Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Suicide express

War on terror revisited : Part 155


by Shamindra Ferdinando

A combined security forces operation codenamed Thrivida Balaya launched on the morning of Sept. 13, 1990 was meant to break the siege on the Dutch-built Jaffna fort. However, breaking the four-month long siege had been one of the major objectives of the then Northern Commander Maj. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa, who was killed in a mine blast on Aug. 8, 1992 at Araly point, Kayts. In fact, the ultimate objective was to bring the Jaffna town under government control, after having consolidated the area surrounding the Jaffna fort.

Operation Thrivida Balaya was the first attempt to bring the Jaffna town under government control since Operation Liberation launched in May 1987 for the same purpose. The then President JRJ had to call off the offensive at India’s behest.

At the onset of Operation Thrivida Balaya, the army envisaged a possible launch of a lagoon borne assault from Mandaitivu Island to break the siege on the Jaffna fort. Although a causeway linked Mandaitivu with the Jaffna peninsula, security forces top brass favoured an assault via the lagoon using fibre glass dinghies as they realized the causeway could be heavily mined.

Kobbekaduwa at the helm

As the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of Army II Division headquartered at Anuradhapura, Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa was in overall command of the offensive intended to save a contingent of the Sixth battalion of Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment (6 SLSR) and over 100 police personnel trapped in the Jaffna fort before launching the First battalion of the Sinha Regiment (I SR) and the First battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (I GR) to clear the way to take control of Jaffna. Although the ISR and IGR had succeeded in breaking the siege on the Jaffna Fort, they failed in their primary task. The heroic efforts of the two infantry battalions have been dealt with in previous articles. It would be pertinent to examine the role played by the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) and the SLAF in the operation. The I SR and I GR had been commanded by Lt. Colonels, Sarath Fonseka and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

Having secured Kayts and Mandaitivu, the infantry planned to swiftly cross the lagoon. The army had no option but to use boats to cross the lagoon after a withdrawing enemy group destroyed the Sapaththu palama between Mandaitivu and Jaffna fort.

Maj Gen Kobbekaduwa turned to the SLN for assistance. SLN headquarters directed Commander North, the then Captain A. H. M. Razeek (retired in March 2002 as Chief of Staff with the rank of Rear Admiral) to intervene. But, the then Commander Prasanna Rajaratne, who had been the Command Operations Officer was given the responsibility of executing the operation (Rajaratne retired in 1996 with the rank of Captain). The then Northern Zonal SLAF Commander, Wing Commander Sunil Cabral, a veteran helicopter pilot had been in charge of air operations (Cabral retired in Dec 1993 having served as the Northern Zonal Commander during the April 2, 1990-Dec 14, 1993 period).

Lieutenant Commander MRU Siriwardana had been the Officer in Charge of the Mandaitivu Navy detachment (Rear Admiral Siriwardana recently retired after the having served the Navy as Chief of Staff).

At the onset of the operation in the early hours of Sept. 13, 1990, the SLN had 28 fiber glass dinghies (FGDs) to move troops across the Jaffna lagoon.

Sub Lt. survives five zero fire

The SLN contingent initially assigned for the operation comprised five officers and 60 sailors. Some of the officers assigned for the operation were wounded during the lagoon crossings. Of them, the then Sub Lieutenant, Noyel Kalubowila was lucky to escape without injury. He is currently Sri Lanka’s Defence Advisor in New Delhi.} Kalubowila holds the rank of Commodore. During the last phase of eelam war IV, the then Captain Kalubowila spearheaded Fast Attack Craft (FAC) operations). But some of his colleagues were not so lucky. The then Sub Lieutenant USR Perera (now Commandant at the Naval Maritime Academy, Trincomalee) was critically wounded due to five zero fire. The other officers assigned for the operation were the then Sub Lieutenant HRP Gunawardena (Gunawardana, in charge of SLN deployment at Akuregoda now holds the rank of Captain), Sub Lieutenant WDEM Sudarshana (Provost Marshal at SLN headquarters. Sudarshana holds the rank of Commodore), the then Sub Lieutenant Pujitha Vithana (Vithana is the Commanding Officer at Parakrama Navy base in Colombo. Vithana holds the rank of Captain), Sub Lieutenant ASL Gamage (Base Commander, Welisara. Now holds the rank of Captain) and Midshipmen Weththamuni (retired with the rank of Lieutenant).

Obstacles placed in the Jaffna lagoon during the deployment of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Jaffna (July 1987-March 1990) impeded naval operations. Although the IPKF had never envisaged such security measures at the time of its deployment here in accordance with the Indo-Lanka accord, it took tangible action to face any eventuality soon after fighting erupted on the night of Oct. 10, 1987.

A herculean task

The navy at that time lacked experience in major amphibious assaults using small boats under high intensity fire in spite of being conversant with LCM (Landing Craft Medium) operations. ‘SLNS Pabbatha’ and ‘SLNS Kandula’, commanded by Lt. Commanders, S.U. Lanka Prasada and Lakshman Illangakoon carried out successful landings close to the Mullaitivu army base on Sept. 1, 1990 in support of another rescue effort.

Obviously, Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa had to delay Operation Thrivida Balaya until the army could stabilize the situation at Mullaitivu. The LTTE almost succeeded in overrunning Mullaitivu before sea borne troops fought their way in to the isolated Mullaitivu base manned by about 60 personnel.

At the time, Operation Thrivida Balaya got underway, the LTTE had the upper hand in the northern theatre of operations comprising the Jaffna peninsula as well as the Vanni mainland. Having fought its way to the edge of Mandaitivu Island, the army turned to the navy for swift crossing of the lagoon. The then Sub Lieutenant USR Perera had been in charge of the naval detachment at Talaimannar at the time he was directed to join the navy contingent tasked with the herculean task. Perera was given the new task in the wake of those under his command at Talaimannar repulsing a three-hour long LTTE attack on the detachment at the onset of eelam war II. At that time, the Talaimannar detachment had been placed under the Elara base, situated at Karanaigar on Karaitivu Island. The LTTE had been fairly confident of overrunning the navy detachment at Talamannar, in the wake of a spate of successful attacks in the Mannar district.

Sub. Lieutenant Noel Kalubowila had been second-in-command of P 241 built by the Colombo Dockyard attached to the Elara base.

Commodores Perera and Kalubowila recollected the circumstances under which the navy had to ferry troops from Mandaitivu to Jaffna fort. LTTE resistance had been extremely heavy with attacks on boats crossing the lagoon from several directions. The LTTE also confronted the navy in the lagoon.

In a bid to divert the attention of the LTTE, the navy deployed several vessels south of Gurunagar in apparent preparation of a large scale sea landing. The deployment was meant to mislead the LTTE as to the point of landing. Regardless of the diversionary tactics, the LTTE had a strong deployment of assets, to face any eventuality.

Sub Lieutenant Sudarshana had been attached to the Chinese built gunboat ‘Sooraya’, based in Trincomalee at the time he was picked to join the contingent assigned for the operation dubbed the ‘Suicide Express’, whereas Sub Lieutenant Gunawardana was based at Elara.

SLAF loses Siai Marchetti

In spite of intense enemy fire, the navy managed to sustain the operation for two weeks, until the army decided to call off Thrivida Balaya due to mounting losses on the Jaffna front. Commodore Perera recollected a Siai Marchetti SF 260 light attack aircraft crashing into the Jaffna lagoon in the afternoon after being hit by LTTE fire. Perera had been in the lagoon when the plane hit the water. Commodore Kalubowila too, had been in the lagoon. Kalubowila said: "I was in a boat a little distance away from the aircraft. The pilot engaged LTTE targets from a distance. He was hit when he dived while firing at targets. Later, we found that the LTTE had shot down the aircraft with a 50 gun tied to a tree."

Flying Officer Priyadarshana Abeyweeragunawardana was killed in the attack. Posthumously promoted to the rank of Flight Lieutenant, Abeyweeragunawardana had been on his first mission during a high intensity battle. Having joined the SLAF on May 18, 1986, Abeyweeragunawardana had been promoted to the rank of Flying Officer on May 18, 1987.

The LTTE International Secretariat issued a statement claiming that the plane was brought down by a shoulder fired SAM-7 heat seeking missile. The SLAF denied the LTTE claim at that time. Both Commodores Perera and Kalubowila asserted that anti-aircraft fire had brought down the aircraft.

The then Lt. Ranjith Walisundara of the I SR had observed the pilot losing control after being hit by anti-aircraft fire. (Walisundera holds the rank of Colonel and is currently stationed at the Panagoda cantonment. The Siai Marchetti had been taking LTTE targets in support of the I SR battling for the control of the Telecommunication building at the time of the tragedy. Walisundara felt the stricken aircraft could crash in an LTTE-held area).

Wing Commander Cabral and Captain Rajaratne had been on Mandaitivu Island at the time of the incident. WC Cabral told the writer that the loss of the aircraft could be due to enemy action or the pilot being disoriented at a crucial point. Cabral said that his assessment was based on discussions he had with the then Squadron Leader, Shirantha Goonetileke, an experienced Siai Marchetti pilot (Wing Commander Goonetileke was killed along with about 50 security forces officers and men when the LTTE shot down an Avro approaching the Palaly airfield in late April 1995 at the onset of eelam war III. Goonetileke, the brother of outgoing Chief of Defence Staff Air Chief Marshal Roshan Goonetileke, was posthumously promoted to the rank of Group Captain). Goonetileke had been in charge of the attack aircraft assigned for the operation. The Italian-built Siai Marchettis entered service in 1985. They remained the main offensive weapon until the acquisition of Chinese jets in 1991.

The then Captain Udaya Perera (currently Security Forces Commander, Kilinochchi), asserted that the loss of the Siai Marchetti had resulted in an irrevocable setback to the ground offensive. Perera’s company had been engaged in a bloody battle with the LTTE for control of Pannai police quarters and adjoining buildings.

Captain Gunawardana recalled the Siai Marchetti crashing into the lagoon between his boat and one carrying the then Lt. Perera. According to him, a series of rehearsals in the run-up to the operation strengthened the capacity to go ahead with the challenging task. Gunawardana recollected Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa joining navy officers tasked with leading the operation in a night air reconnaissance mission.

Amidst the battle on land, the navy continued to ferry men and material across the lagoon.

Special mission goes awry

While returning from a special mission on the third day of the operation, after having moved rations from Mandaitivu for those in the Jaffna fort, Sub Lieutenant Perera was ravaged by a 5 zero round. The then Major Fazly Laphir had been on Perera’s boat at the time (Laphir was killed during an abortive rescue mission at Mullaitivu in July 1996). Amidst an intense fire fight, the navy managed to get a bleeding Perera to Mandaitivu Island before being evacuated by air. Altogether, Perera’s last mission had involved five boats. Perera had taken one boat while Kalubowila was in another. Three other boats were loaded with rations. They had braved heavy LTTE fire to reach the Jaffna peninsula, but were not lucky on the return journey.

The then Lieutenant Amarasinghe, currently Eastern Commander was in charge of RFD (rubber floating dinghies), while Lieutenant Chanaka Rupasingha was in charge of the diving team. Rupasingha retired with the rank of Captain.

Midshipman Wettimuni and Petty Officer R.S. Perera, too, was involved in the action.

Against tremendous odds, the navy ferried over 800 officers and men from Mandaitivu to the Jaffna peninsula. Due to heavy enemy resistance, the navy had to carry out the transfer at night, throughout the operation, though daytime missions were undertaken on the first day.

Commodore Kalubowila recalled how a sailor under his command had died in a mortar attack on the Jaffna Fort in the early hours of September 16. Unable to return to Mandaitivu due to heavy LTTE fire, Kalubowila slept under a tree. Veteran Jayavi Fernando, too, was there (Fernando, who was at the forefront of many battles and distinguished himself as Special Forces Commander, quit the service over a disagreement with the government during President CBK’s tenure).

Kalubowila and Gunawardana were among those officers involved with ‘Suicide Express’ until the army called off the offensive.

Sub. Lieutenant Perera was among six personnel awarded gallantry medals on recommendations of Captain Rajaratne.

The military top brass decided to call off Operation Thrivida Balaya on September 22, 1990. According to the then Sub Lieutenant Noyel Kalubowila, the decision was announced at a meeting chaired by Maj. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa on Mandaitivu Island. Having consulted the officers present, Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa directed the navy to make arrangements for the evacuation of troops from the Jaffna fort. The following day, Sub Lieutenant Kalubowila and three navy divers examined a possible route for withdrawal and the navy opted for shallow waters to help soldiers to walk through waters to reach the causeway. Kalubowila recalled positioning navy personnel along the selected route in the waters from Mandaitivu to the Jaffna fort to facilitate the night movement of army personnel. Kalubowila said that the army had left the Jaffna fort through its seaside gate which was opened after many years. He recalled speaking with Special Forces veteran Gamini Hettiarachchi before the opening of the gate and then leading the way across the waters with the then Captain Boniface Perera (currently, Wanni Security Forces Commander. Perera holds the rank of Major General).