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.