Sunday, 19 May 2013

Playing politics with security

War on terror revisited : Part 137

Palaly airfield

By Shamindra Ferdinando

A single bullet pierced the left thigh of Flying Officer (FO) Priyanka Perera as he stood at the tail of a Beechsuper King Air B 200T at the Palaly airfield on the late afternoon of June 15, 1990. FO Perera was the second-in-command at the strategic Palaly air base at the time of the incident. The wounded officer and the then Squadron Leader D. M. Ratnakumara were there to ensure the safety of the aircraft and its crew as they waited for the arrival of Minister A. C. S. Hameed and the SLAF Commander, the then Air Vice Marshal M. J. T. De S. Gunawardena.

Both Perera and Ratnakumara were attached to the SLAF Regiment. Ratnakumara, a batchmate of Chief of Defence Staff Air Chief Marshal Roshan Gunatilleke, commanded Special Airborne unit at that time.

Minister Hameed was visiting Jaffna in his capacity as the Chairman of the North-East Peace Committee. It was his last visit to Jaffna as President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s chief negotiator.

Perera retired in 2009 with the rank of Group Captain. In an interview with the writer, Perera, currently the security manager at the Cinnamon Lakeside, said: "Our task was to secure the airfield for Minister Hameed’s safe departure from Palaly. We were particularly concerned about the minister’s safety as heavy fighting was continuing in the Eastern Province, though a fresh attempt was being made to come to an understanding with the LTTE. Suddenly, the enemy fired mortars and small arms at the airfield. I staggered as a bullet passed through my thigh. Initially, I didn’t even feel any pain, but I immediately handed over my assault rifle and the communication set to the SLAF officer standing next to me. Amidst mortar fire, my colleagues carried me halfway before I was bundled into an ambulance and rushed to the nearly Palaly Military Hospital."

FO Perera was the deputy to the then Squadron Leader Nalin de Silva, base commander at Palaly. Squadron Leader Ratnakumar had come on special assignment in view of the rapid deterioration of the situation in the Jaffna peninsula. "Squadron Leader Ratnakumar was in Palaly for a security audit," Group Captain Perera said, recalling the SLAF build-up in the immediate aftermath of the LTTE resuming hostilities on the night of June 10, 1990.

Perera said: "Minister Hameed was on his way to the aircraft when the LTTE opened fire. The minister, the SLAF commander and others accompanying them had to turn back. Firing began around n4.45 p.m."

Perera had served at Koggala SLAF station before being transferred to Palaly during the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s honeymoon with Prabhakaran (May 1989-June 1990). Before joining the SLAF in the mid 1980s, Perera had worked with The Island.

Having received first aid at the Palaly Military Hospital, Perera joined Minister Hameed onboard the Beechsuper King Air B200T, piloted by the then Wing Commander Jayalath Weerakkody (later Commander of the SLAF and now Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in Islamabad. Weerakkody holds the rank of Air Chief Marshal). Perera couldn’t remember anything of consequence said by Minister Hameed or senior military officers on the flight.

Immediately after landing in Ratmalana, Minister Hameed rushed to meet President Premadasa to brief the UNP leader of his talks with LTTE representatives in the LTTE held area earlier in the day. In spite of the LTTE endangering the life of Minister Hameed by firing at the Palaly air field as the minister was about to leave, President Premadasa still believed he could strike a deal with the LTTE. Shortly after Minister Hameed’s return to Colombo, the government announced a fresh ceasefire effective 6.00 p.m on June 15, 1990. The President chose to ignore the massacre of over 600 unarmed police officers and men in the Batticaloa District on the night of June 10 and June 11. He went to the extent of ordering the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) in Batticaloa to negotiate directly with the LTTE. The then Commanding Officer of the First battalion of the Gemunu Watch (I GW), Lieutenant Colonel Hiran N. Halangode, declined to accompany the then Bishop of Batticaloa to Kiran on the morning of June 16, 1990 to meet LTTE representatives. At that time Halangode had been based at Kallady. The LTTE wanted either Halangode or a senior Batticaloa based SLA representative to visit Kiran, where the isolated SLA detachment was under siege. Halangode felt that the LTTE could take him or his representative hostage and force the I GW troops manning the Kiran detachment to surrender.

While Minister Hameed was visiting the Jaffna peninsula on June 15, 1990 in a last ditch attempt to negotiate a fresh ceasefire with the LTTE, the then General Officer Commanding (GoC) First Division deployed in the Eastern Province, Maj. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa over the army radio assured Lieutenant Colonel Halangode that a rescue operation would be launched immediately. Major General Kobbekaduwa kept his word.

President Premadasa, in spite of being the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, seemed to have lost control of the situation, with the then State Minister of Defence Ranjan Wijeratne throwing his weight behind the military. Minister Wijeratne’s attitude angered President Premadasa, who felt whatever the provocation, the government had no option but to seek a fresh agreement with the LTTE. President Premadasa believed the LTTE was invincible, therefore a ceasefire was not only a necessity, but politically advantageous to his government.

The LTTE attack on the Palaly air base on June 15, 1990 marked the end of direct negotiations between the warring parties for the time being.

A dangerous encounter

Group Captain Nalin de Silva explained the overnight change of the situation in Palaly in the wake of Minister Hameed’s abortive peace mission. The heavy exchange of fire between the LTTE and the combined SLA and SLAF forces following the attack on the air base on June 15, 1990 meant an all out war was imminent.

Close on the heels of Minister Hameed’s last visit to Palaly, base commander Squadron Leader de Silva directed the SLAF Regiment to blockade the Kadduwan road leading to the air field. As the second-in-command at Palaly, Flying Officer M. G. M. Chandralal prepared to lead a group of about 10 personnel to put up a barricade a little distance away from the base perimeter. Pilot Officer Janaka Nanayakkara had joined the group.

Chandralal and Nanayakkara walked ahead of SLAF Regiment personnel along the isolated road. While the two officers were carrying assault rifles slung on their shoulders, troops carried empty barrels and logs required to barricade the road. They knew of the presence of LTTE cadres in the trenches on the right side of the road. Suddenly, three armed LTTE cadres moved across the road and positioned themselves between the two officers and the group of troops carrying barrels and logs. The LTTE group warned in Tamil that the two officers couldn’t proceed any further. Responding to the LTTE threat, Chandralal said that he had put up the barricade on the spot he was standing therefore there was no need for him to move forward any further. The leader of the LTTE insisted such a barricade wouldn’t be allowed under any circumstances. Chandralal stood his ground. Subsequently, the LTTEer contacted a local area leader who arrived at the scene on a motor cycle. Armed with a pistol, the local leader spoke in Sinhalese. He reminded the SLAF that Minister Hameed had agreed to open the roads. Both parties indicated that they would use weapons in case the other opened fire first. Having argued over the positioning of the new barricade, the LTTE withdrew allowing the SLAF to block the road. The LTTE established a forward position about 50 metres ahead of the forward most SLAF position. Currently, Chandralal is the senior officer in charge of SLAF deployed at Mullaitivu, while Nanayakkara, one-time SLAF spokesman is based in Colombo. Both officers hold the rank of Group Captain.

Chandralal’s predecessor, Flying Officer Prasanna Kuruppu, also of the SLAF regiment had to leave the SLAF due to serious injuries sustained in an LTTE mortar attack on June 20, 1990. Kuruppu was named the second-in-command in Palaly after Perera was shot through his left thigh on the afternoon of June 15, 1990. The former Palaly base commander recollected the then Flying Officer Lalith Gunasinghe being sniped during fighting on June 20, 1990. "Lalith was a fine young man from Kandy. He volunteered to lead troops on a mission to clear an LTTE gunpoint especially set up to target aircraft approaching and leaving the Palaly air field. In support of Gunasinghe’s contingent, another group of special troops was deployed. Pilot Officer Nanayakkara commanded the second group. As the second group advanced towards the LTTE position, those involved in the operation returned carrying Gunasinghe’s body. He was posthumously promoted to the rank of Flight Lieutenant.

The SLAF blasted the LTTE position to prevent the LTTE from using that particular building.

SLAF build-up

At the time the IPKF, including the Indian Air Force (IAF) withdrew from the Jaffna peninsula in March 1990, the entire SLAF contingent stationed at Palaly comprised about 170 officers and men. The officers consisted of the base commander, those in charge of six detachments set up to protect the air field/air base, a senior officer in charge of ground defence as well as two logistics, one engineering and one administrative officer.

Although the government and the armed forces should have made contingency plans immediately after India declared its intention in late 1989 to withdraw the IPKF during the early part of 1990, absolutely nothing was done. The government felt that re-deployment of troops in the then temporarily merged north-East Province would be inimical to the ongoing peace process. Both President Premadasa and Minister Hameed repeatedly told the military top brass that they shouldn’t engage in any type of activity which may be construed as hostile. The then Northern Naval Area Commander, Group Captain A. H. M. Razeek asserted: "The LTTE constantly provoked the security forces. They brazenly took advantage of the peace talks to consolidate their positions. The government didn’t take up contentious issues with the LTTE. Instead, we were told to behave."

Razeek retired in March 2002 after having served the Sri Lanka Navy for 32 years.

In spite of the SLAF base at Palaly constantly reminding its headquarters of the LTTE build up, the then Commander, Air vice Marshal M. J. T. De S.Gunawardena couldn’t take counter measures. President Premadasa strongly opposed re-deployment of men which was contrary to the LTTE wish. Instead, President Premadasa ordered the vacation of key bases in the Jaffna peninsula.

The IAF didn’t even bother to alert the SLAF of its departure from the Palaly airfield. Thanks to those officers and men stationed at Palaly at that time, the SLAF quickly took over the airfield as the IAF and IPKF pulled out, thereby preventing the LTTE from moving in. The Sri Lankan military suspected the possibility of those in charge of Palaly during the IPKF deployment conspiring to facilitate the possible LTTE takeover of the airfield in March 1990.

Soon after fighting erupted, the SLAF began deploying additional strength in Palaly. In the absence of required muscle, the SLAF had to deploy those undergoing training at various establishments to face the LTTE challenge. The SLAF’s largest transport aircraft available at that time, a Chinese built Y 8, landed at Palaly carrying 100 personnel. Some of those coming straight from training establishments had been uncomfortable. The situation in Palaly continued to deteriorate as the security forces struggled on all fronts. The month of June, 1990, was one of the worst during the conflict.