Confirmation of secret meet at Palaly ahead of Aug. 94 polls
SPECIAL REPORT : Part 143
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Having realised the urgent requirement to train the Army to fight, in built-up areas, the then government had sought Israeli assistance, in early 80s. Retired Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne (KG), in his memoirs, Ranamaga Osse Nanthikadal (Road to Nanthikadal), provided an excellent detailed account of fighting battalions receiving Israeli expertise at the Maduru Oya. KG talked proudly of having an opportunity to undergo training as the youngest Company Commander (C Company of 3 GR). Subsequently, there had been two more training courses for Platoon Commanders as well as joint exercises with support arms, including armour.
The Israeli experience had been crucial for the Army, tasked in 1987 to regain Vadamaratchchy, in the Jaffna peninsula. (The US facilitated the Israeli entry into Sri Lanka, amidst strong Indian opposition. New Delhi fiercely opposed Israeli presence here though, today, the Jewish State is one of our giant neighbour’s closest allies. A foolish President Ranasinghe Premadasa ordered the Israelis out, in early 90s, following unsubstantiated allegations regarding Tel Aviv providing training to the LTTE. Sri Lanka invited Israelis again in the wake of the worst ever debacle, at Elephant Pass in 2000.
KG briefly compared the difficulties, faced by the Navy in performing its duties, with that of the Army. The Gajaba veteran recollected the services rendered by the Fast Attack Craft (FAC) flotilla, Special Boat Squadron (SBS) as well as Rapid Action Boat Squadron (RABS) in the face of the immense threat posed by Sea Tiger suicide squads. KG admitted that had he joined the Navy, instead the Army, he could have faced far greater risks and difficulties.
Chapter 11 of the 845 page Ranamaga Osse Nanthikadal entirely covered Operation Liberation, the first ever ground offensive in which the Army deployed Brigades. The efforts made by 3 GR troops to rescue wounded Second Lieutenant Indrajith Peramunage, a six foot two inch officer, wounded in action during Operation Liberation, underscored the Army’s strength. KG explained that four men sacrificed their lives and eight others were wounded, while trying to rescue Peramunage. KG had been bitter about India coming to the rescue of the embattled LTTE, facing a decisive defeat, French jets, of the Indian Air Force, violating Sri Lankan airspace as helpless Sri Lankan military watched, Indian Air Force whisking Prabhakaran, his family as well as some key members of the organization, from Sudumalai, Jaffna, to Tamil Nadu, and the deployment of the Army to quell the second JVP inspired insurgency.
KG, in his memoirs, paid a glowing tribute to one-time National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali as one of those few who had provided political leadership, at national level, to the war effort.
Ranamaga Osse Nanthikadal revealed a clash between I GR and Jammu and Kashmir Rifles, deployed at Sumedagama, Trincomalee, on Dec 22, 1988, leading to the death of an Indian soldier. The IGR contingent, that had been involved in the clash, was commanded by the then Second Lieutenant Shantha Dissanayake. Swift intervention by senior commanders, from both sides, prevented further escalation though Indian troops destroyed two bunkers, manned by the Sri Lankan Army, by the time the situation was brought under control. Shantha Dissanayake discussed the battle at Sumedagama with the writer, in July, 2013, during an interview at his Colombo headquarters. Dissanayake held the rank of Brigadier and was responsible for security in Colombo.
Having perused J.N. Dixit’s ‘Assignment Colombo’, KG explained Indian actions in Sri Lanka. Dixit had been India’s top diplomat here during 1985-1989 period. Anyone genuinely interested in knowing first-hand account of fighting against Tamil separatists, and various other developments, should peruse KG’s memoirs. The war veteran expertly dealt with the Araly Point, Kayts blast on the morning of Aug. 8, 1992 leading to the deaths of much respected Maj. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa, Brig. Wijaya Wimalaratne and several other senior Army and Navy officers, including the then Northern Naval Commander, Rear Admiral Mohan Jayamaha. KG bluntly discussed a shameful development involving a woman, who identified herself as Rohini Hathurusinghe, wife of a soldier with the Gajaba Regiment. Mrs Hathurusinghe emerged in the wake of the Araly Point blast. Although, the military believed it had been an accidental blast, Mrs Hathurusinghe, at the behest of some very influential persons, propagated the lie that the then President Premadasa conspired with Brig. Wimalaratne to kill the Northern Commander. Mrs Hathurusinghe alleged that Brig. Wimalaratne, after having planted an explosive device in the ill-fated vehicle, inadvertently got into the driving seat of the vehicle. KG bitterly recalled him unsuccessfully trying to convince a Presidential Commission inquiring into Araly Point blast that it was accidental. In spite of KG having a good rapport with the Commission, headed by Supreme Court judge Tissa Dias Bandaranayake, KG, the then Commanding Officer of 6 GR, deployed in Kayts, couldn’t convince the Commission. The writer and senior colleague Norman Palihawadana, who had been the defence correspondent for both The Island and its sister paper, Divaina, covered Mrs. Hathurusinghe’s despicable project.
Former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, too, in an exclusive interview with the writer, a few years ago, roundly dismissed allegation directed at Brig. Wimalaratne. KG called Kobbekaduwa and Wimalaratne as the greatest Sri Lankan military commanders ever.
KG recollected seeing the then Navy Chief, Vice Admiral Clancy Fernando’s motorcade passing him near the Slave Island railway crossing a couple of minutes before being blasted, opposite the Colombo Taj. The suicide attack on VA Fernando prompted a sharp change in security measures adopted by senior officers stationed outside operational areas. KG also discussed President Premadasa’s dislike of the military and the Nov 1993 Pooneryn debacle, introduction of shoulder-fired heat seeking missiles, as well as the conduct of EPDP (Eelam People’s Democratic Party) and its leader Douglas Devananda. The 26th Chapter in its entirety discussed the humiliating defeat suffered by the Army at Pooneryn.
The Chapter 27 discussed alleged large scale attempt by the Army to engage in malpractices, in some parts of the Jaffna peninsula, in support of the then ruling UNP. KG described the Army receiving specific instructions to back the then administration, in the peninsula, and organised malpractices in Jaffna islands. The author had been the Commanding Officer of 6 GR deployed, in Kayts, at the time the then government directed the Army to help re-elect the UNP. KG expressed relief that those who had been behind the project meant to ensure UNP victory, giving it up at the last moment, leading to Mrs. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga leading the PA to victory at the August, 1994, parliamentary polls. KG revealed that he felt like quitting the Army after having heard the political conspiracy.
The writer covered the alleged UNP bid to involve the Army in its effort to retain power at the August, 1994, general election. The present day UNP leadership couldn’t have been unaware of the despicable project.
The Gajaba veteran explained an LTTE suicide attack on SLNS Sagarawardene off Mannar in Sept., 1994, in the wake of President Kumaratunga initiating a direct dialogue with the LTTE. The author pointed out the absurdity in the Captain of the ill-fated vessel, Captain Boyagoda, being accused of collaborating with the enemy. Boyagoda (now Commodore) discussed the surprise attack on SLNS Sagarawardene, his capture and eight years in LTTE captivity, in his memoirs ‘A Long Watch: War, Captivity and Return in Sri Lanka’ launched several months. The writer had the opportunity to examine Boyagoda’s autobiography, authored by Ms Sunila Galappatti, just before KG’s book launch. Recollecting the difficulties experienced by Captain Boyagoda’s family, as a result of unsubstantiated accusations, KG complained how people asserted some of those categorized, as missing, fought for the LTTE. KG recalled Major Azad of Army Commandos killed in an abortive raid at Kattaiparichchan, Trincomalee, being accused of providing commando training to LTTE cadres.
Having briefly dealt with the assassination of UNP presidential candidate Gamini Dissanayake, in Oct., 1994, a few weeks after the sinking of SLNS Sagarawardene, KG asserted that the LTTE deprived the Sinhalese of another capable leader.
Unlike wartime Navy Commander, the then Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda and Commodore Boyagoda (promoted to the rank after his release from LTTE captivity), KG expressed opinion on political matters and issues as well as other contentious issues. Karannagoda discussed his life in the Navy in Adishtanaya, launched at the tail end of the Rajapaksa administration. In the absence of the governments’ attempt to record wartime events, memoirs of retired senior officers had received public attention, with KG’s memoirs being the most discussed.
KG had the courage to talk about the Army’s pathetic failure to ensure proper meals to troops, deployed in the Jaffna peninsula, against the backdrop of the military losing the Kandy-Kandy A9 road. Severe difficulties, faced by the SLAF, in sustaining flights to Palaly, Jaffna, after the LTTE brought down two Avro transport aircraft, in April, 1995, killing over 100 officers and men. Rana Maga Osse Nanthikadal explained severe difficulties in providing basic food to officers and men stationed in the Jaffna peninsula and Jaffna islands. KG acknowledged that he turned a blind eye to troops, deployed in Kayts, under his command, procuring poultry, goats and cows belonging to Tamil people, much to their anger and disappointment. The controversial practice had been widespread in operational areas.
KG recollected some of his troops returning to base, after having caught a large stock of fish, using hand grenades, being stopped by the then Brigadier Sarath Fonseka. The deployment at Kayts had been under the overall command of hot tempered Sinha Regiment veteran Brig. Fonseka. The writer read that particular section several times and the incident proved that the Brigade Commander realized the difficulties experienced by troops.
Having explained the crisis, caused by the sudden introduction of surface to air missiles, the Gajaba Regiment veteran explained that helicopter pilots, deployed for casualty evacuation missions, engaging in dangerous manoeuvres to avoid possible missile attacks, difficulty in providing regular air transport to and from Palaly and grounding of Sia Marchettis and Pucara attack aircraft. The Italian Sia Marchettis and Argentine built Pucara aircraft hadn’t been able to operate in the face of missile threat. Instead of acquiring aircraft capable of bombing LTTE targets, the SLAF had acquired Chinese interceptors in spite of them not being suitable at all to meet the then requirement.
KG had extensively dealt with failures and shortcomings on the part of the military and the government before discussing Sri Lanka’s first large scale ground offensive in which the Army fought, in Division strength, in late 1995, to bring the entire Jaffna peninsula under state control. KG’s memoirs provided an excellent and detailed account of Operation Riviresa with the focus on 6GR, under his command, assigned to the newly created 52 Division. KG candidly declared that he didn’t have faith in his Brigade Commander who feared the war. Identifying the Brigade Commander as an officer attached to the celebrated Gajaba Regiment, KG contemptuously asserted his superior never liked him (KG) and he, too, disliked him. However, KG had refrained from naming the officer though he was identified at a subsequent chapter as the senior officer in charge of the first Brigade to collapse, during the war.
KG discussed the responsibilities given to three Divisions, namely 51, 52 and 53, tasked to liberate Jaffna town. KG asserted that the 53 Division, commanded by the then Brigadier Janaka Perera, as the most powerful of the three formations and was given the challenging task of seizing territory required to be used as launching pad for Riviresa. Although the 53 Division had conducted ‘Thunder Strike’ to achieve the Army’s objective in Sept. 1995, an LTTE counter attack, at one point, threatened to undermine the operation. KG credited IGR, then commanded by Major Sumedha Perera, for thwarting the LTTE assault causing heavy losses on the enemy. (Sumedha Perera retired recently in the rank of Major General).
Riviresa got underway on Oct 17, 1995.
KG’s comment on Riviresa made really interesting reading with him expressing opinion on various officers in charge of fighting formations. Hot tempered Brigadier Neil Dias of the Artillery had been in charge of 51 Division, Brigadier P.A. Karunatilleke, of the Armoured Corps, placed in command of 52 Division, and Brigadier Janaka Perera, formerly of the Engineers, and then Commandos, in charge of elite 53 Division. KG recalled Karunatilleke gunning down a Staff Sergeant identified as Lewle at Ranasevapura Army camp when the latter fired a T 56 assault rifle at Tamil civilians brought there in the wake of LTTE attack on Sri Maha Bodiya. Karunatilleke had been a Lieutenant Colonel at that time and acted promptly to ensure the safety and security of Tamil civilians.
KG grieved the death of close relative Sub Lieutenant Vajira Neluketiya in a terrorist attack on Oct 17, 1995, on the day of the launch of Operation Riviresa. Neluketiya had been selected to undergo a special training course in Russia at the time of his death caused by an LTTE underwater attack on an SLN vessel at Trincomalee. The young officer’s grieving parents had buried Neluketiya’s body in their garden.
In relation to Operation Riviresa, KG discussed failure on the part of infantry battalions to sustain speed, inordinate delay in advancing after having captured enemy strong points and also being over cautious. KG asserted that they could have achieved better results by sustaining speed in spite of heavier casualties at the onset of offensive action.
KG provided a riveting account of the battle for Urumpirai, during Operation Riviresa. The war veteran described fierce ground battles involving his battalion (6 GR) and the 4 SLLI before his troops achieved what the other unit couldn’t. The retired officer bitterly complained about a despicable attempt made by another Brigade to take the credit for 6 GR achievement. KG castigated those who had sought personal gain at the expense of others.
KG had the courage to discuss issues which hadn’t been previously ignored. The shocking miscalculation made by the Artillery led to six rounds of 120 mm mortars being fired at 6 GR troops spearheading assault on Urumpirai. ‘Friendly fire’ caused the deaths of six troops and wounded 12. The Army had been always reluctant to acknowledge the deaths caused by ‘friendly fire.’
Having captured Urumpirai, 6 GR troops had destroyed a statue put up by the LTTE in honour of an LTTE cadre who committed suicide after being captured by the Army. The author emphasized the pivotal importance of destroying all monuments belonging to the LTTE while proudly declaring that during his command, he unwaveringly uprooted all statues and other monuments.
The removal of the Brigade Commander under whose command KG’s 6 GR fought took place in the immediate aftermath of 6 GR seizing Kondavil junction. KG explained the circumstances under which the Gajaba Regiment officer received transfer orders amidst an absurd bid to claim credit for success at Kondavil. KG attributed their success to speed maintained by 6 GR. In spite of fierce resistance, the LTTE couldn’t stop the Army and, by Nov. 1995, the LTTE commenced gradually withdrawing from the Jaffna peninsula. The Army brought Jaffna town under its control during first week of Dec. 1995. However, the LTTE had fighting units in Tennamarachchi and Vadamaratchchy divisions which were brought under Army control, subsequently.
KG blamed the Navy for not having a tangible plan to intercept and destroy LTTE cadres as they withdrew across the Jaffna lagoon. The Gajaba veteran expressed the view that the Navy could have caused immense losses on the LTTE had there been an effective operational plan meant to destroy enemy forces crossing the Jaffna lagoon.
(The then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga earned the wrath of the Tamil Diaspora for bringing Jaffna peninsula under her control. Liberation of Jaffna is undoubtedly Mrs Kumaratunga’s greatest achievement during her presidency. President Kumaratunga earned the wrath of the Tamil Diaspora and some Tamil politicians for ordering the Army to regain the Jaffna peninsula. An angry Rev. Father S.J. Emmanuel, President of the UK headquartered Global Tamil Forum, had called Mrs Kumaratunga mother of all wars).
Operation Riviresa I (Oct – Dec 1995) had been Sri Lanka’s first MAJOR large scale offensive undertaken against the LTTE. Compared to Operation Riviresa I, Operation Liberation (May-June 1987) meant to clear Vadamaratchchy, in the Jaffna peninsula, had been relatively a smaller though it was surely the first significant battle against terrorists.
KG had a knack for explaining developments in the battlefield as the LTTE gradually transformed itself to a conventional fighting force.