Friday, 15 March 2013

Saving troops under siege at M’tivu

War on terror revisited : Part 117


 The army gradually expanded the Mullaitivu base over the years. By 1996, Mullaitivu was home to army’s 25 Brigade. The deployment included a small detachment of navy personnel and police. The main deployment comprised Sinha Regiment and Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment troops. The LTTE overran the base within eight hours killing nearly 1,400 personnel. ‘War on terror revisited’ series dealt with the overrunning of Mullaitivu by the LTTE in July 1996 and the liberation of the town by the army in January 2009.  

 by Shamindra Ferdinando

The rescue of the First battalion of the Gemunu Watch (1GW) and a company plus troops of the Sixth battalion of the Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment (6 SLSR) under siege in the Batticaloa district at the onset of eelam war II boosted the morale of the army.

In spite of an initial delay in launching the first large scale rescue mission of the conflict, the army, advancing on two flanks, succeeded in smashing through LTTE positions to reach those trapped in isolated bases at Kiran, Kallady and Kalawanchikudy by the end of the third week of June 1990.

However, by the time the army had intervened, the 1 GW and 6 SLSR abandoned two isolated camps at Wellawadi and Kalmunai, respectively. They were evacuated within 72 hours after the outbreak of hostilities.

Then Brigadier A.M.U. Seneviratne of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (SLLI), who had led one of the Brigade Groups responsible for breaking the siege on Batticaloa was appointed Security Forces Commander, Batticaloa, with wide powers to deal with the threat posed by the LTTE.  The appointment was made in the immediate aftermath of the Batticaloa success. Army headquarters allocated additional troops for the Batticaloa sector to dominate the district, which Maj. Gen. Seneviratne, now in retirement asserted was of critical importance to the overall strategy to beat back the LTTE.

Commenting on the post-war situation, Seneviratne emphasised that the military should continuously dominate the coastal line from Pottuvil to Vakarai as well as the jungles. "A strong hold of the Batticaloa district is of pivotal importance. Regardless of criticism, conclusion of the conflict in May 2009 shouldn’t prompt those responsible for security to lower their guard. Seneviratne recalled the deployment of a second Brigade in the Batticaloa district during the tail end of his tenure as SF Commander, Batticaloa. The second Brigade was headquartered at the Valaichchenai Paper Mill in accordance with the then strategy to enhance military presence in the Batticaloa district. During the latter part of 1991, Seneviratne was appointed the Commandant of the Kotelawala Defence Academy (KDA), which was later upgraded to the status of a university.

Having served in Batticaloa during a critically important period of the conflict, the retired officer pointed out that Batticaloa had been the main recruiting base for the LTTE throughout the war until Karuna’s devastating split from the organisation. Batticaloa had been major funding source by way of illegal taxes imposed on Tamil speaking people and the involvement of an influential section of the Roman Catholic clergy with the LTTE made matters difficult, Major General Seneviratne asserted.

 LTTE takes upper

hand in Vanni

Although the army managed to save Batticaloa, the situation in the Northern Province remained extremely dicey, with the LTTE stepping up attacks on Kokavil, Mankulam, Kilinochchi and Elephant Pass detachments, which had been inaccessible overland along with the Mullaitivu detachment since the onset of eelam war II. The LTTE had the wherewithal to engage all five detachments simultaneously as it commanded the freedom of movement in the Northern Region. As the army had been confined to isolated detachments, the LTTE was easily able to shift its units depending on the requirement. The Air Force lacked the power to intercept LTTE movements, though it had managed to drop some arms, ammunition and medical supplies to troops under siege and evacuate bodies under extremely difficult conditions. Air Force was deprived of jets, helicopter gunships as well as air surveillance capability.

‘War on terror revisited’ series dealt with the Kokavil debacle (July 1990) and evacuation of Kilinochchi (Nov 1990). The army abandoned its base at Mankulam shortly before the evacuation of Kilinochchi. The loss of Kokavil, Mankulam and Kilinochchi situated north of Vavuniya along the Kandy-Jaffna overland main supply route gave the LTTE unimpeded access across the A9 road. It would be pertinent to discuss LTTE attempt to overrun the army detachment at Mullaitivu in early August. The LTTE would have easily succeeded if not for a sea borne rescue mission launched by the army.

Operation ‘Sea Breeze’

The then Lieutenant Commander Lakshman Illangakoon, Commanding officer of the SLNS Kandula (Landing Craft Medium) had been tasked with landing troops required for the rescue mission. Illangakoon, currently navy’s eastern commander recalled the circumstances under which the rescue mission was launched. Having arrived in Trincomalee to take stock of the situation, Maj. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa had summoned a meeting at the Plantain Point, Trincomalee to explore ways and means of launching a rescue mission. The navy had been represented at the conference by the then eastern commander Rear Admiral F. N. Q. Wickremaratne and Lieutenant Commander Illangakoon. Dashing Illangakoon was there in his capacity as the Commanding Officer of the Landing Craft. Illangakoon said: "As we had never attempted a large scale sea borne assault under similar conditions, Major General Kobbekaduwa wanted to engage close air reconnaissance of the targeted area before the troops moved in."

Having excused himself from air surveillance mission, Rear Admiral Wickremaratne instructed Illangakoon to accompany Major General Kobbekaduwa on the reconnaissance mission. Shortly thereafter they were airborne from the nearby China Bay airfield. Having flown over the besieged Mullaitivu base in the afternoon, those conducting the operation had decided on a spot south of Mullaitivu to land troops. The army had agreed with Illangakoon’s suggestion to carry out a mock landing north of Mullaitivu to facilitate the actual landing at first light. The navy had been seriously concerned about the operation as it lacked any experience in conducting amphibious assault on the Mullaitivu beach. Illangakoon said: "I felt a mock landing could give us the much required time and space to secure a beachhead. We monitored LTTE units, particularly those equipped with rocket propelled grenades rushing towards the beach when the ship deployed to carry out the mock attack advanced towards the beach. But soon they realised it was nothing but a deceptive maneuver and turned towards the direction of Kandula carrying troops. We were soon being fired upon. On the instructions of the army, navy gunners opened fire, though initially the navy was reluctant. The navy felt that the battle between the raiding party and the LTTE was too close for comfort. But the army insisted we fired at those resisting the beach landing."

The sea borne troops comprised Special Forces and Sri Lanka Light Infantry (SLLI). The senior officer in charge of the operation was Major General Kobbekaduwa. Some of the country’s elite officers and veterans of many battles throughout the war, namely Gamini Hettiarachchi and Jayavi Fernando were on the ground. They were joined by Major General Kobbekaduwa and Janaka Perera. Special Forces and SLLI fought a series of battles before they reached those under siege at Mullaitivu.

Col. Mahipala

speaks out

At the time of the first siege on Mullaitivu in 1990, the then Lieutenant Colonel M.B.J. Mahipala, RWP, USP, RSP of the Armoured Corps had been the senior officer in charge of the Mullaitivu detachment. Mahipala retired in 1998 in the rank of Colonel having joined the army as a recruit way back in 1955. Col. Mahipala recalled the attack on his camp in a brief interview with the writer. At the time the LTTE mounted the attack, there had been about 70 personnel, including some commandos. The full contingent comprised Armoured Corps personnel, volunteers as well as police. The army had been deployed very thinly on the ground. Lack of troops and fire power had caused debilitating setbacks. Although the army realised the pathetic situation on the ground, the top brass were reluctant to take it up with the political leadership. An increased number of desertions, too, caused a major problem. In fact, Lt. Col. Mahipala had been compelled to take over the base at Mullaitivu at short notice after the Coordinating officer vacated his post. The officer who had held the rank of Colonel at that time was attached to the Gemunu Watch. Major trouble had erupted soon after Mahipala flew in to Mullaitivu. Mahipala said: "I was based in Badulla when Army Commander Lt. General Hamilton Wanasinghe directed me to take over Mullaitivu. As I have been stationed in the area, I felt confident in taking up the new assignment, though the LTTE almost succeeded in overwhelming us. We were short of food, water and other supplies. On many occasions, food dropped from air ended up in the area beyond the army control. We saw dogs dragging away chicken. I heard angry soldiers talking among themselves whether they should kill dogs for their consumption. We were in a desperate situation. Surprisingly, there was plenty of ammunition. Although there were less than 70 personnel stationed at the base, army headquarters maintained a stock of 400,000 rounds of ammunition. At one point, I got troops under my command to divide ammunition stocks and bury them at different places. Unfortunately a locally built LTTE mortar round landed exactly on the spot where a stock of 40,000 rounds of ammunition  was buried. It caused the destruction of the entire stock of 40,000. But it could have been worse."

The attack on Mullaitivu interfered with a planned army build up in Jaffna hence causing a major setback to the overall planning.

Col. Mahipala recollected Air Force conducting a series of successful attacks to save his detachment from the LTTE. Italian built SF 260s carried out several successful attacks, including one directed at a group of LTTE cadres taking shelter under a big tamarind tree. According to Colonel Mahipala, that particular group had been mounting mortar attacks on the Mullaitivu detachment. Once the sea borne force had cleared the area and reinforced the beleaguered base, army headquarters moved him out paving the way for Shantha Kottegoda of the SLLI to take over Mullaitivu command.

The army gradually expanded the Mullaitivu base over the years. By 1996, Mullaitivu was home to army’s 25 Brigade. The deployment included a small detachment of navy personnel and police. The main deployment comprised Sinha Regiment and Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment troops. The LTTE overran the base within eight hours killing nearly 1,400 personnel. ‘War on terror revisited’ series dealt with the overrunning of Mullaitivu by the LTTE in July 1996 and the liberation of the town by the army in January 2009.