Sunday, 28 October 2012

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.