Sunday, 14 October 2012

The army in serious trouble

War on terror revisited: Part 55

By Shamindra Ferdinando

On Aug 19, 1997, the LTTE anti-tank squads destroyed three Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) during a confrontation close to Puliyankulam. The MBTs were spearheading the SLA’s largest ever ground offensive codenamed Jayasikuru launched on May 13, 1997 to link-up with the SLA deployed at Kilinochchi to restore the Kandy-Jaffna A9  overland Main Supply Route (MSR) to Jaffna. Deputy Defence Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte remained confident of completing the operation swiftly.  But, by the third week of August, 1997, the SLA felt it could no longer sustain the offensive. A section of the officers believed that three devastating counter-attacks launched by the LTTE in June and July made their task impossible. Still the political leadership insisted that the SLA complete its mission (Tigers target tanks in fierce north battle––The Island Aug 21, 1997)

One day after the destruction of three MBTs, the LTTE fired an anti-aircraft missile at an Israeli built Kfir returning from a bombing mission. The missile firing took place at 7.58 a.m. It missed the target (Tigers fire anti-aircraft missile at Kfir––The Island Aug 21-1997).

The destruction of MBTs and the attempt to shoot down the Kfir sent shockwaves through the military. The SLAF acquired Kfirs in January 1996. It was the first occasion a missile had been fired at a Kfir, the most advanced aircraft in the SLAF’s inventory at that time. The SLAF acquired MiG 27s in 2000. By the time the SLAF acquired MiGs, the SLA was on the verge of collapse on the northern front, with the LTTE poised to annihilate the troops deployed in the north.

In spite of deploying experienced fighting formations on the Vanni front, the SLA never managed to achieve its objectives. Throughout the campaign, it struggled in the face of growing LTTE resistance. Much to the worry of the military top brass, the LTTE increasingly fought like a conventional army, while the Sea Tigers stepped up operations. The SLN couldn’t cope up with the daunting task of maintain sea line of communications between Trincomalee and Kankesanthurai. On Oct 19, 1997, LTTE suicide cadres rammed a Fast Attack Craft (FAC) off Trincomalee.

Warning from London

In July, the LTTE threatened to attack ships carrying supplies to the Jaffna peninsula or any other vessel coming to Pulmoddai, north of Trincomalee to load mineral sands. The LTTE’s London Secretariat issued the warning in the wake of the Sea Tigers seizing the North Korean bulk carrier ‘Mo Rang Bong’ off the northern coast on July 8, 1997. A North Korean died during the LTTE raid on the ship. The clandestine Voice of Tigers (VoT), too, repeated the warning. The warning from London as well as VoT was followed by an attack on another ship ‘Cordiality’ operated by the Chinese Ocean Shipping Company of Hong Kong off Pulmoddai on Sept 8, 1997. Several Chinese seamen died in the attack (Ship attacks will continue-LTTE––The Island Sept 12, 1997).

LTTE statements from London was authored by Anton Balasingham, one-time British High Commission employee and his Australian born wife, Adele.

About a week before the seizure of ‘Mo Rang Bong’, the LTTE destroyed the civilian passenger vessel ‘Missen’ off Talaimannar.

The UK turned a blind eye to LTTE operations in London. Absolutely no effort was made to stop the LTTE from issuing statements warning of terrorist attacks both against military and economic targets. The LTTE’s London office also issued statements regarding ongoing operations on the Vanni front. The then PA government never forcefully took up the issue with the UK. The LTTE coordinated all its overseas operations from London. The international community turned a Nelsonian eye to what was going in London.

By late October, 1997, the SLA was exhausted, though the PA painted a different picture. The media couldn’t report what was happening in the Vanni due to censorship. The government continued to propagate the lie that the Jayasikuru offensive was on track and the LTTE in dire straits. Having lost about 1,000 men, including some experienced young frontline officers, the Jayasikuru offensive was about to collapse. However, the SLA placed the number killed at 722 and wounded at 4,400 during phase I and II of the offensive.

Jayasikuru under new leadership

Ratwatte in late Oct. 1997 replaced the senior officer responsible for the Jayasikuru offensive, Overall Operations Commander (OOC) for North and East, Maj. Gen. Asoka Jayawardena with Maj. Gen. Sri Lal Weerasooriya. The government said that Weerasooriya would conduct the third phase of the offensive to restore the overland MSR. Jayawardena, who conducted phase I and II, was named the Commander of Sri Lanka Army Volunteer Forces. The Maj. Gen. received appointment as OOC on Nov. 1, 1996. The change of command came into effect on Nov. 1, 1997.

Ratwatte also brought in Special Forces veteran, Brigadier Gamini Hettiarachchi back to the 53 Division.

Minister Ratwatte also brought in Maj. Gen. Karunathilake as the General Officer Commanding (GOC) 55 Division engaged in the offensive. He succeeded Maj. Gen. Shantha Kottegoda. The other Divisions deployed alongside 55 Div were, 56 and 53 (Reserve Strike Force). The then military spokesman, Brigadier Sarath Munasinghe, for some reason declared that the third phase of Jayasikuru was going to be the last major ground battle in the Vanni. He was not alone in propagating such lies. The SLA was in bad shape after suffering heavy losses in Mullaitivu, Trivida Pahara rescue mission (July 1996) and Sath Jaya (July-Sept 1996) barely managed to sustain the Jayasikuru offensive. With almost 1,000 officers and men dead and many frontline battalions depleted in phase I and II (May –Oct 1997), the SLA knew a disastrous third phase could be catastrophic.

Having visited the Vanni front, Minister Ratwatte briefed Colombo based foreign correspondents on Oct 30, 1997, as regards the Jayasikuru offensive and his future plans. The minister was flanked by Brigadier Munasinghe and the then Foreign Ministry spokesman Aryasinha, currently Sri Lanka’s ambassador in Geneva. Ratwatte declared that 90 per cent of the Vanni battle was over and the SLA was ready to launch the third and final phase to take control of the Vanni (Troops overrun 14 base in Mullaitivu jungles––The Island Nov 1, 1997). The minister obviously didn’t realise that the LTTE had powerful forces both on the eastern and western flanks on the Vanni front and that the SLA deployed on the Elephant Pass-Kilinochchi stretch was vulnerable to a major attack.

Minister Ratwatte was obviously misled by a section of the SLA into believing the Kandy-Jaffna road could be restored and held, to ensure uninterrupted supplies to the Jaffna peninsula.

SLAF to the rescue

The LTTE, too, needed ammunition to sustain its operations. On the morning of Nov 2, 1997, acting on information furnished by the SLN, the SLAF launched an attack on an LTTE ship (Comex Joux 3) off Mullaitivu. It was the first attack on an LTTE ship since the sinking of an LTTE vessel off Alampil on Feb. 14 1996. The then SLAF chief, Air Marshal Oliver Ranasinghe told The Island that Kfirs launched from Katunayake had directed eight MK 82 bombs at the ship. The Kfirs took off after an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) monitored the suspected vessel. The Kfirs were followed by an Argentine Pucara and two Mi 24 helicopter gunships. The SLAF also engaged several other LTTE craft close to the ship. The vessel’s cargo obviously included at least part of 32,400 rounds of 81 mm mortar bombs robbed from Zimbabwe Defence Industries (ZDI) in July 1997. The LTTE tricked the ZDI into loading the consignment to one of its vessels pretending they represented the Sri Lankan government. However, by the time, the SLAF swung into action, the LTTE had unloaded a substantial part of the consignment. The LTTE was able to replenish its arsenal before the launch of the third and final phase of the Jayasikuru offensive (SLAF’s Kfirs destroy Tiger arms vessel –The Island Nov 3, 1997).

It would be pertinent to mention here that the SLN and SLAF mounted the operation off Alampil on Feb. 14, 1996 following intelligence provided by India.

On Nov 6, 1997, the US designated the LTTE as a terrorist organisation. But still, the LTTE continued to operate from London.

On Nov 10, 1997, the LTTE brought down a Mi-24 helicopter gunship off Kokilai. The ill-fated chopper was escorting thee Mi 17s carrying 40 troops each from Vavuniya to Elephant Pass. A second missile attack on an Mi 24 failed due to timely activation of the anti-missile defence by the pilot. All three choppers returned to Vavuniya.

Jayasikuru phase III

On Nov 15, 1997, the SLA captured Puliyankulam junction. It was the first major operation conducted since Maj. Gen. Weerasooriya took over command on Nov 1, 1997. Since linking up on Aug 6, 1997, the 53 Division and 55 Division had made several unsuccessful attempts to regain Puliyankulam junction. The capture of Puliyankulam junction gave fresh hopes to the PA and the SLA leadership. Although some believed the offensive could now achieve its primary objective of reaching Mankulam, such hopes were short lived. In spite of fierce resistance, the political leadership wanted the Jayasikurui offensive to link up with the SLA at Kilinochchi. That was the principal objective. Having launched the third phase of the Jayasikurui offensive on Nov 14, 1997, the SLA soon realised that it didn’t have the wherewithal to accomplish its main objective.

Jayasikuru troops suffered a debilitating setback on Dec. 4, 1997 when the LTTE trapped a section of 53 Division troops close to Kanagarayankulam. The SLA withdrew, leaving about 170 bodies of elite troops on the battlefield. At least 400 officers and men received injuries in the LTTE attack. The SLA was shocked and humiliated. It was perhaps one of the worst setbacks suffered by the elite Division comprising Special Forces, Commandos and Air Mobile troops. The setback forced the SLA to review its strategy on the Vanni front. Minister Ratwatte’s claim that 90 per cent of the Vanni was under SLA control by Oct 1997 seemed silly against the backdrop of the Dec. 4 attack on the 53 Division. The LTTE strategy stunned the SLA. With that the SLA’s own strategy underwent a change with the top brass trying to consolidate the positions in the Vanni, instead of bringing territory under its control. But, a change of strategy was obviously too late to meet the impending conventional military challenge. Still, the PA insisted that the SLA go ahead with the offensive, regardless of the consequences. Even the Dec 4, 1997 setback didn’t prompt the PA to review its strategy. That setback made the army plan to reach Kilinochchi on or before Independence Day unrealistic.

Uphill task

In spite of the SLA making available both men and material, the Jayasikurui offensive failed to make headway. By January 1998, the Vanni offensive was on the verge of collapse. Due to severe shortage of manpower as well as firepower by way of armour and artillery, the SLA found it difficult to contemplate opening a second front in the Vanni. Had the SLA made a threatening move from Kilinochchi, where it was struck since Sept. 1996, the outcome of the battle for supremacy in the Vanni could have been difficult. The LTTE was able to deploy all its frontline units to face the Jayasikuru offensive, while engaging troops of 54 Division deployed along the Elephant Pass-Kilinochchi stretch. The 54 Division headquartered at Elephant Pass was commanded by the then Brig. Lohan Gunawardena. The newly created Division was under the overall command of Maj. Gen. Lionel Balagalle, who also had two other Divisions, 51 and 52 under his control. Both were deployed in the Jaffna peninsula and the Jaffna Islands. Balagalle, one-time Chief of the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) succeeded Maj. Gen. P. A. Karunatilake as Security Forces Commander, Jaffna, in early November 1997.

The 54 Division comprised five Brigades deployed covering Vettilaikerni (beachhead), Elephant Pass, Paranthan and Kilinochchi. It was a fully-fledged Division, which had the backing of sizeable armour and artillery deployment. Most importantly, the Division had overland supply routes to Palaly as well as Kankesanthurai harbour. Although some of the infantry battalions assigned for 51, 52 and 54 Divisions were short of strength, the three Divisions under Security Forces Commander retained considerable firepower vis-a-vis the LTTE forces deployed against them.

It would be important to examine the SLA deployment at Elephant Pass, the gateway to the Jaffna peninsula, where some of the bloodiest battles of the eelam conflict was fought. The LTTE attempt in July 1991 was the biggest assault on Elephant Pass base, where hundreds of combatants died in action before the SLA launched Operation Balavegaya to save the besieged base.