Thursday, 30 May 2013

US powered Israeli jets enhance SLAF capability

* War on terror revisited : Part 140

Israeli built Kfir on the Katunayake runway. Powered by US engine, Kfirs of the No 10 squadron spearheaded the offensive

by Shamindra Ferdinando
On the night of April 27, the LTTE mounted a lagoon borne assault on Kayts Island situated west of the Jaffna peninsula, killing 18 soldiers and injuring several others. It was the worst attack on the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) since the LTTE resumed hostilities in the early hours of April 18, 1995, with the sinking of two Chinese gunboats anchored at the Trincomalee harbour (Tigers break truce, sink two boats––The Island April 20, 1995). The LTTE mounted the unprecedented underwater attack on SLNS Suraya and SLNS Ranasuru just three hours after the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was informed of the LTTE’s decision to break off negotiations due to the reluctance on the part of the government to vacate the army base at Pooneryn, grant the Tigers permission to carry weapons in government-held areas in the Eastern Province and lift restrictions placed on the fishing community as well as movements of food beyond Vavuniya.

The SLA wanted to transfer some of those soldiers wounded in Thursday’s raid on Kayts to the Anuradhapura hospital. Having received treatment at the Palaly Military hospital, four personnel joined the passengers onboard an HS 748 Avro, the first flight out of the Palaly airfield on April 28, 1995. Although the LTTE had been on the offensive in both the northern and eastern districts, the SLAF continued routine flights. The Avro was on a regular flight. The then Northern Zonal Commander of the SLAF Wing Commander Roger Weerasinghe was among the passengers. The LTTE brought down the aircraft immediately after it took off from Palaly. Those on the ground saw one of the two Rolls Royce engines of the British built aircraft on fire before it exploded. The then military spokesman Brigadier Sarath Munasinghe as well as SLAF headquarters strongly denied an LTTE hand in the disaster when the writer asked them whether an LTTE missile had brought it down. (Air Force plane explodes––40 killed; Engine trouble causes major accident after take-off from Palaly air base ––The Island April 29, 1995).

Kolitha Gunatilleke is pictured at the Anuradhapura air base in the early 90s. Argentine-built Pucara attack aircraft in the background
Although a section of the military feared an LTTE hand in the destruction of the aircraft, SLAF headquarters felt it was an unfortunate accident. As the then SLAF chief Air Marshal Oliver Ranasinghe felt an urgent need to inquire into the incident, a senior team of officers left for Palaly the following day.

A group of investigators joined the first military flight to Palaly from Ratmalana via Anuradhapura on the morning of April 29, 1995. The LTTE brought down the second Avro as it approached Palaly airfield killing 52 officers and men. Among the dead were Wing Commander Shirantha Goonetilleke, brother of Chief of Defence Staff Air Chief Marshal Roshan Goonetilleke and three other officers holding the same rank namely D. S. Wickremesinghe, S. Pathirana and Kamal Welgama. Immediately after the attack, SLAF headquarters admitted that both Avros had been shot down by heat seeking missiles. With that the war took a new turn (Tigers down second air force plane with strap line all 52 passengers dead––The Island April 30, 1995)

The SLAF had no option but to suspend transport fights to Palaly, hence causing a major worry for those stationed in bases in the Northern region (SLAF suspends transport flights to North––The Island May 1, 1995). The deployment of anti-aircraft missiles sent shock waves through the political and military establishments. The morale of troops hit a new low, as senior ground commanders struggled to cope with the unexpected crisis. The LTTE was now threatening both air and sea supply routes to the Jaffna peninsula. For want of an overland main supply route, Jaffna based troops entirely depended on air and sea supply routes. Jaffna forces were in peril.

Courageous action

In the wake of the rapidly deteriorating crisis, the then Squadron Leader, Harsha Abeywickrema, the commanding officer of the No 5 Jet Squadron comprising Chinese fighters volunteered to fly over LTTE held territory to show the SLAF’s commitment to the war effort, in spite of the missile threat. SLAF Commander, Air Marshal Harsha Abeywickrema was reluctant to talk about his exploits during the conflict. In fact, Abeywickrema, even after taking over command of the SLAF on February 27, 2011, declined to discuss his war-time experience. AM Abeywickrema discussed a range of issues with the writer in a recent interview. In fact, AM Abeywickrema lamented the failure on the part of successive administrations to adopt tangible measures to neutralise the threat posed by the LTTE.

Commenting on the April 1995 missile crisis, AM Abeywickrema said: "The shooting down of two Avros over Palaly within 48 hours greatly demoralized the armed forces. The loss of almost 100 officers and men, including the then Northern Zonal Commander disturbed the military. I was stationed in China Bay as the deputy to Zonal Commander Salgado. I was also in command of the No 5 Jet Squadron based in China Bay. In my capacity as the Commanding Officer of the only Jet Squadron in service at that time, I volunteered to fly a mission over enemy held territory. I sought approval from Air Marshal Ranasinghe to show the LTTE that we were still up and kicking"

Having obtained Air Marshal Ranasinghe’s approval, Abeywickrema and Flying Officer Janaka Wijetilleke, the only other jet pilot available at China Bay, had undertaken the mission. AM Abeywickrema said: "I briefed FO Wijetilleke of the mission and instructed him to just hang to my wing and to follow. Some of those based at China Bay felt that it could be our last mission. As we got into the cockpits, some personnel waved at us as at least one of us could end up as the latest missile victim. We took two bombs each and 30mm cannon. We dived north of SLA’s forward defence line (FDL) north of Elephant Pass (EP) base and directed bombs at LTTE fortifications and manoeuvred towards the eastern FDL of the EP base, while firing cannon at the enemy. We continued at tree-top level over Velvetiturai and Thondamannar and pulled up over the sea. We flew over the peninsula regardless of the consequences, as we felt nothing could have boosted the morale of those under siege in the Jaffna peninsula. Later, I was told how troops at Elephant Pass and Palaly cheered seeing jets flying low over LTTE-held territory. Although they fired anti-aircraft guns at us, we were too fast. Our mission infused confidence in the pilots. Gradually, we developed strategies to counter threat posed by missiles. Although the LTTE brought down several other aircraft with heat seeking missiles, the SLAF didn’t lose a single jet fighter to a missile attack or anti-aircraft fire.

Shortcomings in strategy

AM Abeywickrema said that the armed forces had averted a major crisis by quickly adopting counter measures to face the missile threat. "Had there been a long delay in meeting the new threat, the entire security forces deployment in the Jaffna peninsula as well as in the Jaffna Islands would have been vulnerable to an LTTE onslaught. Missiles could have deprived the northern bases of urgently needed supplies as well as air support in case of major attacks." AM Abeywickrema acknowledged that until the destruction of the two Avros over Palaly, the SLAF had never felt the need to acquire anti-missile capability.

Abeywickrema recollected the LTTE firing a Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) towards a fixed wing aircraft immediately after it landed at the Palaly airfield at the onset of the conflict. Those who had been on the airfield at that time couldn’t explain what really happened. A subsequent search led to the recovery of a part of the used RPG, hence the SLAF was able to identify the type of weapon fired at the aircraft. Luckily it had missed the target. "Had we acquired arms, ammunition and equipment following a careful study, the country would have had a better arsenal to meet the LTTE threat. Unfortunately, we always ordered weapons to counter a particular threat posed by the LTTE. The SLAF having to acquire an anti-missile capability, too, is a case in point. The LTTE exploited our weaknesses to their advantage. Once the armed forces realized their limitations and took remedial measures, the LTTE began to gradually lose ground."

The then head of the LTTE Political Section, S. P. Thamilselvan, declared in Jaffna on May Day 1995 that the war had entered a new phase with the deployment of missiles. Although the LTTE never targeted the Indian Air Force (IAF) with missiles during the deployment of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) during the Oct. 1987 to March 1990 period, Indian para commandos on August 2, 1988 recovered a surface to air missile and a launcher at Nallur. The then Deputy Indian High Commissioner, Nerupam Sen told the writer that Indian military intelligence had launched a full scale investigation into what he called the missile affair while identifying the recovered weapon as a heat seeking missile of Soviet origin. An irate Sen said that the country of manufacture was not the issue, while emphasizing the pivotal importance of identifying those who had sold missiles to the LTTE (LTTE SAM missile was of Soviet make - Deputy Indian HC ––The Island August 5, 1988).

Flying Kfir over Dead Sea

Heat seeking missiles rendered Italian built Siai Marchettis and Argentine Pucaras in service since 1985 and 1992 virtually useless, compelling the China Bay based No 05 Jet Squadron to take full responsibility. The SLAF was under heavy pressure to introduce another fighter as quickly as possible. The LTTE build-up forced the then government to move quickly.

AM Abeywickrema said: "The SLAF had to bolster its firepower swiftly to meet the emerging threat. The then SLAF leadership felt that the Israeli built modern multi role fighter the Kfir, could meet the challenging task."

Squadron Leader Abeywickrema had been chosen to fly a Kfir in Israel. An SLAF team headed by the then Air Commodore Jayalath Weerakkody (now Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in Islamabad. Weerakkody holds the rank of Air Chief Marshal), Squadron Leader Abeywickrema and an electronics engineer visited Israel covertly to examine the aircraft. Abeywickrema had the first opportunity to fly a Chinese jet fighter in spite of not having the basic requirement of 250 jet flying experience at the onset of eelam war II. AM Abeywickrema said: "I flew a couple of missions in Israel with their test pilots who proudly displayed the capability of Kfir flying to its limits. I was impressed and recommended it instantly. The main highlights that impressed me was its J 79 engine made in the USA and the WDNS (weapon delivery and Navigational system). I was there for 10 days studying various systems and flying. Israel is the only country one can fly below sea level and I was privileged to fly six times over the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is a large place in the middle of the country some 1300 ft below sea level and we flew just over water and that was an unbelievable experience. That’s the time we looked at a special camera system that was later fitted to Beech craft and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles too."

Having returned to Sri Lanka, Abeywickrema was fully involved with ground school for Kfirs and flying. But before the Kfirs could be deployed against the LTTE, Abeywickrema was made zonal commander, East as well as Base Commander, China Bay. Priyantha Gunasingha succeeded him. The SLAF deployed Kfirs against the LTTE in 1996.

Kfirs from the Katunayake-based No. 10 Jet Squadron played a pivotal role in the offensive against the LTTE. Sri Lanka’s premier Jet Squadron caused irreparable damage to the LTTE during eelam war IV, with a devastating campaign that gradually eroded the LTTE’ s confidence on the battlefield. Katunayake based No 10 squadron as well as No 12 and No 05 squadrons comprising Russian MiG 27s and Chinese F7s respectively, inflicted heavy damage on the LTTE.

AM Abeywickrema recalled proudly how the SLAF had developed an integrated system that allowed SLAF headquarters to do away with time consuming procedures to facilitate swift action. "During eelam war IV, we had the ability to know what was going on behind their earth bunds. Real time intelligence made a significant difference in the decision making process. We had the time and space to deploy air assets simultaneously, at different locations. In fact, during the Vanni campaign, senior ground commanders had an opportunity to access video footage made available by UAVs and Beech craft. Once fighter pilots visited the Western front to meet the then General Officer Commanding (GOC) 58 Division and Brigade Commanders to discuss ways and means of neutralizing major LTTE fortifications."

As the Task Force I/58 Division was pushing towards Pooneryn on the western front during a critical stage of the ground offensive, Air Vice Marshal Kolitha Gunatilleke received appointment as the Director Air Operations on Nov. 1, 2008-a position he held until being named Chief of Staff on Feb 27, 2011. Gunatilleke, who had flown Siai Marchettis as well as Pucaras during the 1985-1995 period later moved to the Transport Squadron close on the heels of the SLAF removing the Argentine-built twin turbo-prop fixed wing aircraft from the frontline due to missile threat. The SLAF headquarters split the Directorate of Operations into two sections––Air Operations and Ground Operations in the wake of the devastating LTTE raid on Anuradhapura air base in late Oct. 2007. The then AVM Abeywickrema, who had been responsible for both air and ground deployment in his capacity as the Director Operations since May 2006 was the first to oversee air operations since the split of the directorate.

A difficult beginning: SLAF re-enters jet era with acquisition of F7s

*War on terror revisited : Part 139


 Sri Lanka’s first team of supersonic fighters (L to R) Flying Officer Janaka Wijetileke, Flt. Lt. Priyantha Gunasinghe, Sqn. Ldr. Harsh Abeywickrama, Fg. Off. Sudarshana Pathirana and Flying Officer Sajeewa Hendawitharana in front of F7 BS on apron at Katunayake following a mission 1993.

by Shamindra Ferdinando

Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa asserted that whatever the armaments at the disposal of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) during Eelam war IV (August 2006 to May 2009), it was the man at the controls who made a difference in the battlefield. He was addressing SLAF top brass at the Katunayake air base on June 11, 2009, at a ceremony to mark the conclusion of air operations against the LTTE.

The war ended on the morning of May 19, 2009 with the recovery of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s body on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon.

Among the audience were the then SLAF commander, Air Chief Marshal Roshan Gunatilleke and the then Air Vice Marshal Harsha D. Abeywickrama, who, in his capacity as the Director of Operations/Director of Air Operations, oversaw the devastating air campaign directed against the LTTE. Abeywickrama, who assumed the post of Director Operations in May 2006 at the onset of eelam war II with the rank of Air Commodore, was subsequently elevated to the rank of Air vice Marshal with his appointment as the Deputy Chief of Staff. Abeywickrama was appointed Commander of the SLAF on Feb. 28, 2011 and was promoted to the rank of Air Marshal following a short stint as Chief of Staff.

In the immediate aftermath of the debilitating LTTE raid on the Anuradhapura SLAF base on the night of Oct 22, 2007, the SLAF created the post of Director Ground Operations, a responsibility hitherto handled by Director Operations. With the creation of the new post, Abeywickrama was made Director, Air Operations.

The writer was present at the function at Katunayake, which culminated with the impressive show by the Katunayake-based jet squadrons. Thanking the SLAF on behalf of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Defence Secretary emphasised the critical importance of having capable and courageous men in charge of operations. Rajapaksa went on to praise the SLAF’s fighting, air surveillance as well as support units with special emphasis on the three jet squadrons, comprising Israeli, Chinese and Russian aircraft and the Hingurakgoda based attack helicopter squadron, which caused irreparable damage to the LTTE.

SLAF chief speaks out

For want of better arms, ammunition and equipment as well as political direction at the highest level, the armed forces had been struggling for three decades before the LTTE could be finished off, Air Marshal Abeywickrama told The Island, in his first interview since taking over the service. AM Abeywickrama said: "A case in point is the SLAF’s failure to acquire a suitable jet at the onset of the conflict. Had our armed forces obtained appropriate armaments at the right time, we could have had the upper hand at the beginning of the conflict. Although counter-insurgency operations got underway even before the unprecedented LTTE attack on the SLA claimed the lives of 13 personnel in July 1983, we never realised the importance of having suitable equipment, along with a corresponding increase in our strength. Two years into major anti-insurgency operations after the July 1983 killings, the SLAF acquired three Siai Marchetti SF 260 TPs for deployment in the role of light attack/trainer. Having acquired SF 260s in 1985, we also went for the Siai Marchetti SF 260 W in 1990. Sadly, the Italian built light attack aircraft wasn’t the best buy. It didn’t give us the required edge over the LTTE."

Abeywickrama, who had flown both versions of the SF 260s during his days as a Flying Officer said: "Had the SLAF secured the Brazilian built Tucano fighter instead of Siai Marchettis, it could have made a difference. Unfortunately, we had no option but to go for the Siai Marchettis due to political compulsions. Such meddling had a catastrophic impact on the overall strategy. The bottom line was, we couldn’t secure the right equipment at the right time, hence we lost an opportunity to exploit the situation."

Abeywickrama recollected the difficult conditions under which the Siai Marchetti team comprising him, C.T. Gunawardena, R. Pakyanathan, Salgado and Shirantha Gunatilleke had striven to accomplish the challenging task of providing air support. Commenting on operations undertaken by Siai Marchettis during Operation Liberation (May-June 1987) in the Jaffna peninsula, Abeywickrama said that the SLAF could have had done a better job if a better aircraft had been made available. "Unfortunately, we had to manage with Siai Marchettis. They were followed by the Argentine built IA58 FMA Pucara. The Pucara ground attack aircraft was the first of its kind to join the SLAF. The SLAF acquired Pucaras in 1991 during eelam war II to enhance ground attack capabilities. We had no option but to acquire whatever was made available to us due to restrictions placed on the sale of armaments to Sri Lanka at that time. We never had the wherewithal to go all out against the LTTE and other terrorist groups during eelam war I (July 1983 to June 1987) as well as eelam war II (June 1990 to August 1994)."

Slow build-up

During the period, 1983 to 1985, the SLAF acquired 11 Bell 212 helicopters, four Bell 412 helicopters, three Siai Marchettis, two Cessna 337s, one Avro HS 748 and one Beech King. The SLAF took delivery of 3 Bell 212 choppers, one Avro HS 748, five Siai Marchettis and two Y 12 light transport aircraft.

Although the SLAF had experience in operating the UK built Hunting Percival Jet Provost MK 3 A (1959-1979), MiG 15 UTI (1971-1981) as well as MiG 17 (1971 -1981), when the eelam conflict erupted in July 1983, the service didn’t have a genuine ground attack capability. The then government took two years to acquire a light attack/trainer aircraft in the form of Siai Marchettis after the outbreak of major hostilities and six more years to obtain Pucaras. Both the Siai Marchettis and the Pucaras, though being capable of playing an anti-insurgency role, weren’t jets.

Had the then government formulated a contingency plan, the armed forces could have had obtained the required armaments and prepared themselves to face any eventuality during the suspension of hostilities, during the deployment of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in the then temporarily-merged Northern and Eastern Province (July 1987 to March 1990). The political leadership overlooked the need to enhance the fighting capabilities of the armed forces, believing direct talks between the government and the LTTE (May 1989-June 1990) would pave the way for a negotiated settlement. Unfortunately, the top brass remained passive onlookers fearing the wrath of President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who warned them to ensure an incident-free environment, whatever the provocation. According to SLAF records, during President Premadasa’s fragile peace with Prabhakaran, Sri Lanka acquired four more Y 12 transport aircraft of Chinese origin and one Y-8 heavy transport aircraft.

SLAF chief Abeywickrama recalled the crisis caused by the sudden Indian declaration that the Indian Air Force (IAF) would carry out a food drop over the Jaffna peninsula on the late afternoon of June 4, 1987. Abeywickrama said: "India intervened as the ground forces were making progress on the northern front. Two columns of troops under the command of the then Brigadier Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Colonel Wijaya Wimalaratne were deployed on the front. India wanted the government not to interfere with the food drop, warning of dire consequences in case we resorted to hostile action. In view of the Indian warning we were directed to move Siai Marchettis out of the operational areas and hide them in the south. We resented the Indian move. We could have had an opportunity to push towards Jaffna if not for Indian intervention. "

Even if President JRJ had wanted to oppose the Indian move, the SLAF would not have been able to do so vis-a-vis a group of five IAF AN 32 transport aircraft of Russian origin approaching the Jaffna peninsula. AN 32s deployed for the airdrop codenamed ‘Operation Poomalai’ had been escorted by the IAF’s Mirage fighters of French origin. The air drop took place against the backdrop of the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) thwarting a flotilla of civilian craft carrying food stocks crossing the Indo-Lanka maritime boundary. The IAF flew over the Palaly air base. The Indian action was meant to humiliate Sri Lanka.

A dearth of the required number of pilots to serve the SLAF was a major problem, particularly during the early stages of the eelam conflict. The SLAF had no option but to retain the services of foreign pilots. Even after the acquisition of Siai Marchettis in 1985, the total strength of SLAF pilots’ contingent tasked to operate attack aircraft, transport as well as helicopters consisted of less than 40 peronnel. At the time, the SLAF established No 5 jet squadron comprising Chinese aircraft the service had about 55 to 60 pilots representing all categories. The formation of the fully fledged No 5 squadron in 1992 paved the way for the SLAF to acquire Israeli Kfirs (1996), Russian MiG 27 (2000) and Chinese F7 GS (January 2008), to augment the offensive capability. SLAF Commander Air Marshal Harsha Abeywickrama is of the opinion that in spite of the conclusion of the war, the armed forces should retain an effective fighting capability. The veteran flyer insisted that contingency plans were a must to meet any eventuality. Abeywickrama said: "The country had to pay a very heavy price for neglecting its defence needs over a long period of time. Now that we have crushed terrorism, we should have a comprehensive security strategy. The bottom line is that the threat of terrorism remains, though the LTTE no longer retains a fighting capability. Sri Lanka cannot ignore particularly the Diaspora factor, and those still pursing the eelam project. "

Air Marshal Abeywickrama said that during the IPKF deployment here in accordance with the Indo Lanka Accord (ILA), the SLAF had carried out several missions in support of the Indian Army, before the IAF brought in Mi 24 helicopter gunships in October 1987. As the IPKF never felt the need to engage in large scale operations here at the time of its deployment in July 1987, it had not bothered to avail itself of air assets in the contingent assigned for peace keeping duties here, Abeywickrama said. The SLAF deployed a Bell 212 in support of an operation involving para-commandos and the Sikh Light Infantry on the night of Oct 10/Oct 11, 1987 to seize the Jaffna University. The air-borne raid ended in disaster.

Enter Chinese jets

The SLAF felt the urgent need for genuine jet fighters after the LTTE had scored a spate of significant battlefield victories at the onset of Eelam war II. The SLAF asserted that it could no longer provide effective support for ground forces with Siai Marchettis and Pucaras. Abeywickrama said: "In the wake of a major LTTE build-up targeting SLA bases in the Jaffna peninsula as well as the Vanni mainland, the SLAF simply struggled to sustain operations with available aircraft. We really wanted a real fighter aircraft which could make a significant difference. We pushed for a squadron of A5s of Chinese origin. But due to external factors, China, one of the few countries supportive of our military effort, indicated only F7 BSs and FT 5 jet trainers can be made available to us. We bought altogether seven aircraft."

The then (1) Flying Officer Avindra Mirando, (2)Flying Officer Sajeewa Hendawitharana, (3) Flying Officer Janaka Wijetileke, (4) Flying Officer Sudarshana Pathirana (5) Flight Lieutenant Priyantha Gunasinge and (6)Sqn Ldr Harsh Abeywickrama with Chinese crew

The transaction almost went awry due to another major problem. The Chinese said that only a pilot with 250 hours of jet flying experience could get into an FT 5. As the SLAF hadn’t operated a single jet since 1981 with the phasing out of MiG 15s and MiG 17s, the service didn’t have a single pilot to meet the Chinese standards. But Flying Lieutenant Abeywickrama accepted the challenging task and much to the delight of the SLAF delegation flew the aircraft. A smiling Abeywickrama said: "It was a new experience, a challenging task. But I felt I could do it. When I was asked whether a jet squadron could be operated, I accepted the assignment. Overnight, SLAF headquarters issued instructions regarding the formation of No 05 squadron comprising F7s and F5s. To facilitate the operation of jets, the SLAF extended its runway at China Bay."

Unlike Siai Marchettis and Pucaras, Chinese jets required a longer runway. Siai Marchettis and Pucaras operated from Anuradhapura, Vavuniya and China Bay.

Flying Lieutenant Abeywickrama was promoted to the rank of Squadron Leader and placed in charge of the SLAF’s first jet squadron. It was an unenviable task.

Then the SLAF project suffered another setback. The Chinese had declined to teach SLAF pilots ground attack techniques as their agreement envisaged only flying training. Sri Lanka had to turn towards Pakistan to secure the required expertise. Successive Pakistani governments had been supportive of Sri Lanka’s anti-terrorism efforts and the then administration in Islamabad paved the way for SLAF pilots to undergo training in Pakistan.

The newly promoted Squadron Leader Abeywickrama was given the unprecedented opportunity to pick his own team. Abeywickrama said: "Of the six officers picked by me, only one declined to join the first group of pilots assigned for No. 5 squadron. They were the best and readily accepted the challenging task of operating in a new environment."

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

P’karan miscalculates launch of eelam war II

Had the LTTE launched its offensive in mid 1989 instead of June 1990, the government wouldn’t have survived

War on terror revisited : Part 138

Brigadier Wijaya Wimalaratne, the founder of the Gajaba Regiment with the then Lieutenant Colonel Gotabhaya Rajapakshe (Center) and Colonel Premachandra, one-time Commanding Officer of Fifth battalion of GR

Fighting the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) boosted the LTTE’s morale. In fact, the majority of senior commanders had gained battlefield experience thanks to the IPKF. The LTTE, which had received military training courtesy Indian military instructors in early 80s caused immense losses on the IPKF, both in terms of men and material after the outbreak of fighting on Oct. 10, 1987. The LTTE also defeated the Tamil National Army (TNA) formed by the IPKF in late 1989 to prop up the then Chief Minister of the temporarily merged North –Eastern Province, Varatharaja Perumal. The LTTE had President Premadasa’s blessings to annihilate the TNA in a series of lightning operations which left hundreds of TNA cadres dead
.In some instances, the Sri Lankan military actively supported the LTTE project during the latter part of 1989 and early 1990. The government and the military hierarchy realised their folly in June 1990. Fortunately, the LTTE, due to miscalculation on its part delayed the launch of Eelam war II until June 1990. Had it commenced the offensive at the height of the JVP terror campaign, the government wouldn’t have been able to fight on two fronts.

by Shamindra Ferdinando

The Sri Lanka Army (SLA) was fully involved in anti-JVP operations in support of the police from July 1987 to early 1990. Except for a few infantry battalions plus support elements, its total strength was deployed to quell the second JVP inspired insurgency.

In accordance with the Indo-Lanka Accord (ILA) the SLA was confined to barracks. The IPKF thwarted SLA attempts to reinforce its bases which were vulnerable to LTTE attacks.

The Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) had been engaged in offensive military operations targeting the LTTE since Oct. 10, 1987.

In spite of the ILA, which prohibited the deployment of the SLA against the LTTE and other Tamil groups trained and armed by India, the recruitment of youth to the ranks of the armed forces continued. With the gradual build-up, the SLA by early 1988 consisted of about 30,000 personnel, though the actual fighting strength was very much less.

In early 1988, the SLA established two Divisions, with the then Army Commander Lt. General Nalin Seneviratne (Feb. 12, 1985 to Aug. 15, 1988) declaring that reorganization was an urgent necessity for better chain of command. Seneviratne asserted that the SLA could no longer delay the formation of Division due to rapid increase of its strength (Sri Lanka Army to be revamped with a strap line For a better chain of command––The Island March 13, 1988).

In accordance with the reorganization plan, the SLA upgraded the North Central Command headquartered at Anuradhapura to Division I headquarters. The then Colonel A. M. U. Seneviratne, who had been in command at Anuradhapura was succeeded by Maj. Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe. Seneviratne remained at the Division II headquarters. Except for the SLA deployment in the Trincomalee district, all other troops stationed in the Northern and Eastern districts were placed under Division II.

Division I headquartered at Panagoda was responsible for the SLA deployment in support of the police battling the JVP. Having examined shortcomings in the overall security forces response to the JVP threat, the government towards the latter part of 1988 established ‘Operations Combine’ under the command of the then Army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Cecil Waidyaratne. The then Military Secretary Brig. Lucky Wijeratne functioned as Waidyaratne’s deputy. ‘Operations Combine’ operated outside the normal chain of command with the then State Minister for Defence Ranjan Wijeratne personally in charge of the operation. Those spearheading operations had the authority to conduct raids in any part of the country without having to alert coordinating officers responsible for respective districts. Interestingly, the government included a police element in ‘Operations Combine’ with DIG A. S. Seneviratne, in charge of Colombo at the helm. The writer had the opportunity to report on the dispersing of ‘Operations Combine’ at the BMICH on March 3, 1989, with Maj. Gen. Waidyaratne proudly declaring that it had taken only months to break the backbone of the JVP (Ranjan Wijeratne thanks ‘Operations Combine’ for wiping out subversive movement –The Island March 4, 1990)

At the inauguration of the Sixth battalion of the GR several weeks before outbreak of eelam war II on June 10, 1990. Second from left Major Tissa Jayawardena (CO/6 GR), Captain N. Senadeera, Major Neil Dias ( Second-in-Command 6 GR)
The ‘Operations Combine’ functioned well under Waidyaratne’s command though a section of the military despised some of its tactics. At the onset of anti-insurgency project undertaken by the ‘Operations Combine’ the command of the SLA changed with Hamilton Wanasinghe succeeding Lt. Gen. Nalin Seneviratne on August 15, 1988. The then Major General Mike Silva, in spite of being the Chief of Staff during Lt. Gen. Seneviratne’s tenure as the commander was overlooked.

Two weeks before the change of SLA command, the then General Officer Commanding (JOC) of the Joint Operations Command (JOC) General Cyril Ranatunga retired paving the way for retired SLAF Chief Air vice Marshal Walter Fernando to take over the JOC. Still, the top priority remained the quelling of the JVP insurrection with the focus on districts outside the temporarily merged North-East Province, where the JVP was causing mayhem. Although a section of the military establishment remained seriously concerned about the Tamil terrorist groups, the political leadership ignored the threat. The military neglected training troops to face any eventuality. In the northern and eastern districts, particularly in the Jaffna peninsula, the military lost ground due to the IPKF taking over major sections of their bases.

Foolish moves

Having entered into a direct round of negotiations with the LTTE in May 1989, President Ranasinghe Premadasa ordered the SLA to strictly observe ceasefire regardless of provocations. He immediately after having won December 1988 presidential election, ordered the release of nearly 2,000 JVP suspects. Their release resulted in immediate increase in attacks. An angry President directed State Minister for Defence Ranjan Wijeratne to go all out against the JVP. As mentioned before, the establishment of the ‘Operations Combine’ headed by Maj. Gen. Cecil Waidyaratne took place a few months after the JVP spurned President Premadasa’s peace offer.

Army Chief Lt. Gen. Wanasinghe ordered change of command in operational areas on May 15, 1989, with Brigadier J. R. S. de Silva of the Engineers Regiment placed in charge of troops deployed in the northern and eastern districts. Brig. Wijaya Wimalaratne, the Principal Staff Officer of the Operational Headquarters of the Defence Ministry was named the senior officer responsible for North Central and Central Provinces. The remaining provinces came under Army Chief of Staff Major General Cecil Waidyaratne (Changes in army from tomorrow––The Island May 14, 1989).

In spite of the change of command, the government continued to neglect urgent requirements of security forces. President Premadasa went to the extent of declaring after a meeting at Sucharitha attended by service commanders and LTTE representatives led by their theoretician, Anton Balasingham that security forces would now have to find a new enemy to fight. President Premadasa had been confident of a negotiated settlement, whereas a section of the military felt resumption of hostilities was inevitable. Unfortunately, no one dared advise President Premadasa against arming and financing the LTTE during direct negotiations (May 1989 to June 1990) though some of those who were close to him are critical of his actions today.

Former UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa, MP, insisted that his father had been genuine in his efforts to reach a negotiated settlement with the LTTE. Having realized that LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran had been trying to take advantage of the situation, President Premadasa sought to cause a split in the organization by strengthening LTTE deputy Gopalsamy Mahendraraja alias Mahattaya, who had been a member of the outfit’s negotiating team, MP Premadasa told the writer. Had President Premadasa succeeded, the LTTE would have had experienced a debilitating setback at that time and the ground situation conducive for a devastating counter attack in case the LTTE resumed hostilities. Unfortunately, the plan went awry as Prabhakaran executed Mahattaya and his loyalists.

Amidst negotiations between President Premadasa and the LTTE, the JVP stepped up attacks on security forces and the police. A wave of attacks on off-duty personnel in early 1989 sent shock waves through the military, with the JVP warning security forces and police to resign or face the consequences. The JVP also targeted family members of serving security forces and police personnel. But, some felt that it had been part of a despicable strategy aimed at compelling security forces and the police to go the whole hog and finish off the JVP.

Some senior officers incurred the wrath of the political leadership for failing to carry out illegal orders. In some instances, the SLA declined to take such orders from politicians. A case in point was the shifting of the First battalion of the Gemunu Watch (I GW) commanded by the then Lieutenant Colonel Hiran Halangode, which had been deployed in the districts of Moneragala, Ampara and Batticaloa. State Minister for Defence Ranjan Wijeratne directed Lt. Gen. Wanasinghe to remove I GW from Moneragala as it hadn’t been able to produce the desired results. Lt. Col. Halangode’s formation served in Ampara for 10 months before being deployed in the Batticaloa District on May 18, 1990. Alongside the I GW, the SLA deployed the newly raised Sixth battalion of Sri Lanka Light Infantry (6 SLLI). The Infantry battalions had been badly handicapped as they were compelled to transfer one rifle company and composite platoons to the newly raised Infantry battalions in late May 1990.

Newly raised battalions had to face fire as soon as fighting erupted during the second week of June 1990. The expansion had been in accordance with normal expansion though some felt the SLA was preparing for any eventuality. The SLA raised the Sixth battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (6 GR) in Vavuniya on the morning of May 17, 1990. The 6 GR consisted of elements from I GR, 3 GR as well as 4 GR, three of the SLA’s foremost fighting formations. It was part of the ongoing gradual expansion of the SLA. By the time Eelam war II erupted, the 6GR had been deployed in Vavuniya, the scene of many terrorist attacks. Likewise, the formation of new battalions continued, though it was never meant to destabilise President Premadasa’s peace bid. The infantry consisted of Sri Lanka Light Infantry (SLLI), the Sinha Regiment (SR), the Gemunu Watch ( GW), the Gajaba Regiment (GR) and the Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment (VIR). The infantry lacked the required strength to neutralize the LTTE threat at an early stage of eelam war II. The situation would have been much worse had security forces and the police failed to eradicate the JVP by early 1990. By late Feb. 1990, the top JVP leadership except for the present leader Somawansa Amarasinghe had been eliminated. Amarasinghe, too, would have met the same fate if not for the help he received from a section of the government at that time to escape to India, where Indian authorities looked after him before facilitating his migration to the UK. Had President Premadasa’s government forced to fight on two fronts, it would have most probably collapsed as it obviously lacked the wherewithal to engage the LTTE and the JVP at the same time. In hindsight, the LTTE could have achieved its military objectives had it launched Eelam war II at the height of the JVP insurgency. The then Brigadier A. M. U. Seneviratne, who had been Security Forces Commander, South at the time fighting erupted acknowledged that fighting on two fronts simultaneously would have been impossible. Seneviratne, based in Galle was directed to lead one column of troops to rescue troops under siege in Batticaloa. Overnight, the SLA shifted battalions deployed against the JVP to the northern and eastern districts. Those at training centres, too, were unceremoniously rushed to the battle front to meet urgent requirement for additional muscle. The Fifth battalion of the Gemunu Watch (5 GW) was deployed in the districts of Galle and Kalutara at the time fighting erupted. It was immediately dispatched in support of troops deployed in Trincomalee before being shifted to Palaly. Within days after the outbreak of hostilities, the SLA hardly had any reserves in the south. By the time, Maj. Gene. Denzil Kobbekaduwa replaced Maj. Gen. J. R. S. de Silva as the GoC of the Anuradhapura based Division II on July 11, 1990, the entire fighting strength was deployed against the LTTE. In spite of that the SLA couldn’t consolidate its position as the LTTE sustained the momentum of its offensive. Within 72 hours after the change of northern command, the LTTE overran isolated Kokavil detachment on the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road, north of Vavuniya. During the last week of July 1990, the SLA abandoned Kilinochchi. In late November 1990, the SLA quit Mankulam hence leaving the A9 road north of Vavuniya right up to Elephant Pass in the hands of the LTTE. Although SLA bases at Mullaitivu and Silavathurai managed to repulse major attacks in August 1990 and March 1991, respectively, thanks to the timely intervention of combined reinforcements, the government couldn’t regain the initiative. The LTTE remained fully focused on offensive operations on multiple fronts, while the SLA struggled to prevent Jaffna peninsula being isolated. Had that happened, the LTTE would have emerged invincible.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Playing politics with security

War on terror revisited : Part 137

Palaly airfield

By Shamindra Ferdinando

A single bullet pierced the left thigh of Flying Officer (FO) Priyanka Perera as he stood at the tail of a Beechsuper King Air B 200T at the Palaly airfield on the late afternoon of June 15, 1990. FO Perera was the second-in-command at the strategic Palaly air base at the time of the incident. The wounded officer and the then Squadron Leader D. M. Ratnakumara were there to ensure the safety of the aircraft and its crew as they waited for the arrival of Minister A. C. S. Hameed and the SLAF Commander, the then Air Vice Marshal M. J. T. De S. Gunawardena.

Both Perera and Ratnakumara were attached to the SLAF Regiment. Ratnakumara, a batchmate of Chief of Defence Staff Air Chief Marshal Roshan Gunatilleke, commanded Special Airborne unit at that time.

Minister Hameed was visiting Jaffna in his capacity as the Chairman of the North-East Peace Committee. It was his last visit to Jaffna as President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s chief negotiator.

Perera retired in 2009 with the rank of Group Captain. In an interview with the writer, Perera, currently the security manager at the Cinnamon Lakeside, said: "Our task was to secure the airfield for Minister Hameed’s safe departure from Palaly. We were particularly concerned about the minister’s safety as heavy fighting was continuing in the Eastern Province, though a fresh attempt was being made to come to an understanding with the LTTE. Suddenly, the enemy fired mortars and small arms at the airfield. I staggered as a bullet passed through my thigh. Initially, I didn’t even feel any pain, but I immediately handed over my assault rifle and the communication set to the SLAF officer standing next to me. Amidst mortar fire, my colleagues carried me halfway before I was bundled into an ambulance and rushed to the nearly Palaly Military Hospital."

FO Perera was the deputy to the then Squadron Leader Nalin de Silva, base commander at Palaly. Squadron Leader Ratnakumar had come on special assignment in view of the rapid deterioration of the situation in the Jaffna peninsula. "Squadron Leader Ratnakumar was in Palaly for a security audit," Group Captain Perera said, recalling the SLAF build-up in the immediate aftermath of the LTTE resuming hostilities on the night of June 10, 1990.

Perera said: "Minister Hameed was on his way to the aircraft when the LTTE opened fire. The minister, the SLAF commander and others accompanying them had to turn back. Firing began around n4.45 p.m."

Perera had served at Koggala SLAF station before being transferred to Palaly during the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s honeymoon with Prabhakaran (May 1989-June 1990). Before joining the SLAF in the mid 1980s, Perera had worked with The Island.

Having received first aid at the Palaly Military Hospital, Perera joined Minister Hameed onboard the Beechsuper King Air B200T, piloted by the then Wing Commander Jayalath Weerakkody (later Commander of the SLAF and now Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in Islamabad. Weerakkody holds the rank of Air Chief Marshal). Perera couldn’t remember anything of consequence said by Minister Hameed or senior military officers on the flight.

Immediately after landing in Ratmalana, Minister Hameed rushed to meet President Premadasa to brief the UNP leader of his talks with LTTE representatives in the LTTE held area earlier in the day. In spite of the LTTE endangering the life of Minister Hameed by firing at the Palaly air field as the minister was about to leave, President Premadasa still believed he could strike a deal with the LTTE. Shortly after Minister Hameed’s return to Colombo, the government announced a fresh ceasefire effective 6.00 p.m on June 15, 1990. The President chose to ignore the massacre of over 600 unarmed police officers and men in the Batticaloa District on the night of June 10 and June 11. He went to the extent of ordering the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) in Batticaloa to negotiate directly with the LTTE. The then Commanding Officer of the First battalion of the Gemunu Watch (I GW), Lieutenant Colonel Hiran N. Halangode, declined to accompany the then Bishop of Batticaloa to Kiran on the morning of June 16, 1990 to meet LTTE representatives. At that time Halangode had been based at Kallady. The LTTE wanted either Halangode or a senior Batticaloa based SLA representative to visit Kiran, where the isolated SLA detachment was under siege. Halangode felt that the LTTE could take him or his representative hostage and force the I GW troops manning the Kiran detachment to surrender.

While Minister Hameed was visiting the Jaffna peninsula on June 15, 1990 in a last ditch attempt to negotiate a fresh ceasefire with the LTTE, the then General Officer Commanding (GoC) First Division deployed in the Eastern Province, Maj. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa over the army radio assured Lieutenant Colonel Halangode that a rescue operation would be launched immediately. Major General Kobbekaduwa kept his word.

President Premadasa, in spite of being the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, seemed to have lost control of the situation, with the then State Minister of Defence Ranjan Wijeratne throwing his weight behind the military. Minister Wijeratne’s attitude angered President Premadasa, who felt whatever the provocation, the government had no option but to seek a fresh agreement with the LTTE. President Premadasa believed the LTTE was invincible, therefore a ceasefire was not only a necessity, but politically advantageous to his government.

The LTTE attack on the Palaly air base on June 15, 1990 marked the end of direct negotiations between the warring parties for the time being.

A dangerous encounter

Group Captain Nalin de Silva explained the overnight change of the situation in Palaly in the wake of Minister Hameed’s abortive peace mission. The heavy exchange of fire between the LTTE and the combined SLA and SLAF forces following the attack on the air base on June 15, 1990 meant an all out war was imminent.

Close on the heels of Minister Hameed’s last visit to Palaly, base commander Squadron Leader de Silva directed the SLAF Regiment to blockade the Kadduwan road leading to the air field. As the second-in-command at Palaly, Flying Officer M. G. M. Chandralal prepared to lead a group of about 10 personnel to put up a barricade a little distance away from the base perimeter. Pilot Officer Janaka Nanayakkara had joined the group.

Chandralal and Nanayakkara walked ahead of SLAF Regiment personnel along the isolated road. While the two officers were carrying assault rifles slung on their shoulders, troops carried empty barrels and logs required to barricade the road. They knew of the presence of LTTE cadres in the trenches on the right side of the road. Suddenly, three armed LTTE cadres moved across the road and positioned themselves between the two officers and the group of troops carrying barrels and logs. The LTTE group warned in Tamil that the two officers couldn’t proceed any further. Responding to the LTTE threat, Chandralal said that he had put up the barricade on the spot he was standing therefore there was no need for him to move forward any further. The leader of the LTTE insisted such a barricade wouldn’t be allowed under any circumstances. Chandralal stood his ground. Subsequently, the LTTEer contacted a local area leader who arrived at the scene on a motor cycle. Armed with a pistol, the local leader spoke in Sinhalese. He reminded the SLAF that Minister Hameed had agreed to open the roads. Both parties indicated that they would use weapons in case the other opened fire first. Having argued over the positioning of the new barricade, the LTTE withdrew allowing the SLAF to block the road. The LTTE established a forward position about 50 metres ahead of the forward most SLAF position. Currently, Chandralal is the senior officer in charge of SLAF deployed at Mullaitivu, while Nanayakkara, one-time SLAF spokesman is based in Colombo. Both officers hold the rank of Group Captain.

Chandralal’s predecessor, Flying Officer Prasanna Kuruppu, also of the SLAF regiment had to leave the SLAF due to serious injuries sustained in an LTTE mortar attack on June 20, 1990. Kuruppu was named the second-in-command in Palaly after Perera was shot through his left thigh on the afternoon of June 15, 1990. The former Palaly base commander recollected the then Flying Officer Lalith Gunasinghe being sniped during fighting on June 20, 1990. "Lalith was a fine young man from Kandy. He volunteered to lead troops on a mission to clear an LTTE gunpoint especially set up to target aircraft approaching and leaving the Palaly air field. In support of Gunasinghe’s contingent, another group of special troops was deployed. Pilot Officer Nanayakkara commanded the second group. As the second group advanced towards the LTTE position, those involved in the operation returned carrying Gunasinghe’s body. He was posthumously promoted to the rank of Flight Lieutenant.

The SLAF blasted the LTTE position to prevent the LTTE from using that particular building.

SLAF build-up

At the time the IPKF, including the Indian Air Force (IAF) withdrew from the Jaffna peninsula in March 1990, the entire SLAF contingent stationed at Palaly comprised about 170 officers and men. The officers consisted of the base commander, those in charge of six detachments set up to protect the air field/air base, a senior officer in charge of ground defence as well as two logistics, one engineering and one administrative officer.

Although the government and the armed forces should have made contingency plans immediately after India declared its intention in late 1989 to withdraw the IPKF during the early part of 1990, absolutely nothing was done. The government felt that re-deployment of troops in the then temporarily merged north-East Province would be inimical to the ongoing peace process. Both President Premadasa and Minister Hameed repeatedly told the military top brass that they shouldn’t engage in any type of activity which may be construed as hostile. The then Northern Naval Area Commander, Group Captain A. H. M. Razeek asserted: "The LTTE constantly provoked the security forces. They brazenly took advantage of the peace talks to consolidate their positions. The government didn’t take up contentious issues with the LTTE. Instead, we were told to behave."

Razeek retired in March 2002 after having served the Sri Lanka Navy for 32 years.

In spite of the SLAF base at Palaly constantly reminding its headquarters of the LTTE build up, the then Commander, Air vice Marshal M. J. T. De S.Gunawardena couldn’t take counter measures. President Premadasa strongly opposed re-deployment of men which was contrary to the LTTE wish. Instead, President Premadasa ordered the vacation of key bases in the Jaffna peninsula.

The IAF didn’t even bother to alert the SLAF of its departure from the Palaly airfield. Thanks to those officers and men stationed at Palaly at that time, the SLAF quickly took over the airfield as the IAF and IPKF pulled out, thereby preventing the LTTE from moving in. The Sri Lankan military suspected the possibility of those in charge of Palaly during the IPKF deployment conspiring to facilitate the possible LTTE takeover of the airfield in March 1990.

Soon after fighting erupted, the SLAF began deploying additional strength in Palaly. In the absence of required muscle, the SLAF had to deploy those undergoing training at various establishments to face the LTTE challenge. The SLAF’s largest transport aircraft available at that time, a Chinese built Y 8, landed at Palaly carrying 100 personnel. Some of those coming straight from training establishments had been uncomfortable. The situation in Palaly continued to deteriorate as the security forces struggled on all fronts. The month of June, 1990, was one of the worst during the conflict.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Gajaba, Gemunu troops in daring heli-borne rescue mission

War on  Terror Revisited : Part 136


 by Shamindra Ferdinando

The Sri Lanka Army (SLA) raised the Sixth battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (6 GR) in Vavuniya on the morning of May 17, 1990. The 6 GR consisted of elements from I GR, 3 GR as well as 4 GR, three of the SLA’s foremost fighting formations. It was part of the ongoing gradual expansion of the SLA. At the time eelam war II erupted during the second week of June 1990, the 6GR had been deployed in Vavuniya, the scene of many terrorist attacks.

In an interview with The Island, the then Sergeant Major, K. Chandrasena of the 6 GR, explained the battalion’s role in the initial phase of eelam war II. Having been in the SLA for 33 years, Chandrasena, a native of Mulkirigala, now holds the rank of Major and has been based in Colombo for about three years. Having launched a major offensive directed at five army bases in the Batticaloa district manned by the First battalion of the Gemunu Watch (IGW) and Sixth battalion of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry ( 6 SLLI), the LTTE challenged the SLA in the northern and eastern districts, including Vavuniya. The newly raised 6 GR had been one of the formations involved in the counter attack in Vavuniya and adjoining areas. The 6GR had also been involved in several other operations in the Vavuniya – Mannar sector, before it was hurriedly airlifted to the Palaly air field.

The SLAF flew the entire 6 GR in fixed wing aircraft to the Palaly air base. Maj. Chandrasena recollected troops boarding aircraft on July 20, 1990 at the Vavuniya airfield for their next mission. Maj. Chandrasena said: "We were flown in Avro aircraft in batches. Our battalion commander and his second-in-command, the then Majors, T.W. Jayawardena and Jagath Dias flew with us. Although we were aware that Palaly was constantly under enemy fire, the Avros landed safely. The deployment began late afternoon and ended in the early hours of the following day. We were tired, but at the same time enthusiastic about the next mission."

Tissa Jayawardene retired several years ago with the rank of Major General. Jagath Dias is currently Adjutant General, SLA headquarters in Colombo following a diplomatic stint. Dias is credited with leading the 57 Division on the central front during eelam war IV.

Officers and men had just a few hours of sleep in Palaly after having received a briefing on their next mission. The then Northern Commander, Maj. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa assigned the Fifth battalion of the Gemunu Watch (5 GW) for the operation involving the 6 GR. Their mission was to rescue those trapped at the SLA base at Kilinochchi. The then Major Maithree Dias was in charge of the base manned by troops of the Sixth battalion of the Sinha Regiment (6 SR). Dias, who was sent from Palaly to organise the vacation of the base with the help of a Catholic priest known to the LTTE, was trapped there when the LTTE launched an attack. Maithree Dias, also of the 6 SR had about 90 men under his command, including those from other formations. Dias, now the General Officer Commanding (GoC) 54 Division headquartered in Mannar, told the writer that the LTTE probably felt it could wipe out the base instead of allowing troops to quit Kilinochchi on their own. In the absence of the then Lieutenant Colonel H. R. Stephen, the Commanding Officer of 6 SR who also functioned as the coordinating officer for Kilinochchi, Dias had to resist the LTTE attack until reinforcements could fight their way in from the Jaffna peninsula. (Stephenwas killed on the morning of August 8, 1992 in a mine blast at Araly point, Kayts Island. The blast also claimed the lives of Northern Commander, Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa, Jaffna Security Forces Commander, Brigadier Wijaya Wimalaratne, Northern Area Naval Commander, Rear Admiral Mohan Jayamaha.

At the time, the 6 GR flew in to Palaly, 5 GW was positioned there after having fought a series of battles in the Trincomalee district at the onset of eelam war II. At the time fighting erupted, 5 GW had been deployed in the districts of Kalutara and Galle to quell the JVP insurgency. The then platoon commander of 5 GW, Sanjaya Wanigasinghe, recalled the battalion being airlifted from Trincomalee to Palaly following the completion of operations at Muttur as well as Kattaparichchan. According to him, there had been two major confrontations close to the Paranthan-Mullaitivu road and at the Karadipokku Bridge before the two battalions reached Kilinochchi. Major Jayampathy Wijeratne’s battalion advanced on the right of the road, while 6 GR advanced on the left flank. While those who had been under siege at Kilinochchi and 6 GR withdrew from the Vanni mainland after the completion of the operation, 5 GW was positioned at Paranthan for about two months. "We too subsequently withdrew," Wanigasinghe said, adding that the mission to rescue the Kilinochchi base was the first large scale heli-borne operation undertaken by 5 GW under the command of the then Major Wijeratne (died of a heart attack a few years ago after having retired from the army). The second-in-command was the then Major Sarath Fernando, who retired a few years ago. Wanigasinghe, now the Commandant of the Infantry Training Centre, Minneriya commanded the 58.2 Brigade during the humanitarian operation. Brig. Wanigasinghe said that 5 GW undertook the mission soon after Major Wijeratne succeeded the then Commanding Officer, Wasantha Perera.

Heli-borne assault

The mission to rescue those trapped at Kilinochchi was launched in the wake of the SLA’s failure to intervene at Kokavil where about 60 men died fighting during the third week of July, 1990. Although the SLA had shifted the 3 GR from Matale to Vavuniya with the specific intention of launching a heli-borne operation to save those trapped at the Kokavil detachment, it didn’t materialize. Instead, 3 GR troops, along with Commandos were deployed also on a heli-borne mission to reinforce the beleaguered Mankulam base. In spite of successfully reinforcing Mankulam, the SLA couldn’t hold it, ultimately leading to its vacation during the last week of November (War on terror revisited series in its 119 installment dealt with the retreat from Mankulam during the last week of November 1990).

Major Chandrasena recollected the circumstances under which the 6 GR and 5 GW launched the first major heli-borne operation undertaken by the SLA. Although the SLAF had been deployed to shift troops on many occasions, there hadn’t been a large scale heli-borne deployment before the mission on July 21, 1990. Major Chandrasena said: "At the onset of eelam war II, we lost control of major roads in the northern region. We couldn’t move overland from Palaly to Jaffna Fort or to the Elephant Pass base. On the morning of July 21, the SLAF deployed 10 Bell 212s to shift the entire 6 GR from Palaly to a point very close to the Elephant Pass saltern. Our Commanding Officer, Maj. T.W. Jayawardena and the second-in-command, Major A.N.J.C. Dias led us. The landing took place without the LTTE knowing. Having moved the entire 6 GR battalion, the SLAF airlifted 5 GW. We positioned ourselves at Elephant Pass. On the following day, July 22, 6 GR and 5 GW commenced advancing towards Paranthan. We didn’t take the road. Instead, we advanced southwards about 100 meters east of the road. As we advanced towards the Paranthan-Mullaitivu road, a major firefight erupted between advancing troops and the LTTE. The battle lasted for about four hours. We lost nine personnel, while 26 others received injuries. Having defeated the LTTE units, we secured Paranthan junction on that day, though we didn’t advance further. On the following day, July 23, we began advancing towards Kilinochchi. Although the LTTE resisted throughput the push, it couldn’t halt advancing GR and 5 GW troops. Finally, we reached Kilinochchi base around 5.30 p.m."

Having reached Kilinochchi on the evening of July 23, 1990, the 6 GR and 5 GW cleared the area surrounding the base the following day. The clearing operation took place as the military top brass debated whether to hold Kilinochchi base or vacate it. Three days after the rescue of those trapped at Elephant Pass, the SLA ordered troops to vacate Kilinochchi. The decision meant that the SLA accepted that it lacked the wherewithal to sustain a troop presence at Kilinochchi. The top brass were of the opinion the Kilinochchi was untenable in the absence of an overland Main Supply Route (MSR) from Palaly. They feared that the LTTE could isolate Kilinochchi again, causing a catastrophe. Having deliberated the ground situation, the SLA ordered the vacation of Kilinochchi, leaving the bases at Mullaitivu and Mankulam to face the LTTE threat. The LTTE turned Kilinochchi into one of its major bastions. Kilinochchi remained in the hands of the LTTE until troops of Operation ‘Sath Jaya’ regained Kilinochchi in late September 1996.

Assault on Mannar Island

Major Chandrasena recalled another large scale heli-borne assault undertaken by 6 GR in late November 1990 in the wake of the LTTE driving out Muslims from Mannar Island. The eviction of the Muslims from the Northern region, particularly Mannar Island, caused a major headache for the military top brass.

The SLAF flew the entire 6 GR battalion from Palaly to Mannar Island on the morning of November 28, 1990. The heli-borne operation got underway as a Landing Craft carrying the Third battalion of Sri Lanka Light Infantry (3 SLLI) reached Mannar waters. Having landed at Thalpadu, Mannar Island, 6 GR swiftly consolidated its positions, while 3 SLLI troops joined action on Mannar Island. Having cleared Mannar Island, 6 GR and 3 SLLI cleared the way for the army deployed on the Mannar mainland to restore the overland link with the Island.

Exclusive Tamil region

Had President Ranasinghe Premadasa authorized military action immediately after the LTTE ordered Muslims to leave the Northern Province at gun point or face the consequences, the ground situation wouldn’t have deteriorated so rapidly. Unfortunately, the President didn’t want to further escalate fighting and on the other hand, the SLA lacked adequate infantry troops at that time to undertake a major operation. It would be pertinent to mention that the LTTE ordered those living in the Jaffna peninsula to vacate the area during the third week of Oct 1990. Subsequently, the LTTE issued an ultimatum to those living in Mannar Island, Silavaturai and other parts of the Vanni region (Tiger threats cause exodus of Muslims from north-The Island Oct 26, 1990, Tiger deadline for Muslims to vacate Mannar island expires tomorrow-The Island Oct 30, 1990, 30,000 Muslims still in Mannar-The Island Oct 31, 1990, Stop massive exodus of Muslim from North-SLMC tells government-The Island Nov 1, 1990).

The SLMC led calls for the immediate deployment of the army to save Muslims from the LTTE. However, the government delayed action until it was too late. By the time the SLA assaulted Mannar Island on Nov 28, 1990, the entire population had fled the area, leaving the army to deal with a hostile Tamil population. The failure on the part of the then administration to thwart the LTTE project to clear the administrative districts of Jaffna, Mannar, Mullaitivu and Kilinochci in Oct 1990 was nothing but a strategic blunder. Both the political and military leadership failed to realize the gravity of the LTTE’s move and the consequences of the Northern region being devoid of Muslims. In spite of the SLMC making representations to Minister A.C.S. Hameed, Chairman of the North East Peace Committee as well as presidential advisor Bradman Weerakoon, the government ignored the danger of Muslims leaving their homes in the Northern region. The LTTE move received the blessings of many Tamil politicians as well as other Tamil armed groups fighting alongside the SLA against the LTTE. Despite their rivalry, they tactically agreed that it would be advantageous to get rid of Muslims. The bottom line was that they agreed on the need for an exclusive Tamil region in the Northern Province whatever their differences regarding political and military strategy. Tamil political parties remained silent as the LTTE consolidated its position in the Northern region at the expense of Tamil speaking Muslims. The region remained exclusively Tamil until the eradication of the LTTE leadership on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon in May 2009, which paved the way for the Muslims to return to their villages.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

A dangerous journey

*War on terror revisited : Part 135

In the midst of war, officers based at the Palaly air base posed for a photograph on the runway. From left (seated) Flying Officer Chinthaka Dias, Flying Lt. Leonard Rodrigo, Flying Lt. Lalith Samarawickrema, Squadron Leader Nalin de Silva, Flying Officer M. G. M. Chandralal (Second-in Command, SLAF Palaly), Flying Officer Vijitha Wettamuni, Flying Officer Chandana Deepthi. (Standing) Pilot Officer Sanjaya Fernando, Pilot Officer Janaka Nanayakkara (Nanayakkara, now a Group Captain functioned as the SLAF spokesman during Eelam war IV ), Flying Officer Bernard Gunawardene, Flying Officer A. Karunaratne, Pilot Officer V. Deeza, Flying Officer Ranijth Hemachandra, Pilot Officer Ranjith Hemachandra, Pilot Officer Rohan Hemasinghe, Pilot Officer Saman Rallewela and Flying Officer Manoj Mallawarachchi. Pilot Officers, Iran Pituwalgoda, Mahesh Hemage and Chandika Siriwardane are not in the picture, though they were part of the Palaly team.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

In accordance with an agreement between President Ranasinghe Premadasa and LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham, police headquarters increased the number of Tamil speaking policemen serving in predominately Tamil areas, particularly the Jaffna peninsula.

In line with the arrangement, additional Tamil speaking personnel were assigned to the Jaffna Fort, where a contingent of Sixth battalion of Sinha Regiment (6 SR) troops and police were deployed. Following a directive from the Defence Ministry, the SLAF base at Palaly opened a ticketing office at the Jaffna fort for the convenience of those wanting to use SLAF-run helitours. The Commanding Officer at Palaly assigned two personnel to run that office and attached them to the Jaffna Fort police.

The then Palaly base commander, Squadron Leader Nalin De Silva had received a call from one of the personnel based at the Jaffna Fort a few weeks before the outbreak of eelam war II on the night of June 10, 1990, requesting him to detach them from the Jaffna Fort contingent and locate them with the SLA unit as they didn’t like the food served for the police. Squadron Leader De Silva said: "As my wife, Ayoma and 11-year-old daughter, Imalka, too, were with me at the Palaly air base, I thought of moving overland to the Jaffna Fort to meet my men and make arrangements for them to obtain their meals from the 6 SR contingent. I managed to reach the Jaffna Fort without incident. The senior police officer in charge of the Fort police was surprised to see me with my wife and child as tension was running high in the wake of LTTE attempts to prevent security forces from moving out of their bases. The police officer recalled the circumstances under which the LTTE had detained a Sub Inspector on his way to Jaffna Fort from Point Pedro. The LTTE imposed restrictions on our movements immediately after the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) left the country. Unfortunately, on my way back, some LTTE cadres intercepted my vehicle opposite the Alfred Duraiappah stadium and wanted to search it. I declined and they didn’t insist. Anyway, I was unarmed. Subsequently, they called a translator to question us. Having detained us for some time, they released us. Regardless of our ordeal, I drove to the Jaffna market where my wife bought some items before returning to base."

Having served the SLAF for almost 25 years, De Silva retired with the rank of Group Captain during Eelam war III (April 1995 to Dec 2001).

"My wife always stayed with me wherever I was stationed. We were together at Vavuniya, Morawewa, Palaly as well as Hingurakgoda. She used to go in fixed wing aircraft carrying bodies of young men killed in combat. In fact, my daughter, too, accompanied my wife on many occasions."

Tigers turn hostile

At the onset of hostilities there had been about a 500 member strong SLAF contingent at the Palaly air base. Unlike some other air forces, the SLAF had been responsible for the perimeter security of all airfields, including those in operational areas. The bulk of the SLAF deployment was assigned for parameter defence, though the government was engaged in peace talks (May 1989-June 1990). Squadron Leader de Silva said: "We were always suspicious about the LTTE’s intentions, despite the group repeatedly reiterating its commitment for a negotiated settlement. In hindsight, we now know the LTTE imposed severe restrictions on our movements, probably to prevent us from seeing what was going on. They dominated both the Palaly-Jaffna and Kankesanthurai-Jaffna roads. We realised the gravity of the ground situation only when fighting broke out in June. The enemy was well positioned in the peninsula. Although the armed forces and the LTTE cooperated with each other since May 1989, the situation changed with the IPKF pullout. Overnight, the LTTE changed its attitude. We were told in no uncertain terms not to move out of our bases in uniform or in civvies. Sending mobile or foot patrols, too, were prohibited. In Palaly, we had just one Bell 212. With the IPKF’s departure in late March 1990, the LTTE commenced building fortifications around our bases. By the second week of June 1990, Jaffna bases were under constant pressure."

Balasingham and vacation of Jaffna Fort

The then Northern Naval Commander, Captain A. H. M. Razeek recollected how Balasingham told President Premadasa’s chief negotiator, Minister A. C. S. Hameed not to vacate the Jaffna Fort in the run-up to the outbreak of hostilities. Balasingham was responding to a suggestion that the government should give up the Jaffna Fort to prevent the LTTE from isolating it in case of war. Razeek, who retired after having served the navy as Chief of Staff felt that the LTTE probably believed it could overrun half a dozen isolated bases, including the Jaffna Fort, at the commencement of hostilities. It would have been a major propaganda victory for the LTTE to overrun the Jaffna Fort, a symbol of military presence in the Jaffna peninsula. That would have dealt a massive blow to the armed forces morale, Razeek asserted. Losing the Jaffna Fort at an early stage of Eelam war II would have been as bad as the Elephant Pass debacle in April 2000.

Kobbekaduwa takes over northern troops

About a month after the eruption of Eelam war II during the second week of June 1990, Major General Denzil Kobbekaduwa took over the northern division headquartered at Anuradhapura. The much respected soldier succeeded Maj. Gen. J. R. S. de Silva of the Engineers. Immediately after Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa’s take over, the SLA lost an isolated base at Kokavil established to provide security to the Rupavahini transmission tower. Less than two weeks later, the SLA abandoned Kilinochchi. In late November in the same year, the SLA gave up its base at Mankulam. Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa couldn’t have changed the situation overnight. The Sandhurst-trained Kobbekaduwa was originally of the 1st Reconnaissance Regiment of the Sri Lanka Armoured Corps. It would be pertinent to mention a conversation between Maj. Gen. de Silva and the then Lieutenant Colonel Hiran N. Halangode after the latter informed the former of an LTTE ultimatum that the First battalion of the Gemunu Watch (I GW) deployed in the Batticaloa District should surrender or face the consequences. Halangode, the commanding officer of IGW as well as the coordinating officer for the Batticaloa District, had got in touch with the northern division commander during the June 1990 siege of his troops and those of the Sixth battalion of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (SLLI). Lt. Colonel Halangode sought instructions from Maj. Gen J. R. S. de Siva after his immediate superior Brigadier Rohan de S Daluwatte didn’t want to take a stand on the LTTE ultimatum. But, Maj. Gen. de Silva ordered that the army in Batticaloa should fight to the last man and that under no circumstances must a surrender be considered.

Although some felt that in the wake of Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa’s appointment as the northern division commander, there could be a change in the post of Jaffna Brigade Commander, Brigadier Jaliya Nanmuni remained the Jaffna Brigade Commander until Gajaba Regiment veteran Brigadier Wijaya Wimalaratne succeeded Brigadier Nanmuni in the first week of January 1991. Brig. Wimalaratne functioned as Jaffna Brigade Commander until he was killed in a mine blast at Araly point, Kayts on August 8, 1992. Major General Kobbekaduwa was also killed in the blast.

Group Captain de Silva recollected Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa’s constant advice that regardless of provocations, civilians must not be targeted. Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa always emphasised the need to check once, twice and if necessary thrice before taking a target to ensure the safety of civilians. The one-time national rugby captain said that because of the Major General’s love for rugby, they had a very close relationship. The northern commander always earned the respect of his colleagues as well as those who fought under him, Group Captain de Silva said, adding that the war effort suffered a massive blow due to the loss of war veterans.

Soon after the outbreak of hostilities during the second week of June 1990, the armed forces had no option but to act swiftly and decisively to expand the perimeters of both SLA and SLAF bases at Palaly and link them overland with Kankesanthurai. Although the military realised the urgent need to secure the Palaly bases as well as Kankesanthurai by bringing more territory under its control, thereby giving the required depth to defences, it couldn’t muster sufficient forces for the operation until the third week of Oct 1990. The SLA lacked troops to launch operations in accordance with a viable strategy as fighting troops had to be shifted from place to place to meet emerging threats. The SLA never had an adequate reserve for an emergency. Due to the dearth of troops, the SLA always struggled to meet battlefield requirements.

Poor planning

The biggest obstacle to Sri Lanka’s victory over terrorism was the failure on the part of successive governments, as well as the military top brass to increase the strength of the infantry. The army lacked fighting formations to sustain offensive operations over a period of time, while having adequate ground forces to hold recaptured territory. The SLA took corrective measures only after the outbreak of major hostilities in Aug. 2006. The then army chief, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s proposal to double the strength of troops would never have been a reality without the blessings of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

During eelam war II, the SLA faced a major shortage of fighters. At the time fighting broke out in the East on June 11, 1990, the Jaffna Brigade had one infantry battalion (Sixth battalion Sinha Regiment -6SR), plus support units and a section of the Sixth Field Engineers. The 6 SR troops had been deployed at half a dozen bases from Palaly, the northern most deployment and Kokavil along the Jaffna-Kandy A9 road. At that time, 6 SR would have had maximum 700 officers and men.

The situation would have been worse if the SLA had been compelled to deploy troops to protect the airfield at Palaly. Group Captain de Silva said that the SLAF regiment had been responsible for protecting not only the airfield at Palaly, but also all other airfields in both operational as well as non-operational areas. In response to the threat posed by the LTTE, the SLAF launched an operation to expand the perimeters of the Palaly air base. Group Captain de Silva recalled his second-in-command, Flight Lieutenant Prasanna Kuruppu receiving serious injuries due to LTTE mortar fire. de Silva said: "Kuruppu was a fine young man. His injuries were so severe; both legs had to be amputated. The Corporal standing next to Kuruppu was killed in the attack. Officers and men deployed at Palaly felt really bad about the incident, particularly because it happened in the immediate aftermath of Flight Lieutenant Priyankara Perera being hit on the Palaly airfield. Perera had been de Silva’s second-in-command at that time. Kuruppu succeeded Perera in June 1990. After the tragic end to Kuruppu’s military career, his vacancy was filled by the then Flying Officer, M. G. M. Chandralal, presently the base commander at Mullaitivu. Chandralal holds the rank of Group Captain.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

A mutiny at Palaly

War on terror revisited : Part 134


by Shamindra Ferdinando

A group of SLAF personnel pose for a picture with Indian Air Force officer (fourth from left) at the Palaly air base during the tail end of the Indian military presence here. (From left) The then Squadron Leader Nalin De Silva, Flight Lt Boteju, Flight Lt. Lalith Samarawickrema, unnamed Indian Air Force officer holding the rank of Wing Commander in charge of helicopter gunship operations and Flight Lt Dushan Thalagala. India deployed Mi-24 helicopter gunships in Sri Lanka in Oct. 1987 in support of ‘Operation Pawan.’ The SLAF acquired Mi-24s in early 1996. The group stands in the backdrop of an Indian Mi-24.

In spite of the LTTE firing at the Palaly air base, endangering the life of President Premadasa’s chief negotiator, minister Hameed on the evening of June 16, 1990, much to the surprise of the military, the government declared a fresh ceasefire at 6 p.m. on the same day. The government announced that the then Chairman of the North-East Peace Committee, minister Hameed had been able to negotiate a fresh agreement with the LTTE after five days of fighting. The government claimed that following seven hours of talks, the parties to the new agreement had decided to take early measures to re-open all police stations, release all persons held by the LTTE and resolve all outstanding issues through negotiations (Government and LTTE agree on ceasefire with strap line Hameed’s peace mission––The Island June 17, 1990).

Although the LTTE sustained its offensive causing heavy losses among the security forces, including the killing of over 40 elite army commandos in the Eastern Province in a single confrontation, President Premadasa continued with his peace efforts. The government explored the possibility of seeking the assistance of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to bring the LTTE back to the negotiating table (Peace pact in the air: fighting rages on–The Island June 24, 1990).

Having returned to Sri Lanka in March 1990 following an overseas course, the then Squadron Leader Nalin de Silva of the SLAF Regiment received an immediate posting to the SLAF base at Vavuniya. The Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was in the process of withdrawing in accordance with an agreement with the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa and the government of India. In March 1990, de Silva received appointment as the senior officer in charge of the Palaly air base, the main SLAF facility in the Northern Province. The then SLAF Commander, Air vice Marshal Terrance Gunawardena placed Palaly under the Northern Zonal Commander, the then Wing Commander, Sunil Cabral, who played a significant role during eelam war II.

The IPKF completed its withdrawal from the Jaffna peninsula on the morning of March 20, ending a 32-month occupation of the Jaffna peninsula (Pull out of last IPKF contingent from Jaffna with strap line End of 32-month occupation-The Island March 21, 1990). The then Army Commander, Lt. General Hamilton Wanasinghe joined the General Officer Commanding (GOC) the IPKF General A. S. Kalkat at Kankesanthurai harbour to see about 1,000 Indian troops boarding an Indian Navy vessel. While the Indian ship was leaving Kankesanthurai, the then Deputy Leader of the LTTE and leader of the People’s Front of Liberation Tigers (PFLT), Gopalsamy Mahendraraja alias Mahattaya opened the group’s headquarters at Kondavil. Among those present at the occasion were LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham and Secretary General of the newly recognised PFLT.

The IPKF completed its pullout on the morning of March 24, 1990, with the last Indian navy troop ship leaving Trincomalee (The IPKF is off––The Island March 25). The writer had the opportunity to go onboard the vessel to cover the then Indian High Commissioner Lakhan Lal Mehrotra addressing troops. As the Indian troop ship left Trincomalee, the LTTE moved into the town. During the gradual IPKF pullout from Kankesanthurai, Trincomalee as well as Palaly, the LTTE moved in to fill the vacuum. By the third week of March 1990, the LTTE had new gun positions targeting security forces bases.

In an extensive interview with the writer, retired Group Captain Nalin de Silva explained the overnight change of the LTTE’s attitude following the IPKF pullout. The armed forces quickly realised the so-called direct negotiations between the government and the LTTE meant absolutely nothing to Prabhakaran. The LTTE stepped up pressure on the Jaffna forces amidst ongoing consultations between the two sides. The situation had continued to deteriorate since the IPKF withdrawal, with the LTTE making repeated attempts to provoke troops. Group Captain De Silva said: "They walked up to our frontline positions and made vulgar gestures. Some LTTE cadres raised their sarongs. It was all part of their strategy. Senior officers had a very difficult time in dealing with the situation. Young personnel, some of them barely out of their teens, resented the LTTE’s attitude. They also blamed us for turning a blind eye to what was going on under our very nose."

New bunkers near Palaly air base

Group Captain de Silva said: "The LTTE leadership always voiced concern over the so called Tamil National Army (TNA) established by the IPKF in violation of the Indo-Lanka Accord. We were told to be vigilant due to the heavy presence of the TNA. In fact, the LTTE took up the position that security forces shouldn’t move out of their bases for their own good. As the senior officer in command at Palaly airbase, I, too, received the same advice from the LTTE. The SLAF was assured of protection by the LTTE. Having guaranteed our security, the LTTE launched a special project to establish strong points ahead of our defences on the basis of intelligence reports that the TNA was likely to attack. We were suspicious of the LTTE intentions. We weren’t surprised when those gun positions built ahead of our positions were found to be pointed towards the Palaly base. Like the SLA and the SLN, we, too, repeatedly warned our headquarters of the rapid LTTE build-up. We realised eelam war II was fast approaching, though the LTTE still reiterated its commitment to a negotiated settlement with the government."

Having served the SLAF for almost 25 years, de Silva retired prematurely in late 1998 with the rank of Group Captain.

Group Captain de Silva recalled the government’s chief negotiator Minister A.C. S. Hameed arriving in Palaly for crucial talks with LTTE representatives led by Anton Balasingham in the wake of fighting breaking out in the Eastern Province on the morning of June 11. At the commencement of hostilities in the Batticaloa District, the SLA abandoned two isolated bases situated at Wellawadi and Kalmunai. De Silva said that four hours of talks at Palaly had failed to produce the desired results. Balasingham indicated that negotiations weren’t successful and the group wasn’t happy with the situation. The former British High Commission employee Balasingham conveniently forgot that the LTTE had caused the crisis by detaining over 600 police personnel. Having failed to stop fighting through a fresh agreement with Balasingham, minister Hameed left for Colombo.

The government still believed that the LTTE could be brought back to the negotiating table though it was on the offensive in both the northern and eastern provinces. On orders of President Premadasa, minister Hameed continued with his efforts. The President insisted that negotiations should continue, though the execution of several hundred police personnel was already known.

Night flight

In a bid to appease the LTTE, President Premadasa directed the then STF Commandant, SSP Lionel Karunasena to ensure the safe passage for four LTTE personnel, who had been in Colombo at the time fighting erupted in the east during the second week of June 1990. Acting on the presidential directive, the STF escorted LTTE cadres from the Galadari Meridian, where they were staying, to the Ratmalana air base. The Defence Ministry ordered the SLAF to move them and their equipment, including arms and ammunition to Palaly air base and facilitate their return to the LTTE-held area. The pilots refused to fly the armed LTTE group and did not budge though immense pressure was brought to bear on them. Ultimately, the SLAF top brass had to visit the Ratmalana air base to explain the situation to the flyers. After much discussion, the SLAF agreed to carry out the presidential directive.

At one point, senior officers at Ratmalana air base felt some troops could harm the lives of LTTE cadres. The SLAF struggled to maintain discipline. After hours of arguments, an SLAF crew responsible for Y 12 fixed wing aircraft finally agreed to take off from the Ratmalana air base in the night. While the SLAF top brass barely managed to control the situation at the Ratmalana air base, a major crisis erupted in Palaly. It was a near mutiny, with almost the entire Palaly SLAF strength vowing to do away with LTTE cadres as soon as they left the aircraft. Squadron Leader de Silva struggled to control the situation. Group Captain de Silva said: "I received instructions from Colombo to ensure the safe passage of LTTE cadres along with their equipment. Although I resented what I had been asked to do as an officer I couldn’t disobey a directive issued from a higher authority. Amidst rising tension at the air base and the adjoining SLA camp, I addressed officers and men warning them against any action which could escalate the crisis. They were told in no uncertain terms that security forces should obey government directives and carry them out regardless of consequences. I felt their resentment towards those in authority but whatever the personal feelings, the presidential directive had to be carried out. Although I was confident of somehow preventing a riot inside the base immediately after the LTTE cadres got off the fixed wing aircraft, I was asked to drive my vehicle close to the aircraft, get four LTTE personnel and their equipment into my vehicle and drive them to an LTTE base at Vasavilan. I drove them out of the air base, unarmed only to be stopped about a kilometre away from the LTTE base. My passengers got off the SLAF jeep and boarded an LTTE vehicle. They could have detained me. Had that happened, I would have been another victim of the bloody conflict."

Group Captain de Silva said that the then government went out of its way to stop eelam war II to pave the way for a negotiated settlement. In spite of grave provocations, the government as well as the security forces bent over backwards to appease the LTTE. De Silva said that he couldn’t recollect the exact dates and times of some incidents during his tenure as base commander, Palaly.

Tigers fire at Minister Hameed

Minister Hameed returned to Palaly several days later on an unprecedented mission to work out an agreement with the LTTE. As the LTTE was no longer willing to come to the Palaly air base, President Premadasa directed Minister Hameed to cross the no man’s land beyond the Palaly-Jaffna road for an unprecedented meeting with LTTE leaders. The meeting took place on June 16, 1990. War on Terror Revisited series earlier dealt with the then Jaffna Brigade Major Crishanthe de Silva and Lt. Colonel Gamini Jayasundera, the Commanding Officer of the Third battalion, Sri Lanka Light Infantry (SLLI), risking their lives to facilitate the meeting between minister Hameed and LTTE representatives. Having had a seven hour meeting in LTTE-held territory, minister Hameed returned to the Palaly army camp where he briefed the military top brass as regards the outcome of his latest endeavour and was about to leave for Ratmalana when heavy gunfire erupted.

Group Captain de Silva said: "Having briefed the military, we were walking towards the Beechsuper King Air B 200T piloted by the then Wing Commander Jayalath Weerakkody (later commander of the SLAF and currently Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in Islamabad, holding the rank of Air Chief Marshal), when Tigers fired mortars, heavy machine guns and assault rifles at us. As I felt the enemy was particularly targeting the aircraft, I directed the control tower to take immediate measures to alert the pilot. I still remember, minister Hameed running towards the airport along with others scheduled to take that flight. The SLAF fired back at the enemy. Amidst the gun battle, WC Weerakody took off. Among the passengers on board the aircraft acquired in 1983 for VVIP transport with a seating capacity of nine was the then Flight Lieutenant, Priyankara Perera, the second-in-command of the Palaly air base. Perera was hit during the initial stage of the LTTE attack directed at the air base. Perera retired years later after having served the SLAF with the rank of Group Captain. Squadron Leader de Silva somehow managed to accommodate his second-in-command in the VIP flight, thus making it possible for the young officer to receive better medical treatment in Colombo.

Group Captain de Silva admitted that the military wasn’t even in a position to take care of battlefield injuries in Palaly as it had been in the non-combat mode since June 1987. The SLAF had never had any combat experience though officers and men of the SLAF Regiment underwent training. The resumption of fighting took the security forces by surprise. The attack on minister Hameed meant that his talks earlier in the day had obviously failed to produce the desired result.


Daring response to threat on Elara base

*War on terror revisited : Part 133


The then President Ranasinghe Premadasa had the opportunity to avert eelam war II by strengthening security forces presence in the northern and eastern districts in early 1990. The elimination of the JVP leadership in a series of regular as well as covert military and police operations in late 1989 caused the collapse of the second insurgency spearheaded by Rohana Wijeweera. The victory on the southern front cleared the way for swift re-deployment of troops and re-positioning of military assets to meet a possible LTTE threat, once the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) withdrew from Sri Lanka. In spite of clear indications of a rapid LTTE build-up, the government turned a blind eye to what was going on in the then temporarily merged province. The Security Forces Commander Jaffna had only The Sixth battalion of the Sinha Regiment (6 SR) under his command, though the Third Battalion of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (3 SLLI), was hastily placed under SF Commander, Jaffna soon after trouble erupted in June 1990. Although Sixth Field Engineers, too, was placed under the command of SF Commander, Jaffna, he had only one infantry battalion. The situation in the Eastern Province comprising Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara, too, was the same with just three infantry battalions deployed. Isolated bases at Silavaturai, Mullaitivu and Mankulam didn’t have at least 100 infantrymen each at the commencement of eelam war II during the second week of June 1990.

by Shamindra Ferdinando

The Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) had its northern headquarters at Karainagar on Karaitivu Island in the early 1990s. Karainagar is the largest town in the island linked to the Jaffna peninsula by a causeway. The SLN base there is named Elara.

The SLN presence at Elara and Kankesanthurai was necessary to sustain the military presence in the Jaffna peninsula following the loss of the Kandy-Jaffna A-9 road. In the absence of air capability to ensure supplies as well as armaments for troops deployed in the Jaffna peninsula, the two navy bases became the most important supply points. Had the LTTE managed to overrun them at the onset of eelam war II, it would have been able to cut off supplies to the troops.

The Sri Lanka Army (SLA) and Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) had their main bases at Palaly, adjoining each other. Although Karaitivu is connected to the Jaffna peninsula by the Chankani-Karaitivu causeway, the then Northern Commander A. H. M. Razeek used to move from Karainagar to Kankesanthurai in a patrol boat and from there overland to Palaly. Razeek didn’t change his habit even during the ceasefire (May 1989-June 1990) preceding eelam war II. Brigadier Jaliya Nammuni was Security Forces Commander, Jaffna, while Squadron Leader Nalin de Silva functioned as the base commander at Palaly.

At the onset of eelam war II, the LTTE targeted the Elara base. In fact, the LTTE directed an operation at Karainagar base following major offensive action in the Eastern Province. According to the then Commanding Officer of the First battalion of Gemunu Watch (I GW) who also functioned as the Coordinating Officer for Batticaloa district, Lieutenant Colonel Hiran N. Halangoda, the LTTE killed 10 soldiers at Kalmunai on the morning of June 11, 1990. The ill-fated group was among 51 personnel, including three officers attached to the Kalawanchikudy detachment manned by the Sixth battalion of Sri Lanka Light Infantry (6SLLI). The army deployed in the Batticaloa District didn’t have the strength to hunt down those responsible for the attack.

About 10 hours after the Kalmunai attack, the then Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe accompanied by Director of Army Operations, Brigadier Wijaya Wimalaratne flew to Batticaloa airfield to discuss ways and means of meeting the threat. The army quickly realised that all five army bases in the Batticaloa District could be overrun, unless precautions were taken. But the deteriorating situation in Batticaloa as well as in the neighbouring Trincomalee and Ampara districts was not the only cause for worry. An unexpected LTTE build-up on Karaitivu Island threatened the Elara base.

Razeek speaks out

The then senior officer in charge of Elara base Razeek, who retired having served the SLN as Chief of Staff, recollected the tense situation on Karaitivu Island during the second week of June 1990. He discussed the role played by the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s chief negotiator, A. C. S. Hameed, talks held at Palaly headquarters and a hitherto secret telephone conversation between President Premadasa and LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham. Retired Rear Admiral Razeek’s declaration should be examined against the backdrop of the then Major Crishanthe de Silva’s revelation that Minister Hameed crossed the Jaffna no man’s land at the risk of his life to negotiate with the LTTE on behalf of President Premadasa about a week after the Kalmunai attack (War on terror revisited series 132 installment). Maj. Gen. Crishanthe de Silva presently commands the Army Volunteer Force.

Rear Admiral Razeek (retired) said: "During the second week of June 1990, we observed a tractor approaching the Elara base. Sentries observed LTTE cadres setting up half a dozen sand bag positions depriving us of access to and from Elara. Each enemy point comprised five to six personnel carrying assault rifles and heavy calibre weapons. We felt vulnerable to an LTTE onslaught. Tension was running high at the base. Having alerted the then Jaffna Security Forces Commander, Brigadier Jaliya Nammuni and the then Navy Commander, Vice Admiral H. A. Silva, we prepared to face any eventuality. Although we had the firepower to neutralise enemy positions, the so-called peace process prevented such action. I was in a dilemma. I sought instructions from the then SLN chief. Vice Admiral Silva, too, didn’t know what to do but he told me to take appropriate action as I was the best person to make a decision in my capacity as the northern commander."

LTTE positions guns outside

Elara base

At the time the LTTE had set up gun positions in close proximity to the Elara base, minister Hameed had been in Palaly for the latest round talks, which were eventually going to be the last round. The minister arrived in Palaly amidst the Batticaloa crisis triggered by the government giving in to the LTTE’s demand to have over 600 policemen surrender to the group. The killing of 10 6 SLLI personnel made the situation worse.

Monthly meetings took place at Palaly with the participation of Minister Hameed, IGP Ernest Perera, Jaffna Security Forces Commander Brig. Jaliya Nammuni, Northern Naval Commander Captain Razeek and Squadron Leader Nalin de Silva, Commanding Officer at Palaly air base. Although the delegates from Colombo always returned on the same day, having consulted President Premadasa, minister Hameed stayed overnight at Palaly to explore ways and means of tackling the Batticaloa crisis. The government and the LTTE agreed to meet again after having met Balasingham’s team immediately after arriving in Palaly. The LTTE mounted the operation against the Elara base after the conclusion of talks on the first day.

Razeek recalled minister Hameed discussing the rapidly deteriorating situation in the Batticaloa District with Balasingham, who promptly assured the minister that it could be handled. Obviously, minister Hameed had been pleased with Balasingham’s assurance, though senior security forces representatives were skeptical. Balasingham had pretended that the delay in resolving the crisis in the Eastern Province was primarily due to a lack of communication between the Jaffna-based leadership and those in command in Batticaloa and the adjoining districts. Although security forces representatives realised Balasingham was lying, they weren’t in a position to dispute the chief LTTE negotiator. The situation would have been different if minister Hameed had questioned Balasingham as regards his claim. Much to the surprise of security forces representatives, Minister Hameed asked Brig. Nammuni to connect him with President Premadasa over the phone. Having briefed the President of the situation, Hameed handed over the receiver to Balasingham, who reiterated the LTTE’s commitment to the negotiating process. The military was aghast. In spite of Balasingham’s assurance, Brig. Nammuni placed Jaffna bases on a heightened state of alert. The President insisted that the military did nothing that could be construed as hostile, therefore a violation of the understanding between the government and the LTTE. The soft-spoken Hameed didn’t mince his words when he passed on the President’s message to the Jaffna military top brass.

Elara base responds to threat

Having participated in discussions at Palaly, Razeek returned to his base before the LTTE established gun positions. It made its move against the Elara base within hours after Balasingham had assured minister Hameed as well as President Premadasa that steps would be taken to settle the Batticaloa dispute. Razeek said: "I felt Vice Admiral Silva’s instructions meant that I could deploy troops to neutralise enemy positions established during the ongoing truce. Having decided to take on the enemy, I briefed officers and men that enemy positions threatening the Elara base should be neutralised, regardless of the consequences. They were told to direct fire simultaneously at the five or six enemy positions during the morning flag hoisting ceremony. Personnel were assigned to separate groups with instructions to engage specific enemy positions. We acted normal during the night and the early hours before those assigned to wipe out enemy positions achieved given targets simultaneously. Within minutes, all enemy personnel were down. We were elated, though we realised the catastrophic impact our action could have on the negotiating process. We remained alert. We observed the LTTE moving in to collect bodies and weapons. I decided to skip the scheduled meeting with LTTE representatives at Palaly. I felt it was better to avoid the LTTE delegation, close on the heels of the Karainagar killings."

Although a section of the government and the military felt that the LTTE wouldn’t come for talks because of Razeek’s action, much to the surprise of those at Palaly, an LTTE delegation led by Balasingham drove in for the scheduled meeting the following day. As soon as the minister greeted Balasingham, the former British High Commission employee accused the SLN of killing 21 LTTE cadres. Balasingham alleged that it was the highest number of cadres killed in a single confrontation with the military. In spite of heavy fighting between the army and the LTTE in Batticaloa, a section of the government still believed an understanding could be reached to pave the way for a fresh ceasefire, Razeek asserted. Those supportive of a negotiated settlement never realised the mindset of the LTTE leadership, the naval veteran said.

Major attack on Elara

Even though some believed the LTTE would mount an immediate all out attack on the Elara base to avenge the death of 21 cadres, Prabhakaran waited till April next year to make a determined bid to overrun the base.

Rear Admiral Razeek recalled the LTTE launching a major assault on April 1, 1991 compelling the Northern Commander, Major General Denzil Kobbekaduwa to divert air assets assigned for an operation in the Mannar sector. Ammunition for artillery pieces and mortars had to be moved from Thallady to Karainagar by boat, Razeek said, recollecting Major General Kobbekaduwa and Brigadier Wijaya Wimalaratne, the then Security Forces Commander, Jaffna coming to Karainagar by boat. The SLN defended the base until army reinforcements moved in. Brigadier Wimalaratne suffered a slight injury due a mortar attack, shortly after arriving in Karainagar. Razeek said that those under siege at Karaitivu fought courageously, against heavy odds. Although the LTTE had managed to fight its way close to the base, the SLN, held on, until the army could launch an operation of its own to regain the entire Karaitivu Island. Razeek said: "We had ‘kadale’ for all three meals. I manned the operations room during the entire period. The then Lt. Colonel Sarath Fonseka’s First battalion of the Sinha Regiment (1SR) was among those deployed for a clearing operation on Karaitivu island. Fonseka’s troops cleared the Island of enemy units within 48 hours. According to Razeek, the attack on the Elara base had been the fiercest LTTE attack experienced by troops serving under his command. The base would have fallen to the enemy if not for the bravery of those who had fought under extremely difficult conditions. Among the dead had been SLN Sub Lieutenant Manoj Perera who died on the eighth day of the siege. Earlier, Lieutenant Kokwewa of the Fifth battalion of the Gemunu Watch (5 GW) died while trying to dislodge terrorists deployed in the area (Navy Sub Lieutenant killed in battle for Karaitivu-The Island April 9, 1991).