodies have been transferred by the ICRC from Mallavi in the LTTE-held area to the SLA-held area, whereas the SLA returned the bodies of 12 LTTE cadres."

Having being to New York for the annual UNGA sessions in September, President Chandrika Kumaratunga was in the UK when the LTTE scored its latest battlefield victory. The President returned to Sri Lanka on Oct 5, 1998 (President returns––The Island Oct 6, 1998). UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, too, was overseas during the same period. Having toured San Francisco, Washington, New York and London, Wickremesinghe returned to the country in the wake of a section of the UNP pushing for a no-faith motion against the PA over the Kilinochchi debacle. However, others strongly opposed the move. (Some UNPers propose no-faith motion against government over Kilinochchi debacle––The Island Oct 6, 1998). Subsequently, the decision making UNP Working Committee asked for a Parliamentary Select (PSC) to examine the circumstances under which the SLA had abandoned Kilinochchi.

The then SLA chief, Lt. Gen. Rohan De S. Daluwatte insisted that in spite of the Kilinochchi debacle, the SLA would continue its efforts to restore the Kandy-Jaffna (A-9) MSR. Daluwatte said that the shooting down by the LTTE of a private Lion Air flight from Palaly to Ratmalana on Sept. 29, 1998 had underscored the urgent need to restore the overland MSR. The SLA chief was speaking to this writer after the appointment of a Court of Inquiry to investigate the Kilinochchi debacle (Court of Inquiry appointed on Kilinochchi: We have come a long way says Army Chief––The Island Oct 7, 1998).

Jayasikuru commanders meet CBK

On the morning of Oct 12, 1998, President Kumaratunga summoned senior commanders spearheading the Jayasikuru offensive for a meeting at the Anuradhapura base. The President met the SLA top brass in the wake of a desperate attempt by the PA to round up deserters for re-deployment on the front. The latest hunt for deserters was launched soon after at least 1,000 soldiers were killed in battles in the Kilinochchi-Paranthan sector and Mankulam.

Battlefield debacles in the Vanni triggered a major political dispute between the two major parties, with the PA alleging the UNP was seeking political capital out of the crisis. The then Plan Implementation and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle lashed out at the UNP for making a five-point plan to overcome the crisis on the war front. The UNP proposed an immediate ending of censorship, setting up a joint military command, appointment of a defence procurement committee, a civil affairs committee and a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to investigate the Kilinochchi debacle. The PA dismissed the UNP’s proposals. Instead, it simply changed in strategy on the Vanni front.

SLA calls off Jayasikuru

On Dec 2, 1998, the PA called off Operation Jayasikuru to pave the way for a new offensive Rivi Bala. President Kumaratunga made her move in the wake of repeated calls by political parties here and a section of the international community to resume peace talks with the LTTE. The SLA deployed elite 53 and 55 Divisions and some elements of the 56 Division previously involved in Operation Jayasikuru to capture Oddusuddan, situated north of Nedunkerni, as it shifted focus of offensive action to east of the A9 road. The LTTE didn’t resist as troops secured Oddusuddan, situated 14 km north of Nedunkerni. This writer had the opportunity to visit the new frontlines at Nedunkerni-Oddusuddan on Oct 6, 1998, along with a group of journalists when Deputy Defence Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte visited the area. Having participated at a Hindu religious ceremony at Oddusuddan, Minister Ratwatte in camouflaged battle dress was about to get into a BTR 80 armoured personnel carrier when the LTTE fired four rounds of mortars at the group. At the time of the incident, the visiting group of journalists was about two kilometres south of the scene of the attack. The group was being moved to Oddusuddan in locally built armoured personnel carriers when the LTTE mounted the attack. The convoy stopped in the middle of the road leading to Oddusuddan when the SLA fired artillery in response to the LTTE attack. The group was struck there for more than an hour. Although Minister Ratwatte, Army chief, Lt. Gen. Daluwatte, SLN Commander, Vice Admiral Cecil Tissera, Air Force Commander, Air vice Marshal Jayalath Weerakkody and Wanni Security Forces Commander, Maj. Gen. Lionel Balagalle miraculously escaped, the LTTE attack claimed the lives of four SLA personnel, while 42 received injuries. Three bodyguards of Minister Ratwatte were among the wounded (Anuruddha and service chiefs in narrow escape––The Island Dec 7, 1998).

New adventure

In March 1999, the SLA brought more territory under its control west of the A9 ahead of provincial council polls. It was the first major operation after Maj. Gen. Sri Lal Weerasooriya succeeded Lt. Gen. Daluwatte. Weerasooriya was promoted to the rank of Lt. Gen. The SLA ignored the danger in troops spread thin on the ground. In spite of the shortage of men and material, the SLA took control of territory both east and west of the A9.

The LTTE fired several rounds of artillery at the Thallady army camp on March 17, 1999 inflicting heavy damage on it. The SLA lost 19 personnel and five civilian employees. Several vehicles parked within the base were also destroyed. Some of the vehicles hit by artillery had been loaded with ammunition, the media was told, during a visit to the base in June, 1999. The SLA hadn’t bothered to remove the wrecked vehicles.

On March 19, 1999, the SLA launched an operation to liberate the Madhu Church area. The 53 and 55 Divisions completed the operation on March 22, 1999. The LTTE retaliated by further artillery strikes. For some reason, the SLA felt that the LTTE didn’t oppose the government’s effort to bring in more territory under its control due to a manpower shortage. Since the conclusion of Operation Jayasikuru on Dec 2, 1998, the SLA brought approximately 960 sq. km without a fight west of A9 in Operation Ranagosa part I, part II and part III. Ranagosa was launched on March 6, 1999. The area brought under government control by Ranagoda troops was in addition to 134 square km area regained by Rivi Bala troops east of the A9 in the first week of Oct. 1998. The LTTE allowed the SLA to expand the area under its control. SLA commanders were in a jubilant mood when the SLAF flew in a group of journalists to Madhu on March 23, 1999, in the wake of the LTTE abandoning the Madhu Church area. Madhu was regained by Operation Ranagosa III.

Within a week after the liberation of the Madhu area, the LTTE triggered a claymore mine blast at Moondumurippu in the newly liberated area killing four SLAF personnel. The blast was followed by crash landing of an unmanned aerial vehicle flying over Pompemadu also in the Vanni area. Although the accident was blamed on a technical fault, it increased pressure on the armed forces.

Controversy over Daluwatte’s post

On May 27, 1999, the government created the all powerful post of the Chief of Defence Staff of the Joint Operations Headquarters. Retired Gen. Daluwatte was appointed to that post on June 3, 1999. Shortly after Daluwatte took over, the 54 Division headquartered at Elephant Pass was ordered to prepare for major offensive operations. The division launched a limited operation west of Paranthan on June 10, 1999. The operation ended disastrously. Operational Headquarters admitted losing 16 personnel, including two junior officers, though the actual losses were higher (Govt. renews operations in K’nochchi––The Island June 11, 1999). It was the first offensive action in the area since the SLA abandoned Kilinochchi in the last week of Sept. 1998.

Interestingly, the SLA went ahead with the operation at Paranthan the day after President Kumaratunga scrapped Daluwatte’s post. The President issued an extraordinary gazette notification dated June 9, 1999, to repeal the extraordinary gazette notifications dated May 27, 1999 and June 3, 1999. The President established the post of General Officer Commanding (GoC) Joint Operations Headquarters, which was answerable to Minister Ratwatte (Daluwatte’s post scrapped, Ratwatte regains lost ground––The Island June 13, 1999). President Kumaratunga alleged that she had been deceived by a section of the bureaucracy to issue the May 27 and June 3 extraordinary gazettes. Amidst turmoil in Colombo, the SLA regained a 358 sq. km area during the fourth phase of Operation Ranagosa also west of A-9. Ranagosa troops faced resistance only during the third phase. Vanni Security Forces Commander Maj. Gen. Balagalle told a visiting group of journalists on June 16, 1999 that Ranagosa had been a critical part of the SLA’s strategy to weaken the LTTE in the Vanni (Troops begin screening thousands in newly captured areas––The Island June 17, 1999).

Operation Ranagosa further weakened the SLA’s presence in the Vanni; in a sense, it spread three Divisions of troops thin on the ground. The LTTE’s decision not to resist the government strategy was seen as a weakness.

In June 1999, the LTTE stepped up activity targeting Weli Oya. At Mirusuvil, Jaffna, the LTTE blasted an eighty KVA diesel operated generator at the rural hospital. The LTTE flexed its muscles in various parts of SLA-held areas as part of a major destabilisation effort. The LTTE was preparing for a massive attack on the SLA in the Vanni. In the last week of June, 1999, Ranagosa troops launched a fresh offensive north of Mannar, to bring about 70 sq. km. under their control. The SLA forced the LTTE to abandon some of its fortifications. During the battle, the SLAF destroyed a 122 mm artillery piece while the LTTE knocked down a Russian built BTR 80 armoured personnel carrier (Artillery piece seized from army destroyed during battle for Vidithalthivu, says army chief––The Island July 1, 1999).

In the second week of Sept 1999, Ranagosa troops ran into stiff resistance when they pushed ahead of their positions. The SLA withdrew in the face of heavy attacks. Within two hours, the SLA realised that it could not achieve its objectives. Under fire, troops fled leaving behind bodies of their colleagues. The SLA top brass downplayed the debacle, though senior officers privately admitted that the LTTE was poised for a massive onslaught on the SLA (LTTE hands over bodies of 15 soldiers to ICRC––The Island Sept 15, 1999).

On July 6, 1999, exactly at 2.05 p.m, an artillery round landed inside the Weli Oya Brigade headquarters. It was the beginning of a sustained artillery attack on that military facility. A 122 mm artillery and 85 mm weapon were used to target the base from two locations. For about two hours, Minister Ratwatte, Vice Admiral Cecil Tissera, Air vice Marshal Weerakkody, Lt. Gen. Weerassoriya, IGP Lucky Kodituwakku, Maj. Gen. Sarath Fonseka and DIG Lionel Karunasena were trapped in the Weli Oya bunkers. About 10 rounds of artillery landed about 100 to 150 metres away from the bunkers where the defence topbrass was taking refuge. They escaped in an Mi 17 and a Bell 212 when LTTE gunners paused for about three minutes (Pause in artillery strike on Weli Oya Brigade HQ allows defence topbrass to escape––The Island July 10, 1996). Minister Ratwatte arrived in Weli Oya from Mannar to discuss the security situation in the context of an LTTE build-up in the area. He survived an LTTE mortar attack at oddusuddan on Oct. 6, 1998 afternoon.

P’karan, Karuna gloat at Chandrika’s military debacles

War on terror revisited: Part 57


By Shamindra Ferdinando

Karuna Amman came on clandestine Voice of Tigers (VoT) radio on the night of March 22, 1998 to explain LTTE efforts to thwart Operation Jayasikuru to restore the overland Kandy-Jaffna Main Supply Route (MSR). His statement was made in the wake of the LTTE scoring some significant battlefield victories. The SLA in Vavuniya quoted Karuna as having said that the Jaffna–Vavuniya road was soaked with the blood of LTTE cadres. The battle hardened LTTE commander emphasised the heavy price paid by the LTTE to resist the SLA advance. He placed the number of LTTE cadres killed during the May-Dec 1997 period at 1165. Karuna didn’t discuss the number of cadres killed during 1998 and the wounded on the Vanni front.

The majority of those killed during May-Dec. 1997 died in four large scale counter attacks launched by the LTTE on advancing troops.

Karuna was one of the senior commanders leading LTTE resistance against three fighting Divisions, 55, 56 and the elite 53 Division.

In spite of taking heavy losses, the LTTE managed to stall the SLA advance. By late March 1998, the SLA reported the loss of about 1,100 officers and men engaged in the Jayasikuru offensive since May 13, 1997.

Karuna didn’t refer to cadres killed in action against the 54 Division headquartered in Elephant Pass (Jaffna road drenched with Tiger blood, says LTTE with strap line Karuna admits 1165 deaths––The Island March 25, 1998).

Karuna was followed by LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. On May 13, 1998, Prabhakaran addressed Tamil speaking people for 15 minutes as regards the Jayasikuru offensive and what he called the heroic resistance offered by his cadres. The SLA monitored his speech both in Vavuniya and Jaffna. Prabhakaran said that the LTTE had sacrificed 1,300 men and women fighting Jayasikuru forces during the period May 13, 1997 to May 13, 1998.

A proud Prabhakaran declared that their National Liberation Army (NLA) had proved its fighting skills against the 30,000 strong SLA force on the Vanni front. It was an unprecedented announcement as Prabhakaran hadn’t issued a similar statement as regards other major battles fought in the north up to the launch of Jayasikuru on May 13, 1997.

Prabhakaran didn’t mince his words when he asserted the President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s government was in crisis due to its failure to achieve its political and military objectives. Vowing never to allow the GoSL to achieve its political and military objectives, the LTTE leader profusely thanked various LTTE units, including artillery, intelligence, anti-tank special unit, Black Tigers, anti-aircraft units and the medical unit for their roles on the battlefield.

The then SLA Chief, L. Gen. Rohan De. S. Daluwatte told this writer that regardless of LTTE resistance his troops would be able to complete the mission. A confident Daluwatte said that the LTTE had lost over 2,500 cadres at the hands of Jayasikuru forces (Jayasikuru operation kills 1,300 Tigers admits Prabhakaran-The Island May 14, 1998).

Lt. Gen. Daluwatte placed the number of officers and men killed on the front at 1,000. During that time, the SLA made a desperate bid to fill existing vacancies in fighting battalions by re-deploying deserters. By late May, the SLA had rounded up approximately 6,000 deserters for deployment in support of divisions engaged in operations in the north. Many died on the front, while hundreds were wounded in action. A general amnesty was offered to deserters on several occasions, while the police were directed to arrest them. Following a short refresher course, they were moved to frontline battalions.

Also in May, 1998, the LTTE assassinated the newly elected Jaffna Mayor, Sarojini Yogeswaran in Jaffna to further undermine President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s efforts to restore normalcy. The wife of assassinated TULF veteran, Vettivelu Yogeswaran contested for the Jaffna Municipal Council at the Jan 29, 1998 Local Government polls. Mrs. Yogeswaran turned down an offer by the then Security Forces Commander, Jaffna, Maj. Gen. Lionel Balagalle to provide bodyguards. She also asked the SLA not to set up a road block outside her residence. She obviously felt that the LTTE wouldn’t touch her, as long as she kept her distance from the SLA. Unfortunately, she thought wrong!

The LTTE’s strategy was multi-pronged. In the Jaffna peninsula, the LTTE conducted hit and run attacks on troops and targeted senior officers in spectacular attacks. The attack on Mrs Yogeswaran also wiped out senior army and police officers in charge of security in the Jaffna town area. In the Vanni, the group conducted high intensity operations involving multiple fighting formations. In the East, the LTTE conducted a low intensity campaign to keep the SLA busy, while on and off attacks in the south undermined the war effort. A case in point was a series of bomb attacks targeting Sri Lanka Telecom facilities at Kalutara, Kuliyapitiya, Nochchiyagama and Kadawatha. The situation was so serious the then Defence Secretary, Chandrananda De Silva was compelled to call an emergency meeting on June 2, 1998 to discuss the issue. The LTTE also targeted transformers belonging to the CEB. But its focus was on the Vanni.

The LTTE was fighting four Divisions (three on ‘the Jayasikuru’ front and the other on the Kilinochchi flank simultaneously). All three Divisions received the backing of the artillery units and the armour as well as air support. The SLA also regularly called for multi-role Kfir aircraft and Mi-24 helicopter gunships to support ground forces. It wouldn’t have been an easy task in fighting four Divisions simultaneously, though the LTTE achieved that feat. Looking after thousands of wounded cadres would have been a tremendous challenge due to the absence of required medical facilities. Regardless of various constraints experienced by the LTTE, the group was in command on the Vanni front in early April 1998.

Jaffna destabilisation project

Although Jaffna remained under the control of the SLA, the LTTE mounted on and off attacks targeting troops of 51 and 52 Divisions deployed there. It was part of their proven strategy to destabilise areas held by the SLA. The LTTE leadership didn’t care a damn about the civilian factor. In late March 1998, a group of LTTE infiltrators mounted an attack on an SLA road block at Kodikamam in Tennamaratchchy. The attackers used a tractor belonging to a farmer to reach the road block. Those manning the check point didn’t realise the tractor was carrying LTTE cadres until they opened fire. The SLA lost two personnel, including a woman soldier, while five received gunshot injuries. Although the then Jaffna Commander, Maj. Gen. Lionel Balagalle played down the attack, the LTTE issued a statement from its London Secretariat situated at No 211, Katerine road, claiming that its forces had successfully targeted an SLA minicamp.

On April 28, 1998, the LTTE blasted the Verugal ferry across Verugal Aru two hours later troops had launched a clearing operation south of Foul Point and east of Muttur (Tigers blast Verugal ferry––The Island April 28, 1998).

The LTTE mounted a spate of attacks in areas outside the main theatre of operations in Vanni as part of a destabilisation campaign. The SLA found it difficult to release troops needed for offensive action in the Vanni due to sporadic incidents in various parts of the then temporarily merged Northern and Eastern Provinces.

On the afternoon of May 14, 1998, the LTTE assassinated Vadamaratchchy Brigade Commander (52.4 Brigade), Brig. Larry Wijeratne, one of the most popular officers among the Tamil community. Having met members of the Point Pedro Traders’ Association, the Brig. was returning to his headquarters when an LTTE suicide cadre attacked his vehicle. He was to hand over the Vadamaratchchy command to the then Colonel Sanath Karunaratne of the Sinha Regiment a few days later. In fact, Col. Karunaratne had been at 52.4 Brigade headquarters, when the LTTE struck. Troops under his command repulsed a massive LTTE attack on the Elephant Pass base in July 1991. Brig. Wijeratne functioned as the Vadamaratchy Brigade Commander since the SLA liberated the area in May 1996.

Troops under Brig. Wijeratne’s command killed many LTTE undercover operatives in Dec. 1997. He incurred the the wrath of the LTTE for a series of successful operations, which seriously affected the LTTE’s attempts to undermine the SLA presence in the area. Among the dead was Archunar or Arjun. He was perhaps the most important cadre to die at the hands of the SLA at Pulavarodai, Irumpumathavady on Dec 16, 1997. Archunar held the rank of ‘Lieutenant Colonel’. Three others, including one Thenamuthan also died in an LTTE hideout.

Just over two weeks before the assassination of Brig. Wijeratne, the SLA had recovered an LTTE suicide kit at Maduvil south. The recovery fuelled speculation that the LTTE was going for a high profile target. Brig. Wijeratne was the second officer holding that tank to die in the Jaffna peninsula, since its liberation in May 1996. On July 4, 1996, an LTTE suicide cadre assassinated Jaffna Town Commandant, Brig. Ananda Hammangoda at Stanley Road, Jaffna.

The government never realised the LTTE strategy. It only reacted to LTTE action thus giving the enemy an opportunity to pursue its military objectives.

SLA outside Mankulam

The SLA was bogged down outside Mankulam. In late May 1998, the SLA made yet another effort to push towards Mankulam and was beaten back. The SLA retreated leaving bodies of personnel on the Mankulam battlefields. The two-pronged advance ran into fierce LTTE resistance, while the LTTE boasted of its battlefield exploits through its International Secretariat in London (ICRC hands over 9 bodies to Army––The Island June 1, 1998).

Operational Headquarters refrained from issuing media statements since May 28, 1998 after the SLA had resumed operations targeting Mankulam. A section of the military top brass acted as if nothing were happening on the Vanni front. Fresh fighting erupted south of Kilinochchi on June 4, 1998, causing substantial losses to the troops, though Operational Headquarters remained mum (Fierce fighting between Tigers and troops at K’nochchi––The Island June 5, 1998). The situation continued to deteriorate in the north. The government was under severe pressure both on military and political fronts. May late May 1998, it was evident that the SLA was on the defensive and didn’t have the ability to conduct two large scale offensive operation on two different fronts. Unfortunately, the the government didn’t realise the actual ground situation. The SLA didn’t want to admit defeat. The top SLA leadership felt that it couldn’t give up the grandiose project to open the roadway to Jaffna.

Censorship back

Having decided to muzzle the media, Defence Secretary Chandrananda De Silva announced on June 5, 1998, President Kumaratunga’s decision to re-impose censorship. Army Deputy Chief of Staff and the Operations Commander, Colombo, Maj. Gen. Jaliya Nanmuni was appointed the Competent Authority. The government lifted censorship on Oct 10, 1996, which had come into effect on April 19, the same year. The censorship was imposed immediately after troops engaged in Operation Riviresa launched phased II of the offensive to bring Thennamaratchchy and Vadamaratchchy under government control. Director Information Ariya Rubasinghe declared that his outfit was not involved in the process of censoring and all articles should be submitted direct to the SLA (Military news censorship re-imposed––The Island June 6, 1998).

Due to the re-imposition of the censorship, The Island had to kill its first edition lead story, which dealt with bloody fighting south of Kilinochchi on June 4, 1998. The SLA lost at least 50 officers and men in clashes, while about 400 received injuries. Of the wounded, over 250 were airlifted to the National Hospital. The SLA withdrew leaving dozens of bodies on the battlefield (Fierce fighting in Kilinochchi––The Island June 6, 1998). The battle erupted after the SLA had mounted an operation to regain a 4 km long line of fortifications it had lost to the LTTE on Feb. 1, 1998. The operation was nothing but a disaster. In fact, it was to have a disastrous impact on the entire Kilinochchi front.

De-facto Defence Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte told parliament that censorship was a necessity. The then Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera on June 11, 1998 told a post-cabinet media briefing that censorship was necessary due to the battle against the LTTE reaching a critical state. The minister was responding to the SLBC providing latest updates on the battlefield situation by airing BBC ‘Sandeshaya’ and the corresponding Tamil programme regardless of the censorship (SLBC provides uncensored military news via BBC––The Island June 15, 1998).

SLBC continued broadcasts even after the Competent Authority directed it to stop relaying Sandeshaya. The SLA was deeply embarrassed. The failure on the part of the CBK administration to control part of its own propaganda outfit surprised the military. In 2002, the SLA stood accused of double standards, as regards the GoSL position on the state media when the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe ordered the closure of the SLBC’s Vanni Sevaya operated for the benefit of the military and the police. The decision to close down the radio station was taken consequent to the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) in Feb 2002. The government ignored the SLA’s request to resume the service, whereas the LTTE was allowed to import state of the art equipment from Singapore to upgrade the VoT.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

SLA, SLN wither under Tiger onslaught

War on terror revisited: Part 56


In the North: Bodies of SLA personnel are transferred from the LTTE-held area to the SLA controlled area under the supervision of the ICRC. During the conflict, the ICRC transferred bodies of thousands of combatants across frontlines in the North. Tamil civilians are loading bodies of SLA personnel killed in a major confrontation in the North.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The LTTE infiltrated areas liberated by Jayasikuru troops to carry out hit and run attacks. The SLA was thin on the ground. In support of the SLA, the then government deployed the SLN as well as the SLAF to hold areas liberated by Jayasikuru troops. On the morning of March 14, 1998, an LTTE artillery attack wounded the then Brigadier, Sarath Fonseka, the General Officer Commanding (GoC) 55 Division and his deputy, Brigadier Tuan Bohran. They were replaced. At that time, some believed LTTE infiltrators could have directed LTTE gunners to direct artillery fire at Brigadier Fonseka’s headquarters situated south west of Mankulam. Major Priyantha Ranasinghe died in the attack. Ranasinghe posthumously promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, had arrived in Mankulam a few days before. The 55 was one of the three Divisions deployed on the Vanni front, others being 56 and the elite 53. The then Deputy GoC of the 56 Division, Brigadier D. S. K. Wijesooriya, too, was wounded in a mortar attack also on the same day. On March 11, the LTTE claimed the lives of two officers holding the rank of Captain attached to the fifth battalion of the Gemunu Watch (5GW) in a mortar attack. On March 4, the then Colonel Jagath Jayasuriya of the Armoured Corps, was wounded in a landmine explosion (present Army Commander).
The LTTE allowed the government to hold elections for 17 local government bodies in the Jaffna and Kilinochchi electoral districts on Jan 29, 1998. In fact, the LTTE didn’t mount a single attack on the day of the election. The SLFP-led PA and the SLA misinterpreted the absence of violence as by the LTTE due to it being weakened in the Jaffna peninsula. The then Jaffna Security Forces Commander, Maj. Gen. Lionel Balagalle told a group of visiting journalists from Colombo that the SLA was able to thwart several LTTE attempts to disrupt the election. The writer was among the group of journalists in Jaffna to cover the first election since the liberation of the entire peninsula in late May 1996. (Polling gathers momentum with strap line Despite LTTE last ditch effort at Gurunagar to prevent polls-The Island Jan 30, 1998).

Of the 17 local government bodies, the government sponsored EPDP bagged 10 councils, whereas the TULF secured two. The remaining local bodies were shared by the PLOTE and the TELO. The EPRLF failed to secure at least one local body. Maj. Gen. Balagalle declared that the SLA was able to ensure an incident free election. The then Vanni District MP Dharmalingham Siddarthan asserted that heavy military presence prevented large scale election malpractices (EPDP bags ten local government bodies in the North-The Island Jan 31, 1998). Security Forces headquarters wrongly asserted that that LTTE made an abortive bid to send a group of infiltrators across the Jaffna lagoon to Jaffna as it couldn’t have mounted a bigger raid in the Jaffna peninsula. In the run-up to the election, the LTTE stormed an EPDP camp at Punguduthivu Island, killing nine members, including two candidates contesting the Velani Pradeshiya Sabha. (Terrorist plan to disrupt elections aborted-The Island Feb 1)

Fresh offensive

Having allowed the government to hold elections for 17 local bodies on Jan 29, 1998, the LTTE mounted a multi-pronged attack on the newly raised 54 Division headquartered in Elephant Pass in the early hours of Sunday Feb 1, 1998. It would be important to mention that the 54 Division commanded by the then Brig. Lohan Gunawardene was one of the three divisions placed under Maj. Gen. Balagalle, with 51 and 52 divisions, respectively under Brig. Shantha Kottegoda and Chula Seneviratne being the remaining two. Within hours after the launch of the operation, the SLA realised that the action was a major effort aimed at 54 division troops deployed at Vettilikerni, Elephant Pass, Paranthan and Kilinochchi. Forces based in the Jaffna peninsula (Troops deployed in areas controlled by 51 and 52 divisions) went on alert in the wake of the LTTE making an unprecedented bid to destroy the SLA artillery base at Iyakachchi, north of Elephant Pass (54.1 Brigade). The commando-style raid went awry due to those assigned to Iyakachchi reacting swiftly. The SLA killed all 12 attackers. The SLA repulsed the attack in spite of suffering substantial losses (Over 200 Tigers, 20 soldiers die in K’nochchi battle with strap line Army requests ICRC to handover bodies-The Island Feb 1, 1998).

The Feb 1 offensive targeted three of the five Brigades attached to 54 Division, with the main attack directed at troops holding the first line of defence at Kilinochchi (54.5 Brigade).  The LTTE succeeded in dislodging the SLA from part of its defences at Kilinochchi, whereas the attackers failed in other sectors. Although Kfirs launched from the Katunayake air base targeted LTTE units occupying SLA defences at Kilinochchi, they didn’t budge (Fresh LTTE attacks repulsed with strap line Death toll in K’nochchi battle: 300 Tigers, 45 soldiers-The Island Feb 3, 1998).

It was the beginning of one of the bloodiest periods of the conflict. Maj. Gen. Balagalle, who succeeded Maj. Gen. P.A. Karunatilleke as the SF Commander, Jaffna, on Nov 1, 1997 found himself in an unenviable position. Maj. Gen. Balagalle failed to dislodge the LTTE from a four km long defence line previously occupied by the SLA. Although, the SLA managed to hold onto Kilinochchi town, the 54 division never recovered from that setback. The LTTE repulsed several attempts by the SLA to regain the area abandoned at the onset of the offensive on Feb 1, 1998. The stage was set for the LTTE to score an unparalleled battlefield victory, to prove its capacity and capability to conduct major ground operations with multiple objectives. On Feb 8, 1998, the LTTE, in a statement issued from London, declared that they had been successful in repulsing an SLA attempt to regain lost territory (Army refutes LTTE claiming control of Kilinochchi town-The Island Feb 10, 1998).

Now the SLA was under pressure on two fronts. The Jayasikuru offensive struggled on one front with the LTTE thwarting its advance towards Kilinochchi. The offensive, launched on May 13, 1997 had turned out to be a costly affair, with the SLA losing over 1,000 officers and men without achieving its major objectives. The LTTE had been able to stall the offensive involving three divisions, 55, 56 and the elite 53 in spite of taking heavy losses.

In the second week of Oct, Jayasikuru troops captured an area west of Mankulam. With the SLA gaining positions west of Mankulam, troops strengthened their positions (Troops bag Mankulam west-The Island Feb 14, 1998).

Visit to Kilinochchi

In the wake of the LTTE issuing statements from London claiming that it had evicted the SLA from Kilinochchi on Feb 1, 1998, the SLA took a group of journalists, including those representing the international media to Kilinochchi on Feb 15, 1998. The writer was among the media group flown to Palaly and from there overland to Kilinochchi town to prove it was still under SLA control. Addressing the media at his headquarters, Brig. Gunawardene said that an LTTE squad made an abortive bid to blast artillery pieces at Iyakachchi about 90 minutes before the LTTE launched its attack. The LTTE also fired at the Elephant Pass base as well as the headquarters of the 7 battalion of the Vijayaba Light Infantry (VIR) Regiment.

The Feb 1, 1998 offensive was the biggest action faced by 54 Division after Brig. Gunawardene succeeded Brig. Sarath Fonseka (Troops are in full control of Kilinochchi town-The Island Feb 17, 1998).

Brig. Gunawardene said that the SLA was able to thwart a massive attack on troops based at Kilinochchi at the onset of the offensive. During fierce gun battles on the Kilinochchi front, frontline troops engaged an Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) approaching their defences. The APC had overturned when troops hit its driver. The Brig. said that troops found 800 kgs of plastic explosives packed into the overturned APC. The SLA believed that the driver was an LTTE suicide cadre tasked with driving the APC bomb into Kilinochchi town to obliterate defences (APC with 800 kgs explosives found-The Island Feb 17, 1998).

Both Maj. Gen. Balagalle and Brig. Gunawardene emphasised that the loss of 54 Division’s first line of defence wouldn’t allow the LTTE to roll back the SLA back towards Elephant Pass. The SLA obviously underestimated the LTTE’s fighting capacity and its own vulnerability, primarily due to positioning of troops along the narrow Elephant Pass-Kilinochchi town stretch. The SLA also failed to realize how the Kilinochchi crisis could affect the entire military strategy. Clearly, the LTTE offensive directed at 54 Division wasn’t considered an integral part of enemy strategy. Instead, it was taken in isolation. The SLA paid an extremely heavy price for its failure to comprehend the LTTE overall plan. The LTTE build-up strong forces on both east and west of the Jaffna-Kandy A9 road to resist the Jayasikuru offensive pushing northwards and dislodge 54 Division from Kilinochchi town. It was a daunting task due to the superiority of the SLA in terms of both men and material. But the SLA was demoralised due to a spate of debacles, beginning with the annihilation of two regular infantry battalions deployed at Mullaitivu on July 18, 1996. The government was in a dilemma. The SLA struggled to prevent the disintegration of its frontlines in the face of LTTE strikes. By late Feb. 1998, the SLA realised that it didn’t have the wherewithal to sustain major offensive action on the Jayasikuru front, primarily due to heavy loss of lives, casualties as well fresh re-deployment of both men and material in support of 54 Division. But the SLFP-led PA pushed the SLA to restore the overland Main Supply Route (MSR) at any cost. Both the PA and the SLA acknowledged that the Jaffna peninsula, liberated in May 1996, could be at risk unless the uninterrupted overland MSR was established. The SLN was finding it extremely difficult to move supplies needed by three Divisions deployed in the Jaffna peninsula and the Elephant Pass-Kilinochchi stretch as well as the other services deployed there.

Although the PA and the SLA vowed to thwart the LTTE’s battle plans, the LTTE gradually strengthened its position. The LTTE was in a commanding situation with the Sri Lankan military on the defensive on all fronts.

SLN targeted

On the night of Feb 22, 1998, The Tigers’ explosives packed fast boats rammed SLNS Pabbatha (L 838) and the passenger vessel, Valampuri, also used by the SLN off the Point Pedro coast, killing about 50 SLA and SLN personnel. They were on their way to Kankesanthurai. It was one of the major losses experienced by the SLN since the launch of the Jayasikuru offensive on May 13, 1997. The landing craft was carrying two T-86 tracked infantry combat vehicles of Chinese origin. Fast Attack Craft (FAC) escorting the convoy failed to thwart Sea Tiger suicide craft from targeting the slow moving craft (Sea Tigers blast 2 Navy vessels-The Island Feb 24, 1998). The Valampuri was owned by the Road Development Authority (RDA). The SLN had no option but to acquire vessels belonging to other institutions to move men and material to Kankesanthurai. Four personnel, who had survived the attack on Valampuri were subsequently rescued by an Indian trawler and taken to India. They were sent back to Sri Lanka. However, the Sea Tigers missed SLNS Shakthi, at that time the largest of its kind in service which escaped (Four navy survivours picked up by Indian trawlers-The Island Feb 25, 1998).

The SLN managed to salvage both T 86 tracked combat vehicles, along with the main armaments of SLNS Pabbatha.

On Feb 24, 1998 heavy fighting erupted in the general area of Mankulam. The SLA was positioned 1.2 kms south of Mankulam, though the LTTE continued to fiercely resist troops. The SLA was desperate to seize Mankulam, though linking up with the 54 Division seemed unrealistic (Heavy fighting outside Mankulam-The Island Feb 25, 1998). The LTTE successfully resisted a fresh SLA advance on Feb 24, 1998. The SLA lost dozens of men, while over 100 suffered injuries during battles (Fierce close quarter fighting in Wanni-The Island Feb 26, 1998).

On the morning of Feb 26, 1998, the Sea Tigers launched a large scale attack on the SLN’s Kilali patrol base in the Jaffna lagoon. About 20 Sea Tiger craft raided the patrol station, while the LTTE fired artillery and mortars across the Jaffna lagoon. The SLN was lucky as artillery and mortar rounds fired by the LTTE didn’t hit the base (Tiger attack on Kilali base repulsed-The Island Feb 27, 1998). Had several artillery or mortar rounds scored direct hits, the situation would have been different.

The failure on the part of the SLA to make a breakthrough on the Vanni front placed the Kumaratunga administration in an extremely difficult position. The Opposition lashed out at the PA for not being able to achieve its military objectives, though the SLA was fighting nonstop since the fall of the Mullaitivu base in July 1996. At noon on March 5, 1998, a vehicle bomb explosion near the Maradana police station killed over 30 people, including school children. The LTTE operative driving the vehicle triggered the explosion as he was being pursued by a traffic policeman. The policeman had given chase after the driver ignored a signal to stop his vehicle. The vehicle bomb was not intended to be exploded near the Maradana police station (32 killed in Maradana blast-The Island March 6, 1998).

The SLN lost an inshore patrol craft in an LTTE suicide attack outside the Trincomalee harbour in the early hours of March 11, 1998. The then SLN chief, Vice Admiral Cecil Tissera asserted that in spite of losing the craft, the SLN was able to prevent Black Sea Tigers from infiltrating the Trincomalee harbour. Had Black Sea Tigers managed to move in, they could have hit a big ship, VA Tissera asserted (Major disaster in Trinco naval base averted with strap line Naval craft sinks as Tiger boat explodes-The Island March 12, 1998).

The PA was in crisis. The SLA was bogged down on the northern front, the SLN was under pressure, whereas the LTTE was able to mount attacks in Colombo.