Saturday, 11 May 2013

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).