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.