War on terror revisited : Part 85December 20, 2012, 12:00 pm
by Shamindra Ferdinando
The final battle was fought for four days (May 16-May 19, 2009) in a 4 square km area. The combat zone was a narrow stretch of land opening to the sea from the east and to the Nanthikadal lagoon from the west. According to the then Brigadier Shavendra Silva, the commanding officer of the 58 Division there had been an open beachhead on the east, a scrubby land in the middle and a waterlogged stretch full of mangroves on the west.
The 58 (Brig. Shavendra Silva), 53 (Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne) and 59 (Maj. Gen. Prasanna Silva) Divisions surrounded the LTTE group hiding on a thin neck of land on the Mullaitivu coast. Task Force VIII (Col. G.V. Ravipriya) was also deployed under the operational command of the 53 Division.
Although ground commanders had massive firepower at their command, the 58 Division, tasked to clear the remaining LTTE held area, was deprived of air, artillery and armour support. Had the government authorized utilization of all available assets, the final battle wouldn’t have lasted four days. But in line with an assurance given by President Mahinda Rajapaksa to western powers and India, the army was directed not to deploy heavy weapons due to terrorists still using civilians as human shieds. The army estimated the number of civilians trapped in the area at about 75,000. Troops were instructed to use only small arms, even at the risk of their lives.
Mavilaru to Mullivaikkal
Eelam war IV began in July 2006 in the immediate aftermath of the LTTE closing the sluice gates of Mavilaru in the East. The then army chief, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka launched operations on the Vanni front in March 2008, even before the campaign in the East was brought to a successful conclusion. Having cleared the Eastern Province by July 2008, Lt. Gen. Fonseka intensified the campaign in the Vanni, where ten fighting formations battled the LTTE for 14 months, with Task Force VIII being the last to join the battle as late as Feb 8, 2009.
At the onset of the Mavilaru battles in July 2006, the LTTE held almost 15,000 square kms. By May 16, 2009, Prabhakaran held 4 square kms. The army estimated the strength of the LTTE group trapped on Mullaitivu coast at 900.
The 58 and 53 Divisions and Task Force VII were involved in the final battle. Brig. Shavendra Silva’s troops marched southwards along the A-35 (Paranthan-Mullaitivu road) axis dominating the ground stretching from the road to the coast, whereas Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne’s troops marched on the same axis, dominating the ground stretching from the A-35 to the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon.
Having crossed the Vadduvakal causeway during the second week of May 2009, Maj. Gen. Prasanna Silva’s troops remained defensive holding a line immediately south of the no fire zone. The 59 Division’s move enabled the army to rescue a large group of civilians.
The army pushed the LTTE from the North, East and South leaving only the lagoon bank on the West open for the terrorists.
Int’l effort to save Tigers goes awry
Western powers worked overtime to save Prabhakaran. They made a last minute effort to involve the ICRC to throw a lifeline to Prabhakaran, though the government was not interested in any third party mediated effort to end fighting. President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa ruled out a further role for the international community in the conflict at the expense of national interests. By late May 16, 2009, the LTTE knew the government wouldn’t succumb to international pressure and the army was on the verge of storming the defended area. Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva, Sri Lanka’s Deputy Representative at the UN, says the LTTE could have died defending the area it still controlled or made an attempt to escape and seek refuge in the dense Muthiyankaddu jungles. By then, the Sea Tigers had lost the wherewithal to fight their way through a massive naval cordon off Puthumathalan. The LTTE chose to smash through the army cordon west of the Nanthikadal lagoon.
Norway cancelled its annual garden party on May 17, 2009 to mark the country’s national day due to the situation in Northern Sri Lanka. The party at the Maitland Crescent residence of the Norwegian ambassador attracted many politicians, NGO personalities and almost the entire TNA parliamentary group.
In the north, the army intercepted a message from the LTTE leadership to ordinary cadres to destroy whatever assets left in the battle zone to prevent them falling into the hands of the army (Signs of giving up: Destroy assets, Tiger leaders told-The Island May 15, 2009). In fact, the LTTE began destroying its major assets, including Sea Tiger craft shortly before the 58 Division fought its way through strong LTTE positions to link up with the 59 Division on May 15, 2009, on the Puthumathalan beach.
P’karan’s first bid to escape thwarted
As anticipated by the army, Prabhakaran made his move in the early hours of May 17, 2009. Using all available Sea Tiger craft, the LTTE launched an attack across the Nanthikadal lagoon targeting troops deployed at Keppularu on the western back of the Nanthikadal lagoon, jointly held by the 53 Division (5 VIR-Vijayaba Infantry Regiment)) and 59 Division (19 SLLI-Sri Lanka Light Infantry). Amidst a fierce attack by boats, an LTTE group overran some of the positions held by troops, though they couldn’t sustain the offensive. The LTTE was trying to secure a foothold on the eastern bank of the Nanthikadal lagoon and open up an escape route to the Muthiyankaddu jungles. Soon after the battle ended, this writer was able to contact Gajaba Regiment veteran, Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne, who stressed that the LTTE leadership never had an opportunity to escape, though they went on the offensive. A confident Gunaratne declared that the army could clear the remaining area in a day, adding that during confrontations on May 17, 2009, troops killed Swarnam and Sashi Master in the Vellamullivaikkal area. In the wake of the abortive attack, newly appointed head of the LTTE International Secretariat, Kumaran Pathmanathan a.k.a ‘KP’ declared that the group was ready to silence its weapons on a request made by the international community (Beaten Tigers offer to silence guns at last-The Island May 18-2009).
Defence Secretary Rajapaksa rejected Pathmanathan’s offer, emphasizing that there was no time or space for negotiations on the last day of a 30-year-old war.
At the conclusion of the battle, 5 VIR recovered nearly 50 LTTE bodies, whereas 19 SLLI collected nearly 100 bodies.
In Colombo, Foreign Secretary Paliha Kohona strongly defended continuing military action. Addressing a packed media conference on May 17, Kohona ridiculed the threat to drag Sri Lanka’s political and military leadership before an international war crimes tribunal. Kohona said that like any other country Sri Lanka had a legal responsibility to rescue hostages held by terrorists. The Sri Lankan government couldn’t be held responsible for taking measures to save those held at gunpoint by the LTTE. While Kohona was meeting the media, the army rescued the remaining hostages, bringing an end to the hostage rescue mission. Those resisting the advancing army were killed.
On the late afternoon of May 17, 2009, the LTTE was trapped in an area not more than 600 x 500 meters. The army still kept the western banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon open.
On the night of May 17, 2009, the 58 Division troops and Special Forces began advancing into the area defended by the LTTE. They moved in from the southern edge and gradually pushing back the LTTE.
P’karan’s second attempt to escape foiled
Having failed in his first attempt to reach the Muthiyankaddu jungles, Prabhakaran devised a second plan. The LTTE leader made an attempt to escape with his family and personal bodyguards, while the remaining LTTE force fought the army to the last man. His son Charles Anthony was asked to escape with several senior cadres. Prabhakaran most probably felt that he could have fled the battle zone amidst chaos.
A group of terrorists disguised as civilians approached troops manning defences at Karayamullivaikkal on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon at 2.30 a.m. on May 18, 2009. The area was held by 17 GW (Gemunu Watch) attached to Task Force VIII. The group wanted to enter the army held area. In line with instructions, 17 GW, commanded by Colonel Keerthi Kottachchi, had declined to allow them in, though they pleaded with troops. The group claimed that there were many civilian wounded among the group. The army feared the possibility of mass scale suicide attacks. Although those manning the point hadn’t been aware at that time, there had been a large, heavily armed LTTE group hiding in a nearby islet.
17 GW troops refused to accommodate the group in civilian attire as ground commanders at that time were of the opinion that there couldn’t be any civilians in the area. When the group made an attempt to move towards the entry point at about 3 a.m. in spite of a directive to stay in the water, troops fired in the air to restore control. As soon as troops fired in the air, about 200 LTTE cadres, including those in civilian attire, opened fire. The battle began.
Although troops deployed in the entire sector were ready to face any eventuality, the LTTE quickly overran two army strong points, opening a narrow gap. But the LTTE couldn’t sustain the assault as troops spearheaded by Commandos killed over 100 attackers. Some of them died in the lagoon. At the conclusion of the battle, the army trapped those who had survived the action. The area was surrounded by the 53 and 58, Divisions. The 53 Division held the northern and southern defence lines across the A-35 whereas the 58 Division held the eastern line along the A-35. The army quickly reinforced the northern defence line with Special Forces and Commandos. During a series of confrontations, the LTTE lost at least 90 per cent of its force. Among the dead was the group headed by Charles Anthony. Prabhakaran’s son died at the hands of the 5 GW troops.
The 58 Division dealt with terrorists on the coastal side of A-35, whereas over 100 other LTTE cadres hiding in the mangroves were killed by the commandos, Special Forces and the infantry.
Another group comprising over 100 LTTE cadres was annihilated north of Vadduvakkal early dawn on May 18. By the evening of the same day, the army had completed land clearing operations. Although many felt that Prabhakaran had been killed, the army was yet to find his body. In spite of that, the army felt that there couldn’t be a further challenge, though the lagoon needed to be cleared.
While the army was clearing the last pockets of terrorists, President Rajapaksa, returned to the country on the morning of May 17, 2009, from Jordan.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa, President of Sri Lanka and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces was to officially declare the liberation of the country in Parliament on May 19, 2009. But the LTTE leader’s body was yet to be found.
Capt. Wasantha Jayaweera captured this scene a few days before the conclusion of the conflict on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon on May 19, 2009. Jayaweera, formerly of the Special Forces accompanied the 58 Division from Mannar on the northwestern coast to Puthumathalan on the Mullaitivu coast.
Brig. Shavendra Silva. Col. Ramesh Fernando of the Sinha Regiment stands next to Brig. Silva. Pic was taken by Capt. Wasantha Jayaweera during opertaions at Puthukudirippu in early 2009.
Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne, General Officer Commanding (GoC) 53 Division. The Gajaba Regiment veteran commanded the formation during its advance from Jaffna peninsula to Nanthikadal (Jan 2009-May 2009).