War on terror revisited : Part 131April 28, 2013, 8:33 pm
Early 1990s at Palaly airfield: Army chief, Lt. Gen. Cecil Waidyaratne with Northern Commander Major General Denzil Kobbekaduwa. The then Navy chief, Vice Admiral Clancy Fernando is also in the picture.
by Shamindra Ferdinando
Following the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) leader S. Thondaman's offer to facilitate a fresh round of direct talks between the government and the LTTE, the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa, much to the surprise of his political opponents, declared that eradicating the LTTE through military means remained an option.
The Commander-in-Chief said he had faith in the conventional military capabilities of the armed forces to meet the LTTE challenge in the North. He expressed this view while speaking at public rallies in Uppuveli and Trincomalee town on Oct. 20, 1991. The surprising statement was made amidst secret consultations among the CWC, the LTTE and several other Tamil political parties who were trying to convince the President of the need for a negotiated settlement to the conflict.
The writer was among a group of Colombo based journalists in Trincomalee for the presidential coverage. Fearing a possible LTTE attempt to target President Premadasa, the military threw a massive security cordon, with the support of additional troops and the police personnel moved from other areas.
The President revealed that the Northern Commander, Major General Denzil Kobbekaduwa, in consultation with other senior officers had prepared battle plans to eradicate the LTTE and restore civil administration in areas north of Vavuniya. The UNP leader declared that the Northern Commander had already discussed his plans with him. While appreciating the sacrifices made by the armed forces, the President paid a glowing tribute to Brigadier Lucky Wijeratne and SSP Richard Wijesekera, killed in an LTTE landmine attack while serving in the Trincomalee district in Dec. 1990 (Plans ready for civil administration in N and E-The Island Oct 21, 1991).
The LTTE and the CWC strove for a fresh round of talks on August 22, 1991.
Many an eyebrow was raised when President Premadasa declared that he had discussed battle plans with Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa. Those close to the then Northern Commander knew how the President had manipulated the animosity between the then Army Chief of Staff, Major Gen. Cecil Waidyaratne and Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa. The much loved soldier felt humiliated by attempts to clip his wings when President asked the Chief of Staff to take over the army in November 1991. Waidyaratne succeeded Wanasinghe on Nov. 16, 1991.
The President's address in Trincomalee disturbed Minister Thondaman and those working closely with him on the LTTE project.
The President toured Trincomalee after having participated at the 42nd anniversary celebrations of the army at the Panagoda army cantonment on Oct. 10, 1991. Acknowledging that the army had to fight with available resources, the President pledged to provide additional firepower as well as training here and abroad (President commands army for courage and loyalty-The Island Oct 11, 1991).
The President made a determined bid to improve his rapport with the armed forces, as he knew that many blamed him for arming and financing the LTTE during his talks (May 1989 to June 1990). They alleged that the president's strategy had backfired, with the army having to experience some heavy losses and abandon strategically important areas. The loss of the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road beyond Vavuniya at the onset of eelam war II was a debilitating setback. The road remained in the hands of the LTTE for almost two decades, before the army crushed the LTTE in the Vanni in the first week of January 2009.
Unexpected amphibious assault
Soon after President Premadasa's declaration in Trincomalee, sea borne troops secured a beachhead at Komar, south of the army-held Mandathivu Island and swiftly took control of Pooneryn and Sangupiddy. The army lost three personnel during the operation, while seven others received gunshot injuries. The army was able to conclude the operation swiftly as the enemy didn't have sufficient strength in the area to put up resistance. It was the last major military operation carried out during the Lt. Gen Wanasinghe's tenure as the Commander of the army. The capture of Pooneryn and Sangupiddy severely hindered LTTE movements across the Jaffna lagoon. Having secured the area, the army declared that boat movements wouldn't be allowed under any circumstances and therefore all civilians should use Elephant Pass to enter or leave the Jaffna peninsula. The action was conducted in accordance with 'operation Valampuri' which brought Jaffna islands and the Sangupiddy/Kerathivu ferry under the army. The army top brass pushed for a mechanism to compel civilians to walk through the Elephant Pass base. The LTTE warned civilians not to take that route. Instead, they were told to cross the lagoon behind the base at a place called Kombadi or Kompadi. Although the army had initially fired at those crossing the lagoon, civilian movements were allowed, though the blockade caused immense difficulties to the LTTE.
In Oct. 1991, the outgoing army chief, Lt. Gen. Wanasinghe declared in Trincomalee that lasting peace would never be a reality unless the LTTE was eradicated by military means. Wanasinghe was addressing troops at the eighth anniversary celebrations of the second battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (2 GR). At the behest of President Premadasa, Wanasinghe had transferred a large stock of arms, ammunition and equipment to the LTTE during the UNP leader's honeymoon with Prabhakaran. The arms transfer took place in the Mullaitivu jungles. At that time, the first battalion of the Gajaba Regiment, under the command of the then Lieutenant Colonel Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had been deployed in Weli Oya. Army headquarters directed 1 GR to quit certain areas to facilitate the clandestine operation. In spite of receiving instructions from Colombo, 1 GR personnel monitored what was going on during the latter part of 1989.
Defence Secretary Rajapaksa recently confirmed the presence of 1 GR in Weli Oya during those turbulent days.
Operation 'Lightning Strike'
While the LTTE -Thondaman were discussing ways and means of reviving talks, the army readied itself for a large scale jungle operation in the Weli Oya-Mullaitivu region. Codenamed Operation 'Lightning Strike', it was to be spearheaded by the elite Special Forces Brigade, comprising army commandos and Special Forces regiments. The formation was commanded by Brigadier Janaka Perera. The regular infantry, too, was involved in the operation. Although a section of the government felt that a major offensive was inappropriate in the wake of fresh peace moves, President Premadasa gave his approval for 'Lightning Strike'. The offensive got underway on August 29, 1991, targeting LTTE positions in the general area south-west of Mullaitivu. The LTTE resisted fiercely, causing substantial losses to the army. In spite of a determined effort, the army failed to achieve its objectives. Special Forces veteran, the then Lieutenant Colonel Gamini Hettiarachchi was wounded in action. The Sinha Regiment veteran, the then Colonel Sarath Fonseka, too, played an important role. In spite of their heroic efforts, the army had to call off the offensive due to mounting casualties. Instead of weakening the LTTE ahead of possible negotiations, the 'Lightning Strike' gave Prabhakaran another opportunity to demonstrate his military prowess. Although the army tried to portray 'Lightning Strike' as a success, it was nothing but a dismal failure, though troops fought courageously. It was an ambitious bid to destroy the impregnable LTTE Mullaitivu base, which quickly turned into a logistical nightmare, due to the difficult terrain.
Waidyaratne' takes over
Waidyaratne took over a demoralized army which faced the uphill task of facing the LTTE with limited resources. Unlike his predecessor Lt. Gen. Wanasinghe, Waidyaratne wanted the army to accomplish tasks assigned to it regardless of the consequences. Unfortunately, the outspoken officer didn't realize that fighting the LTTE was very much different from waging a campaign against the JVP. Waidyaratne mistakenly believed that his success as the Commander of the Operations Combine tasked with destroying the JVP could be repeated in his new capacity as the Commander of the army.
In an interview with the writer immediately after taking over command, Lt. Gen. Waidyaratne explained his vision for the over 70,000 strong army which comprised three divisions. The then 53-year-old soldier declared that he would adopt a result oriented as well as aggressive strategy. He asserted that fighting capabilities of troops should be enhanced and the elite Special Forces Brigade further strengthened to crush the LTTE. At that time, that Brigade consisted of the first Special Forces Regiment and first Commando Regiment. The army chief believed that the Special Forces Brigade should be maintained as a reserve for deployment in case of an emergency.
Waidyaratne from the armoured corps was of the opinion that deployment of newly acquired Czechoslovakian and Chinese armoured fighting vehicles on the northern front would give the army a definite advantage over the LTTE. Asked whether he would launch simultaneous offensives in the northern and eastern regions, the Sandhurst trained Waidyaratne stressed that the military would have to first restore state control in the East, before taking on the LTTE in the North. Waidyaratne didn't have the required strength to sustain a major offensive due to the failure on the part of the army and the political leadership to increase the fighting strength.
Waidyaratne stressed the importance of strengthening security at Weli Oya, the northern most Sinhalese settlement which was under constant LTTE attack. In fact, the disastrous 'Lightning Strike' operation was launched from the Padaviya and Weli Oya region. Had that operation succeeded, those settlements would have had better security. Unfortunately, the army couldn't sustain 'Lightning Strike', hence Weli Oya remained vulnerable.
Waidyaratne ruled out the possibility of establishing another division. He expressed the belief that the LTTE military challenge could be tackled with the available three divisions.
Commenting on strategy, Waidyaratne emphasized the need to change the battle strategy. Obviously, Waidyaratne wanted to alter the overall strategy as the then Northern Commander Kobbekaduwa always had a big say in the operational plans whoever commanded the army. Waidyaratne wanted to neutralise Kobbekaduwa's influence and promote his own team and strategies. He wanted to sideline the much respected Northern Commander and his friend, Brigadier Wijaya Wimalaratne. The new army chief resented the popularity of Kobbekaduwa and Wimalaratne, who had been always in the forefront of almost all major military action, including 'Operation Liberation', Sri Lanka's first brigade level ground offensive in the North. Gajaba Regiment veteran Wimalaratne was the then Jaffna Security Forces commander.
Waidyaratne wanted to enhance the intelligence gathering network. He believed that battlefield success would largely depend on intelligence. Immediately after taking over command, Waidyaratne ordered an evaluation of the ground situation in the Northern Province. The army chief established a four-man team consisting of Brigadiers to study the situation as regards overall northern deployment, with focus on Jaffna peninsula. He was seeking for an opportunity to interfere with strategies adopted by Kobbekaduwa and Wimalaratne. Instead of adopting a cohesive action plan and pushing President Premadasa to expand the army, Waidyaratne and his inner circle were targeting war veterans. It was a tragedy. Unfortunately, President Premadasa turned a blind eye to what was going on. It was believed that the President in fact had encouraged Waidyaratne's move. The change of command sharply divided the army.