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.