Sunday, 10 March 2013

Battle for supremacy in Batticaloa

War on terror revisited : Part 115 


by Shamindra Ferdinando

Troops under siege lived on liquids, raw papaya, Palmyrah fruits and animals that happened to stray into the camp during the siege. They were collected during the night or when there was a lull in the fighting. Since the well to the Kiran camp was exposed to LTTE fire, troops tunneled into it at night to get drinking water for their survival. Troops in Kiran survived for seven nights in trenches and in one uniform amidst regular attack by the LTTE. The alertness of the sentry at night enabled him to wipe out an entire group of nine LTTE combatants, who were crawling into the camp by cutting the perimeter wire fence on 111th June 1990. Only one soldier was killed in action (KIA), throughout the eight days of fighting. However, one officer and 60 soldiers of the 3 x 79 personnel in the camp suffered injuries and were evacuated by 18 June 1990, when reinforcements arrived. The BBC correspondent refused to believe our casualties, as the surrounding area of the camp was littered with dead and decomposed LTTE bodies (over 100), due to the continuous fighting of almost eight day

– Brig. Hiran N. Halangode

Army Commander Lt. Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe, accompanied by Director Operations, Brig. Wijaya Wimalaratne flew to Batticaloa air base on the afternoon of June 11, 1911 while the LTTE offensive was in full swing. They touched down at the airfield around 3.30 p.m., amidst an LTTE build-up against army camps at Wellawadi, Kiran, Kalawanchikudy, Kalmunai and Kallady in the Batticaloa District. Having listened to senior officers based in Batticaloa, a visibly upset Army chief and Brig. Wimalaratne realized the gravity of the situation. They didn’t have the wherewithal to launch an immediate counter offensive to neutralize the LTTE threat on army detachments. The First battalion of the Gemunu Watch (1GW) and one company of the Sixth Battalion of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (6 SLLI) deployed in the Batticaloa district were wholly insufficient to meet the threat.

The then IGP Ernest Perera was among the visitors from Colombo attending the hastily arranged conference at the Batticaloa air base. The then Commanding Officer of the 1GW Lt. Col. Hiran N. Halangode, who had been based at the Kallady detachment, had to be airlifted to Batticaloa air base for the meeting. (Halangode, RWP RSP USP USACGSC, retired with the rank of Brigadier.) The top brass from Colombo and those stationed in Batticaloa failed to work out a strategy to counter the LTTE threat, though they discussed ways and means of deploying the army in support of the police. As the army had been stretched thin in the Batticaloa district, deployment of troops in support of the police was ruled out. In the absence of artillery and adequate air support, the army decided against launching a counter offensive. Instead, troops deployed in the Batticaloa District were ordered to hold on to their bases at any cost. At the onset of hostilities during the second week of June 1990, the SLAF had one US built Bell 212 deployed at its base in Batticaloa.

Gemunu Watch parade at Kuruwita, Ratnapura

Had the armed forces top brass, the state Minister for Defence and UNP Chairman Ranjan Wijeratne and presidential security advisor retired, Gen. Cyril Ranatunga, adopted a cohesive contingency security plan in the wake of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) withdrawal on March 24, 1990, the army wouldn’t have faced heavy battlefield defeats in that manner. None of them dared to dispute President Premadasa’s way of appeasing the LTTE at the expense of national security. The government missed an opportunity to reinforce and expand detachments in the Northern and the Eastern Provinces after the conclusion of major anti-JVP operations in Dec 1990. The JVP collapsed in the immediate aftermath of the execution of its leader Rohana Wijeweera on the night of Nov. 13, 1990. In fact, the army could have easily re-deployed several battalions in the North and the East, though nothing was done until the LTTE went on the offensive. Those at the helm of the security establishment remained just onlookers, until it was too late. The Army headquarters didn’t even bother to position at least one artillery piece in Batticaloa.

Kiran, Wellawadi under siege

About one hour after the Army chief’s arrival in Batticaloa, the LTTE fired at detachments at Kiran (Kumburumullai) and Wellawadi, both manned by 1GW. There were about 90 personnel, including officers at Kiran, whereas the Wellawadi detachment comprised one officer and 22 men. They had to face the attack on their own. The army top brass couldn’t do anything except to direct the commanding officers at Kiran and Wellawadi to hold their positions, which they would have done anyway. It was a pathetic situation. After attending the Batticaloa meeting, Lt. Col. Halangode returned to his base at Kallady, where the bulk of the 1GW was positioned. According to Halangode, there had been approximately 150 personnel at 1GW battalion headquarters, where he received a call from the LTTE soon after returning from the Batticaloa air base. The LTTE demanded that the Commanding Officer of 1GW direct troops at Kiran to surrender within 5 minutes or face annihilation. Retired Brig. Halangode said: "The LTTE threatened to launch an all-out attack on Kiran unless those based at Kiran surrendered with their arms. As I didn’t want to be accused of starting the war, I asked for time to consult the President. I had no option but to promise the LTTE that I would get back to them after having consulted the President."

Top commanders differ

A desperate 1 GW Commanding Officer had sought instructions from Brig. Rohan de S Daluwatte, the senior officer in charge of troops deployed in the Batticaloa-Ampara sector. As the 14 Brigade Commander, Brig. Daluwatte was responsible for army deployment primarily comprising 1 GW and 6 SLLI troops deployed in the Batticaloa district and fourth battalion of the Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment (4SLSR) in the neighbouring Ampara district. As Brig. Daluwatte had been noncommittal, Lt. Col. Halangode had reached Maj. Gen. JR Stanley de Silva, the General Officer Commanding (GOC) 2 Division headquartered at Anuradhapura. The deployment in Ampara-Batticaloa sector came under the purview of GOC of the 2 Division. Maj. Gen. de Silva (later Chief of Staff of the Army. de Silva of the Army Engineers passed away four year ago). According to Halangode, the GOC didn’t mince his words when he declared that the army should fight to the last man and the last round of ammunition. The Maj. Gen. stressed that the country depend on their response to the situation in Batticaloa.

The army felt that the Wellawadi and Kalmunai detachments couldn’t be defended much no longer due to them being under strength. While the detachment at Wellawadi manned by the 1GW comprised 23 personnel, there were 50 personnel at Kalmunai, one of the two bases held by the 6SLLI in the Batticaloa district. LT. Col. Halangode sought the go ahead from Maj. Gen. de Silva to make preparations for the evacuation of troops from Wellawadi and Kalmunai.

Wellawadi vacated

In spite of being outnumbered, GW troops under the command of the then Second Lieutenant, R. M .C. C. Ranaweera resisted the LTTE attack successfully for about 36 hours with the support of mortar fire directed from the nearby detachment at Kiran. There had been two 81 mm mortars positioned at Kiran at the onset of hostilities. While resisting an all out attack on the detachment, troops at Kiran directed mortar fire at the LTTE attacking the Wellawadi camp. According to Halangode, who retired with the rank of Brig, the LTTE deployed as many as 300 to 400 cadres against 23 men trapped at Wellawadi. Troops at Wellawadi experienced a severe shortage of ammunition as they battled the LTTE throughout the night under extremely difficult conditions. Amidst the firefight, troops facilitated the evacuation of the entire group of the Sinhala fishing community at Wellawadi by the sea. There hadn’t been a single casualty among the fisher families due to LTTE attacks, though a mother and child drowned while boarding a naval craft deployed for the evacuation. As troops at Wellawadi ran out of ammunition, an SLAF chopper delivered the required ammunition on the morning of June 12. Having received fresh ammunition, troops fought their way to the beach where they boarded an SLN vessel to reach Trincomalee. During the entire confrontation lasting over 36 hours, 1 GW platoon suffered one casualty. Having deployed an overwhelming force against the beleaguered Wellawadi detachment, the LTTE failed to breakthrough 1 GW defences in spite of several attempts. Had they succeeded, none of the soldiers of migratory Sinhala fishermen would have survived. The Navy completed the evacuation of both the army as well as fishermen from Wellawadi on June 12, 1990.

Kalmunai abandoned

The following day, the 6 SLLI abandoned its base at Kalmunai. Commanding Officer, Second Lt. K.A.S.H. Karunatillake and his troops fought their way to the beach while the army fired artillery from the Malwatte camp in the neighbouring Ampara district to facilitate their pullout. They, too, were evacuated by the Navy on June 13. Withdrawing troops suffered several casualties, as they exchanged fire with the LTTE, while withdrawing towards the beach.

Within just 72 hours after the first attack on the army at about 7.30 a.m on June 11, 1990, the army had evacuated two out of five detachments in the Batticaloa district. By that time, the LTTE had massacred over 600 police officers and men, while those who survived the onslaught sought refuge at the Batticaloa SLAF base. The army faced a heavy defeat in Karuna Amman’s stronghold. The Army chief struggled to tackle the rapidly deteriorating situation. But President Premadasa still believed in a negotiated settlement. On the instructions of the President, Minister A. C. S. Hameed made a desperate effort to reach an understanding with the LTTE, though the military top brass was highly skeptical of such an eventuality.

On the evening of June 16, 1990, the Presidential Secretariat declared that a fresh ceasefire would come into operation at 6 p.m on that day. The PS said that an agreement was reached in Jaffna, following a marathon seven hours of talks between Minister Hameed and the LTTE leadership.

Battle for Kiran

According to Brig. Halangode, the LTTE had fired mortars, small arms as well as a 84 mm rocket launcher at the detachment at Kiran, home to about 83 troops under the command of the then Captain, Sumith Perera of the GW (later killed in Jaffna in 1995). His deputy was Lieutenant Chinthaka Munasinghe, also of the GW (killed in action in Mannar in 1991). Of the three officers based at Kiran during 1990, only Suminda Jayasundera of the GW survived. The then Second Lieutenant Jayasundera retired years later with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Having failed to dislodge troops in spite of a series of attacks on June 11 and 12, the LTTE used chlorine gas against the troops, the following day. Halangode recalled the heroic role played by Flying Officer Thilina Kaluarachchi during the battle for Batticaloa. The young SLAF officer provided close air support to those fighting on the ground at the risk of his life. (An LTTE missile destroyed his attack helicopter over the Kokilai lagoon, in 1997.)

Halangode revealed that a possible LTTE attempt to take him or his representative hostage on June 16, 1990 to force troops stationed at Kiran to surrender. The LTTE sought a ceasefire through the then Bishop of Batticaloa to facilitate both parties to attend to their casualties. Having consulted higher authorities, the army in Batticaloa agreed to the ceasefire, when the LTTE suggested that Lt. Col. Halangode or his representative should accompany the Bishop of Batticaloa to the detachment at Kiran. Halangode is of the opinion that LTTE could have taken the officer accompanying the Bishop hostage in a bid to force those defending Kiran to surrender. Troops survived a series of attacks over a period of eight days, until reinforcements reached the besieged base. Surprisingly, only one died during this period, whereas one officer and 60 personnel received injuries. They were among three officers and 80 personnel trapped in Kiran. The wounded were evacuated on June 18. Halangode recalled how a visiting correspondent of the BBC expressed disbelief that the army lost only one man, when there were over 100 bodies of LTTE cadres all around the base at Kiran