Sunday, 7 October 2012

The Vanni imbroglio

War on terror revisited: Part 54

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Having experienced a massive battlefield defeat at Mullaitivu on July 18, 1996, the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s government launched Operation Sath Jaya on July 26, 1996 to liberate the LTTE stronghold of Kilinochchi. The SLA launched the offensive from its base at Elephant Pass, the gateway to the Jaffna peninsula a few days after the Defence Ministry called off Operation Trivida Pahara launched to rescue those who had survived the LTTE onslaught on the isolated Mullaitivu base (Troops launch fresh offensive –The Island July 27, 1996).

Operation Trivida Pahara was a futile effort to save those deployed at Mullaitivu as two regular battalions deployed at Mullaituvu, namely the 9th battalion of the Sinha Regiment (9SR) and the 6th battalion of the Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment (6VIR) had given up the fight within hours. The LTTE had razed the Mullaitivu base to the ground even before the heli-borne reinforcements landed south of Mullaitivu town late in the evening on July 19th, 1996. By the time the SLA assembled a force large enough to advance towards Mullaitivu, the LTTE was in the final phase of mopping up operations. By the time the government called off Operation Trivida Pahara reinforcements had lost over 100 officers and men with several hundred wounded. Those engaged in Operation Trivida Pahara were evacuated by July 23, 1996. The then government obviously felt a major battlefield victory was needed to repair its badly damaged image in the wake of the Mullaitivu debacle. Operation Sath Jaya was launched with the objective of liberating Kilinochchi, the nerve centre of LTTE operations since the conclusion of Operation Riviresa, which brought the entire Jaffna peninsula under SLA control by late May 1996.

The then Overall Operations Commander (OOC), Maj. Gen. Srilal Weerasooriya was in charge of the offensive.

Sath Jaya launched

Elephant Pass was home to the SLA’s 7th Brigade. The SLA was acting at the behest of the PA, which pushed for a military adventure in the Vanni, regardless of its consequences. In spite of the SLA committing, some of the best troops, including Special Forces, Commandos and Air Mobile troops Operation Trivida Pahara failed to achieve its objective. But, the then Army chief, Lieutenant General Rohan De S Daluwatte launched Operation Sath Jaya in the wake of the Mullaitivu debacle and heavy losses suffered by Trivida Pahara rescue mission to save face. Although the SLA brought Paranthan, situated about six kilometres south of Elephant Pass under its control within 24 hours, Operation Sath Jaya was stuck at the key junction for over a week. The SLA found it difficult to sustain its offensive due to heavy enemy resistance. In hindsight, our front-page lead story captioned Troops poised for final battle for Kilinochchi on July 31, 1996, didn’t reflect the actual ground situation. But, it needs to be mentioned that the print media had to be cautious, due to censorship at that time. As Sath Jaya troops struggled south of Elephant Pass, some of those who survived the LTTE blitz at Mullaitivu had managed to reach SLA lines. They revealed the pathetic state of SLA defences at the time of the LTTE onslaught. The then prevalent censorship prevented the media from reporting the actual situation. Sath Jaya troops made a few costly forays into an LTTE held area south of Paranthan, though they never managed to smash through enemy defences. The Operational Headquarters of the Defence Ministry remained mum on the situation on the Vanni battle front as the LTTE dislodged holding positions ahead of Paranthan town (Troops withdraw to Paranthan––The Island Aug 31, 1996).

Both the PA and the SLA leadership buckled under LTTE pressure. The SLA made an effort to reinforce Sath Jaya forces manning defences at Paranthan. The SLA still believed that the infantry could fight its way into Kilinochchi with the support of armour and artillery. But the LTTE stepped up attacks to destabilize other areas. On the morning of Sept. 12, 1996, the LTTE masquerading as elite police commandos, fired at a bus killing 11 Sinhalese, including two children at Aranthalawa on the Ampara-Maha Oya road. The bus was on its way to Kandy from Ampara (11 civilians killed in LTTE bus attack – The Island Sept. 13, 1996).

Two days before the Aranthalawa massacre, the LTTE killed two soldiers, including Captain Krishan Dimuthu in a confrontation close to Pooneryn base. The officer was attached to the second battalion of the Sinha Regiment (Captain killed – The Island Sept. 14, 1996).

On the night of Sept. 20, 1996, LTTE operatives fired at a group of off-duty personnel at the Vavuniya railway station, wounding five of them including two reserve women Sub Inspectors (Tigers attack Vavuniya railway station – The Island Sept. 21, 1996).

Having received additional men and material, Operation Sath Jaya got underway on the morning of Sept. 22, 1996. In spite of air, artillery and armour support, troops found it extremely difficult to advance towards Kilinochchi. Strong LTTE fortifications on both sides of the road seriously hindered the SLA’s efforts. Although the Operational Headquarters of the Defence Ministry placed the number of troops killed at 37 soldiers, including two officers with 80 wounded during the first 48 hours since the resumption of the push, the actual situation was different. During the Sath Jaya offensive, the SLA announced that 64 personnel, including two officers who survived the LTTE attack on Mullaitivu reached government forces (Battle for Wanni supremacy resumes – The Island Sept. 24, 1996).

Amidst bloody fighting in the general area of Paranthan, the LTTE allowed Marco Weli, the deputy head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), to speak with 20 SLA and two SLN personnel in captivity. Among the captives was the then Lieutenant Commander Ajith Boyagoda, the Commanding Officer of SLNS Sargarawardene sunk off Mannar in Sept 1994. None of the personnel shown to the ICRC included anyone attached to the 25 Brigade deployed in Mullaitivu (Top ICRC official visits captured PoWs – The Island Sept 24, 1996).

The Sea Tigers made two attempts to land reinforcements south of SLA held Vettilaikerni on the Mullaituvu coast on Monday (Sept. 23, 1996). The SLA and SLAF engaged Sea Tiger craft, though they weren’t entirely successful in their efforts (LTTE sea landing attempts foiled with strap line Tiger boats blown up with fighting cadres – The Island Sept. 25, 1996). It was obviously meant to divert the attention of the military. On Sept. 26, 1996, the LTTE launched a large scale counter attack on Sath Jaya troops causing heavy losses. It targeted troops advancing in a south westerly direction from their positions at Paranthan captured during the first phase of the offensive launched on July 26, 1996 (Troops smash massive Tiger counter thrust––The Island Sept. 27, 1996). After the battle, the SLA recovered about 140 bodies of LTTE cadres in the area under its control. The ICRC declined to transfer the bodies to the LTTE, though the SLA offered to hand them over to ICRC representatives.

Kilinochchi liberated

The SLA, too, suffered heavy losses, with the Operational Headquarters acknowledging the loss of 75 personnel, including five officers, whereas the number of wounded was placed at 146, though the actual losses were much higher (Army repulse LTTE counter-attack – The Island Sept. 28, 1996). The SLA sustained its assault on Kilinochchi and brought the LTTE stronghold under government control on Sept. 29, 1996. Although the SLA succeeded in liberating Kilinochchi, it seriously weakened its fighting capacity both in terms of men and material. The political leadership didn’t care what was happening on the ground as long as the SLA made territorial gains. The LTTE, too, tried its best to downplay the SLA entering Kilinochchi. The LTTE issued several statements from its International Secretariat situated in London, asserting that the LTTE remained in control of the situation, though the SLA was in Kilinochchi. The London Secretariat also emphasized that the number of personnel killed resisting the SLA advance was very much lower then the figure given by the government.

When Sath Jaya troops entered Kilinochchi on the afternoon of Sept. 29, 1996, they found only a dog!) the entire civilian population had been forcibly evicted by the LTTEfrom Kilinochchi. (Civilians leave Kilinochchi town – The Island Oct. 1, 1996). Although the SLA brought Kilinochchi under its control, and thereby saved the PA’s face, the consequences of that particular adventure was nothing but a catastrophe.

The SLA had abandoned Kilinochchi within weeks after the resumption of eelam war II on June 11, 1990 during the tenure of the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa besides its bases along the Jaffna-Kandy A 9 road north of Vavuniya right up to Paranthan, thereby making Elephant Pass the first line of the army’s defence, in case of an LTTE attack on the Jaffna peninsula. Consequent to the loss of the overland Main Supply Route (MSR), President Premadasa’s government had to maintain a costly ‘air bridge’ between Palaly and Ratmalana as well as sea line of communications for the benefit of Jaffna based forces. That particular arrangement remained until the SLA restored the MSR in January 2009.

Ratwatte speaks out

Having secured Kilinochchi, the then de-facto Defence Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte met some journalists, reporting on the conflict at the Defence Ministry on the night of Oct. 2, 1996, to explain the government’s position on the military campaign. He was flanked by Defence Secretary Chandrananda De Silva, Army Commander Lt. Gen. Rohan de S. Daluwatte, Navy Commander Vice Admiral Mohan Samarasekera,  SLAF Commander Air Vice Marshal Oliver Ranasinghe, IGP W. B Rajaguru, military spokesman Brigadier Sarath Munasinghe and Director Information Ariya Rubasinghe, who mercilessly censored our news reports at the behest of his political masters. The writer was among the journalists present on the occasion. Responding to question, the minister and members of his team emphasized that the government wouldn’t suspend the northern campaign due to LTTE stepping up attacks in the Eastern Province; liberating the Vanni region would remain the PA’s priority; censorship would remain to ensure that the media wouldn’t jeopardize military strategy; resumption of direct talks between the government and the LTTE would be conditional and the setbacks suffered by the SLA at Pooneryn (Nov. 93) and Mullaitivu (July 1996) wouldn’t affect overall military strategy. The media was told that before the PA resumed offensive action, it had opted only for defensive action, with 45 per cent of its troops deployed in the Eastern Province, 12 per cent in Colombo and 22 per cent deployed in predominately Sinhala areas vulnerable to terrorist attacks. The SLN was in charge of Rupavahini, whereas the SLAF provided security to ITN. When the LTTE resumed hostilities on April 19, 1995, the SLA held about 60 sq. km in the Jaffna peninsula and Vanni encompassing Palaly (32 sq. km) Pooneryn (11 sq km), Vettilerkerni-Elepahnt Pass sector (11 The media was also told that only about 20 per cent of the total SLA strength was deployed in the north and it wouldn’t be realistic even to launch a limited offensive due to severe shortage of men (Govt. bent on destroying enemy power in North with strap line Lasting political solution is the ultimate aim – The Island Oct. 4, 1996).

Minister Ratwatte said that in spite of strong LTTE resistance and what the Opposition did to undermine the war effort, the government had regained the entire Jaffna peninsula (Oct. 1995-May 1996) and Elephant Pass-Kilinochchi stretch (July-Sept 1996) hence bolstering its position in the north. Although the government lost its base in Mullaitivu, it had retained a strong presence at Pooneryn west of the Kandy-Jaffna road, he said.

The SLA established a main base at Pooneryn in Oct 1991, along with an SLN boat patrol station at Nagathevanthurai at the same time. Although the LTTE dislodged the SLN from Nagathevanthurai in Nov 1993, the SLA strengthened its presence at Pooneryn. Minister Ratwatte and his team strongly advocated a strong SLA presence at Pooneryn, which totally depended on sea and air supplies.

Shocking move

Having stressed the importance of further expanding the SLA’s presence in the Vanni on Oct. 2, 1996, the government vacated the base at Pooneryn five days later. The SLA’s 10th Brigade was stationed at Pooneryn. With the vacation of Pooneryn in the wake of the Mullaitivu debacle, the entire Vanni region came under LTTE control except for a narrow Elephant Pass-Kilinochchi stretch , which was vulnerable to attacks from both east, west as well as the south. The government and the SLA top brass remained blind to the impending danger.

In early November, the government authorized a series of changes in the command and control structure. Among them was the appointment of Maj. Gen. Asoka Jayawardena the Overall Operations Commander. Jayawardena succeeded Maj. Gen. Sri Lal Weerasooriya. In late Oct. Maj. Gen. Neil Dias succeeded Maj. Gen. Janaka Perera as the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Reserve Strike Force (RSF). Perera took over 51 Division deployed in the Jaffna peninsula.