Thursday, 22 August 2013

ICRC push for Jaffna demilitarized zone angers Ranjan W

* War on terror revisited : Part 165


By Shamindra Ferdinando

LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham and Yogiratnam on ground at Nedunkerni in Vanni east in early May 1989 shortly before they boarded Bell 212 captained by Flight Lieutenant Romesh Mendis for journey to Colombo. IN the center is senior police official Eric Perera (person wearing a cap). Adele Balasingham (extreme right)

The then President Ranasinghe Premadasa paved the way for the ICRC presence in Sri Lanka during the second JVP insurgency (July 1987-Nov/Dec 1989). The invitation was extended during his honeymoon with the LTTE (May 1989-June 1990). Soon after the LTTE resumed hostilities on the night of June 10, 1990, the ICRC expanded its operations to cover the entire country with the focus on the northern and eastern districts. The ICRC established offices there and quickly brought in additional foreign personnel to run newly established offices in areas dominated by the LTTE. With the armed forces under siege in most districts, the LTTE had direct access to ICRC offices in the wake of various international agencies expanding their operations here. Having resumed hostilities, the LTTE deprived water to the people of Kallar, Seruwila and Serunuwara by closing the sluice gates of the Werugal tank. The ICRC mission in Trincomalee engaged in negotiations with the LTTE to pave the way for the resumption of water supplies. The government too supported the ICRC bid, as it felt it didn’t have any other option. The LTTE rejected the plea forcing the army to launch an operation to open the sluice gates. An operation involving the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (SLLI), Gemunu Watch and Gajaba Regiment troops dislodged terrorists to pave the way for the resumption of the water supply. The army killed seven terrorists during the operation, while five personnel lost their limbs due to explosions caused by anti-personnel mines.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), called for the immediate declaration of a demilitarized zone in the area covering the Jaffna Fort and the Jaffna hospital during the last week of July 1990. The ICRC made its move amidst the ongoing LTTE efforts to overrun the Jaffna fort manned by the Sixth battalion of the Sinha Regiment (6SR). The ICRC felt that a tripartite agreement involving the government, the LTTE and the ICRC could prevent the battle for the Dutch-built Jaffna fort from jeopardizing the lives of those seeking treatment at the premier medical institution in the peninsula, as well as the staff.

Much to the dismay of those battling the LTTE, the government promptly accepted the ICRC proposal. The then minister John Amaratunga declared the government’s readiness to accept the ICRC proposal provided the LTTE too, agreed to reciprocate. Minister Amaratunga wouldn’t have voiced support for the controversial move without having obtained President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s blessings. The UNP leader still believed he could reach an understanding with the LTTE to pave the way for Prabhakaran’s return to the negotiating table.

The LTTE resumed hostilities on the night of June 10, 1990 after having direct negotiations with the UNP administration for 14 months. The ICRC bid was the first such attempt after President Premadasa’s chief negotiator, Minister A.C.S. Hameed made a desperate attempt to work out a deal with the LTTE about a week after the resumption of hostilities.

Before discussing the ICRC move further, it would be pertinent to examine the circumstances under which Minister Hameed met the then LTTE deputy leader Gopalswamy Mahendraraja alias Mahattaya at a place close to the Nallur temple, on June 16, 1990. Subsequent to the meeting which lasted for almost seven hours, the presidential secretariat announced a fresh ceasefire with effect from 6 p.m. on June 16, 1990. The ceasefire never materialized (Government and LTTE agree on ceasefire-The Island Jun 17, 1990). Instead, major battles erupted in the wake of the failed peace bid with the LTTE stepping up attacks on security forces detachments in the Jaffna and Vanni theatres. The LTTE overran Kokavil during the second week of July 1990. Two weeks later, the army abandoned its base at Kilinochchi. The debacles at Kokavil and Kilinochchi paved the way for an all out assault on the detachment at Mankulam, compelling the army to vacate it during the fourth week of November 1990.

SLAF team accompanies Hameed

The then Leading Aircraftman (LAC) P.W. Dissanayake recollected accompanying Minister Hameed in the guise of an employee of the state-owned Rupavahini Corporation (Dissanayake retired in Dec 2008 with the rank of Warrant Officer). Dissanayake said: "There were altogether four of us, including the then Flying Officer Andrew Wijesuriya, who was in charge of the group (Wijesuriya holds the rank of Air Commodore now). The team included LACs, D.M.K. Dassanayake and S.M.A. Jayatissa. We accompanied the minister on the pretext of being a Rupavahini crew assigned to cover the meeting in the LTTE held area. Having reached the end of the area under military control, four of us got into the back of an LTTE vehicle, while Minister Hameed got into another vehicle also driven by an LTTE cadre. We reached the venue for the meeting, though the LTTE denied us access to the meeting though we were allowed to take some footage before the commencement of the discussion. We had lunch there before returning to Palaly in the evening."

Dissanayake recalled the then LTTE commander in charge of Jaffna, Dominic coming in a Pajero to no man’s land to escort them to the meeting. According to him, they had arrived in Palaly along with Minister Hameed earlier in the day in a beechsuper King. The minister’s mission could have gone awry even before he entered the LTTE held area when troops fired at an LTTE vehicle, possibly the one carrying Dominic. The then Major Crishanthe de Silva of the Engineers Regiment had the unenviable task of driving Minister Hameed to the LTTE line (Major General de Silva was recently appointed Chief of Staff, with the elevation of Major General Daya Ratnayake as the Commander of the army). According to Major General de Silva, troops had opened fire as two LTTE vehicles entered the no fire zone, instead of one as agreed earlier. "In hindsight, the then government had been prepared to take unprecedented risks in a bid to bring the LTTE back to the negotiating table. In spite of the LTTE causing heavy losses to the government at the onset of eelam war II during the second week of June 1990, the government pushed hard for a settlement. Minister Hameed’s mission was such an endeavor. In fact, the LTTE went to the extent of firing indiscriminately at the Palaly airfield as Minister Hameed was walking towards the beechsuper King which was parked on the runway. The Minister was rushing back to Ratmalana to brief President Ranasinghe Premadasa of the outcome of his meeting."

Rupavahini under military control

In response to the threat posed by the JVP, the government brought the Rupavahini Corporation under military control. It was part of the overall counter subversive strategy to thwart the JVP from destabilizing a vital state propaganda organ. The then Air Commodore Ananda Samarakoon functioned as the Competent Authority, with the army responsible for the main control room, the navy responsible for the studios and the air force for handling the news room. Those who had been assigned to accompany Minister Hameed were members of the air force contingent attached to Rupavahini. Wijesuriya and the then Flight Lieutenant Ushan Wickremesinghe had functioned as English news readers, whereas there was a separate team of Sinhala news readers. Air Commodore Wijesuriya recollected LACs, Dissanayake, Dasanayake and Jayatissa joining him voluntarily when he wanted only one for the mission. During the visit to the LTTE held area, Wijesuriya had functioned as a producer with Rupavahini. The government had no option but to depend on the military to run Rupavahini as well as the ITN and also to distribute newspapers published by Lake House in the face of the JVP threat. Although the JVP collapsed in November/December 1989 with the execution of its leader Rohana Wijeweera, the military remained in charge of Rupavahini and the ITN, hence Wijesuriya’s team joining Minister Hameed in a dangerous mission.

Wijeratne dismisses ICRC move

The ICRC sought a fresh dialogue between the government and the LTTE to establish a demilitarized zone in Jaffna in the wake of the military planning to launch a major lagoon borne assault to break the siege on the Jaffna Fort. The combined security forces offensive codenamed ‘Thrivida Balaya’ was spearheaded by the then Major General Denzil Kobbekaduwa, the General Officer Commanding (GoC) of the Second Division headquartered in Anuradhapura. Thrivida Balaya was meant to regain Jaffna town. None other than Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who had been in command of the first battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (IGR) assigned for the assault told the writer that the army couldn’t achieve its objective. The then State Minister for Defence, Ranjan Wijeratne reacted angrily when he heard of the ICRC’s bid to declare a demilitarized zone covering the Jaffna fort and the hospital area. Minister Wijeratne had been overseas at the time the ICRC initiative got underway. Having returned to the country on August 4, 1990, Minister Wijeratne declared that a ceasefire in the northern region was useless and detrimental to national security interests. The media quoted Minister Wijeratne as having said: "Why should we have demilitarized zones and ceasefires when they are brutally massacring innocent people? I am not in a mood for any demilitarized zone or ceasefire". Minister Wijeratne was speaking seven days after Minister Amaratunga welcomed the ICRC initiative. Minister Wijeratne and the military top brass voiced concern over the ICRC proposal. They asserted that the proposed demilitarized zone would effectively thwart the launch of offensive action to regain the Jaffna town, hence it couldn’t be accepted under any circumstances.

War preparations underway

Amidst the debate on the ICRC proposal, the navy carried out a major operation involving landing craft, SLNS Pabbatha and SLNS Kandula to ferry arms, ammunition and equipment needed by troops tasked for ‘Thrivida Balaya’ from Trincomalee to the newly built landing point at Milady. The army worked without a break to construct the new landing point which extended about 150 metres from the land to facilitate the offloading of military equipment, vehicles and other supplies. The launch of the operation had been tentatively planned for the third week of August 1990 with sea and air borne troops securing Kayts before proceeding to cross the Jaffna lagoon, after having overcome LTTE resistance on Mandathivu Island.

Minister Wijeratne opposed the ICRC bid as he felt it could jeopardize the plan to regain Jaffna town. Although the army succeeded in breaking the siege on the fort on the morning of September 13, 1990, it couldn’t achieve its primary objective to liberate Jaffna town. The operation to liberate Jaffna had to be called off in late September 1990 and the fort abandoned much to the dismay of those who pushed hard for a pragmatic strategy to defeat the LTTE.

The LTTE released 15 Tamil speaking policemen who had been in their captivity through the ICRC in support of the latter’s initiative. The ICRC moved the released policemen from Jaffna to Trincomalee to pave the way for favourable media coverage for the LTTE. An angry Wijeratne pointed out that the LTTE had massacred over 600 policemen during the second week of June 1990 therefore the much publicized release of Tamil speaking personnel was nothing but a publicity gimmick.

At the onset of the ICRC initiative, the LTTE stormed two mosques at Kattankudy on August 3, 1990 killing about 150 Muslims. Immediately thereafter, the LTTE massacred about 50 Muslims in and around Akkaraipattu, also in the Eastern Province. The SLMC lambasted the government for failing to provide sufficient security to the community, in spite of repeated appeals since the commencement of hostilities during the second week of June, 1990.

The ICRC, while pushing for a demilitarized zone in Jaffna, remained strangely silent as regards LTTE atrocities in the Eastern Province. Muslims went on the rampage targeting Tamil civilians. Al Oluvil in the Eastern Province, an armed gang massacred 48 Tamil civilians. Another gang chased Tamils from Kudapokuna in the Mahaweli area as the police and the military looked the other way. The government struggled to cope with the rapidly deteriorating situation in predominately Tamil and Muslim areas in the Eastern Province. Addressing parliament on the morning of August 7, 1990, Minister Wijeratne reiterated his commitment to finish off the LTTE. Without making any reference to planned ‘Thrivida Balaya’ aimed at liberating Jaffna, the outspoken minister declared: "We will show no mercy. We will annihilate terrorists." Within hours after Minister Wijeratne’s vow, the LTTE retaliated. In a deliberate attempt to provoke the government, terrorists massacred 32 Sinhala men, women and children at Bandarduwa in the Ampara district. On the following day, they attacked a private bus on the Morawewa-Horowpothana road killing 27 Sinhalese, including 15 women. The LTTE stormed a Sinhala village in the Vavuniya district killing eight persons. Within a week, about 300 civilians, the majority of them Muslims, were dead. The country was in chaos. In spite of threatening to eradicate the LTTE, Minister Wijeratne didn’t have the wherewithal to take the battle into enemy territory. Instead, the military was fighting to save the remaining bases in the Jaffna and Vanni theatres. The government lacked troops to thwart attacks on civilians. The military also found it extremely difficult to prevent hit and run attacks aimed at crippling overland movements. Unfortunately, the government failed to realize the urgent need to enhance the fighting strength to meet the LTTE challenge. The government ignored the urgent need to develop a cohesive strategy with the focus on a rapid increase in the fighting strength. The country paid dearly for President Premadasa’s lapse.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Could GoSL have afforded to lose Israeli help?

War on terror revisited : Part 164



Katunayake airbase during eelam war IV:President Mahinda Rajapaksa proudly sits at the controls of a Kfir. Kfirs of the No 10 squadron spearheaded the air campaign along with MiG 27 and Chinese jets.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The then President Ranasinghe Premadasa closed down the Israeli Interests Section on April 20, 1990 much to the delight of the Muslim community here. The President’s move was meant to silence the then SLFP leadership, which had been clamoring for the closure of the Israeli Interest Section, since President Premadasa’s predecessor, JRJ invited the Israelis to Colombo, in accordance with a tripartite agreement involving the US, Israel and Sri Lanka. The agreement also envisaged the establishment of Voice of America (VOA) station at Iranawila, much to the apprehension of India.

Had the UK and United States offered direct military assistance to Sri Lanka in response to JRJ’s plea, the country wouldn’t have had to seek Israeli armaments as well as expertise to meet the terrorist challenge. The then Soviet Union, too, turned a blind eye to Sri Lanka’s predicament due to its extremely close relationship with India, particularly in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in Dec 1979. The Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan until February 1989. India declined to condemn the Soviet invasion, which one-time Indian Foreign Secretary J.N. Dixit called one of the two major foreign policy blunders made by Premier Indira Gandhi, the other being forming terrorist groups in Sri Lanka (Makers of India’s Foreign Policy; Raja Ram Mohun to Yashwant Sinha. Dixit who had been India’s High Commissioner in Colombo at the time of the signing of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord authored the book published in 2004).

President Premadasa made his controversial decision in the wake of Victor Ostrovsky, a former member of the premier Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad revealing in his best seller, ‘By Way of Deception; The Making and Unmaking of a Mossad Officer’ that the Israelis providing military training simultaneously to both Sri Lankan military personnel as well as Tamil separatists in Israel in the mid 80s. It would be pertinent to mention that Ostrovsky never identified those who had undergone training there as members of the LTTE, though a reference was made to Tamil Tigers, whom the author described as a grouping of Tamil guerilla factions. The best seller was co authored by Claire Hoy.

US facilitates GoSL-Israel relationship

The then US administration of Ronald Reagan was instrumental in setting up the Israeli Interest Section in response to the growing threat posed by Indian sponsored terrorist groups. Having declined to provide US military assistance as it didn’t want to annoy India, President Reagan instead facilitated a working relationship between Israel and Sri Lanka for the latter to receive both weapons and expertise. The setting up of the Israeli Interest Section in Colombo took place in the wake of several high level visits by US officials, including Defence Secretary Casper Weinberger on Oct 1, 1983. Weinberger’s visit was followed by US General Vernon Walters, President Reagan’s Special envoy.

An examination of revelations made by Ostrovsky stunned many countries, including the US. Ostrovsky disclosed how Mossad withheld from the US information relating to planned suicide attacks on US and French barracks in Beirut killing 241 US personnel, including 220 Marines and 58 French paratroopers, respectively. The Oct 23 1983 blasts, caused by explosives-filled trucks caused injuries to 60 US and 15 French personnel, respectively. According to the author, Mossad felt that the loss of US lives could poison US-Arab relations, hence the decision was made to remain silent. Israel made a futile attempt to have the book banned worldwide through legal means after having failed to convince Ostrovsky not to go ahead with his project. Israel wouldn’t have tried to thwart the publication of the book if Ostrovsky was making it up. There couldn’t be a reason to concoct a story relating to Sri Lanka, if the other claims were true.

Among other shocking revelations was Mossad having the then PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s driver as well as bodyguard on its payroll.

President Premadasa appointed a Presidential Commission of inquiry to probe Ostrovsky’s revelation relating to Sri Lanka. Among those who gave evidence was eminent journalist Mervyn de Silva. He stated as follows:

"He said he was of the opinion that the opening of the Israeli Interest Section in Colombo was an unwise step in the face of formal protests and warnings by the leader of the Opposition and the ruling party’s Muslim members led by Dr M.C.M. Kaleel. It was wrong to have assumed that Israel’s national interests coincided with Sri Lanka’s national interests, and more particularly with Sinhalese interests."

Mervyn de Silva went on to say that the elementary fact of Israel’s foreign policy is that the national interest of Israel is the ultimate test and that the Israelis pursue this with cold blooded calculation.

Although the circumstances had been vastly different, the actions of US Army Pfc Bradley Manning (arrested in May 2010 in Iraq), and Edward Snowden (now a refugee in Russia), of the US National Security Agency (NSA), were similar to that of Ostrovsky’s. Revelations made by Manning and Snowden, too, sent shock waves through the global community with the US administration earning the wrath of the US public, over the ongoing surveillance project targeting them.

A foolish move

Whatever the circumstances under which Israel provided training to a group of Tamil separatists in Israel, President Premadasa’s decision to sever diplomatic relations with the Jewish state could have had a debilitating setback to Sri Lanka’s war effort. The country couldn’t have deprived its armed forces of superior Israeli arms, ammunition and equipment in the backdrop of Western powers turning down President JRJ’s plea for weapons. The military also received Israeli military expertise in ground fighting, particularly FIBUA (Fighting in built-up areas) in the ‘80s. The Israelis arrived in Sri Lanka as agricultural experts and set up a training base at Maduru Oya in 1985 to train the army in close quarters combat. Interestingly, at the same time, the Pakistan army had an ongoing project at Saliyapura, Anuradhapura, to train the army. Israel also sent in experts to streamline VIP security in the wake of the JVP making an attempt to assassinate President JRJ in parliament in August 1987.

President Premadasa believed that his government didn’t require Israeli assistance as he was confident of having a political deal with the LTTE. Having invited the LTTE for talks in May 1989, soon after winning the parliamentary polls in April 1989, President Premadasa, Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces acted contrary to the interests of the armed forces. Premadasa announced his decision to close down the Israeli Interest Section close on the heels of India pulling out its Army from Sri Lanka deployed in the then temporarily merged Northern and Eastern Provinces, in accordance with the Indo-Lanka Accord signed on July 29, 1987. The last Indian army contingent quit Sri Lanka on the morning of March 24th, 1990. President Premadasa announced his decision to cease operations of the Israeli Interest Section on April 20, 1990, though the US and Israel knew of the president’s decision in advance. The announcement couldn’t have been made at a worse time.

President Premadasa’s motive for doing away with diplomatic relations with Israel was political. The UNP leader felt that it would be greatly advantageous to him politically to get rid of the Israelis. The President and his advisors as well as the service chiefs didn’t take into account the possibility of the LTTE resuming hostilities. When UNP heavyweights, A.C.S. Hameed and M.H. Mohamed strongly protested against President JRJ going ahead with the pact with Israel, the UNP leader declared that those opposed to his move were free to leave the government. None of those opposed to the Israeli presence here wanted to leave the government. JRJ insisted that defeating terrorism was much more important than appeasing the sentiments of a section of the government. JRJ took an uncompromising stand on his security policy. In fact, JRJ had no option but to depend on Israel for critical military supplies. President Premadasa wasn’t bothered about the implications of his decision. Having annihilated the JVP by November 1989, President Premadasa remained supremely confident of reaching a longstanding agreement with the LTTE. The President’s faith in the LTTE as well as short term political gains influenced his imprudent decision. The UNP leader never realized the LTTE’s strategy. In fact, President Premadasa publicly urged India to call off its military mission here at the behest of the LTTE, even before LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham accompanied by his Australian born wife, Adele flew into Sri Lanka from London, in late April 1989.

Dvoras to the fore

President Premadasa ignored the fact that Israeli built Fast Attack Craft (FACs) remained a critical part of the overall SLN assets deployed against the LTTE. Since the acquisition of the first pair of 47 ton Dvora FACs in early 1984 and four more craft of similar type two years later, Israeli vessels played an important role in interdicting terrorist boat movements across the Indo-Lanka maritime boundary and defending coastal army bases. President Premadasa realized his folly only when the LTTE resumed hostilities during the second week of June 1990, within weeks after breaking off diplomatic ties with Israel. Having lost the overland Main Supply Route (MSR) to the Jaffna peninsula, the army largely depended on the navy for its supplies. Although the SLAF operated regular flights to Palaly, it couldn’t meet the growing requirements of rapidly expanding army deployment in the Jaffna peninsula. Landing Craft as well as other ships carrying men and material from Trincomalee to Kankesanthurai couldn’t proceed without a large force of FACs escorting them. At the height of the conflict in 2009, the navy had to deploy as many as 20 FACs to escort a convoy from Trincomalee to Kankesanthurai. Had Israel deprived Sri Lanka of the FACs, the navy would have experienced great difficulties in meeting the LTTE challenge at sea. Although Sri Lanka acquired some FACs from the US, France, South Korea as well some built by Colombo Dockyard which operated in collaboration with Japan, the Israeli craft remained the preferred fighting vessels. The navy greatly benefited by Israeli FACs night fighting capabilities.

The LTTE threat to ship movements had been so high that the navy was compelled to seek the support of both the SLA and the SLAF to protect its convoys. At the height of the conflict, the navy had to deploy one Fast Gun Boat (FGB), 20 FACs, twenty-two Arrow Boats and two Inshore Patrol Craft (IPC), while one Mi 24 helicopter gunship and one Beach craft, too, were assigned to protect a single Trinco-KKS convoy. This was revealed by Vice Admiral Samarasinghe before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) at the conclusion of the conflict. The army had to place artillery units deployed along the coast on alert to provide gunfire support, in case of an attack on an SLN convoy.

The Israeli FACs to date remain the main strike force, though they may never engage in combat operations again.

When the LTTE resumed hostilities, President Premadasa had to look for new sources for armaments, though China remained the major supplier of arms. Contrary to expectations, President Premadasa couldn’t secure major armaments from the Arab world, hence the military quickly realized that Israel was indispensible as an arms supplier, whatever Ostrovsky had to say about Israel having had a hand in training Tamil terrorists at the onset of the Indian sponsored destabilization project here. The then State Minister for Defence, Ranjan Wijeratne and Trade and Commerce Minister A. R. Mansoor, who undertook a special mission to several West Asian countries to explore ways and means of acquiring new armaments soon found out that the country couldn’t depend on them.

In late 1999, the navy finalized an agreement with Israel for the acquisition of two used Fast Missile Vessels (FMVs). Israel trained ship crews numbering 116 there before Sri Lanka took delivery of the vessels in Aug 2000. They were subsequently commissioned as SLNS Suranimala and SLNS Nandimithra. Although many criticized the acquisition of the vessels, they played the role of Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) during the hunt for LTTE floating arsenals in 2007 and 2008 on the high seas. Along with the two vessels, acquired at a cost of $ 26 mn, Israel gave four Gabriel Mark II missiles free. Israel also gave Sri Lanka the option to order two new FMVs at a cost of $ 46 mn each.

The change of government in Aug 1994 paved the way for enhanced relations with Israel. During the early part of the CBK administration, Sri Lanka acquired Kfirs, a modern multi role fighter aircraft (in service with the SLAF since 1996), Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (also in service with SLAF since 1996. Initially, Sri Lanka acquired three. Subsequently more UAVs, including those capable of conducting night operations were added to the fleet) and most importantly, anti-missile systems, in the wake of shooting down of two British built transport aircraft on April 28, 1995 and April 29, 1995 over the Jaffna peninsula. The SLAF choppers, including the legendary Mi 24/Mi 35 (export version of the Mi 24s) couldn’t have operated without the protection of the expensive Israeli anti-missile systems. At the conclusion of the conflict, veteran helicopter pilot Squadron Leader Sampath Thuyacontha, who commanded the No 09 attack helicopter squadron told the writer that the SLAF couldn’t have sustained operations without adequate anti-missile protection. "What the Israelis produced, especially for our Russian built gunships, was excellent. It met all our requirements."

In spite of efforts by some Western powers to deprive Sri Lanka of weapons, Israel remained a source of strength throughout the war.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

A secret flight to Nedunkerni

*War on terror revisited : Part 163



A picture taken during the then Wing Commander Roshan Goonetileke’s tenure as the Commanding Officer of the No 4 Helicopter Wing (From L–R seated) Kapila Ratnasekera, Sumangala Dias, Kapila Jayampathy, Ranil Gurusinha, D. Senaratna, Roshan Goonetileke, Healy Herat, Romesh Mendis, Asitha Kodithuwaku, Royce Gunaratne and Jagath Rodrigo.(L- R standing )– Prassana Karunaratne, Dushantha Edirisinha, Thilina Kaluarachchi, Prassana Payoe, Dushan Thalagala, Sampath Thuyacontha, D. Rathnayaka, Ravi Liyanagamage, Dhammika Wijesuriya , Tyronne Silvapulle, Samantha Herat, Ravi Jayasinha.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The military planned a heli-borne operation to reinforce the isolated camp at Kokavil during the second week of July 1990, though it never materialised. Having brought in the required reinforcements including commandos to Vavuniya to mount the operation, the army abandoned the plan at the last moment.

The then Flight Lieutenant Romesh Mendis, of the No 4 Squadron/Wing had been in charge of the four helicopters assigned to air drop troops. Mendis recollected having been tasked to airlift 160 commandos to a point closer to Kokavil. Mendis said: "I flew over the Kokavil area with Nambukara Chandrasena of the army Commandos to select a possible landing point. Having chosen a landing point, we returned to Vavuniya to finalize the airlift. We were under tremendous pressure to carry out the airlift immediately as the situation at the Kokavil camp was rapidly deteriorating. Kokavil was on the verge of collapse."

The then Wing Commander Sunil Cabral functioned as the Northern Zonal Commander as well as Anuradhapura Base Commander. Cabral spearheaded SLAF efforts.

But, much to the surprise of Mendis, the army top brass in Vavuniya invited him to tea. When he pointed out that they couldn’t afford to have tea in Vavuniya due to the crisis in Kokavil, the army ignored his concerns. Instead of going ahead with the planned airlift, the senior officers had tea before Mendis was directed to launch the airlift. Mendis declined to go ahead with the operation on the basis that the SLAF couldn’t complete the heli-drop before the LTTE reacted. The young officer felt that reinforcements could be massacred unless the entire contingent could be dropped before the LTTE reacted. Mendis asserted that the delay on the part of the army to launch the operation had sealed the fate of those under siege at Kokavil. In hindsight, the army top brass probably never felt confident about launching a rescue operation primarily due to lack of experience in undertaking such a mission. Although the No 4 Helicopter Squadron had experience in heli drops in the northern and eastern provinces, including at the onset of Operation Liberation in late May 1987, it had never undertaken a mission under conditions similar to those prevailing at Kokavil, in July 1990.

Mendis said: "Had we acted swiftly and decisively, perhaps the LTTE attempt to overrun Kokavil could have been thwarted. The overrunning of the undermanned camp had a devastating impact on the fighting forces. The shocking loss of Kokavil demoralized those under siege in the Vanni region. It sent shock waves through the entire defence establishment."

Although a section of the army claimed that the then Commanding Officer of the besieged camp, Lieutenant S. U. Aladeniya had declined to abandon the camp and retreat towards Vavuniya to avoid being overrun, such a plan wasn’t realistic. Having fought the LTTE for several weeks, those under siege at Kokavil lacked the strength to fight their way through the LTTE cordon. By then, most of Lieutenant Aladeniya’s men had been wounded. The only way Kokavil could have been saved was for heli-borne troops to fight their way into the Kokavil camp established some time ago to protect the Rupavahini transmission tower. Except for perhaps two personnel, the LTTE wiped out the entire Kokavil contingent comprising about 50 men. It was the first of many army camps overrun during subsequent years.

Within a decade, the LTTE acquired conventional military capability to overrun a fully equipped Division plus formation. The crushing defeat suffered by the 54 Division headquartered at Elephant Pass in April 2000, highlighted the phenomenal growth of the LTTE.

In the wake of the Kokavil debacle, the then army chief, Lt. Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe decided to abandoned the army base at Kilinochchi. In fact, the decision taken after the resumption of hostilities on the night of June 10, 1990, to quit Kilinochchi was in accordance with secret negotiations President Ranasinghe Premadasa had had with the LTTE. The vacation of Kilinochchi was to facilitate a fresh peace agreement. But when the LTTE launched an all out attack to dislodge troops from Kilinochchi in July 1990, the army chief ordered a heli borne operation to save the base. The sixth battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (6 GR) and the fifth battalion of the Gemunu Watch (5 GW) carried out the operation successfully during the last week of July 1990.

Romesh Mendis, who retired in 1994 with the rank of Squadron Leader said: "With the loss of Kokavil and Kilinochchi in July 1990, the LTTE directed all its firepower against isolated army base at Mankulam. In spite of  heavy LTTE attacks, troops held on to their positions. By then, Mankulam was the only army base north of Vavuniya along the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road up to Elephant Pass. As the enemy controlled the overland access road leading to Mankulam, the military launched a heli-borne operation to break the siege on Mankulam. The reinforcements included army commandos. The SLAF deployed six choppers, including two helicopter gunships for the operation. The operation to strengthen Mankulam got underway immediately after the Kokavil debacle. Unfortunately, Mankulam couldn’t be saved. The army abandoned the base during the fourth week of November 1990."

Mendis recalled the circumstances under which the SLAF had conducted perhaps the last helicopter mission to evacuate the wounded from Mankulam, before the army abandoned the base. According to Mendis, four personnel, including an air gunner, Leading Aircraftsman, Ratnayake who was a Corporal, as well as a soldier who had survived the Kokavil debacle and walked through the jungles to take refuge at Mankulam died in a hail of bullets directed at his chopper as it took off from Mankulam. Although intense firing had caused damage to the fuel tank, Mendis was able to reach the Vavuniya airfield, with the dead and the wounded. The then Flying Officer Kapila Ratnaseka had captained the other chopper tasked with the evacuation of the wounded. Ratnasekara (retired with the rank of Squadron Leader), had managed to take off from Mankulam before the LTTE could zero in on his chopper. Ratnasekara had been in touch with Lieutenant Aladeniya during the final battle for Kokavil on the night of July 11, 1990. Squadron Leader Ratnasekara recalled Aladeniya contacting him over the communication set to urge air attacks on his base as the enemy was inside the defended area. Ratnasekara said: "I was above the Kokavil camp during the final battle. Aladeniya went off the air about ten minutes after calling for air strikes." Aladeniya of the Sinha Regiment (Volunteer) was posthumously promoted to the rank of Captain.

In the Tiger territory

The then Flight Lieutenant Mendis recalled the circumstances under which he had landed in LTTE-held territory at Nedunkerni in the eastern part of the Vanni region, during the first week of May 1989 to pick up a group of LTTE cadres, including Yogiratnam Yogi. Mendis had been based at the Katunayake air base at the onset of President Pramadasa’s talks with the LTTE, soon after winning the parliamentary polls in April 1989. Mendis was surprised when his Commanding Officer, Wing Commander Sunil Cabral declined his request for leave and directed him to remain at the base at Katunayake, where he received a telephone call from the then Chief of Staff, Air Vice Marshal Oliver Ranasinghe, instructing him to fly a Bell 212 to SLAF headquarters grounds Colombo. AVM Ranasinghe promised to pick him up at the SLAF grounds. When Mendis queried from his colleagues who wanted to join him on a special mission, Thilina Kaluarachchi had volunteered (Kaluarachchi, one of the finest pilots produced by the SLAF was killed in an LTTE missile attack/anti-aircraft fire on November 10, 1997 over Kokilai). Having flown to Colombo, Mendis got into Ranasinghe’s official car to be driven for a meeting chaired by General Cyril Ranatunga at the Joint Operations Command (JOC), Flower Road leaving Kaluarachchi on the ground. A much surprised Mendis was told by President Premadasa’s confidant Ranatunga to pick up a group of 13 LTTE cadres from the jungles of Nedunkerni. Among those present at the meeting were AVM Ranasinghe, the then Colonel of the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI), Colonel Sunil Tennakaoon and a senior police official, Eric Perera.

Mendis was told to fly into Nedunkerni unarmed. Although he had serious reservations, Mendis accepted the challenging task. Having told of the importance of keeping the flight secret, General Ranatunga, explained the ongoing confidence building measures. According to General Ranatunga flying unarmed into LTTE held territory was one such measure. In accordance with the plan, Mendis flew LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham, a former employee of the British High Commission and his Australian born wife, Adele as well, Eric Perera as well as five journalists to Nedunkerni.

The UK-based Balasinghams arrived in Colombo before from London to finalize arrangements for the first round of talks in Colombo. The Balasinghams were to meet LTTE leaders before a 13-member group joined them for the return journey to Colombo. As one helicopter couldn’t accommodate all, General Ranatunga authorized another Bell 212 captained by the then Flight Lieutenant Gagan Bulathsinghala (Presently Director Operations. Bulathsinghala holds AVM rank) to accompany Mendis. Bulathsinghala, the senior of the two was to fly back the journalists and Eric Perera, whereas the entire LTTE group including the Balasinghams boarded the chopper captained by Mendis.

Mendis recollected an excited Balasingham asking him whether he, too, could smoke inside the chopper during the flight to Nedunkerni. Mendis couldn’t refuse Balasingham as he too was smoking. The two choppers had flown over President Premadasa’s Ambanpola estate before changing direction towards Nedunkerni. Mendis said: "We flew low to prevent detection by any hostile party. We were also aware of the possibility of the Indian army monitoring our flight."

As soon as the two choppers cleared the northern skies, Mendis reported to headquarters the successful completion of the mission. Mendis pointed out that the LTTE group arrived in Colombo carrying arms, ammunition and communication equipment, though the SLAF was deprived of the opportunity at least to carry personal firearms. Having brought the first LTTE group to Colombo in May 1989, Flight Lieutenants, Bulathsinghala and Mendis had to engage in operations against the LTTE just 14 months later. Subsequently, several other pilots of the No 4 helicopter squadron/wing too, were tasked to carry LTTE personnel within operational areas in the Northern and Eastern Provinces as well as between Colombo and Vanni/Palaly.

Preparing for war during peace

Retired Squadron Leader Lasantha Waidyaratna recalled the then SLAF chief, Air Marshal A.W. Fernando (March 1, 1985) emphasizing the need to be vigilant, though the LTTE was talking peace with the government. A. M. Fernando was fearful of the LTTE resuming hostilities, though President Premadasa remained confident about the peace process. Direct talks between the government and the LTTE lasted 14 months. Veteran flier Waidyaratna, who took part in many daring operations during eelam war I (late 1983-June 1987) and eelam war II (June 1990-late 1992), said that regardless of the Indo-Lanka peace accord (July 1987-March 1990) and direct talks between the government and the LTTE (May 1989-June 1990), the LTTE had continued with its training programme. Waidyaratna recollected seeing a group of LTTE cadres engaged in target practicing as he was flying from Palaly to the Karainagar navy base in the Karaitivu Island in the wake of the signing of the Indo Lanka peace accord. Waidyaratna was flying a group of persons sent to Jaffna by the then Mahaweli Minister Gamini Dissanayake on a fact finding mission.

Waidyaratna had seen the LTTE engaged in live firing exercises as he flew back to Palaly after dropping Minister Dissanayake’s group at Karainagar. Although the Sri Lankan military took up the issue with the Indian army top brass in Jaffna, India ignored Sri Lanka’s concerns. The Indian military realized its folly only after hostilities broke out between them and the LTTE in Jaffna during the second week of October 1987, leading to the launch of ‘Operation Pawan’ on the night of Oct. 10/11 1987. Waidyaratna asserted that the LTTE had never been genuinely interested in making peace. Prabhakaran’s decision to conduct target practising in the Jaffna peninsula immediately after the signing of the Indo-Lanka accord was a glaring  example of the LTTE’s duplicity, he said.

Waidyaratna recalled the SLAF installing a camera on a Cessna 337 fixed wing aircraft at the behest of AM Fernando during the government-LTTE honeymoon from May 1989 to June 1990 to photograph LTTE positions under construction. Although the SLAF lacked state of the art equipment to keep the LTTE under surveillance, the SLAF used available resources to gather photographic evidence of the LTTE build up. Waidyaratna said: "When fighting erupted in June 1990, the SLAF had an understanding about new LTTE positions, though real time intelligence was not available for the services for many more years."

In hindsight, the LTTE had always taken advantage of the failure on the part of the government to take cohesive measures to counter its plans, Waidyaratna asserted. Although some sections of the armed forces resorted to contingency plans, they never had the backing of the political leadership to prepare the forces to meet any eventuality, he said.

Monday, 12 August 2013

More on No 4 Helicopter Squadron

*War on terror revisited : Part 162


Flying officer Romesh Mendis receiving the gallantry award, RWP, from President Ranasinghe Premadasa, for his role in an operation at Elephant Pass on Jan 17, 1987.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The operational record of the No 4 Helicopter Squadron/Wing in the northern and eastern provinces is legendary. It played a critically important role, in both defensive and offensive missions until the change of its functions with the acquisition of Mi 17 transport helicopters and Mi 24/Mi 35 helicopter gunships in 1993 and 1995 respectively. Until then, the No 4 Squadron/Wing excelled in a range of tasks, including close air support to ground forces, air assault, heli-drops as well as air reconnaissance.

The formation rendered invaluable support to ground forces in the Jaffna peninsula, particularly during eelam war I (July 1983 to July 1987) and in the Vanni during the first phase of eelam war II (June 1990 to Aug 1994). However, its role in the northern theatre of operations comprising both the Jaffna and Vanni districts gradually diminished in the wake of the army losing most of its isolated bases during eelam war II. In fact, at an early stage of eelam war I, the army lost overland road access to isolated camps in the northern theatre due to the LTTE as well as other terrorist groups sponsored by India, conducting a highly successful mine warfare campaign. The Palaly air base in the Jaffna peninsula and the Vavuniya air base situated north of Anuradhapura remained the nerve centers for helicopter operations throughout eelam war I and II.

Romesh Mendis had been among those who immensely contributed to helicopter operations at the risk of their lives during the early years of the conflict, before being transferred to the No 2 Transport Squadron based at Ratmalana. Mendis continued to fly helicopters assigned for the transportation of VIPs while still being with the No 2 Squadron responsible for operating fixed wing aircraft. The shift from No 4 formation to No 2 took place in 1992.

Having joined the SLAF in 1982, Mendis had an opportunity to fly missions against terrorists as an Officer Cadet during the early stages of the conflict. Kapila Jayampathy, who had been involved in many daring missions, was another. Mendis retired in 1994 with the rank of Squadron Leader. "At the initial stage of the conflict, we probably had more helicopters than pilots. In spite of difficulties, the Squadron gradually achieved expertise. Over the years, as the SLAF expanded, the No 4 formation achieved celebrity status. As the SLAF acquired more helicopters, the Squadron was categorized as a Wing and placed under Wing Commander Oliver Ranasinghe (Commander of the SLAF Feb 17, 1994 to March 5, 1998). Ranasinghe succeeded the late Ana Jayasinghe."

Mendis asserted that the success of the No 4 Helicopter Squadron/Wing largely depended on team work, though some individual feats attracted media attention. Team work meant that those assigned for a particular task worked as a unit to achieve the objectives to the best of their ability, even at the risk of their lives, Mendis said.

Mendis said: "Often we operated under extremely difficult conditions. Perhaps there had never been a genuine assessment of the role played by those who served the No 4 formation during the conflict. For want of overland access, helicopter crews spearheaded by pilots had to risk their lives on a daily basis to ensure supplies to isolated camps. Officers and men going on leave as well as those returning to their camps had to depend on helicopters. Almost all camps were under siege. The army suspended foot patrols, as the enemy expanded its influence in the northern theatre."

The situation took a turn for the worse in the wake of the collapse of the Indian sponsored direct negotiations in the Bhutanese capital of Thimpu between President JRJ and terrorists groups, including the LTTE and the TULF, in July and Aug 1985. President JRJ was represented by a delegation led by his brother, HW Jayewardene. The LTTE took advantage of a three-month long truce which came into operation on June 18, 1985, to consolidate its position in the Jaffna peninsula. The truce was declared in consultation with India to facilitate the Thimpu talks. When fighting erupted after the collapse of the Thimpu talks, the armed forces found themselves under siege in the Jaffna peninsula. The army had to pay a very heavy price for politico and military miscalculations.

A chance encounter at Elephant Pass

The then Flying Officer Mendis recollected a chance encounter with the LTTE during day time on January 17, 1987 close to the Elephant Pass base. As Elephant Pass had been under siege for some time, the No 4 formation had been the only line of communications between Elephant Pass and the main military base at Palaly. The choppers operated from the Palaly air base. On that day, Mendis had flown a Bell 212 in to Elephant Pass with Cadet Officer K.P. Weeraman as his co-pilot (Weeraman was killed on Jan 22, 1997). There had been two air gunners, the then Leading aircraftsman (LAC) S. D.R. Ariyaratne and LAC W. Sooriyadasa on board the Bell 212. Mendis landed just outside the Elephant Pass camp. As soon as those returning to Elephant Pass after leave got off the chopper, the LTTE had fired one mortar round. Although Mendis hadn’t heard the launch of the locally built mortar, he saw the blast over 50 meters away. Immediately after the first explosion, Mendis had taken off the ground to avoid being targeted again. As Mendis climbed, he observed two terrorists running away. They were on the nearby islet. Mendis said: "As air gunners engaged them, I got in touch with the senior officer on the ground, Boniface Perera (Now Major General). Having quickly discussed the situation, we agreed to engage a group of terrorists positioned at a nearly house. As I provided close air support, troops moved out of Elephant Pass to engage the enemy grouping taking cover in the house. As the battle continued, Palaly sent another Bell 212 captained by the then Flying Officer Kasun Kumaratunga in support of the operation (Kumaratunga was killed in an accident on the night of June 3, 1988, at Kimbulapitiya)".

Kumaratunga was flying in the night with the Bell 212’s powerful light on to deter possible violence involving supporters of the ruling party and the opposition. General Cyril Ranatunga was believed to have ordered the flight.

The deployment of a second chopper had been necessary due to the Bell 212, captained by Mendis having to return to Palaly for refueling. Kumaratunga’s crew included cadet officer Kapila Ratnasekera as co-pilot, as well as two LACs, S. M. Bandara and H. G. Fonseka.

Mendis recalled with gratitude members of his team as well as those in the second chopper pursing the enemy. "It was one of the major confrontations at that time. We operated in an extremely hostile environment. The confrontation continued till about 4 p.m. Subsequently, we heard that LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran too, planned to join the battle though he eventuality didn’t turn up".

Mendis asserted that he promptly responded to the threat posed by the LTTE due to his faith in Boniface Perera. The army swiftly moved out of Elephant Pass to take on a strong LTTE grouping, resulting in a major confrontation which lasted several hours.

Mendis was recommended a field promotion from the rank of Flying Officer to Flight Lieutenant for spearheading the air assault. However, Mendis had to be satisfied with a gallantry medal, his second during the SLAF career. Mendis recalled Squadron Leader Lasantha Waidyaratna replacing him in Palaly for him to fly to Colombo to receive the field promotion though it never materialized (Waidyaratna achieved celebrity status in July 3, 1990 when he landed outside the besieged Jaffna Fort to evacuate seven wounded personnel).

Mendis received another gallantry medal for his role in the early March 1991 defence of the Silavaturai army base. Under the leadership of the then Northern Zonal Commander, Wing Commander Sunil Cabral, the SLAF conducted an intense counter attack on the LTTE, causing substantial losses until sea borne troops fought their way into the beleaguered base.

A mission to hinder LTTE movements

Mendis secured another gallantry medal for a joint operation conducted during day time on November 11, 1986 in the Jaffna peninsula. The mission involved four helicopters and a small group of army engineers led by the then Captain, Mahesh Samaraweera, a first cousin of Mendis (retired with the rank of Major General). Samaraweera’s group included five engineer NCOs (Non Commissioned Officers) and the then Lt. Jagath Dias (Presently holds the rank of Major General. Dias led the 57 Division during eelam war IV) and a Sergeant. The foray was launched in support of a ground operation. The heli borne group was to thwart LTTE reinforcements by destroying the Vallai causeway, which connected Thonadamannar with Atchuveli. Mendis said: " Before the launch of the mission involving four helicopters, the then Squadron Leader S. J. Jayasekera landed at the Vallai causeway to drop personnel who used some large hume pipes left on the side of the road to block the causeway. But the LTTE removed the obstacles soon after Squadron Leader Jayasekera returned to Palaly. Thereafter, the mission involving four helicopters was launched. May be it was the first of its kind launched against the LTTE. Of the four choppers, two were to circle overhead to face any eventuality, while two landed to disgorge engineer troops who blew up the causeway."

Helicopters captained by Mendis and the then Flying Officer Kapila Jayampathy had been positioned over the targeted area, while Squadron Leader Jayasekera and Captain David Butler landed at the Vallai causeway to carry out the operation. Four-man SLAF crews involved in the operation included Mendis, Officer cadet P.D.K.T. Jayasinghe, LAC S.M.W Sooriyadasa and LAC G.L. Perera (chopper Captained by Mendis), Flying Officer Kapila Jayampathy, K.P. Weeraman, LAC S.D.R. Ariyaratna and LAC R. Fernando (chopper captained by Jayampathy), Squadron Leader SJ Jayasekera, Captain C. Willings, LAC W.A. Fernando (chopper Captained by Jayasekera) and lastly, Captain David Butler, S.R. Gunaratna, LAC Delkandura and LAC Senaratne (chopper captained by Butler).

Captains Butler and Willings were among foreign military experts who took part in SLAF operations.

Mendis evacuates

Shavendra Silva

Mendis is also credit with evacuating the then second Lieutenant Shavendra Silva when he was wounded in a grenade attack in early June 1987. The timely evacuation of the young platoon commander of the First battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (IGR) saved his life. Silva suffered life threatening injuries during Operation Liberation, the first Brigade Level ground offensive conducted against the LTTE. In fact, Mendis hadn’t been aware of Silva being among those evacuated on that particular day by him until Major General Shavendra Silva, who commanded the celebrated Task Force I/58 Division during eelam war IV recently, recollected him being evacuated by Romesh Mendis. Maj. Gen. Silva, who is now Sri Lanka’s Deputy Permanent Representative in New York, was responding to a query by the writer. During Operation Liberation, Lasantha Waidyaratna and Romesh Mendis commanded the two Bell 212 helicopter gunships assigned for the operation. The No 4 formation altogether deployed 11 Bell 212s and 412s for Operation Liberation, the only brigade-level operation conducted during eelam war I.

Mendis said that that No 4 formation had to face far more dangerous situations during eelam war II. At the conclusion of Operation Liberation in early June 1987, the Sri Lankan military suspended operations. In accordance with the Indo Lanka peace accord, the Sri Lankan military was confined to barracks, whereas the Indian army took over security in the northern and eastern districts. Romesh Mendis said: "We were quickly overwhelmed when fighting erupted in June 1990 with a series of lightning strikes. The LTTE quickly took the upper hand in the Vanni region where isolated army camps had to solely depend on the SLAF for supplies. Evacuation of the wounded from camps under siege was nothing but a nightmare. We had to land at the risk of our lives".

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Flying into the jaws of Tigers (part II)

War on terror revisited : Part 161


Anuradhapura air base July 3, 1990: (L-R) Wing Commander Sunil Cabral (retired in 1992 with the same rank), Group Captain Anselm Peiris (passed away a few years ago), Squadron Leader Lasantha Waidyaratna (retired in 1992 with the same rank), Flying Officer Avindra Mirando (retired in 2005 with the rank of Wing Commander, Squadron Leader Shirantha Goonetileke (killed in LTTE missile attack on April 29, 1995 over Jaffna peninsula) and Wing Commander Roger Weerasinghe (killed in LTTE missile attack on April 28, 1995 over Palaly). The picture was taken soon after the conclusion of the Operation Eagle.

 by Shamindra Ferdinando

Having undertaken an unparalleled heli-borne rescue mission to evacuate some of the seriously wounded troops trapped in the Dutch-built Jaffna Fort, the then Squadron Leader Lasantha Waidyaratna felt uneasy about landing inside the besieged camp.

Waidyaratna, an experienced member of the No 4 Helicopter Squadron, believed such a mission could quickly turn into a disaster if soldiers under siege fought with each other to escape in the chopper. He, on his own, decided against landing inside the fort. Instead, he opted to land just outside the Jaffna Fort to enable the army to bring out the seriously wounded to the chopper.

Although Waidyaratna had earlier assured a gathering of senior Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) officers at a secret meeting at headquarters during the last week of June 1990 that two helicopters could land within the fort, though not simultaneously, he subsequently changed his plan.

The SLAF top brass reluctantly accepted Waidyaratna’s explanation that the entire operation could go awry if those under siege flooded the chopper. Waidyaratna asserted that such a scenario could have caused chaos, possibly leading to the SLAF crew, along with the chopper, being trapped within the Jaffna Fort.

6 SR under siege

In an exclusive interview with the writer, his first since the conclusion of the conflict in May 2009, Waidyaratna said: "I simply didn’t want to see over hundred battle weary men fighting with each other to get into my helicopter. Anything would have been possible due to the rapidly deteriorating situation in the Jaffna peninsula, as well as the Vanni mainland. Those under siege would have done simply anything to survive and nothing could have been better than a chopper ride out of the Jaffna Fort."

Inside the Jaffna Fort there were about 50 soldiers attached to the Sixth battalion of the Sinha Regiment (6SR) deployed in the Jaffna peninsula as well as some of the isolated detachments along the Kandy-Jaffna north of Vavuniya and Elephant Pass. There was a contingent of police officers numbering about 112.

Amidst final preparations involving a select group of officers, Waidyaratna, didn’t mince his words when he told the then Group Captain Anslem Peiris, the senior SLAF headquarters based officer involved in the mission, that he would land outside the Jaffna Fort. A visibly stunned Peiris accepted Waidyaratna’s proposal on the basis that the latter could land at a place safe from enemy fire.

Much to the surprise of Waidyaratna, Peiris said he wanted to evacuate either seven or nine wounded as he felt number 8 was not lucky. Waidyaratna said: "Group Captain Peiris was adamant that I shouldn’t take off from the Jaffna Fort with eight wounded men under any circumstances. He was superstitious and feared the mission could end up in a catastrophe if the number of men destined to be rescued happened to be eight."

A’pura nerve centre of Op Eagle

A tired Wing Commander Cabral got her wife, Melanie to write down Operation Eagle countdown in July 1990

Having finalised preparations, the SLAF dropped a container carrying a directive from Director of Army Operations, the then Colonel Wijaya Wimalaratne, asking the Jaffna Fort Commanding Officer Captain Anura Perera to prepare seven seriously wounded men to be evacuated by air on the morning of July 3. The then Flight Lieutenant Priyantha Adikaram dropped the container from an Italian built Siai Marchetti, setting the stage for the mission. The container designed by the then squadron Leader Wajira Perera was built by the Mechanical Transport Wing, Katunayake (Perera retired with the rank of Group Captain). In previous article it was inadvertently mentioned that Colonel Wimalaratne’s message giving specific instructions was put inside an empty rocket which was fired into the Jaffna Fort by Flight Lt. Adikaram.

Waidyaratna said that the operation was codenamed Eagle as it was the insignia of the service. Operation Eagle had been an exclusively SLAF effort, a proud Waidyaratna said, recalling a subsequent directive given to the Commanding Officer in Jaffna to remove some telephone wires which may have interfered with the helicopter deployed for the rescue mission. The Commanding Officer had promptly inquired whether the SLAF wanted troops to cut down a large tree at the same place as it too, could be an obstruction. Waidyaratna said: "Cutting down the tree could have alerted the LTTE. It wouldn’t have gone unnoticed. We didn’t want to do anything that might jeopardise the operation."

A tired Waidyaratna had slept on his way from Colombo to the Katunayake air base, where he was to take command of a Bell 412 which was to be used in the rescue mission. Waidyaratna really felt the need to fly a helicopter as he had missed flying for almost three weeks due to being based at the Joint Operations Command (JOC) in Colombo. Waidyaratna was particularly keen to practise landing a Bell 412 under the guidance of the then Northern Zonal Commander, Wing Commander Sunil Cabral, who also functioned as the Anuradhapura base commander. Cabral was a celebrated flier who had earned the respect of officers and men. The then Squadron Leader Shirantha Goonetileke functioned as Cabral’s deputy, though there was no such position at the time. Goonetileke, younger brother of Roshan Goonetileke (recently retired from the post of Chief of Defence Staff), was the Commanding Officer of the No 1 Flying Training School, Anuradhapura.

Waidyaratna recalled with gratitude rehearsing landing a 412 on the bund of the Nachakuda tank in the Anuradhapura district under Cabral’s guidance, soon after the conclusion of the final briefing at the conference room at the Anuradhapura air base. Waidyaratna had the unenviable task of selecting the two door gunners. Waidyaratna said: "I was asked to pick two men out of ten gunners. I quickly realized that most of them hadn’t flown with me. As I knew Corporal Rahula Fernando, I picked him first. Then, I selected Leading Aircraftsman Suraweera, purely because he had escaped death on two previous occasions."

Mirando in Op Eagle team

Waidyaratna’s co-pilot was Flying Officer Avindra Mirando, one of the few to pass out from the prestigious Pakistan Air Force Academy. Mirando had been based at Batticaloa when he was assigned for the Jaffna Fort operation. He had been involved in the first abortive rescue mission mounted on the evening of June 28, 1990.

Mirando, who retired in Dec. 2005 with the rank of Wing Commander, recalled being the co-pilot of the then Wing Commander Roger Weerasinghe when the SLAF made the June 28 attempt. WC Mirando said: "As we approached the Jaffna Fort, the LTTE fired at our helicopter. The mission commander, the then WC Cabral called off the foray when our chopper was perhaps one kilometre away from the Jaffna Fort. Enemy fire was intense. We couldn’t have proceeded with that particular mission."

Cabral asserted that the June 28 mission could have resulted in a catastrophe. As soon as the chopper tasked with the rescue mission reported coming under fire, Cabral, who had been on a chopper some 3,000 feet above land called off the mission, hence averting a major disaster. Cabral felt that the first mission wouldn’t succeed due to hasty planning. WC Weerasinghe opted out of the second mission, paving the way for Waidyaratna to achieve celebrity status by leading the mission.

Immediately after the abortive mission, preparations got underway with Cabral remaining in control as the Operations Commander. He meticulously planned the operation. In spite of some expressing concerns, Cabral decided to conduct the operation just before daybreak to ensure that the SLAF could intervene in case the mission went awry. Cabral said: "At that time, we didn’t have a night fighting capability. It would have been unwise to undertake such a high risk operation without contingency plans. I opted to launch the operation just before day break, believing we could move in support of Waidyaratna’s team if it was trapped."

Cabral went to the extent of warning that the SLAF could face a situation similar to that experienced by the USAF during an abortive mission to rescue those trapped in the US embassy in Teheran. A meticulous planner, Cabral, in the run-up to the operation, flew into the Jaffna theatre of operations to examine the conditions, though he was very familiar with the area. Before taking off from the Anuradhapura air base in a Bell 212 with Sagara Kotakadeniya as his co-pilot, Cabral informed Squadron Leader Goonetileke of his plan.

Cabral prepared the plan taking into consideration that Mandaitivu Island situated close to the Jaffna peninsula, too, was occupied by the LTTE.

Final briefing

On the afternoon of July 2, 1990, all officers assigned for Operation Eagle gathered at the Anuradhapura air base for the final briefing. Several senior officers, including Group Captain Anselm Peiris and WC Cabral gathered at Squadron Leader Goonetileke’s office before the briefing got underway in the adjoining room with the participation of key personnel involved in the operation. In spite of a shameful attempt to downgrade Cabral at the eleventh hour, a zealous northern commander went ahead with his final briefing as the officer in charge of the mission, with Squadron Leader Goonetileke as well as WC Roger Weerasinghe making presentations. While Cabral briefed the gathering as regards the overall mission, Goonetileke and Weerasinghe discussed missions undertaken by Siai Marchettis and helicopters, respectively. Many an eyebrow was raised when Group Captain Anselm Peiris declared that he would be the Operations Commander, whereas Cabral functions as the mission commander. Cabral, who had been overall in charge of planning, command and tactical control of the mission wanted to call the Zero Hour (exact moment to begin the countdown) ‘Dominique’ as it was one of his favourite songs by Jeanine Deckers, one-time member of Dominican Order in Belgium. Cabral said that he loved that song and felt Dominique would be the ideal codeword. However, Group Captain Peiris disagreed. At his behest, the Eagle team accepted Maradona as the codename before Cabral joined Waidyaratna and Mirando for final rehearsals.

A daring mission

The operation involved as many as 17 fixed wing aircraft and helicopters. They were to be launched from different bases and converge over the northern waters at a given time. Cabral’s Bell 212 with Sagara Kotakadeniya at the controls, was positioned about 4,000 feet over the Jaffna lagoon. Cabral was the first to take off from Anuradhapura, followed by other helicopters assigned for the mission. At the onset there was confusion as regards the positioning of Group Captain Peiris, who was ultimately given the option to get into a chopper other than the machines carrying Cabral and Roger Weerasinghe. Cabral asserted that he couldn’t accommodate Group Captain Peiris as he as Operations Commander/Mission Commander was to lead the rescue bid in case Waidyaratna’s mission went awry. Had Cabral intervened, Weerasinghe was to take over the mission, hence he couldn’t accommodate Group Captain Peiris. An irate Peiris had to board another helicopter which was to be positioned over the targeted area.

Three Chinese-built Y 12s and one Y-8 were positioned over Mannar for a major bombing mission in case Waidyaratna’s mission went awry. Jayalath Weerakkody (currently Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to Pakistan. Weerakkody holds the rank of Air Chief Marshal), Harsha Abeywickrema (present SLAF chief. Abeywickrema holds the rank of Air Marshal) and Prasanna Ratnayake (retired) commanded the three Y 12s, whereas Faizal Cazeer was in command of the Y 8, at that the largest aircraft operated by the SLAF (Cazeer was killed in controversial circumstances over Elephant Pass during a bombing mission when the Y 8 aircraft exploded).

However, Roger Weerasinghe and Thilina Kaluarachchci (both killed in LTTE attacks), had the challenging task of providing the required gunfire support to facilitate Waidyaratna’s foray into enemy territory. They were positioned over Kayts Island. But they hadn’t been worried as the two pairs of Siai Marchettis under Squadron Leader Goonetileke’s command were to lead the attack. The Siai Marchettis were tasked to neutralise LTTE positions on either side of the Jaffna Fort, before the helicopters swung into action.

Once the aircraft and helicopters moved into pre-arranged positions, Cabral initiated the countdown. But to Cabral’s dismay, Shirantha Goonetileke said that he couldn’t see targets on the ground Waidyaratna, too, echoed Goonetileke. Cabral was in a quandary. As time was running out and an immediate decision was needed, he initiated a fresh countdown and much to his disappointment, Squadron Leader Goonetileke again reported the inability of Siai Marchettis to go into action without seeing targets on the ground. Cabral faced the prospect of having to call off the mission. But, to Cabral’s relief, Waidyaratna was able to see the Jaffna Fort as he was flying low. Cabral said: "I decided to go ahead with the mission in spite of not having two pairs of Siai Marchettis to provide the much needed support. Instead, the two helicopters tasked to escort Waidyaratna’s chopper, which was codenamed Lasantha, engaged enemy positions as the rescue helicopter approached the landing site.

Waidyaratna flew without lights, whereas all other fixed wing aircraft and helicopters switched on their navigation lights. It was Cabral’s strategy. During the pre-mission briefing, Cabral pointed out that an operation couldn’t be conducted in total radio silence. Cabral asserted that the number of those authorized to use communication sets had to be limited to the minimum though they couldn’t do away with communications altogether.

Waidyaratna said: "On the night before the operation, I briefed the then Jaffna Security Forces Commander, Brigadier Jaliya Nanmuni of the planned incursion in the early hours of the following day. I inquired from the Brigadier whether he wanted to send some reinforcements into the Jaffna Fort. As only my chopper was expected to land outside the Jaffna Fort, the SLAF couldn’t have accommodated many. I requested the Brigadier to have a team ready by 4.30 am on July 3, 1990. I was using the Bell 412 helicopter as the one originally selected for the mission experienced a technical defect. Avindra Mirando covered the chopper with ceramic armour. The following day, Captain Jayantha Fernando of the 6 SR and three soldiers joined us. Captain Fernando was to take over command at the besieged base."

Waidyaratna recollected directing those on his chopper not to open fire under any circumstances, though the gunners were given the option to retaliate if the chopper came under attack as it took off from Jaffna Fort carrying the wounded.

Waidyaratna said that he took remedial measures after moving off target and approached the landing site as Roger Weerasinghe and Thilina Kaluarachchi engaged LTTE positions. Waidyaratna said: "I flew very low over the Jaffna lagoon and landed just outside the Jaffna Fort. I saw men carrying weapons in uniform. Within seconds we realized they were our men. They were there to secure the landing site. One second there on the ground felt like one day. The army on the ground moved unbelievably fast. No sooner Captain Jayantha Fernando and his men got off the helicopter, the army rushed the seriously wounded men and placed them inside the chopper. They completed the task within just 45 seconds! The Bell 412 quickly climbed and was soon out of range of LTTE gunners. Having informed WC Cabral of the successful completion of the mission, I handed over the controls to Avindra Mirando. We reached Palaly within ten minutes. I was so happy I wanted to run around runway. Instead, I ran around the chopper."

Waidyaratna’s wife was six months pregnant when he undertook to fly into the jaws of Tigers.

Waidyaratna recalled Goonetileke explaining the inability of the Siai Marchettis to engage the given targets due to a thick cloud layer. Group Captain Peiris bitterly complained that he hadn’t been able to follow what was going on due to a communication failure. Would anyone else have gone ahead with the daredevil mission without the backing of Siai Marchettis? In spite of losing his main strength, Cabral had the guts to give the green light for the mission and face the consequences if it went awry. Waidyaratna and Mirando had the courage to go through with the mission at the risk of their lives, while Captain Jayantha Fernando’s readiness to join troops under siege was indicative of a soldier’s grit.