Sunday, 24 March 2013

A ding-dong battle

War on terror revisited : Part 121

Sept. 1, 1990 three miles north of Mullaitivu light house: The then Lt. Commander S. U. Lanka Prasada, commanding officer of SLNS Pabbatha with the ship crew immediately after the landing of troops, vehicles and ammunition. The deployment was in accordance with Operation Sea Breeze to break the siege on Mullaitivu detachment.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Having suffered a spate of battlefield setbacks in the Jaffna peninsula, in the Vanni region and the Eastern Province, President Ranasinghe Premadasa, in his capacity as the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces in late March 1991, appointed Army Chief of Staff Major General Cecil Waidyaratne as the Overall Operations Commander for the Eastern Province comprising the administrative districts of Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara. He directed Army’s No 2 to bring the Eastern Province under government control in time for local government elections. The hotheaded Waidyaratne received his appointment on March 29, 1990.

Lt. Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe remained the Commander of the army (Aug 16, 1988-Nov 15, 1991). Maj. Gen. Waidyaratne felt confident that he could tackle the situation only to realise that fighting the LTTE was vastly different from conducting counter insurgency operations against the JVP. He had been in the limelight for his role in crushing the JVP. President Premadasa and State Minister for Defence Ranjan Wijeratne praised Waidyaratne’s role as the Commander of Operation Combine, established in early August 1989 to deal with the JVP. As the senior officer in charge of the outfit, Maj. Gen. Waidyaratne had authority over the Navy, Air Force and the police. In fact, the public hardly knew of the secretive unit until Minister Wijeratne on the morning of March 8, 1990 announced the winding up of operations undertaken by the Operations Combine.

Close on the heels of the change of command, death squads launched operations in Batticaloa, the hotbed of terrorism in the Eastern Province. An armed gang abducted senior LTTE cadre S. Karikalan’s brother, Sivagnanam Sathgunanadan on April 24, 1991. The victim was an employee of the Telecommunication Department in Batticaloa. His headless body was found about three days later. The torso was in a gunny bag. A note left near the body declared that Sathgunanadan had been killed because his brother was engaged in terrorism.

The LTTE didn’t react to counter-insurgency operations in Batticaloa. Instead, the group concentrated on operations in the Mannar district.

On the Vanni front

On Feb. 17, 1991, the LTTE wiped out two platoons returning to their base at Silavaturai, killing 50 personnel, including two junior officers. They were ambushed at Kondachchi. On March 16, 1991, the LTTE attacked another patrol sent out from Silavaturai killing one and wounding eight. On the both occasions, the LTTE targeted the sixth battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (6 GR).

A few days after the second attack on 6 GR, the LTTE suffered its first major setback during eelam war II when an operation directed at troops manning Silavaturai and Kokkupadayan detachments went awry. The then Major Kamal Gunaratne of the Gajaba Regiment, who had survived the Mankulam battle in November 1990, was at Silavaturai at the time of the LTTE attack. (Gunaratne commanded the 53 Division during eelam war IV. Presently, he is currently Sri Lanka’s Deputy Ambassador in Brazil). In spite of suffering substantial losses, the army held Silavaturai and Kokkupadayan until the navy brought in reinforcements. Siai Marchettis and Bell 212s launched from nearby air bases targeted attackers, while mortar teams, too, inflicted heavy losses on the enemy. The then Flying Officer, Kapila Rathnaseka, (Bell helicopter pilot) recounted hearing over his set Maj. Kamal Gunaratne rejecting an LTTE offer to surrender. Rathnasekara retired before the outbreak of eelam war IV in Aug 2006 having risen to the rank of Squadron Leader. Rathnaseka said that Siai Marchettis and Bell 212s operating from Anuradhapura and Vavuniya air bases carried out attacks until the LTTE withdrew leaving over 100 bodies and a range of small arms. Operations continued throughout the night, Rathnasekara said, adding, "At first light, while flying over Silavaturai, we saw the LTTE preparing to fire locally made ‘baba’ mortars. Subsequently, Siai Marchettis bombed the location. Having suffered heavy losses, the LTTE withdrew. During the battle, Bell 212s landed a short distance away from the main camp to evacuate the wounded. After the army reestablished control over the area, the then senior officer in charge of operations in the Vanni region, Major General Denzil Kobbekaduwa flew to Silavaturai with several other senior officers. LTTE bodies were scattered all over the place. I have never seen so many LTTE bodies in one place. There was a heap of LTTE bodies at one place. The LTTE obviously suffered substantial losses, though it seemed to be in command, during the first 24 hours of the battle." Squadron Leader Rathnasekara said that Bell pilots had to return to Vavuniya every two and half hours for refueling.

Italian built Siai Marchettis (SF 260 TP) and (SF 260 W) acquired in 1985 and 1990, respectively, remained the most powerful attack aircraft until the acquisition of Chinese FT 7 and F 7 in early 1991. The SLAF used Siai Marchettis for both training and ground attacks even after the acquisition of Chinese jets.

Reinforcements by sea

The then Lt. Commander, S. U. Lanka Prasada, the Commanding Officer of SLNS Pabbatha, a Landing Craft Medium (LCM) recalled the operation conducted in support of troops under siege at Silavaturai and Kokkupadayan. Prasada, who had retired with the rank of Commander said: "I have a faint memory of this operation. ‘Pabbtaha’s’ role was to take troops to reinforce camps under fire. As the sea area north of Kudiramalai point is shallow no other SLN commissioned ship had gone close to the Silavathurai camp, before as it was a navigational risk. I myself had not taken even a boat into that area, since there was an operational requirement, I took the navigational risk and took Pabbatha carrying reinforcements and logistic supplies. Since the water depth was insufficient to beach the LCM near the camp, the craft remained about 1.5 cables away from the beach and fibreglass dinghies were used to ferry the troops and logistics supplies. If I remember correctly, one gun boat had been stationed north of Kudiramalai point, a fair distance away from the location due to the navigational risks, leaving dinghies and Inshore Patrol Craft (IPC) to facilitate the operation."

During the battle for supremacy in Silavaturai, the then Brigadier, Sri Lal Weerasooriya was the senior officer in charge of the Mannar administrative district. (The soft-spoken officer retired having commanded the army during its worst battlefield defeat in April 2000 at Elephant Pass when the LTTE defeated 54 Division. It was the only defeat experienced by a Division during the entire conflict. Weerasooriya commanded the army from Dec. 16, 1998-Aug 24, 2000).

The battle for Silavaturai killed 25 soldiers, while about 60 suffered injuries. But the outcome of the Silavaturai battle, thanks to the navy and the air force throwing their full weight behind the army, boosted the morale of the army. It was the second successful defence of an army base by combined forces since the outbreak of hostilities during the second week of June 1990. The first was the breaking of the siege on the Mullaitivu detachment in the first week of Sept. 1990. The Mullaitivu operation involved landings by ‘Pabbatha’ and ‘Kandula’, whereas Silavaturai involved only the former. Had the LTTE succeeded in overrunning Silavaturai and Kokkupadayan, the base at Thalladi would have been vulnerable to an LTTE onslaught.

In spite of experiencing a major setback, the LTTE stepped up attacks in the Mannar district. On March 29, 1991, just over a week after the conclusion of the Silavaturai battle, the LTTE killed 25 Gemunu Watch soldiers at Veppankulam, a village situated close to Silavaturai. The SLAF evacuated about 25 wounded personnel to the Anuradhapura hospital before being shifted to Colombo for further treatment (Heavy casualty toll in battle at Veppankulam—The Island April 1, 1991).

On the morning of April 29, 1991, the LTTE wiped out two platoons moving from Nanattan to Talladi, killing 50 personnel, including two officers. The LTTE removed their arms, ammunition and equipment before reinforcements could move in. It was a humiliating defeat.

During the early part of 1991, the army conducted limited operations in the Jaffna peninsula in accordance with the overall security objective to expand the area under its control. Brig. Wijaya Wimalaratne was in charge of operations in the Jaffna peninsula, whereas Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa conducted an offensive in the Mannar-Vavuniya region. Jaffna forces also engaged LTTE groups in Jaffna islands. The LTTE responded with a major assault on northern navy headquarters at Karainagar in the Karaitivu Island on April 1, 1991. The navy repulsed the attack with the support of the army and the air force. During the battle, Lieutenant Kokwewa of the fifth battalion of the Gemunu Watch (5 GW) was killed in action. He was hit during an assault on a machine gun point. He was among 15 personnel killed. Brig. Wimalaratne received minor injuries during the action. The Gajaba veteran was among some 40 personnel wounded on Karaitivu Island.

By April 1991, the army had deployed all its available fighting battalions as well as support units in operational areas. Formations which had been deployed against the JVP were positioned in Jaffna, Vanni and Eastern theatres. Still, the army lacked combat troops for simultaneous operations in different theatres. For want of troops, army headquarters regularly shifted experienced battalions to carry out operations. The same battalions had to be deployed at short notice to reinforce camps under threat. Unfortunately, President Premadasa and his advisors never realized the urgent need to double the strength of the army. Had President done that, the army could have taken the upper hand. Unfortunately, successive governments ignored the requirement to bolster fighting formations until President Mahinda Rajapaksa gave the go ahead for doubling of the army’s strength. Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa as well as former army chief, Gen. Sarath Fonseka attributed Sri Lanka’s victory over the LTTE during eelam war IV to the doubling of the army’s strength (2006-2009). At the onset of eelam war IV in August 2006, the army comprised 116,000 personnel. At the end of the conflict in May 2009, the army had about 220,000 personnel. Another drawback experienced during eelam war II was the absence of required air and naval assets to sustain offensive action. The loss of the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road north of Vavuniya at the onset of eelam war II was a devastating setback. The navy and air force had no option but to deploy most of their assets in support of the army deployed in the Jaffna peninsula and Jaffna Islands.