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.