Tuesday, 15 January 2013

A catastrophic heli-borne raid on Jaffna campus

War on terror revisited : Part 94


by Shamindra Ferdinando

The IPKF never realised the battlefield capabilities of the LTTE until it launched Operation Pawan in the second week of Oct. 1987 to capture Jaffna. The IPKF leadership was confident of evicting the LTTE from Jaffna within three days.

In fact, the IPKF was of the opinion that the LTTE was nothing more than an irritant, which could not pose a threat to the IPKF’s conventional fighting capability. It planned to rapidly advance from Palaly to Jaffna. Indian planners believed they had sufficient infantry, armour and artillery to meet any eventuality. But, it was obviously clueless about the fighting capabilities and tactics of the LTTE, in spite of having trained and armed the outfit. The IPKF did not even bother at least to consult the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) regarding the impending operation, though it could have easily done so.

Had the IPKF cared to consult the SLA, it could have avoided the loss of many lives. Although the LTTE had not developed a conventional fighting capability at that time, it retained sufficient forces to meet the IPKF advance on Jaffna.

Interestingly, in the second week of June 1987, India threatened to intervene if the SLA marched on Jaffna, regardless of its warning. At the time, two under strength Brigades led by Brig. Denzil Kobbekaduwa on the western flank and Col. Wijaya Wimalaratne on the eastern flank were ordered to halt their advance, after they had regained Tellipalai and Achchuveli, respectively. The Brigades consisted of only two infantry battalions each, including the 1 battalion of Gajaba Regiment (1 GR) commanded by the then Maj. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

In his memoirs titled A most Noble Profession, Gen. Gerry H. de Silva, the then Security Forces Commander, Jaffna reveals the circumstances under which the SLA had to call off the second phase of Operation Liberation. The Gemunu Watch veteran quoted the then General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Joint Operations Command (JOC) Gen. Cyril Ranatunga as having told him: "Stop the advance and consolidate the line you are holding or the Indians will come."

Although the SLA believed it could at least retain Vadamarachchi regained in the last week of May 1987 during the first phase of Operation Liberation as well as the area liberated in phase II, though it could not be completed, India forced President JRJ to vacate liberated areas in line with the Indo-Lanka Accord.

IPKF’s battle for Jaffna

Responding to a query by The Island, Gen. de Silva explained how the initial IPKF plan to seize Jaffna had gone awry. LTTE snipers targeted Indian officers, who led the infantry from the front. The only difference was unlike their counterparts, the Indian officers were in full uniform, with some of them wearing slouch hats. LTTE snipers easily recognised them, causing an unprecedented number of casualties among the officer corps. A stunned IPKF leadership quickly realised it had been blind to ground realities and deceived by those who conveniently failed to brief them on the LTTE’s real capabilities.

The LTTE effectively used a range of improvised explosive devices and snipers to cause heavy losses on the IPKF, which struggled to come to terms with Tiger tactics. At the time Operation Pawan got underway, the IPKF had approximately 6,000 personnel deployed in the Jaffna peninsula. The IPKF estimated the total strength of the LTTE in the Jaffna peninsula between 2,000 to 2,500. But, the IPKF strategists remained confident of crushing the LTTE in case of a confrontation. A section of the IPKF leadership believed the LTTE would simply disintegrate as the Indian infantry advanced on Jaffna. The SLA, too, appeared to have underestimated the LTTE’s resolve to take on the IPKF, regardless of the consequences. The IPKF strategists planned to target the top LTTE leadership, believed to be operating from the Jaffna University. A high profile raid there was planned. The LTTE brazenly used the university premises as its tactical headquarters, where senior Indian officers met LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. Less than a week before the IPKF launched a disastrous heli-borne raid on the university, Overall Force Commander of the IPKF, Lt. Gen. Depinder Singh flew in for a powvow with Prabhakaran. The IPKF made a desperate bid to reach an understanding with the LTTE in the wake of 18 LTTE personnel, including Prabhakaran’s brother-in-law, Kumarappa, the then second-in-command of the group, taking cyanide at the Palaly air base. (A previous article dealt with the arrest of an LTTE group following a confrontation in the seas off Point Pedro in the early hours of Oct. 2, 1987 with the Sri Lankan navy).

Tension was running high in Jaffna as the navy had seized another LTTE vessel close on the heels of the detection in the early hours of Oct. 2, 1987 in northern waters. The second detection resulted in the seizure of a large vessel along with 36 LTTE cadres, 2,000 detonators, 23 rolls of wire and several small arms (Trawlers with arms captured-The Island, Oct. 4, 1987).

The meeting between Lt. Gen. Singh and Prabhakaran failed to produce the desired understanding. Had the IPKF disarmed the LTTE in accordance with the ILA within 72 hours after the suspension of hostilities, it wouldn’t have been in a quandary. Immediately after the signing of the ILA, President JRJ offered a general amnesty to those handing over their weapons. Although some terrorists gave themselves up to the SLA in Jaffna, the IPKF declined to accept their surrender without consulting the government. Undue delay in arriving at a decision on the part of India allowed Prabhakaran, who had been detained in New Delhi, to instruct his cadres not to surrender weapons until his return to Jaffna.

Raid on Jaffna University

Having received instructions from New Delhi to capture Jaffna, the IPKF worked out a battle plan. In support of the ground assault on Jaffna, the IPKF launched an ambitious heli-borne raid on the Jaffna University, believing Prabhakaran and his chief lieutenants remained there. It was widely believed that the LTTE had intercepted IPKF communications and was aware of the impending raid. The LTTE had ample time to prepare, though it may not have been aware of the identity of the raiding party. The IPKF most probably believed that the death or capture of the top LTTE leadership would pave the way for capturing Jaffna without much resistance. The IPKF went to the extent of telling senior SLA officials that the operation could be concluded in three days! The General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the 54 Infantry Division and his senior staff were so cocky. Some of the IPKF officers during conversations with SLA officers, revealed that troops received specialised training for the invasion of Sri Lanka. They also talked of air borne troops planning to seize airfields, whereas amphibious forces were to secure beach heads for large scale troop landings. In that background, raiding Jaffna University seemed relatively an easy task. But soon after the operation got underway in the early hours of Oct 12, the IPKF realised its folly. The top brass was aghast.

In hindsight, the IPKF’s failure to induct a large number of commandos, instead of just 40 due to the absence of sufficient number of helicopters led to a debacle. The IAF (Indian Air Force) had just four helicopters positioned in Palaly to shift commandos from Palaly to the Jaffna University premises. The SLAF was surprised to receive a request from the IPKF for the deployment of one helicopter gunship in support of the mission. The SLAF was tasked to carry out a diversionary attack near the university during the landing operation. Although the SLAF was successful in its mission, the IAF could induct only 40 commandos. The second pair of helicopters carrying 20 commandos had no option but to return to base due to the failure on the part of the first contingent to secure the ground. By that time, the LTTE had cut off the commando group on the ground. Although the second drop had to be aborted, the third succeeded though they could not take the initiative. Much to the surprise of Palaly based top brass of the SLA and the SLAF, the IPKF deployed normal infantry troops alongside commandos. By the time the IAF inducted 40 more commandos along with 30 infantry troops, the LTTE was in a commanding position with Indian troops fighting for survival. Although the IPKF had planned to induct a much larger force, the operation had to be abandoned after the induction of 120 commandos and 30 infantrymen. The debacle at the Jaffna University stunned the IPKF leadership. During the operation, the LTTE hit all four Mi-8 helicopters involved in the action, though none of then crashed. Even if the IPKF wanted to continue with air drops, Mi-8s could not be deployed due to the considerable damage caused by enemy fire. Later in the day, a disgraced IPKF had to launch a rescue operation spearheaded by main battle tanks to save the remnant of the raiding party. At the conclusion of the battle, the Indian High Commission reported the death of 29 out of 30 infantrymen and six commandos. Many commandos received injuries. The SLA knew what was going on due to constant monitoring of IPKF and LTTE communications. The SLA observed that those infantrymen deployed along side the commandos, weren’t given at least an adequate briefing. Ill-equipped troops were used in a high risk operation immediately after they had arrived from their home base in India.

First major debacle

The Oct. 12 battle claimed the lives of nearly 40 personnel, whereas the SLA lost 33 and about 200 wounded in the first phase of Operation Liberation. The LTTE proved that it was better than the high flying 54th air borne assault force commanded by Maj. Gen. Hakirat Singh. After a series of blunders at the expense of fighting forces, the General Officer Commanding (GOC) 54 Division Singh was replaced. The IPKF realised the difficult position it was in. One of the largest armies in the world found itself in an unenviable situation. The LTTE proved beyond any doubt that it was better than its Indian trainers. LTTE tactics demoralised the IPKF, which never intended to engage in combat operations against the Sri Lankan Tamils India had trained and armed.