Wednesday, 13 March 2013

LTTE plan goes awry

War on terror revisited : Part 116


 By Shamindra Ferdinando

The then President Ranasinghe Premadasa and the army top brass ignored rapid LTTE preparations for war in the immediate aftermath of the IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force), pullout in March 1990. Army chief Lt. Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe and presidential security advisor Gen. Cyril Ranatunga remained passive onlookers, though they knew what was going on. In fact, none of those responsible for security, including State Minister for Defence Ranjan Wijeratne dared to push for tangible counter measures to meet the growing LTTE threat. Had they bothered to examine the situation on the ground, there would have been an immediate re-deployment of troops deployed to quell the JVP-led insurgency in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The government miserably failed to take advantage of the annihilation of the JVP by Jan 1990 to reinforce bases in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Unfortunately, army headquarters didn’t bother to prepare a contingency plan until the LTTE resumed hostilities during the second week of June 1990.

In the absence of a cohesive strategy to defend isolated bases in the Eastern Province, in the Jaffna peninsula as well as detachments north of Vavuniya along the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road, the LTTE swiftly took the upper hand in the battle at the onset of eelam war II.

At the onset of eelam war II, the LTTE engaged all isolated bases, though Batticaloa remained its main target. The First battalion of the Gemunu Watch (1GW) and a section of the Sixth battalion of the Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment (6 SLSR) deployed in the Batticaloa district fought an extremely difficult battle with limited air support and artillery support until reinforcements moved in. By the time they had fought their way into Batticaloa, the LTTE managed to evict troops from two of the five detachments, namely Wellawadi and Kalmunai, manned by 1 GW and 6 SLSR, respectively. The army abandoned Wellawadi on June 12, 1990 and Kalmunai the following day.

 A call from
Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa

According to the then Commanding Officer of the 1 GW, Lt. Colonel Hiran N. Halangode he had first heard of an impending rescue mission when Maj. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa, the General Officer Commanding (GoC) of the 1 Division reached him over radio on June 15, 1990. Halangode said: "The voice of the GOC was a great morale booster as we were in a desperate situation. Until then the response from the army top brass was negative at best and very little encouragement was given to continue fighting. Soldiers fight for their survival first, then for their comrades, their Regiment, the Army and for their country, in that order of priority."

Interestingly, the rescue mission got underway amidst President Premadasa and his chief negotiator Minister A.C. S. Hameed making a desperate attempt to work out a fresh ceasefire. In hindsight, State Defence Minister Wijeratne and an influential section of the military had opposed President Premadasa’s plan.

 At the onset of eelam war II, the LTTE blocked the three main overland routes to Batticaloa, Polonnaruwa – Valachchinai – Batticaloa road, Mahaoya – Chenkalladi, Batticaloa road and Ampara – Battialoa Road by felling trees across the roads. Minor access roads from the mainland, too, were cut off by blasting the bridges and setting up machine guns points at strategic locations. Soon after the fighting erupted, the government directed the army, too, to surrender. Those at the helm of the decision making process ignored the fact that hundreds of policemen who gave themselves up to the LTTE along with their weapons were shot after they were forced to dig up their own graves. The practice was similar to that of German forces employed in captured Eastern European territories during the Second World War. The Batticaloa district remained the LTTE’s main source for manpower during all four phases of the conflict. In fact, an unprecedented split between Karuna Amman and Prabhakaran in March 2004, during the Norwegian arranged Ceasefire Agreement caused the downfall of the organization. Retired Maj. Gen. Seneviratne is of the opinion that the LTTE’s Batticaloa cadre had been responsible for the massacre of policemen in the Batticaloa district and Karuna Amman, now a Minister in the UPFA administration, too, was involved. In his submissions to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) retired SSP Tassie Seneviratne, too, accused Karuna Amman of carrying out the massacre, a charge vehemently denied by the minister.

Rescue mission

The army launched a two-pronged counter offensive to save 1 GW and 6 SLSR troops under siege at Kallady (150 personnel), Kiran (90 personnel) and Kalawanchikudy (70 personnel). Three Brigade Group was launched from Punani to rescue about 240 officers and men under siege at Kiran and Kallady detachments. The then Brigadier, A.M.U. Seneviratne was in command on 3 Brigade Group comprising Lt. Colonel K.B. Egodawela’s Fourth battalion of the Gemunu Watch (4GW) and the newly formed Fifth battalion of the Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment (5 VIR). The battalion, which was formed and equipped on the move, included a batch of newly passed out recruits. The then Lt. Col. Percy Fernando, formerly of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (SLLI), was in command of 5 VIR. (Egodawela retired with the rank of Major General, and was in command of the 54 Division at the time of the Elephant Pass debacle in April 2002. Second-in-command of the 54 Division, Brigadier Percy of the Commandos was killed during the withdrawal from Elephant Pass).

Brig. A.K. Jayawardena led the second Brigade, tasked to rescue 6 SLSR troops under siege at Kalawanchikudy. 1 Brigade Group comprised the First battalion of the Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment (1 SLSR), and the First Special Forces Regiment. Brig. Jayawardena’s troops overcame heavy resistance to reach Kalawanchikudy by June 18, 1990.

Although armour and artillery (two pieces of 25 pounders) support was provided, foot soldiers had to fight their way through a series of LTTE strong points. Both formations suffered losses. The SLAF had a few Italian built light aircraft ready to support the rescue mission, though a pair was called in only once to engage a target. In the absence of dedicated fighter aircraft or helicopter gunships, the SLAF couldn’t provide close air support needed by ground forces.

Brigadier Seneviratne had been based at Boossa, Galle, at the time the LTTE resumed hostilities with the massacre of several hundred policemen during the second week of June 1990. Brig. Seneviratne of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (SLLI), had been the senior officer in command of three Brigades deployed in the districts of Galle, Matara and Hambantota. Minister Wijeratne had directed Brig. Seneviratne to lead troops on one flank (on the Polonnaruwa-Valachchenai-Batticaloa axis). The SLAF flew him to Punani, where 4 GW and 5 VIR assembled to undertake the first major rescue mission involving two Brigade Groups, though both were under strength.

Although there were officers senior to Brig. Seneviratne, they had been reluctant to take the challenging task. The army had to move arms, ammunition and equipment from the Panagoda cantonment, to equip troops under Brig. Seneviratne’s command. Strong LTTE units engaged troops pushing along the Punani road towards Batticaloa on the first day of the operations, causing many casualties. However, troops advanced about three kms on the first day and on the following day, they brought Valachchenai under government control, following a series of confrontations. "We crossed the Valachchenai Bridge as the enemy withdrew towards Thoppigala. Muslims were very much relieved to see troops taking over the area," retired Maj. Gen. Seneviratne told the writer (the SLLI veteran retired in early Dec 1996 having served as Army Chief of Staff for about one and half years. Seneviratne, during his tenure as the Anuradhapura based Overall Operations Commander, earned the wrath of de facto defence minister Anuruddha Ratwatte over differences of opinion on the execution of operations in the Northern region in 1995)

Having reached the besieged Kiran detachment, reinforcements evacuated the wounded for medical treatment at the government hospital at Polonnaruwa. "Despite severe shortage of troops, we maintained an overland supply route between Punani and Kiran, hence evacuation of the wounded overland was possible. The seriously wounded were evacuated by air. We pushed towards Vantharamoolai, gradually overcoming LTTE resistance and reached Kallady on the morning of June 19, 1990. We felt so proud and were delighted to observe some 1 GW troops, including their gritty battalion commander Lt. Col. Halangode on the Kallady Bridge. We subsequently cleared Batticaloa town." (Having served the army for almost 28 years, Halangode retired in mid July 2000 with the rank of Brigadier. At the time of his early retirement, he had been the area commander, Mannar, while being the Deputy General Officer Commanding of the 21 Division. Halangode had the honour of being the first commanding officer of the Air Mobile Brigade as well as serving the army in operational areas during most of his career)

The Batticaloa rescue mission came to a conclusion after troops under the command of Seneviratne and Jayawardena linked up after having evicted strong LTTE forces operating in the area. Brig. Seneviratne remained in Batticaloa as SF Commander, Batticaloa until 1991. During Seneviratne’s tenure as senior officer in charge of Batticaloa, the army strengthened its presence with additional detachments as well as bigger bases.

With the stabilization of the ground situation in the Batticaloa district by the end of the third week of June 1990, the situation in Ampara and Trincomalee districts, too, improved, though the LTTE retained the capability to strike in any part of the Eastern Province. Strong LTTE presence in the jungles posed a severe threat on the army, though the town and access roads to Batticaloa remained firmly under government control.

At the time of the June 1990 battles, the Fourth battalion of the Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment (4 SLSR) had been deployed in the Ampara district under the command of the then Lt. Col. G. H. Ariyaratne (Ariyaratne was killed in a mine explosion at Araly point, Kayts on the morning of Aug. 8, 1992. The blast also claimed the lives of Maj. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa, Brig. Wijaya Wimalaratne and several others, including Northern naval area commander Rear admiral Mohan Jayamaha). The 4 SLSR manned about eight detachments in the districts, with the total deployment comprising about 500 personnel.

The then Lt. Col. C.J. Ranaweera was the commanding officer of the First battalion of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (SLLI), deployed in the Trincomalee district (retired years later with the rank of Maj. General)

Although army headquarters realized as early as April/May 1990 that the LTTE was getting ready for war, Army chief, Lt. Gen. Wanasinghe remained hopeful of settling their differences amicably. Although those commanding troops in areas dominated by the LTTE, particularly in the Eastern Province, warned of a heavy LTTE build-up targeting army detachments as well as the police, army headquarters turned a blind eye to what was happening. Much to the surprise of those wary of the LTTE’s intentions, Lt. Gen. Wanasinghe allocated just three under strength infantry battalions (1 GW, 4 SLSR and 1 SLLI) for the entire Eastern Province, whereas the LTTE maintained strong well experienced combat units. Having fought the IPKF and rival Tamil groups continuously since Oct 1987, the LTTE remained in good shape, whereas the army wasn’t engaged in actual ground combat since June 1987. During the deployment of the IPKF and the peace negotiations with the LTTE (July 1987- June 1990), the army took a rest from combat operations, though being involved in anti-insurgency operations against the JVP.

Had the rescue mission undertaken by Brigadiers, Seneviratne and Jayawardena failed, the LTTE could have gained control of the entire district, thereby undermined both Trincomalee and Ampara administrative districts situated either side of Batticaloa. Such an eventuality could have caused an irreparable setback to the overall military strategy. Unfortunately, those who had been involved in the Batticaloa rescue mission never received the credit they deserved. In fact, those who had been responsible for causing the security crisis played down the Batticaloa rescue mission. A delay could have been advantageous to the LTTE as all three remaining detachments, namely Kiran, Kalawanchikudy and Kalldy remained inaccessible, overland. They had to be supplied by air under intense enemy fire, but the SLAF’s failure to evacuate the wounded demoralized those under siege.