War on terror revisited : Part 109February 21, 2013, 12:00 pm
At the conclusion of the conflict in May 2009, Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s army built a special monument for those who sacrificed their lives at Kokavil
by Shamindra Ferdinando
A message from London
Having destroyed the Kokavil army detachment on the afternoon of July 13, 1990, the LTTE declared that its political wing, People’s Front for Liberation Tigers (PFLT), wouldn’t have any further role to play. Interestingly, the announcement was made by the LTTE’s International Secretariat in London after President Premadasa had postponed nominations for fresh PC elections in the temporarily merged province due to the rapidly deteriorating situation. (PFLT won’t contest polls––The Island July 15, 1990).
Having unilaterally ended a 14-month long ceasefire (May 5, 1989-June 10, 1990), the LTTE swiftly gained the upper hand in the Jaffna peninsula and the Vanni, though in the East it faced fierce resistance by combined security forces.
The LTTE targeted troops and police based at the Jaffna Fort at the onset of eelam war II. It had been the LTTE’s main target in the peninsula. By the last week of June, 1990, the LTTE had been exploring ways and means of overwhelming those beleaguered government security forces personnel after having cut off access to and from the base. The army couldn’t even evacuate wounded personnel.
Lt. Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe (Aug. 16, 1988––Nov. 15, 1991) had no option but to seek the help of the SLAF to rescue those trapped in the Jaffna Fort. The army couldn’t even muster a force to mount a limited ground assault to facilitate the SLAF operation. At the behest of the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa, Lt. Gen. Wanasinghe supervised the transfer of arms, ammunition and equipment to the LTTE to carry out attacks against the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF).
In an interview with the writer soon after he was told of President Premadasa’s decision to appoint him as the Commander of the Army, the then Maj. Gen. Wanasinghe discussed ways and means of improving the combat readiness of troops. A jubilant Wanasinghe revealed his plans to expand the Rapid Deployment Force (RDF) to meet any eventuality, while emphasising the importance of training troops in jungle operations (Wanasinghe new army chief––The Island Aug. 7, 1988). Wanasinghe was the 11th Commander of the Sri Lanka Army. He preceded Lt. Gen. Nalin Seneviratne.
Due to the failure on the part of the army to evacuate the wounded and send in reinforcements to Jaffna fort, the SLAF was asked to launch an unprecedented operation to airlift the wounded. The unparalleled operation was codenamed ‘Eagle.’
SLAF to the fore
The SLAF, too, was under heavy pressure to mount a rescue operation. It would be pertinent to mention here, that the SLAF didn’t have the capability to demolish LTTE positions situated close to the Jaffna Fort to enable helicopters to land in the fort. The government hadn’t felt the need to acquire jets, dedicated helicopter gunships or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to facilitate a complicated operation. The SLAF acquired supersonic jets (Chinese F7 and FT 7) in 1991, Kfirs in 1996 and MiG 27s in 2000. The SLAF took delivery of helicopter gunships (Mi 24s) in 1995 and UAVs the following year.
The SLAF initially scheduled Operation Eagle for July 4, 1990. At the eleventh hour, the SLAF advanced the operation by 24 hours. The SLAF decided to mount the operation at 4 a.m. on July 3, 1990.
With the Jaffna fort having been under siege for 21 days, the army top brass felt it was only a matter of days before the LTTE fought its way into the Dutch built fortress. In fact, many senior officers had given up hope of saving those trapped in the Jaffna fort, when the SLAF took up the daunting task.
The then Wing Commander, Jayalath Weerakkody (Later SLAF Commander, currently, Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in Islamabad), explained the rescue mission to a select group of journalists, including the writer shortly after the conclusion of the operation. On the day before the rescue bid, the SLAF deployed four Italian built Siai Marchettis to target LTTE positions close to the Jaffna fort. Siai Marchettis acquired in 1985 were used in counter insurgency operations. Close on the heels of the attack, helicopters targeted LTTE positions, paving the way for Y 12 and Y 8 transport aircraft to drop food, medicine and other urgently needed supplies. Wing Commander Weerakkody said that the SLAF action on July 2, 1990 was meant to deceive the enemy. The LTTE wouldn’t have expected a rescue operation in the immediate aftermath of a major re-supply effort.
The rescue mission was planned in the wake of two earlier abortive missions.
The real operation got underway at 4 a.m. on July 3, 1990, with four Siai Marchettis and four helicopters taking off from different bases. They reached their target at 5.20 a.m. While the Siai Marchettis under the command of Squadron Leader Shantha Gooneratne and three helicopters engaged LTTE positions, a US built Bell 412 piloted by Squadron Leader Lasantha Waidyasekera and co-piloted by Flying Officer Mirando landed on the Pannai causeway. While troops of the 6SR (Sixth Battalion Sinha Regiment) engaged the enemy, seven wounded troops were rushed out of the Jaffna Fort and put on board the chopper. Squadron Leader Roger Weerasinghe had been in command of the helicopters tasked to engage targets.
The SLAF launched the Bell 412 involved in the rescue mission from Kankesanthurai. Before taking in the wounded, six heavily armed troops got off the machine and ran towards the Fort. They were volunteers who joined a besieged base at the risk of their lives. The SLAF flew the wounded SR soldiers to Palaly, where they received medical treatment before being moved to the Ratmalana air base.
The then Air Force Commander, Air Vice Marshal Terrence Gunawardena and the late Group Capt. Anselm Peiris, who functioned as the mission commander, too, were present at Ratmalana when a fixed wing aircraft carrying the wounded touched down at Ratmalana at 8 a.m. (Dramatic rescue of injured men from Jaffna Fort––The Island-July 4, 1990).
Commandos lose over 40 in single ambush
Soon after the conclusion of the rescue mission, President Ranasinghe Premadasa visited SLAF headquarters to thank the officers involved in the rescue mission. Although the daring rescue mission boosted the morale of the army, it didn’t stop the rapid deterioration of the ground situation in the northern region. The LTTE was on the offensive, with the army struggling to counter the growing threat on all major bases in the Jaffna peninsula and the Vanni region. Officers and men had been thoroughly demoralised and as a result, desertions were extremely high in spite of troops making some headway in the Eastern Province. But, even in the Eastern Province, the army had suffered some stunning setbacks as the LTTE brought in experienced units in to the battle. Having quickly taken the upper hand in the Batticaloa District, the LTTE mounted attacks on Kinniya, Uppuveli and Muttur police stations. The LTTE quickly overran Kinniya, though the police at Muttur repulsed the attack with the support of troops based at the adjoining army detachment. As the army feared those defending Muttur could not manage the situation on their own, army top brass authorised a special operation to relieve them. The then Lt. Commander Lakshman Illangakoon, Commanding Officer of the landing craft ‘Kandula’ was tasked to ferry troops necessary for the operation (Illangakoon is the current Eastern Commander and holds the rank of Rear Admiral).
Unfortunately, the operation went awry though the navy managed to land a contingent of commandos led by Maj. A. M. Arzhad close to brown rock point, east of Muttur in the early hours of June 14, 1990. Having allowed the commandos to come ashore without a fight, the LTTE ambushed them a little distance away from the landing point, killing 40. Six commandos, who had survived the ambush, escaped in a boat and drifted for several weeks in the Indian Ocean though only four managed to reach the beaches of Bangkok in early August 1990. They told how two of their colleagues died during the unchartered journey. At the time of his untimely death, Arzhad was to marry the then State Housing Minister Imithiaz Bakeer Markar’s sister (Four commandos escape Tigers, land in Bangkok––The Island Aug 9, 1990). Arshad was a distinguished and much admired old boy of Balangoda Central College, according to current Navy spokesman Commander Kosala Warnakulasuriya. For many, Arshad was an inspiring figure like Colonel Fazly Laphir, Commanding Officer of the 1 Special Forces Regiment, who, too, died in another disastrous rescue mission in July 1996. Laphir was leading troops to save those who had escaped the LTTE onslaught on the Mullaitivu base during the morning of July 18, 1996. Captain Wasantha Jayaweera, formerly of the Special Forces, and a veteran of many battles had been with Colonel Laphir during the ill-fated mission. Jayaweera says that men were willing to follow Colonel Laphir even at the risk of their lives.
First major setback on A9 road
Exactly a month after the resumption of hostilities with the massacre of over 600 police officers and men, Army chief, Lt. Gen. Wanasinghe placed Maj. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa in charge of operations in the Northern region. The situation on the ground had deteriorated to such an extent, that Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa’s appointment as the Northern Commander didn’t make any difference. The LTTE had built fortifications around all camps in the Jaffna peninsula as well as in the Vanni. Prabhakaran brazenly took advantage of his ‘honeymoon’ with President Premadasa to build gun positions around bases. The LTTE also moved in to positions abandoned by the IPKF during the Oct. 1989-March 1990 period at the expense of the army. Besides, President Premadasa had ordered the army to vacate some of its bases, including strategically positioned troops at Valvettiturai and Point Pedro. The army could not either reinforce or vacate besieged bases at Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, Kokavil, Manakulam, Mullaitivu and Jaffna Fort. The army top brass felt that an urgent offensive was needed to rescue troops in bases vulnerable to an LTTE onslaught. But, the overall planning was chaotic in the absence of a cohesive strategy to decipher the LTTE stratagem. In hindsight, the LTTE was obviously bent on smashing army bases situated along the Kandy-Jaffna A9 main road between Kokavil and Jaffna fort. The army top brass obviously failed to realise the danger posed by the massive LTTE build-up in the Vanni. Had they realised the threat on the main overland supply route to Jaffna, they would have acted swiftly and decisively. Unfortunately, the army lacked the wherewithal to reinforce bases situated along the A9. While the army was engaged in counter insurgency operations against the JVP, in support of the police, the LTTE (July 1987- Feb/March 1990), received much needed retraining. Having crushed the Indian sponsored Tamil National Army (IPKF) in a series of lightning operations, the Tigers had collected a massive arsenal supplied by India, whereas President Premadasa, too, provided a large stock of weapons.
Immediately after Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa assumed the northern command on July 11, 1990, the LTTE overran the isolated Kokavil detachment established to protect a Rupavahini tower. In spite of the detachment being under attack for almost a month, the army top brass failed to reinforce those defending the base. Lieutenant S. U. Aladeniya of the Sinha Regiment (Second Volunteer battalion) fought to the end, though he was given an opportunity to withdraw at an early stage of the battle. Refusing to abandon the base leaving behind casualties, Aladeniya called the army to engage his own base with long range artillery. Aladeniya was one of the few to receive the Parama Weera Vibhushana (PWV) posthumously, for his gallantry. Army headquarters pathetically failed to reinforce the Kokavil detachment comprising two platoons in spite of Aladeniya calling for reinforcements. They also ran out of ammunition. About 50 volunteers went down fighting at Kokavil. None of their bodies were recovered. Some of the captured volunteer Sinha Regiment personnel are believed to have been executed. Two soldiers who managed to escape by crawling through the LTTE cordon, managed to reach the army base at Mankulam, situated north of Kokavil. According to them, those captured were burnt alive.