Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Sea tigers open new front, with suicide attacks at sea

War on terror revisited : Part 122


by Shamindra Ferdinando

Maintaining a lifeline to troops based in the Jaffna peninsula during three phases of the eelam conflict was unarguably the single most difficult task undertaken by the security forces during this period. Had the navy failed in its challenging task, the army would have had no option but to quit Jaffna at the onset of eelam war II (June 1990 to Aug. 1994), thereby giving the LTTE control over the entire Northern Province. The navy struggled to meet the growing requirement for arms, ammunition and equipment as well as food in the Jaffna peninsula as the army gradually expanded its deployment there. Convoys moving from Trincomalee to Kankesanthurai sometimes had to fight their way into Kankesanthurai. Even unloading of armaments at the main northern port at Kankesanthurai had to be carried out under mortar fire. At the onset of eelam war II, the LTTE had gun positions close to Kankesanthurai as well as Palaly to engage the harbour and the airfield. During the third week of Oct 1990, over four months after the outbreak of eelam war II, the army launched Operation Jayashakthi to expand the area under its control to give some depth to the Palaly and Kankesanthurai bases. Soon after the conclusion of the operation, President Ranasinghe Premadasa flew to Palaly along with the service chiefs, for an on-the-spot assessment. At the height of the conflict in Nov. 2008, the army had four divisions deployed in the peninsula comprising over 40,000 troops. Although the air force played a vital role in maintaining an air bridge, the navy had to bear the major burden.
SLN’S Edithara was positioned a few nautical miles north of Kankesanthurai on the night of July 16, 1990. Onboard the vessel were some midshipmen on a training mission. The then Lt. Commander Sarath Weerasekara was the Commanding Officer of the vessel, engaged in almost a week-long patrol in northern waters.

Although the LTTE resumed hostilities during the second week of June 1990, there hadn’t been major attacks on the navy, though the ‘silent service remained ready to face any eventuality. Weerasekara, who retired several years ago with the rank of Rear Admiral, having served the navy for over three decades, was one of those involved in a spate of high risk operations, including the daring amphibious landings in Nov. 1993, to rescue troops under siege at Pooneryn.

Rear Admiral Asoka Silva was at the helm of the navy, while Lt. Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe and Air vice Marshal M. J. Terrance Gunawardana commanded the army and the air force, respectively. The navy had only one officer of the rank of Rear Admiral at that time.

Weerasekara, now a member of the ruling UPFA representing the Ampara district, told the writer that at the onset of eelam war II security forces had never realised the possibility of the LTTE opening up a new front, namely suicide attacks at sea. "We exchanged fire with LTTE terrorists positioned at a hotel situated along the coastal road. During the fire fight, we moved closer to land and fired at LTTE positions with our main armaments. Around 8.30 p.m., a cluster of boats approached us. We quickly realised that the pattern of deployment of enemy craft was different, hence the crew acted swiftly and decisively. Those manning 14.5 mm main armaments successfully engaged one of the fast moving craft about 75 metres away from its target causing a massive blast. It was only then that we knew that SLNS ‘Edithara’ was facing a suicide attack. The boat rushing towards us was blown up about 50 metres away from our ship. But, the third got away when the main armament jammed. Those manning 7.62 weapons successfully engaged the third vessel when it was about 10 metres away from the ship. The shock waves caused by the massive blast caused minor damages to the vessel, killing one midshipman."

The front of the ship had been spattered with human flesh. Weerasekera recalled finding a section of a suicide cadre’s jaws on his ship. The naval veteran described it as an eerie experience.

MP Weerasekara believed that LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran had been in Kankesanthurai at the time the LTTE mounted its first suicide attack on the navy. As Edithara blew up all three explosive-laden suicide boats, two attack craft in the cluster of boats withdrew towards Kankesanthurai. "Had one suicide craft hit the ship, the remaining two would have smashed into it, leaving two attack craft to kill those struggling in choppy waters."

A smiling Weerasekara said that as enemy craft advanced towards his ship, he directed the crew to prepare to face enemy cluster. "We turned towards them instead of turning away. The attack on my ship completely changed the scene," MP Weerasekera said, recalling the presence of an LCM and another vessel in the area. "I directed them to move northwards, while I engaged the enemy. Those serving under my command fought courageously until the remaining enemy craft withdrew."

In hindsight, it was nothing but a miracle that the SLNS Edithara crew managed to hit all three explosive-laden craft within a matter of a few minutes. Weerasekera though that Sea Tigers must have been prepared for the operation for many months. They couldn’t have developed such a plan overnight, MP Weerasekera said, adding that he was thrilled to overcome the LTTE challenge. "It was really a surprise attack. We had never thought of developing a strategy to meet such a threat at that time. We quickly adopted tangible measures to face the new threat, an unprecedented challenge faced by a tiny navy. Until the US navy experienced the devastating impact of a suicide boat attack in late 2000 in Yemen, we were the only navy to regularly face suicide packs. Although we lost many ships during confrontations with suicide boats, we never allowed them to overwhelm us. We fought, developed new tactics until Prabhakaran breathed his last. "

MP Weerasekera was referring to the attack on the USS Cole by alleged Al Qaeda operatives. The attack on the US navy changed the whole character of naval operations.

Another ship targeted

The navy sustained the Trincomalee-Kankesanthurai sea supply route under extremely difficult circumstances, though it lacked the required wherewithal to engage in such a gigantic task. Although the SLAF operated regular flights to Palaly airfield it couldn’t meet the growing demand for arms, ammunition and equipment required by forces deployed in the Jaffna peninsula. The loss of the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road (section between north of Vavuniya and Elephant Pass) at the onset of eelam war II meant that troops deployed in the peninsula totally relied on the navy and the air force. The army couldn’t have sustained major offensive action in the Jaffna peninsula unless the navy had maintained a continuous supply line. Transport of heavy equipment remained a daunting task, though four landing craft had been in service by the middle of 1991, including two acquired in late Oct. 1985 from a Singaporean company.

Having taken the upper hand in the northern theatre of operations, the LTTE stepped up pressure on the navy with a second devastating suicide attack in the northern waters in the early hours of May 4, 1991.

There had never been suicide attacks on any navy during World War II or any other conflict thereafter, with explosive packed craft. The suicide attacks sent shock waves through the navy as battle for superiority at the sea took a new turn. Maintaining the vital Trincomalee- Kankesanthurai sea supply route became an uphill task.

Simultaneously, the LTTE action jeopardised ongoing operations undertaken by the navy to intercept LTTE boats operating across the Palk Straits.

The navy positioned three merchant vessels, namely Abeetha, Edithara and Wickrema to direct Fast Attack Craft (FAC) to thwart Sea Tiger movements. The vessels fitted with powerful radar were strategically positioned to provide food, water and ammunition to FACs deployed in northern waters. Occasionally, the navy utilised the vessels to move heavy equipment and vehicles when landing craft couldn’t meet the requirement. The LTTE targeted Abeetha in the early hours of May 4, 1991 off the Jaffna peninsula (LTTE suicide squad rams Navy command ship-The Island May 6, 1991). The then Captain A. H. M. Razeek was the Commanding Officer of the ill-fated vessel, one of the surveillance command ships deployed in accordance with the overall naval strategy at that time. (Razeek retired in March 2002 having risen to the rank of Rear Admiral. At the time of retirement, Razeek was Chief of Staff of the Navy. He served the Navy for 32 years.) Rear Admiral Razeek recollected the attack in a brief interview with The Island: "We were positioned about 10 nautical miles north of Point Pedro. Three or four FACs had been attached to my ship. On the day of the incident, we spotted a boat speeding towards Abeetha. Although we were suspicious about the approaching vessel, we didn’t open fire as it could have been one of our own fast attack craft’. When we realised the approaching craft wasn’t one of ours, nothing could be done. It was an attack carried out by a single explosive-laden vessel. Contrary to previous reports, there hadn’t been a confrontation between the navy and the approaching vessel before the blast."

The blast claimed the lives of 17 personnel. The LTTE obviously closely studied the movement of FAC attached to each surveillance command ship as well as the movement of smugglers and fishermen’s boats, before mounting the surprise attack on Abeetha.

Razeek made this revelation dismissing as baseless claims that LTTE suicide cadres had triggered the blast after the navy apprehended it and brought it alongside the ship to be searched. Some claimed that those on board the explosive-laden vessel pretended to be smugglers to convince the SLNS Abeetha crew that they didn’t pose a threat.

The navy brought the badly damaged ship to Trincomalee for repairs, before being sent for comprehensive patch up the Colombo Dockyard Limited, a joint Japanese–Sri Lanka venture.

Razeek had the opportunity to command Edithara, one of two other surveillance command ships in the 1980s, in the rank of Commander.

According to Rear Admiral Razeek, the naval deployment comprised surveillance command ships, FAC, Inshore Patrol Craft (IPC) and fibreglass dinghies. The suicide attack meant that surveillance command ships couldn’t be deployed on their own due to the threat posed by suicide craft. The very basis of what the navy called mother ship concept was in jeopardy. The mother ship concept meant to sustain continuous FAC operations in northern waters.

Rear Admirals Razeek and Weerasekera experienced a suicide attack each. Both Abeetha and Wickrema served the nation for many more years before being removed from service.

Years later, Edithara was destroyed in an LTTE under water attack at the Kankesanthurai harbour.

The navy had been engaged in transferring arms, ammunition and equipment needed by troops deployed in the Jaffna peninsula since the outbreak of major hostilities in the early 1980s. Although the Kandy-Jaffna A 9 road main overland supply route had been available at that time, men and material needed for the then largest ground offensive were moved by sea. It was the navy’s first real experience in facilitating a major build-up for an operation involving three Brigades, two on an offensive role and the other basically on a holding role.

The then Lieutenant S. U. Lanka Prasada was among the contingent assigned for the transfer of two LCMs acquired from a Singaporean company in late Oct. 1985. He said he had been chosen as a member of the ‘taking over crew’. Each ship had a crew of three officers and about 15 sailors and FNQ Wickramaratne was the Senior Officer of the voyage. Wickramaratne held the rank of either Captain or Commodore. "We sailed from Singapore and arrived in Colombo after a voyage of about seven days."

The new acquisitions were named SLNS Pabbatha and SLNS Kandula. The first Commanding Officer of SLNS Pabbatha had been Lt. Commander Mohan Mendis, while Lt. Commander Kolitha Chandrasekara was the first Commanding Officer of SLNS Kandula. Both of them had been in the group sent to Singapore to take over of the vessels.