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.