Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Tragedy in the wake of victory at Valvettiturai

War on terror revisited : Part 91


by Shamindra Ferdinando

Having liberated Vadamarachchy within a week, the army prepared to launch the second stage of Operation Liberation to regain Jaffna. Newly created, but under strength brigades, commanded by Brig. Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Col. Wijaya Wimalaratne, were given the unenviable task. Although the army was elated over its success in liberating Vadamarachchy, its failure to trap LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, and his senior lieutenants caused anxiety among senior officers. The army was also severely upset over the death of one of its officers’ holding the rank of Maj, due to friendly fire soon after the liberation of Valvettiturai. The first phase was launched at first light, on May 26, 1987.

Among those present at a meeting presided over by the then President JRJ at the National Security Council, where a detailed briefing took place before the launch of the offensive, were National Security Minister, Lalith Athulathmudali, General Officer Commanding Joint Operations Command Gen. Cyril Ranatunga, service chiefs, presidential security advisor Ravi Jayewardene, and presidential secretary W. M.P. B. Menikdiwela.

‘Canada bunker’ overrun

In an interview with this writer recently, the then Brigadier, Gerry H. de Silva, explained the difficulties experienced by the army in overrunning what he called ‘Canada bunker’ which covered Prabhakaran’s birth place Valvettiturai from the sea-beach, at the western entrance to the beach east of the town. "It was the most elaborate network of fortifications faced by the army at that time," de Silva said, adding, "in the run-up to the presidential elections in late 1994, I told UNP presidential candidate, Gamini Dissanayake, how the LTTE had secured empty steel containers from Canadian contractors, involved in the construction of the Maduru Oya dam in the Mahaweli System C, for use as part of their fortifications at Valvettiturai. Mr. Dissanayake was surprised to hear the LTTE using discarded containers. The LTTE reinforced the containers with concrete."

Valvettiturai was secured by Col. Wimalaratne’s Brigade, which included 1 Gemunu Watch (1GW) and 1 Gajaba Regiment (1 GR) commanded by Lt. Col. Vipul Boteju and Maj. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, respectively. Soon after liberating Valvettiturai, tragedy struck Col. Wimalaratne’s brigade.

Decorated officer killed in ‘friendly fire’

Gemunu Watch veteran and one-time Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in Islamabad, retired Gen. de Silva recalled the circumstances under which one of the most promising army officers, Maj. R.P.H.S. Wijesinghe of the GR died due to friendly fire. Wijesinghe, decorated as well as admired by both colleagues and superiors for battle field performance, was with 1 GR at the time of his death. Although a section of the army claimed that Wijesinghe was shot dead by an LTTE sniper, de Silva said that Wijesinghe was hit by a 40 mm grenade round during a major exchange of fire between Col. Wimalaratne’s and Brig. Kobbekaduwa’s brigades. The battle erupted due to Brig. Kobbekaduwa’s troops making an unexpected move prompting the other brigade to open fire. Breakdown of communications between formations aggravated the situation leading to troops on the southern flank firing at Wijesinghe, who succumbed to his injuries while being evacuated to Colombo by air. Wijesinghe had also served the Rapid Deployment Force (RDF).

Although there had been previous cases of friendly fire, the death of Wijesinghe devastated the army. Former army Commander de Silva was of the opinion that the unfortunate confrontation between troops on the northern and southern flanks deprived them of an opportunity to trap top LTTE cadres. During the chaos, Prabhakaran and his trusted lieutenants escaped. The army was helpless as the SLAF could not carry out casualty evacuation due to inclement weather. The evacuation was delayed by several hours as the offensive came to an unexpected halt. The failure on the part of the army to effectively plug two big gaps, due to absence of required troop strength, caused irreparable damage. "We had to block the Valipuram gap that led to the famous sand dunes of Kath Kovilam and the Elephant Pass-Vettilaikerni stretch. As there was a serious shortage of troops, we decided to plug the Elephant Pass Vettilaikerni stretch and deployed a group of mobile troops to cover Valipuram. But they managed to escape through Valipuram. Although commandos were deployed on the Valipuram sector, they could not prevent the LTTE moving across to the Vanni mainland"

In his memoirs, A most noble profession launched in 2011, de Silva revealed how Wijesinghe had rushed to the assistance of troops on the southern flank, believing they were under fire by the LTTE. At that time he was hit, he did not have a helmet, nor body armour. Wijesinghe earned the praise of Gajaba Regiment veteran Col. Wimalaratne on many occasions. Officers and men still talked about how Wijesinghe spearheaded the defence of the beleaguered Kokilai army base, when it came under heavy attack by the LTTE, de Silva said, adding that he displayed extraordinary courage during his tenure as a Lieutenant and a platoon commander. Wijesinghe was one of those who could have contributed to our victory over the LTTE, the retired general said.

Operation Liberation II

gets underway

Brigades, led by Brig. Kobbekaduwa and Col. Wimalaratne, were to assault Jaffna, keeping the Palaly-Jaffna road as the axis of advance. Brig. Kobbekaduwa’s troops were on the western flank, whereas Col. Wimalaratne’s troops advanced on the eastern flank. President JRJ ordered the army to halt the advance at the behest of India soon after Kobbekaduwa’s formation secured Tellipallai, whereas Wimalaratne’s troops regained Achchuveli.

Commenting on the Indian threat to intervene unless the army stopped the offensive, Gen. de Silva recalled a call received by him as troops were consolidating Tellipallai and Achchuveli. "As the senior officer stationed in Jaffna, I was called to the operations room where I received instructions from the then General Officer Commanding Joint Operations Command Gen. Cyril Ranatunga. We were ordered to stop the offensive and consolidate our positions. Gen. Ranatunga warned of immediate Indian intervention unless we stopped the offensive."

Although India despised the LTTE for killing hundreds of rival members of groups run by premier Indian intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the regional super power did not want to see JRJ destroying the most powerful group. Had India allowed the army to go ahead with the offensive, it could have liberated Jaffna town and its suburbs before launching the third phase of the offensive to regain Jaffna islands. Completion of the third phase would have paved the way for the army to lay siege until the remaining LTTE combat units in the peninsula were neutralized. The army could have achieved its objectives had India allowed JRJ administration to proceed with the strategy. Unfortunately, India felt it could not let Sri Lanka triumph over terrorism as destabilization plot was part of its overall project to deter JRJ from forging an alliance with US, Pakistan and Israel.

India steps up pressure

The global community turned a blind eye to what was going in Sri Lanka. Two days after the navy turned away a flotilla of Indian fishing craft, carrying food for the people of Jaffna, the Indian air force jets escorted five transport planes which dropped food over Vadamarachchy. India warned JRJ not to interfere with what it called relief operation or face the consequences. Gen. de Silva in his memoirs revealed the military was ordered by the government to treat them as friendly aircraft. It was nothing but a joke.

Sri Lanka did not have the wherewithal to challenge the Indian action. India felt it could get away with flagrant violation of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. The country could not have engaged French built Mirage 2000 fighters even if they were considered hostile aircraft. The SLAF lacked jets or anti-aircraft weapons capable of engaging such advanced aircraft.

Responding to a query by The Island, Gen. de Silva alleged the Indian military and intelligence personnel had accompanied the Indian Red Cross involved in the transfer of food stocks from India to Kankesanthurai harbour in late June 1987. The Indian military was on a mission, though the army never realized at that time that India was seeking to deploy its troops in Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka under an agreement. The LTTE, too, took advantage of the situation to infiltrate government-held areas on the pretext of being employees of various co-operative societies, tasked to distribute Indian food stocks.

Nelliady attack

Due to Indian intervention, the army stopped all offensive action in both provinces. The army was engaged in consolidating its positions, in newly captured areas, whereas the LTTE was planning a major suicide attack. The first Black Tiger, Vallipuram Vasanthan, on July 5, 1987, drove an explosives-laden truck into a government school in Nelliady, in Vadamarachchy, paving the way for a frontal assault. A section of the media propagated that Operation Liberation was called off due to the Nelliady assault.

Vasanthan was the son of Thurairatnam, a prominent TULF politician who represented the Jaffna electoral district.

The LTTE stormed Nelliady School after blocking off all access routes. The then Jaffna Commander de Silva arrived at Nelliady at first light on the following day. The soft spoken officer told The Island: "As the helicopter carrying me was about to land at close proximity to the targeted school, we saw men in Black uniform firing at the chopper. The newly raised 4 Gemunu Watch (4 GW) at that time was deployed at Nelliady. 5GW was raised on the field with the then Lt. Col. Wasantha Perera as its commanding officer."

Subsequent to the Nelliady attack, the LTTE and those supportive of its macabre cause propagated that as many as 300 soldiers died in the suicide attack, though the actual number of death was far less. Almost 15 years later Colombo based journalists visiting Jaffna after the signing of the Norwegian arranged Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) was told how Black Tiger Vasanthan a.k.a Captain Miller brought Operation Liberation to an abrupt end with his devastating suicide attack.

"There was no truth in these reports," the Sandhurst-trained batch-mate of war veteran Kobbekaduwa said, stressing such erroneous reports tend to give an entirely wrong picture of the events leading to the Indo-Lanka accord in July, 1987. "Surely it was a part of their propaganda strategy. They wanted people to believe the offensive was called off due to heavy enemy resistance."

De Silva was commissioned as a Second Lieut on August 3, 1962. "I was with the Sinha Regiment and joined the GW a year later." However, when officers reach the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, they shed their regimental (unit) identity. He assumed command of the army on January 1, 1994 and relinquished the post on April 30, 1996. Four months later he was appointed High Commissioner to Islamabad and was there for two years.

"The Nelliady blast claimed the lives of less than 20 personnel", he said, adding that the 4 GW did not have the required number of officers and men to call it a battalion.

There had been about 100 4 GW soldiers, a troop of armor (about 35 men, one armoured car and two scout cars) and a few others, including army engineers at the targeted school. Lt. Col. Perera had been at the school when the LTTE struck. Most of the troops were watching Rupavahini’s 8 p.m. Sinhala news bulletin when the blast occurred. Twelve 4 GW personnel were among the 17 killed in the blast triggered by the suicide cadre who drove in an explosive-laden truck. It was similar to the attack staged on the Dalada Maligawa many years later.

"Now they talk of hundreds being killed. Newspapers inadvertently carry erroneous reports. The sad thing is people believe in them. Obviously it was a part of the Tigers’ strategy. Such tales always attracted recruits to the ranks of terrorists."

Indians arrive

"Were you in Jaffna when the IPKF flew in? Were you aware of the Indo-Lanka agreement and its impact on the security forces"? "As the Jaffna security forces commander, I welcomed Gen. Harkirat Singh, General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the 54th Independent Airborne Assault Division when the Indians flew in. It was a humiliating experience as we knew they forced their way here. Soon after they landed in Palaly, they simply asked the SLAF personnel to shift and took over the control tower. Our camps and detachments were cut off. Within hours they were in charge."

It was a ridiculous situation. The army was not even made aware of the Indo-Lanka agreement. "We were in the dark. We were informed of it about three days later. The Indians did not even bother to tell us that the agreement guaranteed the right to move, particularly the logistical convoys until the LTTE completes the surrender of weapons. It was to be done in just 72 hours.

There were many contentious issues. The Indians and the Sri Lankan forces did not agree on many issues. But relations improved and reached an excellent level when the LTTE resumed hostilities by launching indiscriminate attacks on the Indians about 10 weeks after their triumphant arrival in the northeast. India lost over 1500 men. Over two thousand were wounded, some of them maimed for life. "They paid a heavy price for failing to identify the LTTE and its methods."