Saturday, 11 May 2013

President’s chief negotiator trapped in no man’s land

*War on terror revisited : Part 132

LTTE theoretician Balasingham and wife, Adele pictured seated inside an SLAF Bell 212 at the Army grounds, Colombo. The picture was believed to have been taken immediately after the duo arrived in Colombo from Mullaitivu in May 1989.

by Shamindra Ferdinando

While having direct negotiations with President Ranasinghe Premadasa, the LTTE stepped up preparations for a decisive offensive in the northern and eastern districts.

Having fought the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), the LTTE felt that it had gained battlefield experience as well as the wherewithal to overwhelm the Sri Lankan Army (SLA). The LTTE was ready to execute its plan soon after the IPKF withdrew troops from Sri Lanka. The last IPKF contingent left Trincomalee on the afternoon of March 24, 1990.

Close on the heels of the IPKF’s unceremonious exit, the LTTE turned aggressive, particularly in the Jaffna peninsula and Batticaloa.

The then Major, Crishanthe de Silva of the Engineers Regiment was posted to Palaly in March 1990 immediately after returning from India, where he underwent a combat engineers’ instructor course. The then Brigadier Jaliya Nanmuni functioned as the senior officer responsible for troops deployed in the Jaffna peninsula. De Silva received appointment as the Brigade Major and was one of the few officers closely involved in the negotiating process.

The SLA deployment in Jaffna was under Major General Stanley de Silva, the then General Officer Commanding (GOC) Division II headquartered in Anuradhapura. The Northern Zonal Command of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF), too, was in Anuradhapura with the then Wing Commander Sunil Cabral being the officer in charge.

Tigers block Northern Commander

Major General De Silva, now Commander of the Army Volunteer Force, recollected how the LTTE flexed its muscles in the Jaffna peninsula in the wake of the IPKF’s exit. In a brief interview with the writer, de Silva said: "LTTE cadres carried weapons openly in the Jaffna peninsula. With the departure of the IPKF, the LTTE tried to impose restrictions on our movements. Those deployed in the Jaffna peninsula regularly interfered with routine security forces movements much to the resentment of officers and men. Subsequently, the LTTE challenged the Division II Commander’s right to move overland from Palaly to Anuradhapura."

Having flown in an SLAF fixed wing aircraft to Palaly air field, Major General Stanley de Silva, also of the Engineers had wanted to drive along the A9 road to his headquarters in Anuradhapura. However, the LTTE had told the Major General that he couldn’t be allowed to move overland under any circumstances. The LTTE blocked the northern commander’s vehicle, triggering a heated argument which lasted for almost two hours. Subsequently, the LTTE allowed the Major General to proceed on A9. De Silva vaguely remembered seeing an LTTE vehicle following the vehicle carrying the Major General.

De Silva had been involved in negotiations with the LTTE to pave the way for the northern commander to move along the A9 road. During negotiations between President Ranasinghe Premadasa and Prabhakaran (May 1989 to June 1990), each security forces base had an officer designated as ‘point of contact’ to ensure effective liaison with the LTTE. De Silva had been the ‘point of contact’ based at Palaly during that period.

Tigers step up pressure

In spite of the government and the LTTE publicly expressing confidence in the negotiating process, the situation had been gradually deteriorating. Following the departure of the IPKF, the situation took a turn for the worse. Overnight, the LTTE had turned abusive and aggressive as it believed the government wouldn’t do anything to appease Prabhakaran, even at the expense of national security. On one hand the government went out of its way to give time and space to the LTTE to reach a negotiated settlement, whereas the group brazenly exploited the politico-military weakness to strengthen its position.

The SLA deployment at Jaffna Fort, Elephant Pass, Kankesanthurai, Kilinochchi and Kokavil was under the purview of Brigadier Nanmuni.

The LTTE overran the Kokkavil detachment during the second week of July 1990, while the army top brass was in the process of planning a rescue mission.

The SLA vacated Kilinochchi during the last week of July 1990. In late November, 1990, the SLA abandoned Kilinochchi.

Maj. Gen. de Silva recalled the LTTE firing at the Palaly air base at the onset of hostilities. Unlike today, Palaly, in the absence of the required depth had been well within the range of LTTE gun positions. Once hostilities broke out, the LTTE had routinely engaged fixed wing aircraft approaching the airfield causing a major hindrance. The SLAF found it extremely difficult to operate flights in and out of Palaly airfield.

In the wake of fighting breaking out in the Eastern Province, the LTTE had warned the SLA in the Jaffna peninsula against troop movements. The warning was given at a meeting at Palaly when LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham and government delegates met in the Jaffna peninsula. Obviously, President Premadasa and his chief negotiator, Minister A.C.S. Hameed believed that they could reach an agreement on a ceasefire even after the massacre of over 600 policemen in the Batticaloa-Ampara sector. At the behest of President Premadasa, Minister Hameed, in his capacity as the Chairman of the North-East Peace Committee, flew to Palaly on the morning of June 16, 1990. The SLA was ordered to facilitate a meeting between Minister Hameed and the LTTE in an area held by the LTTE. Although the SLA felt that the peace mission could go awry, the top brass went ahead with President Premadasa’s plan.

After the conclusion of Minister Hameed’s meeting with the LTTE, the government announced that a ceasefire would come into operation at 6 p.m. on June 16, 1990. The Presidential Secretariat claimed that the agreement was reached following a seven hour meeting at an undisclosed location (Government and LTTE agree on ceasefire with strap line Hameed’s peace mission-The Island June 17, 1990).

Shortly before the Presidential Secretariat announcement, the Defence Ministry declared that there had been "an appreciable improvement in the law and order situation in the Ampara and Batticaloa districts." The Defence Ministry explained tangible measures taken by the different security forces commands to neutralize the growing threat posed by the LTTE. While President Premadasa and Minister Hameed had been talking peace, the SLA acted swiftly and decisively to launch two Brigades to break the siege on bases in the Batticaloa district. The SLA, obviously acted contrary to the wishes of the President, to launch a two-pronged offensive in Batticaloa under the command of the then Brigadiers, A.M.U. Seneviratne and A.K. Jayawardena. Their timely intervention saved troops of the First battalion of the Gemunu Watch (IGW) and the Sixth battalion of Sri Lanka Light Infantry (6 SLLI). ‘War on terror revisited’ series had extensively dealt with the situation in the Ampara district and the heroics of those who braved the LTTE onslaught under the command of the then Lt. Colonel Hiran Halangode, the Commanding Officer of the IGW, until reinforcements arrived.

Dangerous mission

Major General de Silva recalled Minister Hameed’s mission to the LTTE-held area to meet terrorists on the afternoon of June 16, 1990. Although Anton Balasingham and his Australian born wife, Adele had always met Minister Hameed at Palaly, the LTTE declined further meetings at security forces bases. Hence, Minister Hameed had no option but to undertake the risky mission. Perhaps Minister Hameed had agreed reluctantly, as he realized his life was in grave danger. Minister Hameed arrived in Palaly on the morning of June 15, 1990 while the then State Minister for Defence and Chairman of the UNP Ranjan Wijeratne briefed Colombo based diplomatic representatives of the situation (Hameed in Jaffna for talks with Tigers-The Island June 16, 1990).

The chief of the Volunteer Force said: "Having received a briefing as regards the latest situation, Minister Hameed prepared to leave to the LTTE-held area. I was given the unenviable task of escorting the minister to a no man’s land where the LTTE could pick him up. The minister was seated in the front passenger seat. I drove the vehicle along the Palaly-Jaffna road. We held positions on one side of the road. The LTTE was on the other side. The SLA and the LTTE agreed that they could send a vehicle each to no man’s land. But the LTTE sent two vehicles, promoting troops to open fire. The then Commanding Officer of the Third battalion of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (3 SLLI), Lt. Colonel Gamini Jayasundera, at the risk of his life had to stand on the foot rest of moving army vehicle and yell at troops to stop firing which lasted for more than five minutes. In fact, troops hit one of the LTTE vehicles, though Minister Hameed went ahead with his mission. Having seen an additional vehicle entering the no fire zone, troops swung into action. The mission could have ended tragically, if not for Lt. Colonel Jayasundera risking his life to warn troops deployed at the forward defence line. They opened up with everything they had. For almost 10 minutes, troops fired assault rifles, five zero guns as well as General Purpose Machine Guns."

Having had discussions with the terrorists, Minister Hameed had returned to Palaly around 5 p.m and left for Ratmalana in a fixed wing aircraft. No sooner the minister left, the LTTE fired at the air base, compelling the SLA to retaliate.

Another failed attempt

President Premadasa still persisted with his efforts to work out a fresh ceasefire, though the LTTE obviously didn’t want to stop its offensive. Although the LTTE had failed in its daring mission to overrun the Batticaloa army bases, it still remained confident that the SLA could be overwhelmed. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), made an attempt to facilitate a fresh ceasefire, though it failed to materialize (Peace pact in the air: fighting rages on-The Island June 24, 1990).

The government was divided over its strategy. While President Premadasa pushed for negotiations with the LTTE on the basis of his assertion that the group couldn’t be militarily defeated, Minister Wijeratne wanted an all-out campaign. The minister had the backing of an influential section of the top brass.

The SLA realized that war was inevitable after the LTTE attacked a contingent of Gajaba troops at Pandikulam even before the outbreak of major hostilities during the second week of June 1990 . The contingent was on its way from Polonnaruwa to Mullaitivu in two Buffel armoured personnel carriers and three trucks when the LTTE opened fire. The SLA lost one soldier, while a dozen were injured. The government directed army headquarters to call off the overland movement and ordered the Gajaba contingent back to base. Close on the heels of the incident, the LTTE warned the SLA of dire consequences if it tried to reinforce bases in the Northern region. The political leadership directed the SLA not to antagonize the LTTE. Having attacked a convoy, the LTTE accused the SLA of violating the ceasefire (LTTE blames security forces for ceasefire violation-The Island).