Friday, 19 April 2013

Evolution of SLAF capability

War on terror revisited : Part 128 

by Shamindra Ferdinando
Wounded troops being carried by their colleagues to a Bell 212 helicopter (not seen) deployed for casualty evacuation mission in the Jaffna peninsula in the late 1980s (Pictures courtesy Sunil Cabral formerly of the SLAF)

Now that the conflict is over, the government should decide on a doctrine in case of another battle, says Sunil Cabral, formerly of the Sri Lanka Air Force. "We never had a policy until 2006 when the incumbent government resolutely faced the LTTE’s conventional military challenge. But now we need to agree on a cohesive response to meet any eventuality." He says Sri Lanka’s conflict shouldn’t have been called a war. "It was a grave mistake on the part of successive governments, the military as well as the media. A domestic dispute between the state and terrorists should never have been called a war.

During eelam war IV, the political and military leadership showed how any obstacle could be overcome with determination and resolute action. Keeping that in mind, post-conflict Sri Lanka should carefully examine the evolution of terrorism, political developments as well as the international response to pave the way for a doctrine which cannot be altered to suit the political agenda pursued by any party.

Young Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) officer Sunil Cabral was flying a US built Bell 212 from Vavuniya to Talladi when he observed three vehicles parked in the dense Murunkan jungles. Cabral realised the possibility of terrorists leaving them there for subsequent use. The vehicles could have belonged to the LTTE or any other terrorist group. Having met Gotabhaya Rajapaksa soon after landing at Talladi, Cabral told him of the unidentified vehicles in the Murunkan jungles. Cabral recollected how Rajapaksa had reacted swiftly having heard of the presence of mysterious vehicles. Cabral said: "Gota instantly called a group of his men. There were perhaps about ten personnel. Those under Gota’s command were ready to leave within ten minutes. They got into the Bell and soon we were flying towards Murunkan. I dropped them a little distance away from those vehicles and was ready to intervene in case of a confrontation. The soldiers, within minutes, secured the location. Rajapaksa, who was the senior officer on the ground, waved at me, signaling my presence was no longer required. Soon soldiers were seen driving the vehicles towards Talladi."

High risk mission

The incident occurred during an early stage of eelam war I (1983-July 1987). Cabral believes it could have happened during the 1985 to 1987 period, perhaps before the launch of Operation Liberation in late May 1987 to liberate Vadamaratchchy.

The possibility of terrorists waiting in ambush near the vehicles hadn’t discouraged troops from going on a high risk mission. Obviously, the SLA (Sri Lanka Army) had no presence in the Murunkan area at that time. In spite of having little or no intelligence at all, the SLA swiftly acted on available information regardless of the consequences. Cabral asserted that had there been a terrorist presence, the sudden arrival of troops could have triggered a major firefight. At that onset of the conflict, that would have been a major incident. Perhaps, the unexpected arrival of troops by air may have prompted the terrorists not to confront them.

During eelam war I, the SLA battled several terrorist groups, though the LTTE was the dominant one. In spite of a dearth of troops, the SLA retained the ability to launch small scale heli-borne operations due to the sparse deployment of terrorists on the ground.

Having served in the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) during eelam war I (July 1983 to June 1987) and II (June 1990 to Aug 1994), veteran helicopter pilot Sunil Cabral retired with the rank of Wing Commander in Dec. 1993. During his unblemished career, Cabral held several important commands, but nothing could be as important as his tenure as the Northern Zonal Commander from April 2, 1990 to Dec. 14, 1993.

At that time there were no special air mobile units, though commandos and other infantry troops routinely took part in heli-borne operations. Cabral said: "During eelam war I, a platoon or two heli-dropped troops in enemy held territory could have survived until additional troops reached the scene. A Bell 212 had the capacity to carry ten armed troops. We used to deploy three Bell 212s to move a platoon plus troops to a target. The Murunkun incident highlighted the SLA’s confidence in going on a mission with just one helicopter. Towards the latter stages of eelam war I, the SLAF used to carry out multiple sorties required to deploy troops on a special mission. Terrorists never had the strength to thwart such heli-borne operations. We always had the edge over the enemy."

During the period 1983 to 1985, the SLAF acquired 11 Bell 212s and four Bell 412s. The SLAF took delivery of three more Bell 212s during 1986.

Missed opportunity

There hadn’t been any requirement for new Bell helicopters during the 1987-1990 period when Sri Lankan security forces suspended all offensive/defensive operations under the Indo-Lanka accord. Although the SLAF took delivery of three Russian built Mi-17 transport helicopters in 1993, there hadn’t been any effort to acquire a dedicated gunship to counter the growing LTTE threat. In fact, the SLAF hadn’t even considered the possibility of acquiring a dedicated helicopter gunship during eelam war II (June 1990 to August 1994), though some sections of the service felt that an overhaul of tactics was necessary. Unfortunately, the then government didn’t realise the urgent need to boost the SLAF’s fire power during eelam war II. The SLAF struggled to meet the LTTE challenge until major purchases of aircraft and helicopters were made during 1996, under the guidance of the then Air Marshal Oliver Ranasinghe.

Cabral recollected the difficulties experienced by those engaged in Bell operations during eelam war II. Although the SLAF had additional Bell helicopters, their firepower remained the same with the 7.62 mm being the main armament. Cabral said: "We quickly realised that even if we managed to land even four platoons of infantry, including commandos, the enemy had the wherewithal to confront them. Unlike during eelam war I, during the second stage, we were battling the LTTE, whereas other terrorist groups sided with the government. We were under tremendous pressure. With the LTTE adopting new tactics, the SLAF couldn’t achieve any surprises during eelam war II, though there were instances when it managed to carry out initial landings without being detected. At an early stage of eelam war II, those at the control of Bell helicopters, grasped that they couldn’t carry out evacuation of the wounded from some SLA bases under siege in the Vanni without the support of ground attack aircraft."

The SLAF acquired three Italian Siai Marchetti SF 260 TP categorised as a modern light attack/trainer aircraft during 1985. The following year, the SLAF took delivery of five more Siai Marchetti SF 260s. Four years later, the SLAF took delivery of several Siai Marchetti SF 260 Ws.

With the benefit of hindsight, Cabral believes that that the armed forces could have thwarted the LTTE offensive at an early stage of eelam war II if they had acquired firepower even in the absence of an enhanced ground fighting capability. Unfortunately, the government of the day as well as the military top brass pathetically failed to realise that the LTTE could train its guns on the SLA, though it cooperated with the then administration during the 14 month-long ceasefire (May 1989-June 1990).

Transport fleet to the rescue

According to records maintained at SLAF headquarters, during the deployment of the IPKF in Sri Lanka (July 1987 to March 1990), the service refrained from enhancing its offensive capability, though some transport aircraft were acquired from China. The SLAF added to its inventory four Yunshuji 12 (light twin-engine aircraft capable of carrying 17 personnel) and one Yunshuji 8 (medium lift transport aircraft able to carry 100 passengers) in 1987. Both types of aircraft joined the No 2 transport squadron. During the previous year, the SLAF acquired two Yunshuji 12s. There hadn’t been any other significant development during 1987-1990, other than the forming of a maritime squadron comprising Cessna 337 Skymaster fixed wing aircraft from No 1 Flight Training Wing and one Bell 212. The operation was mounted from China Bay.

When the LTTE resumed hostilities in June 1990, the SLAF found itself in an unenviable position. Helicopters had to be deployed both in the northern and eastern districts simultaneously in support of the army, which was struggling to meet the LTTE threat. Although the first battalion of the Gemunu Watch (I GW) and the sixth Sri Lankan Light Infantry (6 SLLI) deployed in the Batticaloa District gave a sterling example in a fight back in the wake of the unprecedented massacre of over 600 police officers and men during the second week of June 1990, the same couldn’t be said about the reaction of the army in some other parts of operational areas.

The army in Batticaloa fought fiercely and held on to three of its bases in the district having vacated two until reinforcements fought their way in. In Batticaloa too, the SLA had to depend on the SLAF for air support until the army mustered a force large enough to mount a two-pronged advance to break the siege on I GW and SLLI bases in the Batticaloa District. For those responsible for helicopter operations, it was nothing but a nightmare to drop urgently needed supplies, including water, saline as well as ammunition over about ten bases which were under siege.

The acquisition of transport aircraft came in handy when the SLA lost control of the Kandy-Jaffna A 9 road beyond Vavuniya during the second week of June 1990. Overnight, the army deployed in the Jaffna peninsula was deprived of an overland Main Supply Route (MSR). Hence the entire deployment in the peninsula became vulnerable. The SLAF had to sustain an ‘air bridge’ between Palaly and airfields outside the peninsula under extremely difficult conditions, as the Palaly airfield was well within LTTE firing range. Unlike today, Palaly was relatively a small base, with the LTTE having heavy gun positions to engage aircraft approaching the airfield and those taking off. During those days of turmoil, Yunshuji 12s, in service with the SLAF since 1986 played a pivotal role in ferrying both men and material to Palaly. Air crews as well as support units worked around the clock to ensure adequate supplies to those under siege.

Had the SLAF failed to sustain the supply route, Palaly wouldn’t have survived the LTTE onslaught. It would be important to keep in mind that at the onset of hostilities, the LTTE cut off the overland route between Palaly and Kankesanthurai and even if the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) had brought in adequate supplies to the Kankesanthurai harbour, it wouldn’t have benefited those under siege at Palaly. Soon after the outbreak of hostilities during the second week of June 1990, the SLA lost overland access among bases in the Jaffna peninsula with Elephant Pass being totally cut off.

Cabral, who executed the operation as the then Northern Zonal Commander, recollected the SLAF having had to launch a special operation during the first week of July 1990 to reinforce those troops under siege at the Jaffna Fort with a recoilless weapon. The then Northern Commander, Maj. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa wanted the SLAF to move a recoilless weapon along with a stock of ammunition and a new commanding officer to take over the Jaffna Fort. Codenamed Operation Eagle it had been one of the most daring operations undertaken by the SLAF at that time––War on terror revisited series dealt with that particular operation to some extent in its 109 installment––in the wake of the government under heavy public pressure due to a string of battlefield difficulties. The writer mistakenly identified the SLAF officer who had landed a Bell 412 carrying the recoilless weapon within the defended area as Squadron Leader Lasantha Waidyasekera instead of Waidyaratne. The chopper was co-piloted by the then Flying Officer, Mirando.

Cabral said that the government as well as the military hierarchy had been under tremendous pressure due to the media coverage given to the crisis at the Jaffna Fort, though all bases were under siege at that time. The government had no option but to do something to boost public morale. Had it gone wrong, the entire military effort would have suffered a heavy blow. At one point, the SLAF headquarters suggested that another Bell should accompany Squadron Leader Waidyaratne’s chopper. However, Cabral disagreed on the basis that the loss of two helicopters could have a catastrophic effect on the military.

Friday, 12 April 2013

SLAF receives ex-SAS man’s expertise

War on terror revisited : Part 127 


During Operation Trivida Balaya in Jaffna peninsula in September 1990: Commander Prasanna Rajaratne (top left), Wing Commander Sunil Cabral (top right), Group Captain Sally (left) and Squadron Leader Kapila Jayampathi . They are pictured in a command vehicle at Mandaitivu Island, which was cleared by the first battalion of the Sinha Regiment. Rajaratne was the senior officer in charge of Karainagar at that time, while others were of the SLAF.

by Shamindra Ferdinando

War veterans Major General Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Brigadier Wijaya Wimalaratne died in the wake of a simmering dispute over an attempt to drastically reduce their command and control responsibilities. The LTTE couldn’t have eliminated them at a better time. In the run-up to President Premadasa giving the go ahead for a combined forces assault on the Jaffna peninsula, Kobbekaduwa and Wimalaratne had been on a collision course with the then Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Cecil Waidyaratne, who didn’t bother to hide his antagonism towards his colleagues. At one point, both Kobbekaduwa and Wimalaratne declared their intention to quit the army subsequent to an attempt to drastically restrict their area of responsibility. In his memoirs titled ‘A most noble profession’ former Army Commander General Gerry H. de Silva discusses the battle between Waidyaratne and Kobbekaduwa-Wimalaratne duo. He gives a detailed account of a meeting where Waidyaratne attempted to sideline the war heroes. The then SLAF chief, Air Vice Marshal Terrance Gunawardena and Navy chief, Vice Admiral Clancy Fernando were present at this particular meeting. The death of Kobbekaduwa and the resignation of Waidyaratne following the Pooneryn debacle the following year, paved the way for de Silva to command the army.

Within days after the outbreak of Eelam war II during the second week of June 1990, the LTTE had the upper hand in the Vanni region with all isolated Sri Lanka Army (SLA) camps under siege. A daring mission undertaken by Wing Commander Sunil Cabral and Sagara Kotakadeniya during day time to evacuate the wounded from the Mankulam detachment almost went awry on June 14, 1990. The LTTE almost succeeded in hitting the US built Bell 212 on the ground before the whirlybird took off again carrying eight wounded army personnel. Retired Wing Commander Cabral said that the June 14 landing was not the last mission to Mankulam as mentioned in the previous piece, though it had been undertaken exclusively by helicopters. Since then, the Sri Air Force (SLAF) had to change its strategy to de-induct or induct personnel from Mankulam due to unprecedented enemy resistance. The status quo remained until the SLA abandoned Mankulam during the last week of Nov. 1990.

Overnight, all missions to besieged bases turned into tactical missions as the LTTE brought in additional cadres to cut off all access to them. According to Cabral, the SLAF had no option but to deploy Italian ground attack aircraft Siai Marchetti SF 260s to engage LTTE gun positions, while Bell 212s helicopters spiralled into the defended locality. At the time the LTTE resumed hostilities following a 14-month long truce with the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s government, Cabral had been the SLAF’s Northern Zonal Commander.

Cabral recalled how the then Northern Commander, Major General Denzil Kobbekaduwa had expressed surprise over the SLA vacating Mankulam when they met in Palaly during the last week of Nov. 1990, within hours after the pullout. Kobbekaduwa had been in Palaly in view of President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s first visit to the Jaffna peninsula since the outbreak of hostilities. Cabral quoted the Northern Commander as having claimed that he hadn’t even been informed of the decision to abandon Mankulam. Most of those who had vacated Mankulam under fire would have perished if not for helicopters landing inside the Vanni jungles to evacuate them. The SLA lacked the wherewithal to launch a ground operation to clear the way for those advancing towards Vavuniya through enemy dominated territory. The situation on the Vanni front had been pathetic and chaotic due to the failure on the part of the SLA top brass to take precautionary measures. Had there been a contingency plan, the SLA could have resisted the LTTE offensive. Interestingly, due to resolute action by the SLA in Batticaloa in the face of devastating attacks on camps held by the first battalion, Gemunu Watch (IGW) and sixth battalion, Sri Lanka Light Infantry (6 SLLI), the LTTE operation went awry in the district. Retired Brigadier Hiran N. Halangode strongly objected to the writer’s assertion (War on Terror series––part 124) that the SLA had experienced humiliating defeats at Kalawanchikudy and Kiran during the month of June 1990. The then Commanding Officer of 1 GW said that troops withdrew from Kiran and Kalawanchikudy only after reinforcements had reached them. "1 GW and 6 SLLI fought until help arrived and we are proud of our achievement," Brig. Halangode said.

Cabral said that the situation in the Vanni and Jaffna sectors continued to deteriorate in spite of combined security forces efforts to cause damage to LTTE fighting capability.

SLAF’s liaison with the LTTE

During the ceasefire between the government and the LTTE (May 1989 to June 1990), President Premadasa tasked the elite Special Task Force (STF) and the SLAF with protecting LTTE delegates. While the STF was responsible for the safety and security of LTTE delegates, the SLAF was given the extremely difficult task in moving them between Colombo and the Vanni under the very nose of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). Cabral recollected the difficulties experienced by the SLAF in moving LTTE delegates from Colombo to the Vanni as well as within the then temporarily merged North-East Province. "We were flying without GPS at that time. Once I missed my passengers and had to return the following day to pick them up," Cabral said. At that time, Cabral had been with the No 4 helicopter wing responsible for a range of duties, including providing safe passage for VVIPs and VIPs. The LTTE at that time obviously had been considered important enough to receive first class chopper rides. LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham, his Australia born wife, Adele (now domiciled in the UK) and one-time Jaffna Commander Sathasivam Krishnakumar alias ‘Colonel’ Kittu had been among Cabral’s passengers. In fact, Cabral had airlifted Kittu from the jungles of Alampil soon after the second round of talks between the government and the LTTE to facilitate his early departure for medical treatment in London. Kittu was to receive the best possible treatment to his amputated leg in London. At the behest of President Premadasa, the Sri Lankan High Commission in London had been tasked to assist Kittu. (The Indian Navy destroyed LTTE ship on the high seas off India in Jan. 1993 killing Kittu). According to Cabral, the SLAF picked up LTTE personnel from different locations in the Vanni jungles. He remembered that some of the landings had been made near the Iranamadu tank, situated east of the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road.

First encounter

Cabral said that No. 4 helicopter wing/squadron developed into a lethal fighting force with the experience gained during engagements with the LTTE. Cabral had been the first pilot to receive a gunshot injury during a confrontation with a gang of terrorists, way back on Jan. 21, 1986 in the Jaffna peninsula. Cabral and cadet Kasun Kumaratunga had been engaged in a firefight with terrorists when a bullet pierced him. "I was lucky to survive," Cabral said, recollecting how swiftly and decisively Kumaratunga had swung into action. He took control of the machine and brought it back to base. We engaged the enemy at Tellippalai after they confronted troops returning to Palaly, following the conclusion of an operation."

During those formative years, the SLAF lacked side gunners. Cabral said that the SLAF had made a determined bid to enhance its capabilities in accordance with overall objectives. The role played by former British Special Air Services (SAS) specialist Chris Elkington could never be forgotten, Cabral said, adding that though he had been hired as a pilot, the foreigner played a crucial role in developing SLAF air gunners’ capability. Those who served with him always remembered the jovial soldier whose skills couldn’t be matched by any ordinary person. Elkington had also been given the opportunity to serve the then President. Cabral emphasised that air gunners played a vital role and their importance to missions could never be disputed. He recalled the circumstances under which he aborted a mission to the Kokavil SLA camp shortly before its collapse during the second week of July 1990 on the advice of an air gunners. Cabral had been leading a three-helicopter mission and was rapidly approaching Kokavil when a gunner assigned to his machine shouted at him not to proceed due to heavy fire from one flank. Had Cabral ignored the airman’s guidance, the helicopter mission would have ended up in disaster. Except for one or two personnel, the SLA lost the entire strength a Kokavil.

Death of a General

In spite of being personally invited by Major General Kobbekaduwa to join him on a field visit to Kayts Island on the morning of August 8, 1992, Cabral excused himself due to a family commitment. Had he gone along with the Armoured Corps veteran, he too, would been killed in a landmine explosion at Araly Point, Kayts. As the Northern Zonal Commander, he would have joined the group, which included Brigadier Wijaya Wimalarathne, Rear Admiral Mohan Jayamaha, Lieutenant Colonel H.R Stephen, Lieutenant Colonel G. H. Ariyarathne, Lieutenant Colonel Y. N. Palipana, Commander Asanga Lankathilaka, Lieutenant Colonel Nalin de Alwis, Lieutenant Commander C. B. Wijepura and Private W. J. Wickremasinghe. Both Cabral and Kobbekaduwa had been based in Anuradhapura, as their respective headquarters were situated there away from the main theatres of operation. They had planned to fly from the Anuradhapura airfield at 11 am on August 6, 1992. However, Cabral had been forced to delay his departure due to a delay on his part in preparing a secret signal with regard to an impending combined security forces operation in the Jaffna peninsula. A trusted aide had twice blundered before finally preparing the signal hence enabling Cabral to take the next flight for a top level conference at the SLA base at Palaly the following day. Kobbekaduwa had been in a jubilant mood as he had finally received government approval to take on the LTTE in the Jaffna peninsula. Except for the Northern Area Naval Commander Jayamaha, all other senior officers later killed with Kobbekaduwa were present at the meeting. Having concluded the discussion, the group decided to visit Kayts Island, which was to be used as the main evacuation point for those wounded in action.

Cabral left Palaly for Anuradhapura on the evening of Aug. 7, 1992. When he heard of the demise of Kobbekaduwa and Wimalaratne, he was away from operational area with his family. "Even today I feel really bad having left Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa," Cabral said. Contrary to speculation, Kobbekaduwa died of his injuries before the fixed wing aircraft carrying the victims of Araly Point blast landed at the Ratmalana airfield.

The deaths of Kobbekaduwa and Wimalaratne caused a debilitating setback to Sri Lanka’s efforts to defeat separatist terrorism. The Gajaba Regiment veteran and founder of the Rapid Deployment Force (RDF), had been ready to take the battle into the LTTE heartland when they perished in the worst landmine attack directed against a group of senior military officers. According to Cabral, Kobbekaduwa had been confident of bringing a section of the Jaffna peninsula under military control, thereby bringing Jaffna town in the Waligamam sector under pressure. The attempt had been the first targeting Jaffna town since troops made an abortive bid to regain the town in Sep. 1990. It was a costly affair. Having sacrificed over 200 officers and men of 1 Gajaba Regiment and 1 Sinha Regiment, the army called off the offensive. During the same period, the army vacated the Jaffna Fort.

Cabral asserted that the absence of political will had caused irreparable loss to the war effort. Eelam war II had been a tragedy due to politico-military miscalculations, the veteran flier claimed, adding that a close examination was necessary to identify armed forces strengths as well as weakness, though the LTTE no longer posed a conventional military challenge.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Tigers benefit from IPKF experience

War on terror revisited : Part 126


by Shamindra Ferdinando
A major drawback experienced by government forces was the lack of combat troops necessary to proceed with large scale operations. Cabral is one of those who always felt a major expansion in the fighting strength was a prerequisite for the successful execution of war against terrorism. Even the Indian Army had failed in its bid to totally eradicate the LTTE, in spite of deploying over 100,000 personnel in the then temporarily merged North-East Province, Cabral asserted, pointing out that the battlefield victory over the LTTE would never have become a reality if the political leadership had deprived ground commanders of adequate combat troops. During eelam war IV, the government enhanced combat forces by increasing the army’s strength to over 210,000, paving the way for the then Army chief, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka to conduct operations on almost 10 fronts in the Vanni simultaneously.

 Having served the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) during eelam war I (July 1983 to June 1987) and II (June 1990 to Aug 1994), veteran helicopter pilot Sunil Cabral retired with the rank of Wing Commander in Dec 1993. During his unblemished career, Cabral held several important commands, but nothing could be as important as his tenure as the Northern Zonal Commander from April 2, 1990 to Dec 14, 1993.

The then Air Vice Marshal M.J. T. De. S. Gunawardhana (Feb. 16, 1990 to Feb. 16, 1994) introduced the zonal concept soon after succeeding Air Marshal A.W. Fernando (May 1, 1985 to Feb. 15, 1990). The new concept resulted in the decentralization of the decision making process.

Cabral moved into the Northern Zonal Command about 10 weeks before the outbreak of eelam war II during the second week of June 1990, after the massacre of over 600 police personnel in the Eastern Province. He had been previously assigned to the celebrated No 4 helicopter wing (now it is called No 4 Helicopter Squadron), tasked with a range of duties, including the transportation of VVIPs as well as commercial flights as and when required. Cabral’s stint with that particular formation (Dec. 1987 to April 1990) was during the deployment of the Indian Army (IA) here (July 1987 to March 1990). The No. 4 formation also handled logistical requirements.

Cabral recollected his wartime experience in a wide ranging interview with the writer with the focus on major operations at the onset of eelam war II. "We found ourselves in deep trouble at the beginning of an unprecedented LTTE offensive. Suddenly, isolated and undermanned bases in the Jaffna peninsula, in the Vanni mainland as well as in the East came under siege. We were stunned. Obviously, the top brass didn’t have a contingency plan to meet the threat," Cabral said. The LTTE deployed a substantial number of units to cut off all overall access roads to isolated bases, hence making them vulnerable to sustained attacks. It wouldn’t have been an easy task to engage almost all bases manned by the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) and SLAF in the Northern Province simultaneously. "The LTTE must have planned that offensive taking advantage of the truce between the then President Premadasa and Prabhakaran," Cabral said.

Having led the UNP to victory at the presidential and parliamentary elections, President Premadasa in April 1989 invited the LTTE for direct talks, after having armed it to cause maximum possible damage to the IPKF. President Premadasa held direct negotiations with the LTTE (May 1989-June 1990), in a bid to reach an understanding.

‘Wall of fire’

"During eelam war I, LTTE cadres used to run away when helicopter gunships approached targets. They feared the fighting machines. We always had the upper hand in engagements during eelam war I battles. We noted a significant change in the attitude of LTTE cadres as well as their tactics only after fighting resumed during the second week of June 1990. During the battle for Kokavil, we quickly realized that they intended to engage helicopter gunships. The LTTE deployed 30 to 40 cadres to fire T-56 and AK 47 assault rifles simultaneously at approaching helicopters, hence creating a ‘wall of fire’. Until the LTTE had acquired shoulder-fired heat seeking missiles, it adopted the strategy quite successfully," Cabral said.

Tigers benefit from IPKF experience

Cabral is of the opinion that the LTTE had benefited immensely from its experience in fighting the Indian Army (IA) and the Indian Air Force (IAF). The LTTE had overwhelmed heli-borne Indian troops spearheaded by para commandos on the night of Oct. 10/11, 1987 much to the dismay of the Indian top brass. India never managed to induct the required number of troops on the Jaffna campus grounds due to heavy anti-aircraft fire. Cabral said that engagement must have been a massive moral booster to the LTTE. Although Cabral couldn’t recall the SLAF playing a role in the raid on the Jaffna campus, an SLAF Bell 212 had been assigned to carry out a diversionary strike west of the intended landing ground for para commandos across the railway track (Descent into danger-The Jaffna University helidrop -BHARAT RAKSHAK).

Within weeks after the Jaffna University debacle, the Indian Air Force inducted Russian built Mi-25 helicopter gunships in support of ground forces. According to its official website within three weeks, the IAF had carried out some 3,000 tactical transport and assault helicopter sorties to disarm the LTTE, in accordance with the Indo-Lanka accord.

Cabral asserted that confronting IAF fighting machines, particularly the Mi-25 had given the LTTE the confidence and an opportunity to develop strategies over a period of two years. During eelam war II battles, the enemy displayed new tactics, he said, adding that Prabhakaran’s experience in fighting two armies and a number of rival Tamil groups, too, would have helped the group to enhance its skills.

The isolated detachment at Kokavil was the first to fall during the second week of July 1990. Of some 60 personnel based at Kokavil, perhaps only one or two escaped. It was an embarrassing defeat, the worst experienced by the army up to that time. Cabral recalled an abortive attempt made by the SLAF to land at Kokavil at the height of the battle to evacuate the wounded and also to provide urgently needed supplies. The mission involving three helicopters went awry due to heavy LTTE fire directed from the ground. Cabral said: "We couldn’t land, though we managed to drop in whatever the supplies available from air. Saline and water tubes were among the items dropped from air. It was a pathetic situation. Had we landed at Kokavil, we wouldn’t have been able to take off as the enemy was in full control of the area surrounding the small camp. Ours was the last mission or the last attempt to evacuate the wounded."

Last mission at Mankulam

Shortly before the army vacated the Mankulam detachment in late November, Cabral and Sagara Kotakadeniya landed there in a bid to evacuate some wounded personnel. Kotakadeniya was in control of the daring flight, though Cabral declared he was in charge of the mission fraught with danger. Under small arms and mortar fire, the chopper had landed between the camp and a church situated a little distance away to carry out the evacuation of the wounded. The LTTE had fired from the church, prompting the army to urge the pilots to leave. Those who had survived the battle so far carried their wounded colleagues to the chopper amidst a firefight and both the SLAF and SLA personnel felt it could be the end of casualty evacuation due to heavy LTTE resistance. In a desperate bid to provide the required ammunition to those trapped in Mankulam, the SLAF dropped mattresses embedded with 30,000 rounds of ammunition. On the instructions of the military hierarchy, troops had wrapped mattresses embedded with ammunition with mattresses before dropping them from helicopters. Unfortunately, that stock of ammunition ended up in the hands of the LTTE, as the army had to vacate the base soon after the air drop.

Israeli example

Had the SLAF failed in its task, the SLA would have found itself in an extremely difficult situation. The SLA couldn’t have survived without air support. The SLAF carried out a series of missions to break the siege on SLA bases at Silavaturai and Kokkupadayan, south of Mannar, during the third week of March 1991. Cabral had been at Anuradhapura when he received a call from the then Northern Commander, Maj. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa. An agitated war veteran told Cabral to act fast as Silavaturai and Kokkupadayan bases were under heavy enemy pressure. At the time of the assault, Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa had been at Talladi, the main base in the Mannar administrative district to discuss ways and means of taking tangible measures to meet the threat. The Northern Commander had acknowledged that he didn’t have the required troops at his disposal to save those under siege. Cabral said that all officers and men based at Anuradhapura had worked as one until the LTTE suspended the attack after having suffered heavy losses due to devastating SLAF attacks.

The SLAF had followed the Israeli concept of rapid turnaround by helicopters and fixed wing aircraft engaged in the operation, thereby greatly reducing the ground time. Cabral recalled that five helicopters and six Italian built Siai Marchetti ground attack aircraft had been available for the operation. The SLAF also mounted guns on a Chinese Y 12 fixed wing transport aircraft as the Anuradhapura air base threw everything it had against the LTTE battling the army at Silavaturai and Kokkupadayan. In a bid to further intensify the operation, the SLAF established a temporary refueling point at Talladi to ensure that as many helicopters were air borne, while Siai Marchettis flew non-stop for almost 75 hours, until the LTTE withdrew leaving over 100 bodies scattered in and around the defended area. The Anuradhapura base simply instructed that helicopters and fixed wing aircraft engaged in the operation should use the entire ammunition stock, instead of saving them for the next mission. The Israelis had successfully practised rapid turnaround during the six day war against some Arab countries, Cabral said, adding that the Jewish State was one of the few countries supportive of Sri Lanka’s battle against terrorism.

Cabral remembered with gratitude the role played by Shirantha Gunatilleke (Roshan Gunatilleke’s younger brother), during the Silavaturai battle. At that time, Gunatilleke had been the Chief Instructor/Commandant at the Anuradhapura Flying School. He had been Siai Marchetti pilot credited with many missions during his career before an LTTE missile claimed his life in late April 1995 over Palaly. He was among about 100 security forces personnel killed in two missile attacks on two consecutive days at the beginning of eelam war III during the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s tenure.

Commenting on longstanding Sri Lanka-Israel defence cooperation, Cabral recalled a visit undertaken by a Sri Lankan military delegation to Tel Aviv some time before the launch of Operation Liberation (May –June 1987). The tri-services delegation comprised Colonel Wijaya Wimalaratne, Mohan Samaranayake and Squadron Leader Cabral. Having met many Israeli experts, the team returned home and made presentations with regard to the future course of action against about half a dozen Indian trained groups active in the Northern Province. Much to the surprise of the delegation, the then UNP government insisted that it didn’t have the time to implement those proposals. Instead, the government wanted all Tamil groups neutralized within six or seven months in time for the next parliamentary election. Cabral alleged that successive governments hadn’t realized the need to adopt a cohesive strategy to meet the LTTE threat. They had always given priority to political agendas, he claimed, adding that the military had been forced to work according to some unrealistic timetables, at the expense of overall security objectives.

Unexpected challenge

Those who had served the SLAF along with Cabral initially went into battle as Pilot Officers and Flight Lieutenants. At the time they joined the SLAF, they would never have thought of spearheading helicopter operations against terrorists. Cabral remembered with warmth and pride those who had served with him on the front. They had been the first to mount helicopter attacks on those recruited and trained by India. Cabral recalled Prasanna Ratnayake, Sujith Jayasekera, Rajan Gunaratne Lasantha Waidyaratne, Tennyson Gunawardena, Roshan Gunatilleke, Roger Weerasinghe and Premachandra. They were followed by Namal Fernando, Kapila Jayampathy, Romesh Mendis, Upul Samarakoon, Gagan Bulathsinhala, Ranil Gurusinghe, Kapila Jayampathy, Sumangala Dias and Royce Gunaratne. All of them fought in eelam war I. Some of them still serve the SLAF. Initially, the SLAF had just a few Bell 212, though over the years, it developed its capabilities, including forward firing as well as side firing capacity. It had been a gradual process, with former Special Air Services (SAS) officers sharing his expertise with the SLAF in those crucial days. The then government had no option but to hire some foreign pilots to fill vacancies. Hiring of foreign experts to meet local requirements was nothing but a necessity, he said. However, over the years, the SLAF managed to meet the requirement itself.

Monday, 8 April 2013

In the absence of intimidating air power…

War on terror revisited : Part 125

The Katunayake based No 10 squadron consisted of Israeli built Kfirs in service with the SLAF since 1996. The Israeli built multi-role fighter spearheaded the air offensive against the LTTE during eelam war IV, with Russian MiG 27s, Mi 24s as well as Chinese interceptors during the Vanni offensive (March 2007-May 2009) playing significant roles.

by Shamindra Ferdinando

The then Air Vice Marshal MJT de S. Gunawardhane succeeded Air Marshal A. W. Fernando as the commander of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) on February 16, 1990. His deputy was Oliver M. Ranasinghe. Due to the deployment of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) here in accordance with the Indo-Lanka accord from July 1987 to March 1990 and peace talks between the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s government and the LTTE (May 1989-June 1990), the SLAF had totally ignored the need to enhance its firepower.

The SLAF’s last major involvement had been during Operation Liberation (late May 1987 to the second week of June 1987), in the Jaffna peninsula. Since then there hadn’t been any real action, though at the onset of IPKF operations, during the second week of Oct 1987 against the LTTE, the Indian military had called for the SLAF’s support. The first such instance was the deployment of an SLAF Bell 212 to support Indian troops, including para commandos engaged in a raid on the Jaffna University on the night of Oct. 11,1987. The LTTE thwarted the Indian assault, causing heavy losses to the raiding party.

The SLAF’s deployment was contrary to the Indo-Lanka accord. However, the direct involvement of an SLAF crew in the Jaffna University battle gave the SLAF an opportunity to closely study the anti-aircraft capability of the LTTE. During the Jaffna University battle, the fire from the ground had been so intense, that the Indian Air Force (IAF) couldn’t induct the required number of men during a specified number of missions. Unfortunately, the SLAF never learnt from the IAF’s experience. Had the SLAF closely examined the ill-fated Indian operation and India’s response, it wouldn’t have been in serious difficulty in 1990. By end October 1987, India deployed Mi 25 helicopter gunships in support of ground forces. The Mi 25 carried 23-mm cannon, 57-mm rockets and 500 kg HE bombs. Although at the beginning of IPKF operations during the second week of Oct 1987, India assured that heavy firepower wouldn’t be used, fierce LTTE resistance forced the IPKF to bring in heavy equipment, including T 72 main battle tanks as well as BMP 1 Infantry Combat Vehicles (ICV). In spite of clever tactics and superb fighting techniques, the LTTE could never match the firepower of the IPKF. The deployment of helicopter gunships alongside main battle tanks and artillery, regardless of the consequences, stunned the LTTE. Mounting loss of civilian lives didn’t deter the IPKF from using maximum firepower.

In fact, the UNP never realized the need to enhance the firepower of the armed forces, though it realized the LTTE couldn’t be trusted. The UNP leadership deprived the armed forces of an opportunity to build-up fighting capabilities since the deployment of the IPKF in July 1987 to the outbreak of eelam war II during the second week of June 1990. Successive UNP governments never felt the need to prepare the country to face any eventuality, hence giving the LTTE the upper hand.

SLAF strengthened

During 1982, the SLAF established units in Anuradhapura, Batticaloa, Koggala and Sigiriya in accordance with overall expansion. Air Vice Marshal Dick Perera was in command (May 1981 to April 1985). During the 1983-1985 period, the SLAF acquired 11 Bell 212 helicopters, four Bell 412 helicopters, three Siai Marchetti SF 260s (light ground attack aircraft), two Cessna 337s, one Avro HS7 48 and one Beech King. The SLAF managed with available assets. In 1986, the SLAF acquired three more Bell 212 helicopters, five more Siai Marchetti SF 260s and two Y 12s light transport aircraft. The SLAF further increased its transport capability by taking delivery of another Avro.

In the run-up to Operation Liberation, the SLAF tasked six Siai Marchettis with fighter/ground attack role. The SLAF could have definitely done a better job, if it had been equipped with better aircraft. Although Siai Marchettis could operate from smaller airfields, it lacked the firepower and an accurate system to deliver its ammunition. That was a major drawback.

The SLAF had the opportunity to conduct operations in an extremely hostile environment in late 1989 when it deployed helicopters against the Indian trained Tamil National Army (TNA), particularly in the Eastern Province. The TNA damaged half a dozen helicopters during confrontations in the Ampara and Batticaloa sectors alone. The TNA had anti-aircraft weapons courtesy the IPKF, which recruited, trained and armed a large group of Tamil youth in line with a directive to strengthen the then provincial administration of Chief Minister Varatharaja Perumal. But when the LTTE resumed hostilities during the second week of June 1990, the SLAF was wholly unprepared to face the challenging task. In the absence of the required firepower, the SLAF top brass experienced the daunting task of maintaining offensive and defensive operations in the wake of the army suffering a series of heavy battlefield defeats.

Having lost Kokavil (second week of July 1990), Kilinochchi (last week of July 1990), and Mankulam (last week of November 1990) camps, Elephant Pass remained the only base situated along the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road. The base at Elephant Pass guarded the overland route to the Jaffna peninsula. The army also vacated Jaffna Fort in late September 1990, after having sacrificed about 200 personnel of the first battalions of the Sinha and Gajaba Regiments to rescue those trapped in the Dutch built fort. The armed forces also had Palaly and Kankesanthurai under their control, though they remained two separate bases until they were linked in Oct. 1990.

A section of the army at that time accused the SLAF of failing to provide air support, a charge strongly denied by Air Marshal Gunawardhane. The SLAF’s role came under fire in the wake of a massive LTTE onslaught on the Elephant Pass base during the second week of July 1991. Amidst one of the bloodiest battles in eelam war II, the SLAF was accused of refusing to conduct operations in support of those under siege at Elephant Pass. Some alleged that Operation Balavegaya, the largest ever amphibious assault during the conflict launched to break the siege on Elephant Pass, was in jeopardy due to the failure on the part of the SLAF to play its role.

SLAF chief speaks out

Air Marshal Gunawardhane strongly denied allegations against the service, while vowing to sustain operations with available assets. Addressing a hastily arranged media briefing at his headquarters, the SLAF chief explained the operations undertaken by those under his command in support of the army (SLAF chief denies ‘not enough air support’ allegation-The Island July 1991). That was perhaps the only media briefing called by Gunawardhane during his tenure as the SLAF chief (Feb. 16, 1990 to Feb. 16, 1994). The Air Marshal was flanked by Chief of Staff, Ranasinghe.

Reiterating the SLAF’s commitment to the battle at Elephant Pass, the SLAF chief said that one aircraft had been hit during action, though there had been losses of either fixed wing aircraft or helicopters. Gunawardhane revealed that the LTTE had acquired a weapon far superior to that of the five zero, much to the discomfort of the pilots, but the SLAF never avoided its responsibilities. An irate Air Marshal said that the SLAF shouldn’t be accountable for other people’s mistakes. The Air Marshal declined to identify whom he referred to as other people, though it was widely believed the reference was to the army. Commenting on Operation Liberation, he said that the SLAF had been accused of refusing to fly, fearing missile attacks as early as May 1987 during operations in Vadamaratchchy.

The SLAF declared that it had deployed Siai Marchettis and helicopters in support of troops under siege at Elephant Pass and those engaged in the rescue operation. Gunawardhane and Ranasinghe explained operations undertaken by aircraft and helicopters based at Kankesanthurai and Anuradhapura. They said they felt that the new anti-aircraft guns mounted on vehicles could pose a serious threat. Both declined to comment on India expressing concerns over the possibility of the LTTE acquiring dedicated anti aircraft guns and shoulder fired missiles, with the support of some Western powers. In fact, one-time Indian Deputy High Commissioner, Nirupam Sen (currently senior UN advisor), told the writer there was the possibility of some interested parties helping the LTTE to acquire heat seeking missiles. Sen made the assessment in the wake of Indian troops recovering a missile and launcher in the run-up to Nov. 19, 1988 provincial council polls in the then temporarily merged North-East Province. The recovery was made in the Nallur area. Sen expressed concern over the possibility of the LTTE having received missiles of Soviet origin through an agency or an organisation hostile to India. The recovery was made by Indian commandos (LTTE SAM was of Soviet make––The Island Aug. 5. 1988).

Heavy burden

As the army had lost the overland Jaffna-Kandy Main Supply Route (MSR) at the onset of eelam war II, the navy and the SLAF had to deploy most of their resources to ensure uninterrupted supplies to the armed forces deployed in the peninsula. Thanks to the acquisition of four more Y 12s and the first Y 8 heavy transport aircraft in 1987, the SLAF had the capability to meet major commitments during eelam war II. The SLAF acquired two Y 8s, the Chinese version of the Russian AN 12. The army never acknowledged the crisis caused by its failure to maintain an overland lifeline. For almost two decades, the army received its supplies by air and sea, until the troops restored the MSR in Jan. 2009. That was one of the major accomplishments during eelam war IV.

The LTTE shot down one Y 8 on the afternoon of July 5, 1992, north of Elephant Pass, killing 19 personnel, including six officers. Among the dead was the then Flight Lieutenant A. P. W. Fernando, the only son of former Air Force Commander Walter Fernando. At the time of the tragedy, Fernando was the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, having replaced General Ranatunga. The aircraft was carrying a large stock of ammunition and explosives when the LTTE blew it up. The SLAF initially ruled out sabotage or LTTE anti-aircraft fire, though subsequently, admitted losing the Y 8 to anti-aircraft fire. The then Squadron Leader, D.F. Cassieer was among the 19 personnel on board the ill-fated aircraft and the highest ranking officer to die in eelam war II up to that time.

The war would never have lasted three decades if the army had not lost the MSR to Jaffna compelling successive governments to deploy a range of assets just to keep bases in the Jaffna peninsula supplied with arms, ammunition and equipment and move troops between Palaly and Ratmalana, home of the SLAF’s No 2 Transport Squadron. With the gradual expansion of army deployment in the Jaffna peninsula, the Navy and the Air Force, too, had to increase their own role to meet the Army’s requirement. Had the LTTE succeeded in its efforts to thwart Navy and Air Force efforts, the Army would have been compelled to abandon all its bases in the peninsula. The Army had planned to abandon the Jaffna Fort even before the outbreak of hostilities, as it felt the base couldn’t be defended in case of an attack. According to military officials who had been assigned to assist the then UNP chief peace negotiator Minister A .C. S. Hameed (May 1989-June 1990), LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham went to the extent of suggesting that the Army could remain in the Jaffna Fort. The unexpected suggestion was made during discussions at Palaly. The LTTE probably felt it could wipe out those stationed at the Jaffna fort at an early stage of the battle. The Army deployment at the Jaffa fort at that time comprised not more than 60 personnel. In Sept. 1990, the army undertook a costly operation to save the lives of 60 men at the expense of 200 personnel who fought under the command of Lt. Colonels, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Sarath Fonseka, of the Gajaba and Sinha Regiments, respectively. The army lacked a cohesive counter strategy or contingency plan to meet the LTTE conventional military challenge. The absence of a political strategy and the Defence Secretary being a mere official, instead of an influencing factor, undermined security forces efforts.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Terror advances to the heartland

War on terror revisited : Part 124

The blast site

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The Operational Headquarters of the Defence Ministry at Flower Road scheduled a special meeting for the morning of June 21, 1991 to discuss ways and means of improving living conditions of people living in the Eastern Province in the wake of the then Archbishop of Colombo Rt. Rev. Nicholas Marcus Fernando urging the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa to take tangible measures to alleviate the sufferings of those people. The confab was to be chaired by the then Additional Secretary for Defence Mahinda Bandusena, though Acting Defence Secretary Air Marshal Walter Fernando was in Colombo. Defence Secretary Gen. Cyril Ranatunga was in China.

The absence of Air Marshal Fernando meant that the meeting wasn’t a priority for the armed forces under heavy pressure in the Northern theatre of operations.

Lt. Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe was the Commander of the Army.

An LTTE suicide cadre drove an explosive-laden vehicle up to the second entrance of the Operational Headquarters situated on Flower Road around 10 a.m. The LTTE blew up the vehicle at the entrance, causing several deaths among military personnel based there. The LTTE struck shortly before the commencement of the meeting delayed due to failure on the part of those responsible for rehabilitation and reconstruction to turn up at the venue on time.

The then Brigadier, Wajira R. Wijeyaratne of the Gemunu Watch (GW) had been the Principal Staff Officer (PSO) at Operational Headquarters generally called the Joint Operations Command. Wijeyaratne, served at the Operational Headquarters from March 90 to Sept 1991 before he assumed duties as Security Forces Commander, in charge of 5 Brigade Group deployed in the Mannar sector.

Major General Wijeyaratne, USP, now retired, recollected the first major suicide attack directed at a military target outside the then temporarily merged North East Province.

The high profile LTTE strike was meant to humiliate the military and cause uncertainty in the defence establishment. Infiltration of Colombo in the wake of a series of battlefield debacles in the east as well as the north sent shock waves through the army. The then army chief, Lt. Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe never recovered losses suffered at the onset of eelam war II due to humiliating defeats at Kokavil (during the second week of July 1990), Kilinochchi (last week of July, 1990), Mankulam (last week of November, 1990) and Kalawanchikudy and Kiran (July 1990).

Wijeyaratne said that the Operational Headquarters had been the nerve centre of security forces operations directed against the LTTE since the eruption of hostilities during the second week of June 1990. It had also played a significant role in the bloody anti-insurgency campaign against the JVP and its military wing Deshapremi Janatha Viyaparaya (DJV). The then State Minister for Defence, Ranjan Wijeratne on the late afternoon on Nov. 13, 1990 announced the capture and the subsequent killing of JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera.

Balagalle receives tip-off

The Military Intelligence Corps (MIC) had received information regarding an impending terror strike though the security forces couldn’t thwart the suicide attack. Asked to explain the events leading to the attack, Maj. Gen. Wijeyaratne said: "One day Lionel Balagalle, the then senior officer in charge of Military Intelligence (MI) came running to my office, having sought an urgent appointment. Balagalle functioned as the Director of MIC. Lionel, I believe, a Lieutenant Colonel at that time, appeared to be terribly worried when he rang me up and said, "Sir it’s very important, can I see you immediately?" When Balagalle met me, he disclosed the LTTE plan and when I inquired about the accuracy of available information, he emphasised that the attack would take place."

Balagalle had asserted that as information regarding the planned operation had come from the LTTE, it couldn’t be wrong. Balagalle had been the first chief of MIC and is credited with many successful operations over the years, including the destruction of some of those floating LTTE warehouses in 2003 and 2006/2007 periods. None other than former Navy chief, Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda discussed the contribution made by the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI), successor to MIC, for their success on the high seas. Those who had served under Balagalle still talk affectionately of the soft spoken officer, one of those directly responsible for planning and the execution of hit and run attacks behind LTTE lines during the tail end of President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s first term.

Operational Headquarters
on alert

Major Gen. Wijeyaratne had promptly briefed his staff and additional security measures had been taken with a view to beefing up security near the Operational Headquarters. Asked whether he could remember when exactly he had received Balagalle’s warning, Wijeyaratne said: "Perhaps, a week or two before the suicide blast. I deployed some personnel in civvies in the vicinity, in accordance with the overall security plan. The main gate was also closed, though the enemy made an attempt to gain entry through the second entry/exit point. They exploded the vehicle bomb at the entrance as the second gate, too, was closed. The blast took place at 9.54 a.m."

The attack claimed the lives of eleven troops, while 72 personnel, including five officers received injuries. It killed 12 civilians and injured 85. Wijeyaratne escaped with minor injuries.

The explosion created a large crater. The writer visited the scene soon after the blast. Most of the bodies were beyond recognition and some of them were in the crater. The explosion damaged and destroyed about 40 vehicles, belonging to the military and civilians. Many houses in the vicinity were also damaged. The blast blew away parts of the roof of the Operational Headquarters.

Among the damaged houses were those rented by Indian, American and Australian diplomats.

First experience facing
suicide attack

At the time of the blast, Wijeyaratne was with Nalin K. B. Angammana, who was at that time stationed in Batticaloa. Angammana, probably a Lieutenant Colonel at that time, was in Colombo to receive instructions like many other senior officers. They were in Wijeyaratne’s office on the upper floor. (Angammana was killed on the morning of July 30, 1995 in a pressure mine blast on the Valaichenai-Mukaral road. The Engineers’ Corps officer was the senior officer in charge of the Third Division deployed in Batticaloa at the time of his death. He was posthumously promoted to the rank of Major General)

Wijeyaratne said that it was his first experience with an LTTE suicide attack. He recalled walking to several houses situated close to the Operational Headquarters shortly after the blast and apologising profusely to those terror stricken civilians, though the officer didn’t actually know why he did that. "Moving the wounded to the National Hospital as well as the Military Hospital wasn’t an easy task. The blast caused total chaos, though we quickly restored order," Wijeyaratne said.

First lady visits PSO

Among the wounded was Brigadier Tilak Paranagama, Director of Operations. He had come there from army headquarters, where he was based. Wijeyaratne said that Colonel Rohan Antonisz, Commander Suraj Munasinghe, Lt Col Musafer, Marcus Silva, a former Deputy PMG, and a young officer from the Signal Corps had been badly injured. "I recall going to see him. By the end of the day I was finding myself losing balance and was admitted to hospital and after tests etc and, was discharge 24 hrs later. I believe."

The Sandhurst trained Wijeratne recollected the then first Lady Mrs. Hema Premadasa coming to see him. "She offered help which I thought was absolutely genuine," Wijeyaratne said, adding that the First Lady had come to the Operational Headquarters immediately after returning from Kataragama. "Subsequently, at night she rang me at the Military Hospital, too, and wanted to visit me and offered assistance again."

Contrary to reports at that time, the then Brig. Wijaya Wimalaratne hadn’t been at the Operational Headquarters on the day of the blast, though he may have been scheduled to visit the command centre later in the day.

Former Army chief and Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), Gen. Lionel Balagalle told the writer that he couldn’t say anything more than what Maj. Gen. Wijeyaratne said. "Frankly, I can’t remember the circumstances leading to the sudden meeting with the then Brigadier Wijeyaratne or how I came across specific info on the planned attack. On many occasions, we managed to obtain specific intelligence, though we weren’t always successful in exploiting the situation. Intelligence gathering is an arduous task. Those who had been in the field as well as officers directing them may never come out with the full story. They always tend to leave out things," Balagalle said.

Former first lady Mrs. Premadasa said that during the conflict she had visited victims of LTTE terror attacks. "I always felt that it was my duty and responsibility. During eelam war II, I visited the scenes of several major terrorist attacks. I was one of the first to rush to Galle Face when the LTTE assassinated the then Navy Commander, Vice Admiral Chancy Fernando on the morning of No. 16, 1992."

In the wake of the suicide attack on Operational Headquarters, the police and the army stepped up operations targeting undercover LTTE operatives in the city and its suburbs. They raided suspected hideouts and safe houses, and many suspects were taken in. But the then high command never bothered to examine the lapses on the part of the army and the police in spite of having specific intelligence on a high profile target. The attack revealed the vulnerability of one of the most guarded locations at that time.

The blast was the second major vehicle bomb attack in Colombo in early 1991. On the morning of March 2, 1991, a roadside car bomb blast claimed the lives of 19 persons, including the then State Minister for Defence Ranjan Wijeratne and five police commandos. Others were civilians. Plantations Industries Minister Wijeratne was also the Chairman of the UNP. Unlike the blast at the Operational Headquarters, there hadn’t been a warning of the Havelock Road attack, though Minister Wijeratne was high on the LTTE hit list. He strongly opposed the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s fresh bid to resume talks with the LTTE. Much to the surprise of the government, President Premadasa appointed Premier Dingiri Banda Wijetunga as Minister Wijeratne’s successor. At the time of the Flower Road blast, Wijetunga was in charge of the defence portfolio. Within a week after assuming the defence portfolio, PM Wijetunga, at the behest of President Premadasa, invited the LTTE for a fresh round of talks.

PM Wijetunga declared that the doors were still open for anyone who wished to join the political mainstream. Addressing a meeting in Colombo, PM Wijetunga announced President Premadasa’s commitment to finding a solution through a process of consultation, compromise and consensus. PM Wijetunja functioned as the Chairman of the National Security Council before being appointed State Minister of Defence, in the wake of minister Wijeratne’s assassination.

The police never succeeded in tracking down those responsible for minister Wijeratne’s assassination. The suicide attack on Operational Headquarters took place three months later, against the backdrop of the government’s failure to neutralise the LTTE squad involved in the high profile Havelock Road blast. The LTTE infiltrated the city and its suburbs and carried out attacks with impunity.

In spite of both Havelock and Flower road bomb blasts claiming the lives of over 20 civilians and wounding close to 100, none of the Colombo based diplomatic missions and civil society organisations were bothered at least to condemn the LTTE. Instead, they pushed the government to reach an understanding with the LTTE without delay, to end the bloodshed. Successful LTTE operations in the city and its suburbs had a demoralising effect on the armed forces fighting on the northern and eastern fronts.