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.