War on terror revisited : Part 147June 20, 2013, 12:00 pm
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."
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’.
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."