Friday, 8 March 2013

Mayhem in the East

*War on terror revisited : Part 114


by Shamindra Ferdinando

Gemunu Watch parade at its regimental headquarters

Brig. Hiran Halangode, RWP, RSP, USP, USACGSC, one-time commanding officer of the first battalion of the Gemunu Watch (1GW), says that in the run-up to eelam war II on June 11, 1990, the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) had no option but to fly without guns, as the government felt such deployment wasn’t conducive to the peace process. The then President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was also the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces had faith in the LTTE, Halangode (retired) alleges. According to him, a decision to mount heavy calibre guns on SLAF choppers was taken on the evening of June 11, 1990 after much deliberation among political and military leaders. The decision to deploy helicopter gunships was taken about two hours after initial offensive action by the LTTE, though SLAF deployment still remained defensive. It lacked dedicated helicopter gunships. Russian built Mi-24s were first taken delivery of in 1996, during Chandrika Kumaratunga’s presidency.

Brig. Halangode emphasised the importance of correctly recording the events leading to eelam war II. Former Army Commander Gen. Gerry de Silva, in his memoirs titled ‘A most noble profession’ has said that the LTTE ambushed and killed 10 IGW personnel at Kalmunai while they were on their way from Kallady to Ampara for Annual Weapons Training Classification (AWTC), whereas the LTTE actually targeted 6th SLLI (Sixth battalion of Sri Lanka Light Infantry). The 6 SLLI based at Kalawanchikudy had been on the ‘breakfast patrol’ and were on their way to Kalmunai.

Karuna with female LTTE cadres during Norwegian arranged Ceasefire Agreement (2002-2003). Karuna spearheaded LTTE operations in Batticaloa-Ampara sector during eelam war II

Having taken command of 1GW on Dec 1, 1988, the then Lt. Col. Halangode had been the commanding officer of 1GW deployed in the east at the outbreak of hostilities. His headquarters at Kallady was situated about two kilometres away from the Batticaloa police station. Halangode commanded the 1GW until Jan 31, 1991. Under his command, 1GW served in Hambantota, Moneragala, Ampara and Batticaloa.

Halangode also challenged the number of police officers killed at the onset of eelam war II. Quoting attorney-at-law S. L. Gunasekera, the GW veteran said that the LTTE had massacred 667 officers and men, whereas retired SSP Tassie Seneviratne placed the number at 636 in his presentation to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). Halangode disputed SSP Seneviratne’s assertion that over 300 police personnel had fought back until they were ordered to surrender.

Batticaloa, June 1990

At the outbreak of hostilities in the second week of June 1990, 1GW had been deployed in five detachments in the Batticaloa District. The government ignored that the deployment was wholly inadequate to meet the LTTE threat in the post-IPKF era. The SLAF, too, had a detachment in Batticaloa. Like their colleagues, commanding troops deployed in other northern and eastern districts, those in charge of the volatile Batticaloa District were seriously concerned about being accused of being aggressors by a government which was bending over backwards to appease theLTTE. According to Halangode, instructions from Colombo were simple. "We were told to abide by government policy of peace at any cost."

Having wiped out the 6 SLLI patrol, the LTTE offered the 1GW deployed in the Baticaloa district an opportunity to surrender. The battalion rejected the offer and fought the LTTE for eight days in spite of a severe shortage of food, limited water and one set of uniforms. The LTTE warned of dire consequences unless the troops gave up arms. The 6 SLLI had a company of troops deployed at Kalawanchikudy and Kalmunai. The ground forces had absolutely no artillery and air support at the onset of the conflict.

The 1GW lost one soldier at Kiran and about 25 wounded due to mortar, small arms and chlorine gas attacks. Batticaloa troops held their positions until reinforcements moved in about a week later. One of the major achievements was saving the lives of about 250 fishermen and their families at Wellawadi fishing village. Several policemen had joined the army at Kalawanchikudy to resist the LTTE.

Commenting on the massacre of hundreds of policemen, Brig. Halangode said that the police had no other option but to surrender as they were no match for LTTE combat units led by Karuna (Now a minister in the incumbent government). Personnel deployed at 13 isolated police stations in the Batticaloa and Ampara districts were deprived of ground, air and artillery support. The 1GW and 6 SLLI, too, had been confined to barracks They, too, found themselves in a similar predicament.

There would have been only a few people like ASP Ivan Boteju, who declined to surrender, Halangode asserted, adding that the then IGP had ordered the police to give themselves up to the LTTE after taking into consideration the ground situation. The LTTE promised that the police wouldn’t be harmed if they surrendered without resistance

Many have questioned the failure on the part of the then Brigadier Rohan Daluwatte to act swiftly and decisively reinforce Kalmunai. Daluwatte has also been accused of not responding to 1 GW’s calls for help. At that time, Daluwatte functioned as the 14 Brigade Commander and Coordinating chief for the administrative districts of Batticaloa and Ampara.

B’caloa police given five minutes  to abandon station

Having overpowered the Batticaloa police by 11 am on June 11, the LTTE gave five minutes for the police and their families to take refuge at the Batticaloa SLAF base. At that time, SSP Batticaloa had been at Kallady next to 1GW headquarters. The 1GW had escorted the SSP Batticaloa, along with one ASP, one Sergeant and a cook as well as one or two other civilians to the Batticaloa SLAF base.

Halangode said that one should never believe in a politician, an armchair bureaucrat, or rear echeloned top brass who would do anything for their survival. He was resentful that those who had failed in their duty continued to go places making as they did vital decisions that affected generations to come.

Brig. Halangode’s father, Brig. J. F. Halangode was the first commander of the GW raised on Dec. 7, 1962. At the height of eelam war IV, the GW had altogether 23 battalions, which played a pivotal role in the battle. Today, most of the battalions are under strength.

It would be essential to keep in mind the situation on the ground when fighting broke out in the Eastern Province in the second week of June 1990.The army had been deployed since Aug. 1987 in support of the police to crush the JVP led insurgency. It hadn’t been engaged in combat operations from June 1987 to June 1990, though it conducted counter insurgency operations against the JVP. Even after the withdrawal of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF,) in March 1990, President Premadasa and his security chiefs didn’t feel any need to reinforce detachments in the Northern and Eastern districts. At the behest of the political leadership, a section of the army during operations against the JVP had committed atrocities. Those who resisted political directives had to experience severe difficulties. One victim was Brig. Vipul Boteju of the Gemunu Watch, who incurred the wrath of the government of the day for not carrying out illegal orders.

Situation in Ampara

While the army deployment in the Batticaloa District comprised 1GW and a company of the SLLI, the under strength 4SLSR (Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment), was deployed in the Ampara District. There were about ten detachments including the one at Akkaraipattu, deployed along with the police. SLSR troops quit Pottuvil subsequent to the Special Task Force (STF) moving in. Those deployed at Kalmunai had been placed under the Batticaloa Coordinating Officer, as the base was situated on the Batticaloa-Ampara district border.

There would have been 500 SLSR personnel deployed in the Ampara district at the time of hostilities.

According to Halangode, the Batticaloa deployment comprised about 150 men at 1GW battalion headquarters at Kallay, about 90 at Kiran and a platoon (one officer and 22 men) at Wellawadi for the protection of over 200 Sinhala fishermen and their families. There had been 70 and 50 personnel, respectively at Kalawanchikudy and Kalmunai detachments. Of the five detachments, three (Kallady, Kiran and Wellawadi) belonged to the 1 GW and the rest to 6 SLLI raised on May 22, 1990.

In accordance with the army headquarters directive, infantry battalions had detached a company or two (120 to 200 personnel), to facilitate the raising of new fighting formations.

Surrender order

Having overrun police stations in the Ampara and Batticaloa districts, the LTTE phoned Lt. Col. Halangode at Kallady around 6 p.m. on June 11, 1990 to demand his immediate surrender. At that time, the LTTE had surrounded army detachments at Kiran, Wellawadi, Kalawanchikudy and Kalmunai, though troops at Kallady were still in control of the situation. Halangode had heard Karuna’s voice in the background as he received the call from an LTTEer identified as Mohan, who spoke in Sinhala. Karuna had been speaking rapidly, demanding Mohan to hurry up, while Halangode said that he needed time to consult the President.

Halangode had offended the then State Minister for Defence, Ranjan Wijeratne for failing to produce ‘desired results’ in operations against the JVP in the Moneragala District. On Wijeratne’s directive, 1GW had to quit Moneragala on a Sept. 29, 1989 and take up position in the Ampara District. Having served in Ampara for seven and a half months, 1GW was ordered to take over the Batticaloa District on May 18, 1990, just three weeks before the outbreak of hostilities.

The army had one battalion each in the administrative districts of Ampara, Batticaloa and Trincomalee in the Eastern Province.

During the LTTE onslaught against the Tamil National Army (TNA) established by the Indian Army (late 1989/90) to prop up the EPRLF administration in the East, about 20 to 30 TNA personnel had sought refuge in 1 GW camps in the Ampara District. (The ‘War on terror series’ has already dealt with LTTE action against the TNA in accordance with an understanding with President Premadasa). Following the IPKF pullout, the LTTE consolidated its power in the Batticaloa town and its suburbs and interfered with the police and went on to identify some garages and fuel stations for its exclusive use. The LTTE challenged the government authority and humiliated the police and the armed forces, much to the consternation of those deployed in operational areas. President Premadasa ignored what was going on for political expediency. The military top brass refused to apprise the President of the rapidly deteriorating situation and the LTTE’s preparations for war.

At the time the LTTE went on the offensive, two of 1GW platoons had been away in Ampara for annual AWTC. The police hadn’t alerted the army to the attack on the Batticaloa police until the owner of L. H. Bakery, a school friend of Halangode, told him of the situation at 6.20 a.m on June 11, 1990. The LTTE directive was for the Sinhalese to vacate Batticaloa in five minutes.

Amidst the mayhem, a group of 10 Sinhalese policemen had managed to escape LTTE fire and joined the troops deployed at Kalawanchikudy to fight the enemy. In spite of being outnumbered, the then Captain Sarath Embowa of the 6 SLLI, who was the Officer Commanding the Kalawanchikudy Camp, fought back valiantly.