Sunday, 30 June 2013

Ayoma wins the day

*War on terror revisited : Part 151

Lt. Col. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa taking over the First battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (I GR) from Gamini Angammana at Saliyapura, Anuradhapura, immediately after returning from Fort Benning, Georgia in 1989. From (L-R) Fazly Laphir (killed during an abortive rescue mission in July 1996 south of Mullaitivu), little Manoj (Lt. Col. Rajapaksa’s son), Ayoma, Jagath Alwis, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Gamini Angammana, Sumedha Perera and Lawrence Fernando waiting for the arrival of Brigadier Wijaya Wimalaratne, who raised the I GR during eelam war I (July 1983-June 1987).

by Shamindra Ferdinando

The then Lt. Col. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had been under heavy pressure from his wife, Ayoma to quit the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) for quite some time. With the war taking a turn for the worse with the departure of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in March 1990, Ayoma wanted to migrate to the United States, where her parents were living. In spite of Gotabhaya’s reluctance to leave the SLA, Ayoma relentlessly raised the issue with senior officers, particularly the then Brigadier Wijaya Wimalaratne, who was at that time in Colombo.

Ayoma, like the wives of many other officers had been quite adamant that Gotabhaya should leave the SLA to pursue some other career, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa told The Island.

Ayoma had intensified her efforts to convince her soldier husband to leave the SLA following the outbreak of eelam war II in June 1990 with devastating attacks on the security forces. The SLA faced a heavy defeat in the Jaffna peninsula in the wake of the LTTE making significant battlefield gains within the first couple of months in the Jaffna and Vanni theatres.

SLA loses A-9

For want of experienced troops, the SLA had no option but to shift battle-hardened formations from district to district, to counter LTTE attacks as the enemy gradually consolidated its positions in the northern districts, both east and west of the Kandy-Jaffna A-9 road. The SLA fought a series of battles in different theatres. Although the SLA had managed in some instances to cause heavy losses, the LTTE still had the upper hand. The SLA had suffered a debilitating setback at the outbreak of fighting consequent to the 14-month long cessation of hostilities (May 1989-June 1990). Nothing could have been as worse as losing the overland main supply route to the Jaffna peninsula at a time additional troops were being deployed. The loss of the A-9 in June 1990 meant that all supplies to the Jaffna peninsula had to be airlifted or ferried by ship. The unprecedented loss of the overland main supply route was one of the worst debacles experienced by the SLA during Lt. Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe’s command (August 16, 1988-Nov. 15, 1991). Several attempts to restore the road failed with Jayasikuru (Victory assured) conducted during Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s presidency being the costliest operation. The road remained in the hands of the LTTE until January 2009, when the SLA regained the road. Lt. Gen, Sarath Fonseka, one-time Commanding Officer of the First battalion of the Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment (SLSR), was in command of the SLA.

Gota moves to Summit flats

Defence Secretary Rajapaksa said: "The LTTE resumed hostilities during the second week of June 1990. During the latter part of 1990, we moved to married quarters at the Summit Flats. My apartment was situated opposite the residence of Brig. Wimalaratne. Our families were close. During that period, Wimalaratne was attached to the Joint Operations Command. He was one of the most influential officers whose opinion was taken seriously by those in power."

The Defence Secretary recollected the then State Minister for Defence Minister Ranjan Wijeratne angrily reacting to a brief front page news item published by The Sunday Island titled Lt. Col. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to retire. Minister Wijeratne had been furious as he felt Gotabhaya’s brother, SLFP Hambantota district MP, Mahinda Rajapaksa was responsible for the move. Minister Wijeratne had inquired from MP Rajapaksa why he wanted his brother to quit the SLA. Mahinda Rajapaksa had rejected Minister Wijeratne’s allegations, insisting that he wasn’t in anyway responsible for Gotabhaya’s decision.

Brig. Wimalaratne in bid to thwart Ayoma’s plans

The Defence Secretary said: "Later, I came to know that it was Brigadier Wimalaratne, who got The Sunday Island to publish the news item. Wimalaratne was reacting to my wife constantly requesting him to release me, as we wanted to migrate to the United States. The Brigadier probably felt that the news item would cause a major scene leading to government intervention to get me transferred to Colombo. At that time, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s battalion––The first battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (IGR)––was deployed in the Weli Oya area. Both Minister Wijeratne and Brigadier Wimalaratne went out of their way to prevent me from leaving the SLA."

One day, Lt. Col. Rajapaksa received a call from Lt. Gen. Wanasinghe directing him to meet Minister Wijeratne, immediately. However, Rajapaksa pointed out that he couldn’t leave for Colombo immediately as his Area Commander, Brigadier Janaka Perera was away. The I GR commander asserted that he couldn’t take the risk of leaving Weli Oya in the absence of his superior officer. Having heard Lt. Col. Rajapaksa’s excuse for not responding to his summons, Minister Wijeratne decided to visit Weli Oya.

Ranjan flies to Weli Oya

The Defence Secretary said: "Suddenly, army headquarters alerted me to the arrival of Minister Wijeratne to Weli Oya. I was really surprised. Obviously, Minister Wijeratne felt that my brother was somehow responsible for my decision to quit the SLA. Minister Wijeratne flew into Weli Oya. The then Northern Commander, Major General Denzil Kobbekaduwa accompanied Minister Wijeratne. Brigadier Janaka Perera, too, was present at the briefing given to Minister Wijeratne. Having had lunch, Minister Wijeratne wanted to speak to me privately. As he walked out of the premises, I followed him."

Defence Secretary Rajapaksa quoted Minister Wijeratne as having told him: "I know you are tired. You have been in the field for a long time. I’ll get the Army Commander to move you out of Weli Oya. Don’t worry, you’ll receive an appointment in Colombo."

In spite of Minister Wijeratne’s offer for a posting away from the operational area, Lt. Col. Rajapaksa said that he wanted to serve with his battalion, wherever it was deployed.

At the behest of Minister Wijeratne, army headquarters appointed Lt. Col. Rajapaksa as the Deputy Commandant of the Kotelawala Defence Academy (KDA), in late 1990.

Gotabhaya quits SLA

Lt. Col. Rajapaksa was at the Summit flats when he heard a massive blast. The Defence Secretary said: "The entire area shook. We felt the blast. Soon afterwards, I heard the target was Minister Wijeratne."

Minister Wijeratne was killed on the morning of March 2, 1991, along with six of his bodyguards. Shortly after Minister Wijeratne’s assassination, Lt. Col. Rajapaksa sent in his retirement papers. Army headquarters endorsed Lt. Col. Rajapaksa’s retirement. Much to Ayoma’s relief, Gotabhaya quit the SLA on November 1, 1991.

It was the writer who contributed that short piece to The Sunday Island on the basis of information provided by Brig. Wimalaratne. Obviously, it was a psychological operation initiated by Brigadier Wimalaratne to compel Lt. Col. Rajapaksa to remain with the SLA. Although Brigadier Wimalaratne had been successful in prompting Minister Wijeratne to intervene, his assassination changed the ground situation.

Minister Wijeratne would have been high on the LTTE hit list for being zealously prosecuting the war in spite of the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa indicating his desire to resume negotiations with the LTTE. Much to the disappointment of the military, President Premadasa appointed Dingiri Banda Wijetunga as the minister in charge of the defence portfolio.

Major drawback

The shortage of experienced battalions had been a major disadvantage experienced by the SLA during eelam war II. Had President JRJ gone ahead with a plan to train 200 officers and 2,000 men in Pakistan during the deployment of the IPKF in Sri Lanka (July 1987-March 1990), the SLA would have been in a better position to face the LTTE in June 1990. For want of a cohesive strategy, the government, as well as the military leadership, turned a blind eye to what was happening on the ground. President Premadasa absolutely neglected security. Having won the presidential and parliamentary elections in December 1988 and April 1989, respectively, President Premadasa went out of his way to appease the LTTE. President Premadasa was so naïve that he told the service commanders on more than one occasion that they would have to find some other enemy to fight, as the LTTE was in the process of joining the political mainstream. Much to the surprise of the military, President Premadasa ordered the then Elections Commissioner, Chandrananda de Silva to recognize the People’s Front of Liberation Tigers (PFLT) in early December 1989. The writer was among a group of journalists at a media briefing called by the LTTE in Colombo to announce Chandrananda de Silva’s decision. A beaming LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham, flanked by armed LTTE bodyguards, declared that Velupillai Prabhakaran wouldn’t lay down arms until President Premadasa took tangible measures to meet the aspirations of the Tamil speaking people.

Six months later, the LTTE declared war with a series of lightning operations in the Eastern Province.

Defence Secretary Rajapaksa said: "Many officers were disgruntled with the situation. Although we felt the then government was wrong and acting in a manner detrimental to the national interests, the security forces couldn’t intervene. The military was supposed to act on political directives. Although the LTTE was preparing for war, we did absolutely nothing to discourage them from resuming hostilities. Had we bolstered our military strength, it would have been a powerful deterrent. Unfortunately, the government weakened the military presence in the northern and eastern districts, instead of increasing the strength."

According to retired Brigadier Hiran Halangode, the total deployment of the SLA in the Eastern Province comprising the districts of Ampara, Batticaloa and Trincomalee consisted of just three battalions plus a company of infantry, at the time eelam war II erupted. Halangode had been the Commanding Officer of the First battalion of the Gemunu Watch (IGW) deployed in the Batticaloa district. Halangode also had a section of the Sixth battalion of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (6 SLLI) under his command. Although the government and army headquarters knew that the LTTE was preparing for an all out assault on government positions in the Batticaloa district, the SLA remained at only five bases. The LTTE was able to bring all five SLA bases under siege within hours after the declaration of the resumption of hostilities. The situation in all northern and eastern districts was the same. The entire deployment in the Jaffna peninsula comprised the Sixth battalion of the Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment (6 SLSR) and a company of Engineer troops. All bases in the Jaffna peninsula simultaneously came under siege immediately after the eruption of fighting. Perhaps no other army in the post World War II era had faced a similar situation. The then government and the military top brass had neglected security to such an extent during the July 1987-June 1990 period, that the SLA had perhaps five infantry battalions in the northern and eastern districts, at the time eelam war erupted on the night of June 10, 1990.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Gajaba, Sinha bid to regain Jaffna goes awry

* War on terror revisited : Part 150


by Shamindra Ferdinando

On board SLNS Pabbatha off Punkuduthivu Island late September 1990 : (L to R) Brigadier Janaka Perera, Captain Prasanna Rajaratne - Commanding Officer SLNS Elara and Command Operations Officer, Lt. Col. Gotabhaya Rajapaksha, CO 1 GR, Major Jayampathi Wijeratne, CO 5 GW, Lt. Colonel Palitha Fernando, Commander M.R.U. Siriwardane, Lt. Commander S.U. Lanka Prasada ,CO SLNS Pabbatha, Lt. Colonel Sarath Fonseka, CO 1 SLSR and Lt. Colonel Gamini Gunasekara - Commanding Officer 4 GR. Picture was taken after the SLA called off the offensive spearheaded by I GR and I SLSR to regain Jaffna town after having rescued those trapped at the Jaffna Fort

(Picture courtesy Commander Lanka Prasada)

The then Lieutenant Ranjith Walisundara of the First battalion of the Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment (SLSR) said: "Having reached land at about 5.30 a.m., my contingent reached the ramparts amidst enemy fire. As we ran towards the ramparts, those under siege at the Fort dropped long ropes for us to climb and enter the Fort. We had to risk our lives to enter the Fort by climbing the rampart as entry points to the Fort had been sealed at that time due to heavy LTTE attacks."
Having served in Colombo and its suburbs during the July-Oct 1987 period, the First battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (IGR) was deployed in the Trincomalee district, where it remained until May 1989. In accordance with the Indo-Lanka Accord (ILA), the IGR had been confined to barracks. In May 1989, the newly promoted Lt. Colonel Gotabhaya Rajapaksa succeeded Colonel Wijaya Wimalaratne as the second Commanding Officer of the celebrated battalion. Wimalaratne was promoted to the rank of Brigadier.

The then army commander, Lt. Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe shifted the IGR from Trincomalee to the Matale District, where the JVP was on the rampage. In keeping with a government directive, Lt. Colonel Rajapaksa functioned as the District Coordinating Officer. It was not an isolated appointment. In fact, military officers functioned as Coordinating Officers in all districts affected by JVP violence. President Ranasinghe Premadasa had no option but to depend on the military to run the civil administration. As Matale was one of the worst affected districts, army headquarters assigned the IGR, one of the best available battalions, to quell the JVP.

Following the London-based LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham meeting with President Premadasa at Sucharitha during the first week of May 1989, the President ordered the military to observe the truce with the LTTE. The President ordered the military to adhere with the truce, with the LTTE whatever the provocation. The military was ordered to suppress the JVP-led insurgency.

Ranjan visits Gota in Matale

President Premadasa reacted furiously after the JVP spurned his offer to return to the negotiating table. The President went to the extent of releasing about 1,800 JVP suspects to appease the outfit. At the behest of the government, army headquarters made additional troop commitments to fight the JVP.

However, an influential section of the ruling UNP, resented Lt. Colonel Rajapaksa’s appointment as the Matale Coordinating Officer. The UNP felt that the then Opposition lawmaker Mahinda Rajapaksa would exploit his younger brother’s appointment to pursue his political agenda. President Premadasa was also urged to intervene to get Lt. Colonel Rajapaksa out of Matale. In fact, the UNP wanted to keep him away from the ongoing anti-insurgency operations.

The UNP interfered with the deployment of troops. The top government leadership intervened with the decisions taken by army headquarters. The First battalion of the Gemunu Watch (IGW) commanded by the then Lt. Colonel Hiran Halangode was shifted from Moneragala to Ampara, consequent to complaints from local UNP politicians. From there, IGW moved to the neighbouring Batticaloa District, where the unit excelled at the onset of eelam war II in June 1990.

In the wake of a relentless campaign against the new appointment, the then State Minister of Defence Ranjan Wijeratne flew in to Matale to review the security situation there. Defence Secretary Rajapaksa said: "I didn’t care where army headquarters posted me and my battalion. I was ready to serve in any part of the country. One day, army headquarters alerted me to Minister Wijeratne’s visit to Matale. I received him on arrival in Matale, conducted him to the Matale rest house where I had my headquarters. Having briefed him as regards ongoing operations, deployment of detachments as well as planned action, Minister Wijeratne had lunch with us. Then he walked out of the premises while calling me to follow him for a private chat. I knew Minister Wijeratne wanted to tell me of protests against my appointment."

Defence Secretary Rajapaksa quoted Minister Wijeratne as having told him that local politicians were strongly opposed to his appointment as he was MP Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother.

After having consulted Brigadier Wimalaratne, Army chief, Lt. Gen. Wanasinghe had told Minister Wijeratne that in case he wanted to shift Lt. Colonel Rajapaksa, the entire battalion had to leave the district. Brigadier Wimalaratne had insisted that an officer couldn’t be harassed for being the brother of a prominent politician. Minister Wijeratne told the new Coordinating Officer to remain in Matale and get in touch with him, in case he had any difficulty with politicians.

Wimalaratne was director operations at the Joint Operations Command (JOC) and was one of the most influential military officials at that time. The Defence Secretary quoted Minister Wijeratne as having said at the end of the conversation: "I don’t want to remove you, go ahead with your job and if any of the local UNP politicians cause trouble, tell me."

Among those officers who had been with I GR at that time was Sumedha Perera (currently at the National Defence College, China. Perera holds the rank of Major General). Udaya Perera, (Security Forces Commander, Kilinochchi. He, too, holds the rank of Major General) and Jagath Dias (Adjutant General at Army headquarters. Dias holds the rank of Major General). Shavendra Silva, himself a native of Matale, too, was with IGR at that time (Major General Silva is Sri Lanka’s Deputy Permanent Representative at the UN in New York).

Arms transfer in Weli Oya

The JVP collapsed in early 1990 after the capture and the execution of its leader Rohana Wijeweera and some of his key lieutenants. During the latter part of 1989, IGR served in Weli Oya. The Defence Secretary said: "The then government maintained close links with the LTTE. Once, army headquarters ordered me to withdraw troops temporarily from a certain area in the Weli Oya region. I carried out the instructions, though I remained vigilant, as I knew the government was secretly handing over weapons to the LTTE. My men observed LTTE cadres taking delivery of weapons from the SLA. I GR served in Weli Oya until the outbreak of hostilities on the night of June 10, 1990 in Batticaloa".

The UNP-LTTE honeymoon lasted for 14 months (May 1989-June 1990). After the outbreak of fighting in the Batticaloa District, the IGR had launched anti-terrorist operations in the Weli Oya region. The LTTE had a strong presence in the area close to Weli Oya, though it didn’t engage IGR in a major battle. The Defence Secretary said: "Suddenly, we were told to move to Vavuniya. We joined 4GR, which was under the command of Lt. Colonel Gamini Gunasekera. The then Brigadier Janaka Perera was in charge of troops in Vavuniya. We cleared the Vavuniya-Mannar axis upto Parayanakulam. Having completed the task, we returned to base. Subsequently, we advanced from Vavuniya to Thandikulam. As usual, we returned to Vavuniya, where Major General Denzil Kobbekaduwa addressed us. We were told to get ready for a rescue operation in the Jaffna peninsula, where the SLA was under siege at the Jaffna Fort."

Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa had been the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Anuradhapura headquartered Division II. The war veteran took over the Division deployed in the northern region from Maj. Gen. Stanley de Silva, a few weeks after the outbreak of Eelam war II. Just four months into the battle, the LTTE was in a commanding position having overrun several camps. The Jaffna Fort was under the verge of collapse, with the LTTE stepping up attacks. Those under siege at the Jaffna Fort wouldn’t have survived without the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) sustaining a major operation. The SLAF deployed almost all it had in support of troops fighting a desperate battle at the Jaffna Fort. The SLAF northern zonal command based in Anuradhapura waged a desperate battle to protect the Jaffna Fort with a series of operations.

It was definitely one of the most critical periods of the conflict. SLAF Commander, Harsha Abeywickrema recollected their efforts in support of those stationed at the Jaffna Fort. During a particular mission, the Chinese–built Y 12 aircraft piloted by him had been hit over a dozen times. For want of dedicated bombers, the SLAF had to deploy transport aircraft to drop locally made bombs targeting LTTE positions. SLAF personnel had to push what was called barrel bombs at the risk of their lives. Although young Abeywickrema had escaped LTTE fire, an SLAF trooper tasked with pushing barrel bombs had a gaping wound on his buttocks. Abeywickrema had flown different types of aircraft, including Y 12s, and Italian built Siai Marchettis.

Gota, SF in joint mission

The Defence Secretary recalled that Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa had stressed the urgent need to somehow rescue those trapped in the Jaffna Fort. Kobbekaduwa had asserted that the failure on the SLA’s part to save them would have a catastrophic impact on the entire war effort. The northern commander hadn’t minced his words when he warned the I GR commander that the SLA could lose more officers and men in the rescue operation than the number of personnel trapped in the Jaffna Fort. According to army and police headquarters records, there had been 52 personnel of the sixth battalion of the Sinha Regiment (6 SR) and 118 police personnel. The rescue of those trapped in the Jaffna Fort had been of paramount importance in the wake of several major setbacks. The LTTE overran the Kokavil army detachment during the second week of July 1990. Two weeks later, the SLA abandoned its base at Kilinochchi. The LTTE also pounded isolated SLA bases at Mankulam, Elephant Pass as well as Mullaitivu. Kobbekaduwa told Rajapaksa that IGR and I SLSR (Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment) would have to carry out the unprecedented operation. The Defence Secretary said: "We had not carried out a similar operation before. We were airlifted from Vavuniya to Palaly. From there, IGR moved overland to Kankesanthurai and were ferried to Karaitivu Island in boats. From there we moved to Kayts Island and then cleared Mandaitivu."

Rajapaksa said that the two battalions had been highly successful in the operation carried out in Mandaitivu. "The enemy suffered heavy losses. Several dozens of terrorists, including some senior cadres died in action. The loss of Mandaitivu sent shock waves through the LTTE. Monitored LTTE transmissions revealed its cadres in total disarray in the Jaffna peninsula. We could have exploited the situation had we crossed the lagoon immediately after securing Mandaitivu. Unfortunately, Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa felt that the SLA should consolidate its position in Mandaitivu before launching the rescue mission. In hindsight, the delaying of the rescue mission was a mistake. But, Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa, as the senior officer in charge of the action on the northern front must have had some reasons for delaying the operation for more than two weeks."

A daring mission

The then Lt. Ranjith Walisundara of the I SLSR was the first officer to enter the Jaffna Fort after having crossed the Jaffna lagoon under fire. At that time, the SLA had never undertaken such a large scale lagoon borne raid targeting perhaps one of the heaviest LTTE defended localities. The LTTE had some of its most experienced cadres deployed there as the use of Mandaitivu as a launching pad for an SLA rescue mission was a foregone conclusion in the wake of I GR and I SLSR setting up base there.

Having being promoted to the rank of Colonel, Walisundara is now based at the Panagoda cantonment. Colonel Walisundara recalled the I SLSR serving in the Gampaha District at the time Eelam war II erupted with unprecedented attacks on the police and the SLA in the Ampara and Batticaloa sector. The battalion had been immediately shifted to the eastern theatre, in support of operations involving other formations, including the First Special Forces Regiment (ISF).

Col. Walisundara said: "We fought a series of battles in the east. Subsequently, the I SLSR moved overland to Vavuniya and from there was airlifted to Palaly. Having reached Palaly, we moved overland to Kankesanthurai and were ferried to Karaitivu Island before crossing over to Kayts and then Mandaitivu. Although there had been some other fighting formations in Mandaitivu, the Jaffna Fort operation was undertaken by I SLSR and I GR."

Each battalion had assigned 120 men each to form a combined assault group tasked with crossing the lagoon under whatever the circumstances and fight its way into the Jaffna Fort. The I SLSR contingent (Bravo Company) had been commanded by the then Captain Kumar Ganegoda. Colonel Walisundara said: "The SLN assigned 10 fibre glass dinghies each to I SLSR and I GR troops to move troops across the lagoon during the early hours of September 13, 1990. Each boat was to carry 12 army personnel. I was in one of the boats operated by the then Sub Lieutenant Noel Kalubowila. During the crossing under fire, some of the boats assigned to I SLSR were struck in the lagoon. However, Kalubowila managed to reach the Jaffna peninsula first. Having reached land at about 5.30 a.m., my contingent reached the ramparts amidst enemy attacks. As we ran towards the ramparts, those under siege at the Fort dropped long ropes for us to climb and enter the Fort. We had to risk our lives to enter the Fort by climbing the rampart as entry points to the Fort had been sealed at that time due to heavy LTTE attacks."

(Kalubowila, now a Commodore, is Sri Lanka’s Defence Attache in New Delhi. During Eelam war IV, the then Captain Kalubowila commanded the Fast Attack Craft (FACs). The veteran is remembered for his role in saving the SLN’s largest troop career off Trincomalee in early August 2006 during a major confrontation between FACs and Sea Tiger suicide squads).

Both the I SLSR and I GR troops scaled the ramparts using ropes. Subsequently, they opened one of the entry points as the remaining troops crossed the lagoon, amidst heavy LTTE fire. The crossing took place under the protection of I SF deployed on either side of the path selected by the SLN for the troop induction.

Colonel Walisundara recollected how his colleagues, Lt. Wasantha Kumarapperuma and Lt. Athula Rajapaksa fought alongside with him after crossing the Jaffna lagoon in what he called the first wave.

Having consolidated their position at the Jaffna Fort, the I SLSR and I GR made an abortive attempt to advance on two flanks towards Jaffna. Due to a delay on the part of the SLA, the LTTE had prepared extremely strong defences, thereby in spite of a determined bid, troops couldn’t pierce enemy defences. Each battalion lost about 100 personnel during fighting in Mandaitivu and in and around the Jaffna Fort area, during the month of September 1990. It was the first SLA attempt to regain Jaffna town since Indian intervention in June 1987 to prevent the fall of Jaffna to the SLA.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Shocking cancellation of Pakistani project to expand SLA

War on terror revisited : Part 149


by Shamindra Ferdinando
For want of capacity to undertake such a huge task on its own, the SLA had to seek assistance from Pakistan. The then Pakistani leader General Zia-ul-Haq had agreed to help Sri Lanka notwithstanding other commitments. Due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan had been deeply involved in a major US military operation. Major Rajapaksa had been closely involved in the project. In fact, on the instructions of his superior, the then Colonel C.H. Fernando, Major Rajapaksa had been liaising with the Pakistan High Commission in Colombo.

Having undergone strenuous training under Pakistani as well as Israeli military instructors both here and overseas, the Sri Lanka Army (SLA), in the early part of 1987, prepared to launch its first brigade-level offensive against the LTTE .

While the Pakistani army trained junior leaders at Saliyapura, Anuradhapura for a duration of over one year, the Israelis were here for a much shorter period to conduct live firing exercises at Maduru Oya.

Lt. Gen. Nalin Seneviratne was at the helm of the SLA, having succeeded Lt. Gen. Tissa Weeratunga on Feb 12, 1985. Although President JRJ had one of his close confidants, Gen. Cyril Ranatunga as the Joint Operations Commander (JOC) there was absolutely no dispute over the ground level leadership.

Army headquarters placed Brigade Group I consisting of the First battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (IGR) and the First battalion of the Gemunu Watch (IGW) under the command of Colonel Wijaya Wimalaratne. The Brigade Group III comprised the Third battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (3 GR) and the Third battalion of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (3 SLLI). Brigadier Denzil Kobbekaduwa was in command of Brigade Group III.

 Gerry de Silva

Gotabhaya takes over I GR

Following the appointment of Commanding Officer of the I GR, Wimalaratne as one of two Brigade Commanders, his deputy, Major Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had the opportunity to lead the formation. Lt. Colonel Vipul Boteju was in command of the I GW.

Defence Secretary Rajapaksa said: "Operation Liberation got underway on May 26, 1987. Colonel Wimalaratne’s Brigade was on the northern axis astride the Thondamannar-Valvettiturai –Point Pedro road, while Brigadier Kobbekaduwa’s fighting formation was on the southern axis astride the Puloly-Nelliady-Point Pedro road. Our primary objective in the first phase was to regain Point Pedro as quickly as possible. Both Brigades were to converge on Point Pedro."

Army headquarters assigned another Brigade Group consisting of I SLLI and 5 GW for holding operations. Brigadier Gerry de Silva, who had been the senior officer in charge of the Jaffna peninsula at that time, commanded what was called the holding Brigade.

According to Defence Secretary Rajapaksa, even the battalion commanders hadn’t been informed of the overall objectives. "Initially, we were told the objective was to regain Jaffna. At the eleventh hour, we were told of two brigades on separate axes advancing on the LTTE stronghold at Point Pedro. Perhaps, the Brigade Commanders planned to deceive the LTTE through such leaks as regards the impending attack on Jaffna town."

In hindsight, President JRJ had no option but to pursue a military option consequent to the collapse of the Indian sponsored Thimpu initiative in July and August 1985. The then Indian Premier Rajiv Gandhi made both overt as well as covert moves to persuade the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) as well as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO), the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (EROS) and the People’s Liberation Origination of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) to reach an understanding with President JRJ. The TULF and terrorist groups resented the Indian moves as they felt they could overwhelm the SLA in the Jaffna peninsula. They believed that the eelam project could be fast tracked by defeating the SLA in the Jaffna peninsula.

JRJ orders Operation Liberation

Obviously, terrorists as well as their Indian masters had failed to realise the significant preparations made by the SLA since the collapse of the Thimpu initiative, thanks to training provided by Pakistan, Israel as well as the Channel Island based mercenary group called KMS.

In spite of India strongly objecting to Operation Liberation, President JRJ gave the green light to the SLA to launch the offensive.

The Defence Secretary recollected how I GR troops had almost trapped LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran at Valvettiturai, though he managed to escape. Major Rajapaksa had surprised Prabhakaran by attacking Valvettiturai after having changed the direction of his thrust. "Valvettiturai was his headquarters then. The LTTE believed it was impregnable. Unfortunately, due to the failure on the part of those tasked with blocking escape routes, Prabhakaran managed to slip out before we fought our way into VVT. Terrorism could have been eradicated a long time ago had we managed to finish off Prabhakaran during the first phase of Operation Liberation. Having liberated Valvettiturai, I GR and I GW fought their way to Point Pedro. Brigadier Kobbekaduwa’s formation, too, reached Point Pedro to conclude the first phase of the offensive."

The I GR lost Captain Shantha Wijesinghe hours after the SLA regained Valvettiturai due to an exchange of fire between SLA units. The then Brigadier Gerry de Silva, who had been in Jaffna at that time in his memoirs titled ‘A most noble profession: Memories that Linger’ recalled the circumstances under which his own troops had fired a 40 mm grenade round at the officer who wasn’t even wearing his flak jacket. According to de Silva, Captain Wijesinghe had rushed to assist troops on the southern flank, believing they were under attack from a group of terrorists trapped between the two brigades. However, the Defence Secretary asserted that Captain Wijesinghe had been shot dead possibly by an LTTE sniper before they launched the push towards Point Pedro.

Major Rajapaksa’s nephew, Second Lieutenant Prasanna Wickremasuriya, also of the I GR too, was shot in the chest during the first phase. Although many thought injuries suffered by the young officer could be fatal, he survived due to timely evacuation from the battlefield.

Subsequently, the then Lt. Shavendra Silva, suffered serious injuries in a grenade attack. Silva, also attached to I GR too, survived the blast though all thought he wouldn’t return to the battle field. Major Gen Silva said: "I was unconscious and my injuries were so extensive my colleagues thought I was dead. In fact, some mistakenly identified the body of another soldier killed in the battle as mine. At one point I thought I was going to die on the battlefield due to the extreme difficulty in evacuating the wounded from the battlefield."

Wimalaratne addresses troops

The Defence Secretary said: "Having regained Point Pedro, the SLA prepared for the next stage of the offensive aimed at liberating Jaffna. Colonel Wimalaratne addressed the troops subsequent to the liberation of Point Pedro. Acknowledging the difficulties experienced by troops during the first phase, the Brigade commander inquired whether we were ready to advance on Jaffna. There was absolutely no hesitation on our part. We were ready to advance on the LTTE heartland."

In his memoirs, General Gerry de Silva has said that the SLA launched the second phase of the offensive in early June 1987 following a short break, with the primary objective of regaining Jaffna. It was the first attempt made by the SLA to evict the LTTE from Jaffna after having lost control of the town a few years back. The same Brigades were tasked to carry on the offensive with Brigadier Kobbekaduwa on the western flank and Colonel Wimalaratne on the eastern flank keeping the Palaly-Jaffna road as the axis of the advance. According to him, Brigadier Kobbekaduwa’s brigade had reached Tellipalai and Colonel Wimalaratne’s troops regained Achchuveli when he received instructions from JOC General Cyril Ranatunga to halt the advance. Gen. de Silva, in his memoirs quoted Gen. Ranatunga as having told him: "Stop the advance and consolidate the line you are holding or the Indians will come."

Gotabhaya denied promotion

Having halted the offensive, the SLA began consolidating its positions in the Jaffna peninsula. President JRJ had been engaged in secret negotiations with Premier Gandhi to finalise the Indo-Lanka Accord (ILA) to pave the way for the deployment of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in the northern and eastern districts. The Defence Secretary said: "We were really disappointed and resentful. Had we managed to eliminate Prabhakaran at Valvettiturai during the first phase of the offensive, the situation could have been different. Unfortunately, Prabhakaran and all his key lieutenants managed to escape before we could effectively cut off Valvettiturai. Soon after the halting of military action, Colonel Wimalaratne called me. Having told me that he was going to recommend me for a field promotion, Colonel Wimalaratne requested army headquarters to appoint me to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. The Brigade Commander felt that I deserved it, though army headquarters dismissed the recommendation. Army headquarters asserted that a field promotion wasn’t necessary. At one time, regular battalions were really big. When Wimalaratne was at the helm, IGR comprised about 1,800 officers and men. During my tenure as the IGR Commanding Officer, it had about 1,200 officers and men whereas a battalion today consists of 400 personnel."

The Defence Secretary said: "As I couldn’t take a staff appointment at army headquarters immediately after my return from Defence Services Staff College in Wellington in December 1983, Wimalaratne intervened again to have me posted at headquarters. Thanks to his intervention, I got a Grade II staff appointment in the G branch responsible for training. Although there had been intense speculation about Indian intervention, the actual IPKF deployment was yet to materialise. Then, much to our surprise, army headquarters received instructions from the government to launch a special project to expand the army by 200 more officers and 2,000 men. I was among those involved in the project."

Special Pakistani project

For want of capacity to undertake such a huge task on its own, the SLA had to seek assistance from Pakistan. The then Pakistani leader General Zia-ul-Haq had agreed to help Sri Lanka notwithstanding other commitments. Due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan had been deeply involved in a major US military operation. Major Rajapaksa had been closely involved in the project. In fact, on the instructions of his superior, the then Colonel C.H. Fernando, Major Rajapaksa had been liaising with the Pakistan High Commission in Colombo. The Defence Secretary said: "Pakistan acted swiftly and decisively. In fact, the Pakistan army arranged for a high ranking military official responsible for training to visit Colombo to finalise the project. The visiting official’s itinerary included Kandy. I was instructed to accompany the visiting officer. Then two days before the scheduled visit, I was told of the sudden decision to cancel the proposed training project. I was stunned. I really didn’t know what to do. But the most difficult part was to inform the then Defence Attaché of the Pakistan High Commission of President JRJ’s decision to cancel the project. Those involved in the project on behalf of Pakistan were really surprised. A day or two after I was told of the cancellation of the project and Indian Premier Rajiv Gandhi arrived in Colombo for the signing of the Indo-Lanka Accord."

The Defence Secretary said that he felt humiliated and embarrassed by the episode. The then Defence Secretary General Sepala Attygalle had directed Army chief Lt. Gen. Nalin Seneviratne that there was no requirement for the expansion of the SLA due to the impending accord with the LTTE facilitated by India.

Within hours after the signing of the agreement, Indian troops began arriving in northern Sri Lanka. Having landed at the Palaly air base, the IPKF swiftly took control of the control tower. The SLAF had been unceremoniously asked to leave the control tower while all forces deployed in the northern and eastern districts were gradually confined to barracks as the IPKF expanded its deployment to cover the entire region. In accordance with the understanding with India, the Sri Lankan military had to give up the entire area liberated by troops of Operation Liberation. India insisted that the SLA should be re-positioned at bases it had held prior to the launch of Operation Liberation on May 26, 1987.

Gotabhaya picked for US course

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) exploited the Indo-Lanka Accord to intensify its campaign of death and destruction. The Defence Secretary said: "Overnight, those troops fighting on the front were airlifted from Palaly to the South for immediate deployment. Having moved out of the Jaffna peninsula, the I GR was positioned in Colombo in accordance with the overall plan to secure Colombo. While in Colombo, I was selected for the Advanced Infantry Course at Fort Benning, Georgia, and was away for over six months during 1988-early 1989. I joined the US course as a Major, but received promotion to the next rank of Lieutenant Colonel there. While I was there, Sarath Fonseka (Sinha Regiment), K.B. Egodawela (Gemunu Watch) and C Jayantha Ranaweera (Sri Lanka Light Infantry) arrived at Fort Benning, Georgia. Subsequently, G. H. Ariyaratne, also of the Sinha Regiment arrived at Fort Benning. Ariyaratne was killed along with Major General Kobbekaduwa and Brigadier Wimalaratne at Araly point, Kayts on August 8, 1992."

Lt. Colonel Rajapaksa returned to Colombo from the US in early 1989, ahead of the parliamentary election on Feb. 15, 1989 and resumed duties at the training branch at army headquarters.

Having won the presidential election on Dec. 19, 1988, Ranasinghe Premadasa was in power, though he was under heavy pressure due to the second JVP led insurrection. Immediately after the parliamentary polls, President Premadasa initiated moves to launch direct talks with the LTTE. The President also sought direct talks with the JVP in a bid to reach a settlement. Unfortunately, the JVP rejected his offer thereby setting the stage for police and military operations until the conclusion of the conflict in the South.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Gota survives blast at Mankulam

War on terror revisited : Part 148

Late Dec 2010 Saliyapura, Anuradhapura: Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa speaks with Gajaba Regiment soldiers wounded in action during Eelam War IV.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The then Major, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa of the First battalion of the Rajarata Rifles (I RR) in Southern India, was at the Staff College in Wellington in the Nilgris hills of Tamil Nadu when a section of the RR troops went on the rampage in Jaffna, following the killing of a colleague providing security to a polling booth at Kandaramadam, Jaffna, on the late afternoon of May 18, 1983.

At the time terrorists armed with small arms swooped down on the polling booth, it was almost time for the polling at the local government election to close.

Troops torched about 175 houses. They were also accused of killing one person and wounding scores of others.

Although the RR as well as some troops were involved in the incidents for some unforeseen reason, army headquarters squarely placed the blame on the RR commanded by the then Lt. Colonel K. M. S. Perera. Army headquarters went to the extent of sending Lt. Colonel Perera as well as the first Commanding Officer of the battalion, the then Colonel V. K. Nanayakkara, who had been away from operational areas, on compulsory leave. Nanayakkara was originally from the First battalion of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (I SLLI).

Army headquarters dealt harshly with those officers and men of the RR who had strongly protested against the disciplinary action taken in the wake of the Jaffna violence. (At the behest of the Army chief, Lt. Gen. Tissa Weeratunga, the then Col. Cecil Waidyaratne dealt extremely harshly with the RR on the basis indiscipline among troops couldn’t be tolerated under any circumstances. Waidyaratne, too, had to quit the service over the humiliating battlefield defeat at Pooneryn in November 1993 during President D. B. Wijetunga’s tenure. But he was rewarded with a cushy diplomatic posting to Thailand).

Major Rajapaksa, who had been the second in command of the battalion at that time of the rampage, survived the purge as he was away in Wellington. As part of a vigorous retraining programme for the RR, the then Army chief, Lt. Gen. Tissa Weeratunga (Oct. 14, 1981-Feb 11, 1985), announced his intention to amalgamate the RR with the Vijayabahu Regiment (VR), to establish a new infantry formation. It had been a momentous decision taken at a crucial stage of the conflict, though Lt. Gen. Weeratunga wouldn’t have realised the significance of his move at that time. Although other senior officers would have influenced the decision, it was the army chief’s prerogative to decide on the fate of the formation.

Interestingly, both the RR and VR were raised in 1980 by Lt. Gen. Weeratunga’s predecessor, Lt. Gen. Dennis Perera (Oct. 14, 1977-Oct 13, 1981), in support of the then three infantry regiments, the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (SLLI), the Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment (SLSR) and the Gemunu Watch (GW). Of them, the First battalion of the GW was the youngest, as it was raised on Dec. 7, 1962. Lt. Gen. Perera’s decision meant that the SLA realized the urgent need to strengthen the fighting capacity to face the growing threat of terrorism years before the July 1983 killing of 13 soldiers at Tinnaveli, Jaffna.

The SLA raised I RR and I VR on Jan. 15, 1980 and Dec 1, 1980, respectively. Unfortunately both formations failed to live up to expectations.

Having disbanded the I RR and I VR, Lt. Gen. Weeratunga established the First battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (IGR) on Oct. 14, 1983. Captain Rajapaksa was still away in Wellington.

Fortunately, the then Lt. Colonel Wijaya Wimalaratne received the appointment as the Commanding Officer of the I GR. Until then, Wimalaratne had been the Commanding Officer of the I VR.

Explaining the circumstances leading to him being forced to join yet another unit, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said that having completed the one-year-long mid career course at Staff College in Wellington, he had returned to the country in Dec 1983. "I left Sri Lanka as an officer of the RR and returned as a member of the newly formed I GR. It was an unexpected development, though I liked serving in the new formation under Lt. Colonel Wimalaratne".

The RR and VR officers and men accepted the challenging task of turning the newly formed I GR into one of the foremost fighting units in the eelam conflict. At a time when the Indian sponsored terrorist groups spearheaded by the LTTE had the upper hand in the Jaffna theatre, the entry of I GR wouldn’t have made a significant impact on the battlefield, if not for Wimalaratne, who earned the respect of friends and foes alike.

The Defence Secretary said that during his stint with the RR, he got married to Ayoma. "In fact, I was the first as well as the only serving RR officer to get married. At that time, I held the rank of Captain. Our marriage took place in 1980 two years before I was selected to join the Staff College in Wellington for one year. "

Major Rajapaksa was away in Wellington when the LTTE wiped out a foot patrol on the night of July 23, 1983. Although it was standard for an officer to receive Grade II Staff Officer appointment immediately after his return from overseas Staff College, in Major Rajapaksa’s case, due to the deteriorating situation in the north, the then Lt. Colonel Wimalaratne called him to join the I GR deployed in the Jaffna peninsula.

Among the officers who had been to overseas Staff Colleges after Major Rajapaksa were former army chiefs, Lt. Commander Shantha Kottegoda and Gen. Sarath Fonseka. One-time head of Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Chula Seneviratne was another. The SLSR veteran Fonseka was at the Staff College in Bangladesh.

Defence Secretary Rajapaksa said: "In Pakistan and India, Staff College experience is a must. Those wanting to hold higher positions need to gain such exposure. We are grateful to all those countries which accommodated our officers at their facilities at a time of crisis."

Commenting on Lt. Col. Dahanayake, who had facilitated his transfer from the Signals Corps to the SLSR at the onset of his military career, the Defence Secretary said that during an exercise carried out by the regiment one soldier had died of a heart attack. Unfortunately, various interested parties took advantage of the death to trigger a series of protests targeting Lt. Col. Dahanayake, the then Commanding Officer of the SLSR. Major Rajapaksa obtained a transfer to another unit in the wake of the change of command of the SLSR. The Defence Secretary said: "It was on the invitation of Lt. Col. V. K. Nanayakkara, who was tasked with raising the RR. Once the then Army chief, Lt. Gen. Tissa Weeratunga disbanded it to pave the way for the amalgamation of the RR and VR, I ended up as a Major in the I GR."

Unprecedented land survey

Having felt the need for tough action to neutralize the growing threat of terrorism, President JRJ directed the then Brigadier Bull Weeratunga to take tangible action. His mandate was to crush violent elements.

Brig. Weeratunga was sent to Jaffna four years before the killing of 13 soldiers at Tinnaveli which provoked massive attacks on Tamil civilians. Among those attached to Brig. Weeratunga’s staff were the then Majors Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Cecil Waidyaratne. President JRJ swiftly introduced the required legislation to introduce the Prevention of Terrorism (Special Provisions) Act No; 48 of 1979.

The Defence Secretary said: "Brig. Weeratunga was one of those officers who clearly understood the enormity of the threat faced by the country. The new Jaffna chief wanted to investigate all aspects including the banking sector which he quite rightly believed was part of the problem. He was seriously concerned about those causing mayhem in Jaffna as well as in the Vanni, receiving money. An influential section of the Tamil speaking public servants too, cooperated with them. As Brig. Weeratunga had been equally worried about the ongoing encroachment of state land, he set up a special team under the then Major V. K. Nanayakkara to examine all aspects of land grabbing. Thanks to Major Nanayakkara, I had the opportunity to join the land survey."

At the time, Captain Rajapaksa was still with the I SLSR and based at Diyatalawa. Both Major Nanayakkara and Captain Rajapaksa were stationed in Diyatalawa as instructors. The Defence Secretary said: "The team tasked with the investigating land encroachment included a senior official from the Land Commissioner’s office and a police officer. We carefully studied the situation on the ground. Having launched the investigation in Mannar, we gradually covered Vavuniya, Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Badulla and prepared a comprehensive report. Although it was made available to the government, no remedial action was taken. The political leadership didn’t want to take action against those carrying out the organized land encroachment project. Attempts made by the LTTE to drive out Sinhalese from some strategic areas should be examined, taking into consideration the eelamists’ early attempt to establish a buffer zone to protect predominately Tamil areas in the northern and eastern districts."

The Defence Secretary said that the report submitted by the SLA should be lying somewhere. If it could be traced, the government would be in a position to reveal those involved in clandestine projects to boost the eelamists’ campaign for a separate state, he added.

Captain Rajapaksa shifted from the SLSR to VR soon after the conclusion of the land survey, along with the newly promoted Lt. Col. Nanayakkara. After serving the VR for over three and half years (Jan 1980 to Oct 1983), the then Major Rajapaksa ended up with I GR, which he served until his retirement in early 1991.

Gotabhaya escapes death

President JRJ’s government struggled to meet the growing threat of terrorism. For want of a cohesive plan, the political leadership as well as the military eternally couldn’t adopt a realistic strategy. They didn’t even have a mechanism to ensure proper training. In fact, even middle level officers, those who had been tasked with leading men into combat, were in the dark as regards the introduction of new weapons. An accidental blast which claimed the life of I GR Officer Malik Deen on the eve of Jan 1, 1985, a few days after he succeeded Gotabhaya Rajapaksa as the senior officer in charge of troops stationed at Mankulam revealed the pathetic state of affairs.

The Defence Secretary said: "The I GR troops were deployed in the Jaffna peninsula and the Vanni mainland during the late 1984-85 period. At that time, we still could use the Jaffna-Kandy A9 road northwards beyond Vavuniya, though terrorists operated on both sides of the road. Lt. Col. Wimalaratne was at Gurunagar in the Jaffna peninsula. I commanded troops deployed at Mankulam while Deen was at Elephant Pass. Then there was another detachment at Kokavil, which was also under me. The Mankulam police station was situated opposite my base. During that period, troops of a particular battalion used to rotate within the area of its deployment. That strategy was meant to help us familiarize ourselves with as many areas as possible. In late December 1984, the Officer in Charge of the Mankulam police station walked into my base carrying a hand grenade. It was called JR type grenade. The police officer wanted to know how to use it, which he said was something new introduced recently. As I was about to switch bases with Deen I instructed the police officer to get in touch with my successor here within the next few days. And l left for Elephant Pass. As I instructed, the police officer had visited Deen, who promptly called a Sergeant Major and directed him to explain the mechanism. In spite of the Sergeant Major being one of the most experienced men at that time, he hadn’t been aware of the mechanism, as for some reason the Defence Ministry issued the JR grenade to the police instead of the SLA. I didn’t know how to use the JR type, nor did Deen. Unlike the grenade available up to that time, the JR type was factory primed. The Sergeant Major mishandled the grenade causing a devastating blast inside Deen’s office killing the Commanding Officer, the Mankulam OIC and himself. I dispatched a team from Elephant Pass to Mankulam immediately after hearing about the blast. In fact, initially we didn’t know it was an accidental blast. As the incident occurred on the late evening of December 31, 1984, the family and friends of Deen started calling his office in the night wishing him a happy and prosperous new year, without knowing he was dead. Obviously, Deen hadn’t been bothered even to tell his family about him switching places with me. I couldn’t tell those calling Deen that he was dead. I had no option but to indicate that Deen couldn’t be contacted at that time. It was a horrible incident. Subsequently, Wimalaratne sent a team from Colombo to inform his family of the unfortunate incident. Deen was a famous ruggerite and had many friends. Among those who called him on that day was media personality Richard de Zoysa."

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Israelis conduct live firing exercises ahead of Operation Liberation

War on terror revisited : Part 147


By Shamindra Ferdinando

Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa recollected receiving training from Israeli instructors at Maduru Oya in accordance with the then overall plan to prepare for a major offensive in the Jaffna peninsula. "We badly needed to enhance our expertise in fighting in residential areas. The then government of Israel sent instructors here following negotiations at the highest level," he said in an interview last Sunday. The tough talking official dealt with the situation in the run-up to the launch of Sri Lanka’s first brigade-level offensive, Operation Liberation on the morning of May 26, 1987 to clear Vadamaratchchy, in the Jaffna peninsula.

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa of the First Battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (IGR) was a Major at that time. The Israelis had arrived in Sri Lanka in the wake of the Pakistanis launching a special training project in early 1986 at Saliyapura, Anuradhapura to train Non Commissioned Officers and junior leaders. According to Defence Secretary Rajapaksa, the Pakistani instructors operated from Saliyapura for about one and half years, whereas the Israeli project at Maduru Oya was relatively short, though it was a significant requirement.

Those holding the rank of Major, second-in-command of fighting battalions and Captains had got an opportunity to train under Israelis, the Defence Secretary said.

Among those who had received training at Maduru Oya were Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Sarath Fonseka of the First battalion of the Sinha Regiment (ISR).

The Defence Secretary said: "The Israeli training project was called FIBUA –Fighting In Built-Up Areas. We were new to this sort of thing and a lot of precautions had to be taken during live firing exercises. Live firing exercises, in spite of precautionary measures in place, could go wrong. During FIBUA training at Maduru Oya, one officer from the Engineers was killed."

Under the guidance of the Pakistanis and the Israelis, the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) learnt to fight terrorism. Expertise imparted by foreign instructors prepared the SLA to meet the challenging task. Responding to a query, the Defence Secretary said: "Ongoing training projects at Saliyapura and Maduru Oya gave us confidence. We felt terrorism could be tackled by military means. Our seniors, the then Brigadier Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Colonel Wijaya Wimalaratne constantly pushed Army headquarters for action. The push always originated from the SLA, whereas politicians tended to believe in a negotiated settlement."

Major Pakistani and Israeli training projects got underway following the collapse of the first direct negotiations between the Sri Lankan government and Indian trained terrorist groups, namely the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO), the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Eelam Revolutionary Students Organisation (EROS) and the People’s Liberation Organisation Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) in August 1985.

Although the SLA had realised that various local and overseas training available for the officer corps at that time wasn’t adequate, it couldn’t do anything. On the one hand the then political leadership had been reluctant to take tangible measures to counter terrorism, though it gradually changed its approach, Defence Secretary Rajapaksa said, adding that the Indian factor prevented some countries from coming to Sri Lanka’s assistance. "Unstinted support from Pakistan as well as Israel to train the fighting forces should be examined against that background. In fact, the Pakistani and Israeli training projects were responsible for the success of Operation Liberation. Foreign expertise gave us confidence at a crucial time during the conflict. Had the SLA failed to obtain foreign training, we would have experienced a major crisis."

The Defence Secretary acknowledged that the SLA could never have successfully faced the threat of terrorism on its own. It would be pertinent to mention that Sri Lanka was the first country in the region targeted by a group of terrorists, sponsored by a neighbouring regional power, India.

Entry of Special Air Services

For want of expert military training from friendly countries in the wake of Indian sponsored terrorist groups, the then President JRJ had to acquire the services of the Channel Islands based mercenary group, KMS. Commenting on the entry of KMS, Defence Secretary Rajapaksa said: "KMS personnel provided a range of services. Due to a dearth of pilots, the SLAF had no option but to hire KMS pilots while the SLA received instructors who dealt with infantry training. There were British personnel, formerly of the elite British Special Air Services, South Africans and even some experts from the former Soviet Union. Unlike the Pakistani and Israeli projects, the KMS operation was low key, though it was of pivotal importance. Some of those KMS personnel had been stationed at Palaly, closer to the main operational theatre. However, those attached to the police Special Task Force (STF) was the first to receive training from KMS instructors, before the SLA and the SLAF obtained their services."

The Defence Secretary said that no country should be faulted for seeking foreign military assistance to neutralise a threat which it couldn’t counter on its own. Appreciating the sacrifices made by regular and volunteer fighting formations of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (SLLI), the Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment (SLSR) and the Gemunu Watch (GW), the Defence Secretary said that the Gajaba Regiment (GR) had played a significant role at a critically important juncture. The then Commanding Officer of the First battalion of the GR (IGR), Colonel Wijaya Wimalaratne, had been the livewire behind the vigorous campaign, the Defence Secretary said. "In the run-up to Operation Liberation, the GR spearheaded offensive action in the Jaffna peninsula. We were largely successful in consolidating our position in spite of fierce LTTE resistance. By that time the LTTE was the dominant terrorist group which directly confronted the SLA, whereas other groups primarily engaged in hit and run attacks and planned bomb attacks."

The Defence Secretary spoke very highly of some of those who had served the GR with him in the Jaffna peninsula and other operational areas. "Officers like Udaya Perera (currently Security Forces Commander, Kilinochchi. Perera holds the rank of Major General), Jagath Dias (Adjutant General, Army headquarters. Dias holds the rank of Major General), Sumedha Perera (National Defence College, China. Perera holds the rank of Major General), Chagi Gallage (leaving for US War College. Formerly head of the Presidential Guard. Holds the rank of Major General), Kamal Gunaratne (Deputy Ambassador in Brazil. Holds the rank of Major General), Jagath Alwis (Deputy Ambassador in Tel Aviv. Holds the rank of Major General). According to the Defence Secretary Special Forces veteran Colonel Fazly Laphir who was killed in the abortive mission to save those who had been trapped in Mullaitivu in July 1996, Colonel Prasanna Wickramasuriya (Chairman, Airport and Aviation Services), Major General Seevali Wanigasekera (Director Security, Central Bank of Sri Lanka), Major General Deepal Subasinghe (proprietor of a private security firm), the late Major General Gamini Gunasekera and Colonel Neomal Palipana (killed on Aug 8, 1992 in the mine blast at Araly point, Kayts Island. The same blast claimed the lives of war veterans, Kobbekaduwa and Wimalaratne, too.

The Defence Secretary recalled how his colleagues, Deepal Subasinghe and Sumedha Perera had fought the LTTE at Valvettiturai and Point Pedro, respectively, in the run-up to Operation Liberation.

Commenting on the gradual increase of the SLA deployment in the Jaffna peninsula, the Defence Secretary said that the GR, SLSR and SLLI had been deployed there to meet the growing threat posed by the LTTE. "I believe we had a mixture of SLLI and SLSR troops at the Jaffna Fort, whereas SLSR held Navatkuli. The GR manned Palaly, Thondamannar, Valvettiturai and Point Pedro. Our bases played an important role in Operation Liberation."

‘Baba’ mortars

The LTTE had a range of weapons, though it didn’t acquire artillery, long or medium range mortars during the early years of the conflict. The LTTE never experienced a shortage of arms or ammunition and was able to produce what the Defence Secretary called an incendiary weapon. The GR veteran said: "The LTTE developed a mortar which it called ‘Baba’. Although it didn’t have a specific range, terrorists used to launch ‘Baba’ mortars in the general direction of our bases. As ‘Baba’ mortar rounds contained tar, they caused fire when they hit the ground. They continued to develop various devices. Sometime later, the LTTE produced what it called ‘Paseelan’, another mortar bomb more lethal than ‘Baba’.

Extra muscle

Let the circumstances leading to the formation of the GR , one of the foremost infantry fighting formations of the SLA be examined. Its chance formation in the wake of major setbacks contributed to a stronger SLA as the war intensified.

During the tenure of Lt. Gen. T. I. Weeratunga as the Commander of the SLA, the organisation really felt the urgent need for additional infantry formations for deployment in the northern region, particularly in the Jaffna peninsula. The new formations were meant to support the SLLI, the SLSR and GW both on offensive as well as holding roles. Army headquarters named the two new formations, the Rajarata Rifles (RR) and Vijayaba Regiment (VR).

Having served the Signals Corps for a couple of years after graduating from the army training school and commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the regular force of the SLA on May 26, 1972, Rajapaksa had an opportunity to meet the then Commanding Officer of the I SR, Lt. Colonel Prasanna Dahanayake along with his elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa in the mid 70s. Lt. Colonel Dahanayake had instructed young Signals officer to request for an immediate unit transfer to the I SR. The Signals officer’s transfer had been swift due to Lt. Colonel Dahanayake’s taking a personal interest in the matter. Rajapaksa had been based at Echelon Square (the area around the Bank of Ceylon towers). Among the officers stationed there were Sarath Fonseka and Neomal Palipana. Subsequently, Rajapaksa had to leave Colombo and take up appointment at the Army Training College, Diyatalawa as an instructor. At the time, he held the post of instructor in Diyatalawa, Rajapaksa was a Captain.

The Defence Secretary said: "While I was based in Diyatalawa, the then Lt. Colonel V. K. Nanayakkara inquired whether I would like to join the newly formed RR which was going to be based in the Anuradhapura District. I accepted his invitation. In fact, we chose Saliyapura to be the home for RR and never thought the new project would collapse due to an unforeseen situation."

Having formed the new infantry formation, the then Army chief, Lt. General Dennis Perera deployed the RR in the Jaffna peninsula in the early 80s (before the eruption of major hostilities with the killing of 13 I SLLI personnel on the night of July 23, 1983). The Defence Secretary said: "RR was a regular infantry formation. We did a tour of duty in the Jaffna peninsula. There were only a few incidents there. The police had been in charge of handling the situation, though we were there to provide the required support. We conducted small scale operations."

The Defence Secretary recollected his experience as a Company Commander at Valvettiturai. The RR also manned a base at Madagal. Jayavi Fernando had been a platoon commander under Captain Rajapaksa (Special Forces veteran Jayavi Fernando quit the SLA owing to differences with the government, during Chandrika Kumaratunga’s tenure as President).

Captain Rajapaksa leaves for India

Having come on top of a competitive examination, Captain Rajapaksa was chosen to attend the Staff College in Wellington, Tamil Nadu. The one-year mid career course had been one of the fiercely competed examinations with many middle-level officers seeking to join courses offered by India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the UK. The Defence Secretary said: "I was the first from the RR to go on a mid career course to Staff College in Wellington. Sporadic incidents continued in the Jaffna peninsula. The July 1983 killing of 13 I SLLI personnel surprised me. I couldn’t believe that 13 men including an officer losing lives in a single incident."

The SLA had to move the I SLLI battalion out of the peninsula in the wake of a large section of the formation going on the rampage in the wake of the devastating July 1983 attack. At the onset of the conflict, poorly trained and ill-equipped regular troops tended to go on the rampage at the slightest provocation. The Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) as well as the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) and the police too, resorted to reprisals. The debilitating setback suffered by the I SLLI prompted severe reprisals in the peninsula.

But, at that time, Captain Rajapaksa’s RR had been in worse trouble with SLA headquarters deciding to disband the formation, though it underwent re-training for sometime following a mutiny. Perhaps, the SLA felt that the RR and VR would be better off as one formation as both lacked the required muscle to operate on their own. The intensification of terrorist attacks discouraged young men from joining the services. The three services found it extremely difficult to sustain the existing formations. Formation of new fighting units was considered a luxury.

Captain Rajapaksa wouldn’t have thought of moving to another formation leaving the RR as he had completed one-year course (Dec, 1982-Dec. 1983) in Wellington. The Defence Secretary said: "But due to circumstances beyond my control, I was going to a new formation. All those who had been with the RR were assigned to the new formation, along with the VR, which never realised its full potential in spite of being, formed some time back. Whatever the circumstances under which the new formation, the Gajaba Regiment was coming into being none of us could really comprehend the difference it was going to make on the battlefield, under the leadership of Lt. Colonel Wijaya Wimalaratne, a hero of our times."

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Eelam war I: The Wimalaratne factor

GR on transformation of SLA : Part 146

War veteran Brigadier Wijaya Wimalaratne (second from left) on the northern battlefield in he mid ‘80s

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The then Commanding Officer of the First battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (I GR) Colonel Wijaya Wimalaratne, compelled a reluctant Sri Lankan Army (SLA) to change its response to separatist Tamil terrorism.

Wimalaratne had spearheaded the SLA's early efforts to prepare the SLA to face the challenging task of countering terrorism, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said on Sunday. In a wide ranging interview, Rajapaksa, formerly of the I GR, recollected the circumstances leading to the first big ground offensive codenamed Operation Liberation in late May 1987.

Had the JRJ government acted swiftly and decisively, thereby giving the much needed political leadership to the war effort, security forces could have gained the upper hand in the Jaffna peninsula, the main theatre of conflict, the Defence Secretary asserted, emphasising the importance of examining the four-year period beginning from 1984 leading to Operation Liberation.

The JRJ administration's failure to take tangible measures had contributed to the rapid deterioration of the security situation in the northern region, the Defence Secretary said. "Examination of political and military developments during the 1984-1987 period will help us comprehend the gradual rise of terrorism. Such a study is of pivotal importance to prevent a future conflict."

The Defence Secretary recollected what he called the great combination of Wimalaratne and the then Colonel/ Brigadier Denzil Kobbekaduwa, who guided the SLA during that period. They earned the love and admiration of the vast majority of officers and men alike and inspired confidence among troops that terrorism could be defeated. Although the then top political leadership was not convinced that it was an attainable goal, the Kobbekaduwa-Wimalaratne duo pursued their agenda. They relentlessly pushed for a large scale ground offensive in the Jaffna peninsula to eradicate terrorist groups. The war veterans were confident of an outright military victory, though some were skeptical of the SLA's ability to sustain an offensive during the first phase of the conflict (July 1983-June 1987). If not for Indian intervention after Operation Liberation had wrested control of Point Pedro, the SLA could have evicted the LTTE from Jaffna town. Thousands of lives, both civilian as well as military, could have been saved if Operation Liberation had been allowed to proceed. Unfortunately, India threw a lifeline to the LTTE at the expense of a friendly country, which didn't threaten its interests at all. "Had India allowed President JRJ to continue with Operation Liberation, we could have wiped out terrorism at that time. India went to the extent of forcing an accord on us and then ended up fighting its own creation," the Defence Secretary said.

A foolish move

The then Colonel Wijaya Wimalaratne, Commanding Officer of the First Battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (I GR) spearheaded efforts to change the mindset of both officers and men alike. His intervention made a great impact on the entire SLA, though he was only the CO of I GR. The then Major Gotabhaya Rajapaksa succeeded the celebrated Colonel in time for Operation Liberation, Sri Lanka's first brigade-level operation since the outbreak of major hostilities in July 1983. Rajapaksa believes that had Wimalaratne failed in his bid to transform the SLA during the early years of the conflict, the country would have faced a catastrophic situation. Wimalaratne's role in preparing the SLA for big battles could never be disputed or challenged, Defence Secretary Rajapaksa stressed. Wimalaratne's resolve to wipe out terrorism and his untiring efforts to prepare the SLA for major battles should be examined and recorded for posterity.
The Defence Secretary asserted that the government should never have sent thousands of Tamils from Colombo and its suburbs to Jaffna in the immediate aftermath of the July 1983 riots triggered by the killing of 13 soldiers in Jaffna. At that time, the first battalion of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (SLLI), commanded by the then Major Upali Karunaratne had been deployed in the Jaffna peninsula. The Defence Secretary said: "Terrorists exploited the situation to the hilt. They recruited those arriving in Jaffna. Many ended up in training camps in India and returned months later combat ready. We struggled to contain terrorism. For want of political will as well as strategic military thinking, we experienced serious difficulties. We basically reacted to terrorist attacks, conducted limited operations and defended our bases. The enemy always had been free to take the initiative, until the launch of Operation Liberation in May 1987."

President JRJ declared a three month-long ceasefire on June 18, 1985 to facilitate direct negotiations between the government and the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) and five terrorists groups; namely the LTTE, TELO, EPRLF, EROS (all members of Eelam National Liberation Front) and the PLOTE. Regardless of the ceasefire, violence continued unabated in the Jaffna peninsula. Two rounds of talks in the Bhutanese capital, Thimpu, in July and August, 1985, ended inconclusively. Although the government and terrorist groups extended the ceasefire for a further period with the setting up a joint truce monitoring mechanism, the negotiating process collapsed in Dec. 1985.

Terrorists in control

Commenting on the post-July 1983 period, the Defence Secretary said: "Even after the devastating attack on the SLA which claimed the lives of 13 personnel, political and military leaderships failed to take action. Although we stepped up operations and increased our presence in areas vulnerable to terrorist attacks, the enemy made headway. The infantry took turns in serving in the Jaffna peninsula and the Vanni mainland. Each battalion served there for a period of six months. Each infantry battalion comprised 1,000 or more soldiers. The 1 GR once had about 1,800 personnel under Lt. Colonel Wimalaratne's command. In the absence of an overall strategy, the deployment of the SLA in support of the police didn't have the desired impact.

After having served in the north for six months during late 1983-1984 period, the I GR returned to Saliyapura, Anuradhapura, before being redeployed in the Jaffna peninsula in 1985. Commanding Officer Wimalaratne pushed hard for a change in strategy. He wanted to go on the offensive as he quite rightly felt that the SLA couldn't sustain its presence in the Jaffna peninsula on the strength of defensive measures alone. By the then standards, we had a substantial deployment of troops at Palaly, Valvettiturai, Point Pedro, Kankesanthurai, Jaffna Fort, the Jaffna Telecommunication complex and Navatkuli."

With the LTTE emerging as the dominant group in the Jaffna peninsula, the SLA had to make a major effort to sustain its presence. By that time, the SLA had lost overland access among Jaffna bases. The Defence Secretary said: "Instead of fighting the LTTE, the SLA had to concentrate on providing supplies to bases under siege. As nothing could be moved overland, except for troops who could secure their supplies through the Kankesanthurai harbour, all others had to depend entirely on the SLAF. Evacuation of casualties had been nothing but a nightmare. The survival of wounded men in a camp situated in the midst of enemy-held territory entirely depended on the availability of helicopters. Those deployed in the Jaffna peninsula couldn't move 100 meters out of their bases. In fact, we couldn't move freely within our bases. Sometimes, we had to crawl. It was a pathetic situation."

The Defence Secretary recollected how I GR had had to fight its way into the Valvettiturai camp to carry out the routine change of troops. The enemy fired at boats carrying troops approaching Valvettiturai and also interfered with helicopter movements, the war veteran said. "If not for Wimalaratne, the situation would have further deteriorated. The LTTE could have comfortably achieved its military objectives due to the SLA's failure to change its approach. Wimalaratne pushed for an aggressive result-oriented strategy. The Kobbekaduwa-Wimalaratne combination made a significant impact. They continuously pushed for a major ground offensive, until President JRJ finally authorised the launch of Operation Liberation.

An inspiring Wimalaratne

The Defence Secretary quoted IGR Commanding Officer Lt. Col. Wimalaratne as having told those serving under his command: "We have no option but to expand our bases soon or face the consequences. Unless the SLA expands its bases as much as possible, we won't be able to sustain our presence. We gradually began to expand, in spite of fierce resistance offered by the LTTE. They mounted a number of major attacks at that time, though we remained committed to Wimalaratne's project."

The situation was so bad in the Jaffna peninsula that the SLAF couldn't land within the Jaffna Fort. The SLA had to secure a part of the Mandativu Island to ensure that SLAF choppers carrying supplies to Jaffna Fort could land safely. Even the evacuation of casualties, too, had been carried out from Mandativu. As the LTTE had the wherewithal to engage any Jaffna base, the SLA had its work cut out when Colombo-based senior military personnel visited the peninsula. The Defence Secretary recalled how the LTTE had fired a Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG), at a bunker outside the Jaffna telecommunication, building killing a soldier while the then Joint Operations Commander, General Cyril Ranatunga was within the premises. The LTTE struck soon after General Ranatunga and the then Major Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had driven in an armoured personnel carrier (APC) from Mandativu Island across the Pannai causeway to the telecommunications building. Major Rajapaksa immediately removed General Ranatunga in an APC to Mandativu Island, where he boarded an SLAF chopper. When the JOC chief and Major Rajapaksa arrived in Point Pedro, the LTTE fired mortars forcing them to leave.

As the top brass realised the urgent need to expand wherever possible, the SLA expanded its presence beginning with the strategically located Point Pedro base. The Defence Secretary said: "We expanded our presence at Valvettiturai, Palaly as well as Thondamannar".

Commenting on the Herculean task of moving supplies from Palaly and Kankesanthurai to other bases situated in the peninsula during the deployment of I GR, the Defence Secretary said: "Once we made an attempt to streamline the distribution of supplies. Carrying out Colonel Wimalaratne's orders, troops based at Valvettiturai had to move overland in a convoy to collect their supplies. Due to the heavy LTTE presence in that particular sector, it turned out to be a major operation. Although we somehow managed to complete the movement on that day, the SLA didn't want to make a second attempt."

The Defence Secretary said that in spite of all those setbacks, Col. Wimalaratne had relentlessly pursued an action-oriented policy. The war veteran quoted his superior as having stressed many a time during their deployment in the Jaffna peninsula, the pivotal importance of troops moving out of their camps to prevent the LTTE from consolidating positions just outside SLA bases. "I GR chief demanded an immediate end to the appalling practice of sitting it out in camps until the completion of a six month long deployment. He influenced the top brass and did everything in his power to enhance the SLA's fighting capability."

During IGR's second tour of duty in the Jaffna peninsula, the then Brigadier H.F. Rupesinghe was the Jaffna Commander.

SLA heading for major operation

The unprecedented success in the expansion of Jaffna bases strengthened the hands of those who firmly believed that the LTTE could be militarily defeated. The Defence Secretary is of the opinion that the success of Jaffna operations proved that the SLA could fight. Having fought terrorists since 1983, the SLA gradually enhanced its capabilities to establish two brigades to execute Operation Liberation in May 1987. The then Brigadier, Kobbekaduwa and Col. Wimalaratne had the honour of leading the formations. With Wimalaratne taking up command at a higher level, Major Rajapaksa took over the celebrated I GR. The then junior officer Shavendra Silva, too, had been with the I GR and was seriously wounded in a grenade attack shortly before President JRJ was compelled to call off the offensive, due to Indian intervention (During the military operations between Sept. 2007 and May 2009, the then Brigadier/Major General Silva led the celebrated 58 Division which fought its way from northwestern coast to Nanthikadal).

The I GR was made a part of the Col. Wimalaratne's brigade with the First Battalion of the Gemunu Watch (I GW) being the other. Before discussing Operation Liberation any further, it would be pertinent to explain the circumstances under which the SLA prepared for the big battle. In fact, the SLA commenced training in the wake of President Zia-ul-Haq's visit to Colombo, during the second week of December 1985.

The SLA needed to rapidly train young personnel. Col. Wimalaratne launched a special project to train Non Commissioned Officers (NCOs). Due to Pakistani President Zia-ul-Haq's direct intervention, the SLA had the advantage of training a large group of NCOs in batches under Pakistani instructors. The Pakistani leader went to the extent of sending the then Brigadier Tariq Mehmood of the elite Special Services Group (SCG) to arrange the training project at Saliyapura. The Defence Secretary said: "The Saliyapura project was undoubtedly the longest single mission undertaken before Operation Liberation. We are grateful to the government of Pakistan for coming to our help at a crucial period during the conflict. Without Pakistan's help, the SLA couldn't have achieved the required training needed for a large scale ground offensive at that time. Pakistan remained supportive of Sri Lanka's anti-terrorist efforts throughout the conflict, in spite of change of governments both in Islamabad and Colombo."

The Secretary said: "Brigadier Mehmood occasionally visited Saliyapura to ensure the smooth implementation of the project. Several hundred personnel received training in the run-up to Operation Liberation. The Brigadier was affectionately called TM. The legendary Pakistani died in an accident on May 29, 1989. "

On the eve of the launch of Operation Liberation on May 26, 1987, Brigadier Mehmood flew in to Palaly air base. The visit underscored Pakistan's friendship as well as its commitment to the country's defence.

The Zia factor in Sri Lanka, Pakistan relationship

War on terror revisited : Part 145

President Zia-ul-Haq

by Shamindra Ferdinando

President Zia-ul-Haq was killed on August 17th, 1988 when a Pakistan Air Force C 130 crashed just five minutes after taking off. Among the dead were Gen. Akhtar Khan, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee and US Ambassador to Islamabad, Arnold Raphel. In accordance with the Indo-Lanka Accord (ILA), the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was deployed in the temporarily-merged North-Eastern Province, therefore the SLA was confined to barracks. Many felt that Sri Lanka’s relationship with Pakistan could go sour following the Pakistani President’s death. Had that happened, Sri Lanka’s defence would have suffered irreparable damage. In spite of political turmoil, successive governments in Pakistan remained committed to Sri Lanka’s defence right throughout. The tough talking General said at the conclusion of his Colombo visit that had Pakistan been an arms producing country at that time, it would have given anything to Sri Lanka.
In December 1985, Pakistan threw its full weight behind Sri Lanka’s fight against Indian sponsored terrorism with the then President Zia-ul-Haq visiting Colombo on the invitation of President J. R. Jayewardene. During his five-day visit, the Pakistani leader called upon the world to help Sri Lanka preserve its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Brigadier Tariq Mahmood

President Zia-ul-Haq’s arrival on the morning of December 10, 1985 gave a tremendous boost to bilateral relations with Pakistan pledging its unstinted support for the Sri Lankan Army (SLA), to acquire the required expertise in anti-insurgency operations. The visiting President was accompanied by his wife. Pakistan stepped-in as the SLA was struggling to cope up with the rapidly deteriorating situation in the Jaffna peninsula. For want of strength as well as the expertise, the SLA struggled to contain terrorism.

The historic visit took place against the backdrop of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, which paved the way for unprecedented cooperation among US-led Western powers, Pakistan and China against the Soviets. Pakistan spearheaded a costly destabilization campaign in occupied Afghanistan until the parties to the conflict reached agreement on a Soviet pullout. The former super power began withdrawing forces in May 1988 and completed the process in February 1989.

The SLA had been battling five major terrorist groups, namely the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), People’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO), Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) and Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students (EROS) at the onset of the first eelam war. Except the PLOTE, the other groups worked together as members of the Eelam National Liberation Front (ENLF).

The Pakistan leader’s state visit took place in the wake of the collapse of the Thimpu initiative (July/Aug 1985), and the breakdown of the three-month-long ceasefire (June 18-Sept. 18, 1985) as well as an attempt to extend the same by three more months.

JRJ vows to liquidate terrorists

Although President JRJ declared his intention to take on the terrorists in case Indian initiatives failed to bear fruit, the SLA lacked the strength to conduct a successful ground offensive in early 1986. According to SLA’s 50th anniversary publication, at the end of December 1985, the regular force comprised 1,055 officers and 17,876 other ranks (Volunteer Force comprised 281 officers and 4,771 other rankers), whereas in 1983, the regular force consisted of 615 officers, 9,513 other rankers (Volunteer Force comprised 163 officers and 3,130 other rankers).

Before the eruption of major hostilities in July 1983, the SLA had just a few regular infantry battalions, namely the First battalion of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (I SLLI) raised on May 12, 1950, First Battalion of the Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment (I SLSR) raised on October 1, 1956 and the First Battalion of the Gemunu Watch (IGW), raised on December 7, 1962.

The fourth infantry formation, the First Battalion of the Rajarata Rifles (I RR), which was raised on January 15, 1980, was disbanded on August 14, 1983 following a revolt by a section of the formation stationed at Saliyapura. This was consequent to I RR troops blamed for violence unleashed in the wake of the killing of a member deployed for election duty in Jaffna on May 18, 1983.

The SLA raised the First Commando Regiment as a squadron on March 15, 1980. It was given the status of a Regiment on March 15, 1986.

Despite the gradual increase in strength, the SLA still couldn’t muster the required strength needed to eradicate terrorism, though President JRJ as well as the then National Security Minister, Lalith Athulathmudali publicly vowed to pursue a military option, in case negotiations failed to produce the desired results.

In an interview with India Today in December 1985, President JRJ vowed to go ahead with military action regardless of the consequences. When India Today asked what a military solution entailed, President JRJ said his government would do everything in its power to achieve ‘complete eradication of terrorist activities in the country’.

JRJ welcomed the Pakistani leader in Colombo close on the heels of his meeting with Indian Premier Rajiv Gandhi on the sidelines of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Dhaka (Dec. 7-8, 1985), to explore ways and means of convincing the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) as well as LTTE, PLOTE, TELO, EPRLF and TELO to resume negotiations.

The main stumbling block for a negotiated settlement was the armed groups’ confidence that they were superior to the SLA. They remained confident of their tactics to counter any move made by the SLA in Jaffna. Their strategies heavily depended on the effective deployment of landmines and ambushes in the peninsula. For want of a cohesive strategy to counter the growing threat, the SLA found itself under siege in August 1985. The situation continued to deteriorate with Jaffna bases totally depending on supplies by sea and air, due to the blockade of overland routes. The SLA couldn’t even maintain overland access between major bases.

Pakistani instructors at Saliyapura

Former Army Commander, General Gerry H. de Silva, in his memoirs titled, A Most Nobel Profession: Memories That Linger, quotes President Zia- ul-Haq as having declared that he was prepared to meet whatever requirements of Sri Lankan armed forces. According to General de Silva, the Pakistani President was responding to an Indian journalist at a media conference held at the Defence Ministry at the conclusion of the state visit.

Gen. de Silva, who had served as Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in Islamabad in the 1990s, explained how Pakistan had gone out of its way to help the Sri Lankan military to fight terrorists. As Sri Lanka-Pakistan relations expanded, President Zia–ul-Haq had sent the then Regimental Commander of Special Forces, Brigadier Tariq Mahmood to explore ways and means of enhancing training facilities in Sri Lanka. The then Colonel General Staff, Gerry de Silva had to take the Pakistani veteran around the country to select a training facility. After having inspected several bases, Brigadier Mahamood picked Saliyapura, home of the Gajaba Regiment, to launch an intensive training programme for a selected group of officers-Non Commissioned Officers and junior leaders. According to General de Silva, Pakistani instructors trained nearly 500 in two batches. Pakistan also accommodated many Sri Lankan personnel at institutions at home, including at the Infantry Training School, in Quetta.

Pakistan played a major role in the gradual transformation of a once ceremonial army into a formidable fighting force. In fact, during the eelam war I (1983-1987), Pakistan had been the main supplier of small arms, according to General Gerry de Silva.

Indian media onslaught

President Zia-ul-Haq’s visit triggered speculation of a large scale military build-up against terrorist groups operating in the Jaffna peninsula. On behalf of the ENLF, the EPRLF issued a statement from India accusing President JRJ of planning to launch what it called the final offensive targeting the Jaffna peninsula. The EPRLF wouldn’t have issued such a hard hitting statement without the consent of its masters in New Delhi. The EPRLF alleged that the SLA was amassing troops in the peninsula and a fresh offensive was imminent. The propaganda campaign was timed for the Pakistani leader’s visit. An irate President JRJ directed the then Joint Operations Command (JoC) Chief, Lt. Gen. Cyril Ranatunga to counter Indian propaganda. Lt. Gen. Ranatunga issued a strongly worded rebuttal during President Zia-ul-Haq’s presence in Colombo.

Pakistan simply ignored the high profile media campaign directed against growing relations with Sri Lanka. The SLA would have found itself in a catastrophic situation if not for the prompt Pakistan training project launched by President Zia-ul-Haq. Interestingly, the Pakistani leader also accommodated SLA personnel at training facilities in Pakistan. Addressing a seminar in Colombo, which dealt with Pakistan-Sri Lanka relations, on Feb. 23, 2005, General Gerry de Silva, recollected how Islamabad’s growing role perturbed the Indian government during President JRJ’s period. A grateful former Army chief said that Pakistan had accommodated Sri Lankan personnel at Quetta, where young officers received specialist training, while junior leaders underwent intensive anti-terrorist training at Mangla and Shinkiari. President Zia-ul-Haq went to the extent of having a group of Pakistani cooks trained in Colombo to prepare Sri Lankan cuisine for those undergoing training there.

The SLLI, the SLSR, the GW and the newly raised First Battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (IGR), benefited tremendously from training provided by the Pakistanis.

Retired Warrant Officer Class II, T. M. S. Rodrigo, formerly of the Commando Regiment, recollected the role played by Brigadier Tariq Mahmood in facilitating parachute training for Sri Lankan personnel. (Decorated veteran Mahmood died in an accident one year after the death of General Zia-ul-Haq in a plane crash on August 17th, 1988. Some speculated that Mahmood, who was very close to the Pakistani leader, had purposely refrained from opening his parachute at a commemorative ceremony). The Special Service Group (SSG) was in charge of training conducted here. The former commando said that Pakistan had provided expertise in various fields over a period of time, beginning with intense training for the infantry at Saliyapura, Anuradhapura, in early 1986. "Pakistan remained solidly behind us throughout the military campaign until the conclusion of the conflict in May 2009," Rodrigo said, appreciating providing the required help to attain expertise in operations behind enemy lines. Responding to a query, Rodrigo said that the multifaceted Pakistan project had been geared to strengthen the overall fighting capability of the SLA.

Rodrigo, who retired in 2003 after having served the SLA for many years, explained the difficulty in obtaining foreign expertise at the onset of the conflict, due to external factors. The Pakistan project here had been timely and also of critical importance to the SLA’s efforts to build-up strength to face terrorism, he said.

Israeli expertise to handle explosives

One-time Commandant of the elite Special Task Force (STF), retired senior DIG Nimal Lewke recollected the role played by President JRJ’s son, Ravi Jayewardene (RJ) in bringing in foreign experts at a time the police and the military were struggling to tackle terrorism. Much to the surprise of those who had alleged that the government lacked a cohesive strategy to meet the threat of terrorism, the then Defence advisor, RJ, obtained the services of ex-British Special Air Services (SAS) personnel employed by KMS, an expensive firm managing mercenaries. In fact, the STF had been the first to benefit from foreign expertise in counter-terrorism operations in the wake of the Black July 1983 riots. According to Lewke, Israeli army instructors had conducted a special course for a group of security forces and police personnel at the Panagoda cantonment during 1984. Lewke had been among those who underwent training there in explosives handling.

Subsequently, the STF had an opportunity to send a group of personnel to Israel to undergo training. The STF squad had been led by the then ASP, Upali Sahabandu. (An LTTE suicide bomber killed Sahabandu at Kalmunakudi on the afternoon of November 19, 1996. Sahabandu, then an SSP, was on his way from Batticaloa to Ampara). According to Lewke, the Jayewardenes had a close relationship with the then Israeli leadership, hence could seek unprecedented assistance without having to undergo unnecessary hassles. A case in point was Israel sending experts in VVIP security, immediately after the JVP made an attempt on the life of President JRJ in August 1987. The Israelis trained 60 STF personnel to provide security to President JRJ and his family.

Having the Pakistanis and Israeli to train personnel simultaneously and the employment of ex-British commandos attached to KMS as instructors wouldn’t have been an easy task. Some KMS personnel were with the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF). The relationship with Israel remained throughout the conflict except for the period when the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa terminated the contract with the Israelis. The President made his move in the wake of claims that terrorists, too, had received military training in Israel. President Premadasa played politics with the issue, believing it could help him entice the local Muslim community as well as Muslim countries.

But, it would be pertinent to mention that in 1991, Victor Ostrovsky, formerly of Israeli intelligence, alleged in his book, By Way of Deception that Mossad had brought many Tamils to Israel for training in 1984 and 1985. The Indian media quoted Ostrovsky as having said: "These groups kept coming and going. When I was in Mossad, it was part of our routine job to take them to training camps and make sure they got training worth what they paid for, no more and no less. The Sinhalese paid in cash." The ex-intelligence officer alleged that India’s premier intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) had facilitated the project.