Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Army’s biggest achievement during CBK’s time

War on terror revisited: Part 52

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Having secured Waligamam (Operation Riviresa Oct 16, 1995-Dec 5, 1995), the army launched a series of cordon and search operations in the area to prevent a possible LTTE build-up in the newly captured area.

However, Thennamaratchchy and Vadamaratchchy remained outside the area under SLA control in the Jaffna peninsula.

The liberation of the Jaffna town was undoubtedly the SLA’s biggest ever battlefield victory in the 1990s. But, unfortunately, the then government failed to use it as a springboard to wipe out terrorism. The failure on the part of the SLFP-led PA and the UNP to reach a consensus on the war effort, too, contributed to the gradual deterioration of the situation. In the run-up to Operation Riviresa President Chandrika Kumaratunga appointed High Court Judge G. M. S. Samaraweera to investigate an alleged coup and related matters on the eve of Aug 16, 1994 parliamentary polls.   Interestingly, on a directive given by President Kumaratunga’s predecessor, D. B. Wijetunga, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) probed an alleged plot involving a section of the SLA and the UNP.  Retired SLA Chief Lt. Gen. Cecil Waidyaratne was among the officials summoned before Samaraweera’s commission. Having accepted responsibility for the humiliating battlefield defeat at Pooneryn (Nov 1993), Lt. Gen. Waidyaratne retired on Dec. 31, 1993. The UNP promptly appointed him Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Thailand. The Armoured Corps officer’s presence in Colombo on the eve of Aug. 16, 1994 polls fuelled speculation about the possibility of the military interfering in the electoral process. Among others accused of being involved in the conspiracy was Gemunu Watch veteran retired Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Lucky Algama (Commission probing attempted coup to summon three UNPers, ex-army Chief––The Island Dec 23, 1995).

The setting up of a joint army and police unit to coordinate security in the run-up to the Aug 16 parliamentary polls gave rise to speculation that the then UNP government was planning to use a section of the armed forces to do ‘political work’ for it. The appointment of Maj. Gen. Lucky Algama as the senior officer in charge of the unit caused anxiety among Opposition MPs. The perception that Algama was close to the UNP made him a suspect. The UNP also brought in DIG Merril Gunaratne into the special outfit. Algama and Gunaratne were accommodated in the Defence Coordinating Committee, chaired by Defence Secretary Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe (New Army-Police cell to keep law and order––The Island July 30, 1994)  

LTTE hits back

In spite of losing Waligamam, the LTTE retained its capacity to mount hit and run attacks on troops deployed in the newly captured area. On the night of Dec. 25, 1995, the army thwarted an LTTE attempt to infiltrate Madagal. The LTTE launched a spate of attacks on the SLA in the then temporarily merged North-Eastern Province. Although the SLA thwarted some LTTE attempts, on many occasions, the LTTE succeeded. On Dec 26, 1995, the SLA recovered two improvised explosives devices close to the Headquarters of the army’s Third Division as well as the Batticaloa Brigade headquarters. But, two days before the Batticaloa detection, the LTTE killed 33 soldiers, including one officer and wounded 34 others in a confrontation at Shanthiveli, a village situated close to Valaichenai. The LTTE claimed the lives of 75 personnel and wounded about sixty in two attacks, which demoralised the SLA hugely.

The LTTE’s decision to vacate Waligamam and reduce its presence in Thennamaratchchy and Vadamaratchchy meant that it was in a position to strengthen its presence in the Vanni and the East. The LTTE stepped up pressure on SLA detachments at Sittandy and Kiran. The SLA experienced severe shortage of troops due to major deployment in the Jaffna peninsula. The LTTE felt that it could exploit the situation to its advantage elsewhere in the country. Having carried out a series of devastating attacks, the LTTE in the last week of Dec. 1995 offered to return to the negotiating table. The LTTE said that its offer was subject to the government agreeing to give up the entire area captured by troops of Operation Thunder Strike’ and ‘Operation Riviresa,’ during Oct 1-Dec 5, 1995 period. The government didn’t even bother to respond to the LTTE offer.

In early January 1996, the seaborne LTTE cadres stormed the Delft Island killing several EPDP cadres. In the absence of government troops there, the EPDP was in charge. Obviously, those deployed on the island couldn’t match the fighting skills of the raiding party. In response to the growing LTTE threat posed by the LTTE in the Eastern Province, particularly in the Batticaloa district, the SLA conducted an operation, though it didn’t make much of a difference. The army didn’t have the required number of troops to conduct operations and hold on to newly captured areas. Due to a severe dearth of fighting formations, the SLA had to keep on shifting them here and there. Successive army commanders used the elite Special Forces, Commandos as well as Air Mobile troops to perform the role of the infantry.

The LTTE launched some devastating attacks during Operation Riviresa and in its wake causing heavy losses on the SLAF. On the morning of Jan 22, 1996, a Mi-17 helicopter carrying 39 security forces personnel, including seven officers disappeared east of Point Pedro. The ill-fated  chopper had taken off from Palaly airbase exactly at 11.59 am. and was on its way to Vettilerkerni base, east of Elephant Pass when the LTTE brought it down. The dead comprised 33 army personnel, three sailors and the four-member SLAF crew. The SLAF lost two AN 32s on Sept 13, 1995 and Nov 21, 1995 with 138 officers and men on board.

On many occasions, the LTTE hit and run attacks in the newly liberated area failed due to the vigilance of troops. The LTTE lost 12 personnel at Puttur on Dec 27, 1995 (three men and four women) and Kondavil on Jan. 26, 1996 (five men) during clashes with the SLA. Although the LTTE remained at Point Pedro, the ICRC refused to facilitate the transfer of bodies the SLA was ready to hand over.

Central Bank blasted

The LTTE attacked the Central Bank on the morning of Jan 31, 1996. The suicide attack destroyed buildings on either side of the Janadipathi Mawatha right up to the clock tower, killing several dozens of people. Over 500 received injuries (Vehicle bomb devastates several high rise buildings in city centre with strap line 52 dead, over 500 injured––The Island Feb. 1, 1996). The LTTE never succeeded in repeating a similar attack in the South thereafter, though many attempts were made to detonate vehicle bombs in the city and its suburbs. In the aftermath of the Central Bank bomb blast, some alleged that the transfer of Senior DIG H. M. G. B. Kotakadeniya, the senior officer in charge of Colombo security undermined security. Outspoken top cop was unceremoniously transferred on Nov. 22, 1995 consequent to Tamil politicians complaining of his conduct. The Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC) thanked President Kumaratunga for the transfer. The government failed to realise that those whoprotested against senior security officials leading anti-terrorist operations did so at the behest of the LTTE.

The LTTE believed that the loss of Jaffna could be offset by a series of devastating attacks in other parts of the country, particularly Colombo and its suburbs. The Jan 31, 1996 attack demoralised the nation. The CBK administration seemed incapable of meeting the threat. The government struggled in the face of LTTE build-up in the city. A deeply concerned government moved a contingent of Sinha Regiment (SR) troops from Batticaloa to Colombo in the immediate aftermath of the Central Bank blast. The SR and the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) in the second week of March 1996 thwarted a major LTTE attack by raiding a hideout at Sri Kathiresen Street, Pettah, where they recovered two T-56 assault rifles, one T 81 assault rifle, 18 hand grenades, four T 81 rifle grenades, one 9 mm pistol of Czechoslovakian origin, 12 cyanide capsules and ammunition.

A series of attacks in the last two weeks of March, 1996 claimed the lives of 133 security forces personnel. Among the dead were many volunteers. In late March, 1996, the LTTE ordered those living in Vadamaratchchy and Thennamaratchy to cross the Jaffna lagoon ahead of a planned SLA offensive. The SLA wanted to bring the entire peninsula under its control even at the expense of security considerations outside the peninsula, particularly in the East. The LTTE had no alternative but to order people to seek refuge in the Vanni or face the consequences as it realised it lacked the ability to resist an army advance into Vadamaratchchy and Thennamaratchy (Govt. to go ahead with planned offensive––The Island March 29, 1996)

Riviresa II and III completed

In April and May 1996, the SLA brought Thennamaratchy (Riviresa II) and Vadamaratchchy (Riviresa III) under its control, thereby the entire peninsula. It was definitely President Kumaratunga’s greatest achievement, a feat as equally important as liberating the Vanni. The liberation of Jaffna, Point Pedro and Valvettiturai greatly strengthened the SLA’s position in the northern theatre of operations. In fact, troops of Riviresa III took only 48 hours to complete the operation! This was due to the LTTE’s hasty withdrawal from the area ahead of Riviresa III launch (Jaffna peninsula comes under government control with strap line army captures Point Pedro and Valvettiturai––The Island May 17, 1996). One of the primary objectives of Riviresa II lunched on April 19 was to take full control of the Jaffna lagoon. The SLN, too, swung into action in the Jaffna lagoon as the SLA expanded the area under its control. The SLAF supported the offensive by deploying choppers to intercept boats crossing the lagoon (Troops push further into enemy territory with strap line troops destroy 14 boats on day 2––The Island April 22, 1996). Riviresa II troops achieved their primary objective on April 26 when they effectively cut off the Jaffna lagoon. They brought Kilali under control hence causing a major setback to the LTTE (Kilali capture: heavy financial loss to the LTTE––The Island April 29, 1996).

Despite heavy SLA presence in the Jaffna peninsula, the LTTE continued hit and run attacks. On May 25, at Kuppilan, Waligamam, terrorists in civilian attire fired at a motorcycle killing an army officer and wounded another. It was the first such attack in the area since the completion of Riviresa II. (Tigers strike in Waligamam––The Island May 27, 1996). Sporadic clashes continued in the peninsula between troops/police and those undercover operatives tasked with destabilisation operation. But, the LTTE never managed to pose a serious threat to the military until its devastating offensive in early 2000.

Raid on Colombo Port

It would be important to examine the circumstances under which the LTTE made an attempt to raid the Colombo Port on April 12, 1996 as the SLA was preparing to launch Riviresa II to bring Thennamaratchchy under its control. Had the LTTE succeeded in carrying out a major attack within the port, it would have caused a irreparable loss to the economy. A major disaster was thwarted thanks to timely detection of two frogmen carrying explosives near the Jaya Container Terminal (Stage I) by two minor employees of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority at 5.25 a.m. The SLPA security and the SLN moved in only after being being alerted by the workers who detected suspicious movements. When confronted by the SLN, the frogmen detonated explosives they were carrying. Believing the frogmen had carried out the first phase of the operation successfully, the LTTE launched the next phase. A high powered boat painted in white entered the harbour from its northern entrance and was speeding towards a large vessel when a Dvora Fast Attack Craft engaged the Sea Tiger craft. Had the Dvora crew failed to blow up the explosives-laden Tiger craft, the LTTE could have caused massive destruction within the port. It could have had an impact not only on the economy but planned operations as well. The LTTE’s London Secretariat on April 13 and 15 issued statements claiming that Black Sea Tigers had destroyed three Fast Attack Craft and three supply ships. The Foreign Ministry had to issue a statement denying the LTTE claim as international shipping lines expressed concern over the development.

The SLN believed that Black Sea Tigers could have targeted two newly acquired ships, a landing craft and a sub chaser. At the time of the attack, both vessels had been anchored at Rangala base.

Another army conspiracy

On May Day 1996, Rohan Daluwatte was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General and appointed the 14th commander of the SLA. In the wake of Daluwatte’s appointment, a major controversy erupted with the then Brig. Ananda Weerasekera being accused of being involved in a killer gang responsible for politically motivated killings. Allegations were made before a presidential commission investigating a landmine blast on Aug 8, 1992, which claimed the lives of Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa and Brig. Wimalaratne. It was also alleged that war hero Brig. Wijaya Wimalaratne, too, had been aware of the existence of the killer gang and a conspiracy to assassinate Maj. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa. In an interview with The Island at that time, Brig. Weerasekera said that some interested parties were making an attempt to tarnish the image of the army. One time Commissioner General of Rehabilitation emphasised that the government and the SLA had to be watchful of the moves to undermine political stability. The government overlooked him for promotion in 1996 consequent to claims that the SLA was responsible for political killings. The allegations were made by Mrs Kelum Rohini Hathurusinghe, who propagated the lie that the assassins comprised mainly of Gajaba Regiment soldiers. She went to the extent claiming that her soldier husband, too, had been part of the gang, which eliminated Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa.