Monday, 31 December 2012

Aftermath of historic battlefield victory

War on terror revisited : Part 88


By Shamindra Ferdinando

As the army was clearing the last patch of LTTE-held territory at Vellamullivaikkal in the Mullaitivu District, one of Sri Lanka’s major arms suppliers called for an international inquiry in to the conduct of government security forces.

Israel made its move in Geneva on May 18, 2009, on the first day of a five-day meeting of the World Health Assembly in Geneva at the WHO headquarters.

Unfortunately, the government failed to realize the significance of the Israeli move which was made amidst UN launching a war crimes inquiry into military action during operations (Dec. 27, 2008-Jan 18, 2009) in Gaza.

The Israeli proposed to send a combined UN and WHO team to investigate the conduct of the Sri Lankan security forces during eelam war IV.

Israeli delegation called for an immediate investigation after Sri Lanka received overwhelming backing to chair the conference attended by representatives from 192 countries. The Jewish State said that Sri Lanka, too, should be subjected to an inspection similar to the one carried out in the Gaza strip.

Opposing the then Sri Lankan Health Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva’s appointment as the Chairman of the World Health Assembly, the Israeli delegation demanded an international investigation. Israel went to the extent of accusing Sri Lanka of indiscriminate military action and violations of human rights in the guise of fighting LTTE terrorism.

The surprising move came hours before the Army finished off what was left of the LTTE’s conventional fighting forces. During that confrontation LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was trapped in the Nanthikadal lagoon where he died on the morning of the following day.

Sri Lanka re-established diplomatic relations with Israel shortly after the LTTE overran the strategic Elephant Pass base in April 2000. Successive Israeli governments backed the military effort against the LTTE, though Sri Lanka didn’t have diplomatic ties.

Israel was one of the key suppliers of military hardware including Fast Attack Craft (FACs), Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), Kfir multi-role fighters and rockets which helped the Sri Lanka Navy to destroy many Sea Tiger craft in the northern waters. The rockets mounted on Inshore Patrol Craft (IPC) helped the SLN to overwhelm the Sea Tigers off the Mullaitivu coast. Sri Lankan security forces have also benefitted by Israeli expertise.

The Israeli government took on SriLanka as hundreds of LTTE supporters held a violent anti-Sri Lanka protest at the WHO premises (Israel in shocking move demands human rights probe on Lanka-The Island May 26, 2009).

The UN inquiry targeting both Israel and Hamas got underway in April 2009. The investigating team led by South African jurist Richard Goldstone, handed over its report to the UN on Sept. 15, 2009.

At the time Israel called for a war crimes inquiry, the LTTE rump hadn’t launched its own project to influence the UN to haul Sri Lanka up before international war crimes tribunal. Although Israel has managed to neutralize the damning UN report with the help of the US, Sri Lanka is still under heavy Western pressure. Sri Lanka’s case will again come up for discussion in March 2013 at the 20th sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva. Under pressure by Israel and its allies, Goldstone retracted his own report, though three other investigators strongly reiterated their confidence in it.

Unceasing Tsunami I and II

The three-year military campaign was called a humanitarian operation by politicians and military officers alike. The army didn’t even codename the operation. Immediately after being promoted to the rank of General, the war winning army chief said he would like to codename the liberation of the Eastern Province and the Vanni Region Unceasing Tsunami I (Aug. 2006-July 2007) and Unceasing Tsunami II (March 2007-May 2009).

The war veteran said that unlike in the previous phases of the war, the Army didn’t consult astrologers or delay ground operations due to the inauspicious ‘rahu’ period. "We conducted operations to meet our ground requirement," he said on May 26, 2009.

The first serving General, said that the Army hadn’t simply bothered to codename a string of operations conducted over the two years and ten months under his command. An outspoken Gen. Fonseka dismissed the assertion that major military action should be conducted in keeping with auspicious times.

Referring to the arrest of a Lt. Colonel over his alleged links with the LTTE, the Army Chief recalled that the officer had retreated with his troops based at Thanankilappu to Palaly in a matter of hours in 2000 when LTTE attacked Thanankilappu. After being detected taking three calls to a Tamil person during a major battle at Muhamalai during eelam war IV, the suspect had been through the Directorate of Military Intelligence and questioned, Gen. Fonseka said, adding that a couple of Army and Police officers had been taken into custody over their alleged links with the LTTE. An officer holding the rank of Major had been sentenced to death by a Military Tribunal. The President had commuted the death sentence to life imprisonment, he said.

Gen. Fonseka said that once the Lt. Col. had aroused the suspicion of army top brass, he hadn’t been given an opportunity to command troops on the ground.

Commenting on the pivotal role played by Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in the war effort, Gen. Fonseka accused some previous governments of having turned a blind eye to the needs of the security forces. He recalled a top level conference during the tenure of then President Ranasinghe Premadasa, when the then Defence Secretary questioned the army’s requirement for a large stock of ammunition for training purposes, Gen. Fonseka said that the then Defence Secretary had pointed out that there was no basis for such a stock as there were only 2,000 LTTE cadres. Gen. Fonseka at that time holding the rank of Colonel, had represented army headquarters.

He had trained and equipped the army to engage in jungle warfare, Gen. Fonseka said. The LTTE had to depend on earth bunds cum ditches to deter the army, but troops overwhelmed the enemy and made a historic victory possible in less than three years.

The Sinha Regiment veteran declared that under his command, the army had taken on the LTTE in the latter’s strongholds. There wouldn’t have been any point in raising the national flag in an area not militarily important to the enemy, he said, adding that as the army had gradually stepped up pressure on several fronts, the LTTE was forced to give up some areas.

Sri Lanka’s most successful service commander said that the entire LTTE leadership had been wiped out. Had the army taken LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran alive during a last ditch attempt by the leader to escape, the army could have reminded him of what he did over the past three decades. The Army Chief regretted the troops’ failure to take him alive.

Gen. SF on P’karan’s death

Commenting on the confrontation with Prabhakaran on the morning of May 19, 2009, Gen. Fonseka said that Prabhakaran, his body guards and suicide cadres had been among about 70 LTTE cadres killed after being trapped in the Nanthikadal lagoon. At the time of the confrontation, the Army hadn’t been certain of Prabhakaran’s presence among the group, he said, adding that altogether the LTTE had lost about 450 cadres in three major engagements during the last 48 hours.

Dismissing the possibility of an LTTE threat again, he said that the army was strong enough to meet any challenge. He said that the army had expanded to 200,000 officers and men and it could be as big as 300,000. The army had deployed about 60 battalions in the Kilinochchi area alone, he said.

Gen. Fonseka said that the army had sealed off the north-eastern coast before the launch of the final phase of the offensive to thwart any attempt by the LTTE leadership to escape by boats.

Referring to a reversal suffered on the Muhamalai front in 2008, Gen. Fonseka said that he publicly acknowledged the loss of 130 officers and men. The LTTE, too, lost about 250 cadres, he said, emphasizing that he was confident of meeting the challenges. could have distracted me."

SLA destroyed 95 % of LTTE fighting cadre

Gen. Fonseka said that the army had destroyed about 95 per cent of the LTTE fighting strength. He emphasized that the Army had caused heavy losses to the Sea Tigers and captured seven LTTE runways. He praised the SLAF for strongly backing the ground offensive.

Gen. Fonseka slammed those who repeatedly tried to throw lifelines to the sinking Tigers. He targeted three MPs for being critical of the war effort. Recalling a jibe that he wasn’t even suitable to lead the Salvation Army, Gen. Fonseka said that he had proved what he could do.

He said that the LTTE had managed to bring in military supplies in boats as late as last December. Quoting two LTTE cadres captured by the Army at Iranamadu, he said the LTTE had a steady supply of arms, ammunition and equipment.

Had the enemy been denied a sea supply route, the offensive could have been completed sooner, he said. According to him, among the armaments brought from abroad and captured by the army were one main battle tank, two armoured personnel carriers, about 25 pieces of artillery and a range of other weapons, including 30 mm, 27 mm, 23 mm and multi-purpose machine guns. The Army had also recovered about three hundred 60 mm mortars and 11,000 T-56 assault rifles, he said.

Gen. Fonseka said that he hadn’t appointed an OOC (Overall Operations Commander) to oversee the offensive as he felt he didn’t have the right man. He said that had he had handled the OOC job. "I did what a conservative didn’t. I pushed ground commanders and in some instances shouted at them," he said, stressing that all officers at all levels who commanded fighting formations had been handpicked.

Gen. Fonseka said that over 5,000 officers and men had sacrificed their lives in the offensive. Even if the had simply defended its camps over three years, it would have lost a similar number, he said.

The army lost 2,174 and 2,350 officers and men during 2008 and 2009, respectively. The SLA categorized the number of missing at 113.

Sri Lanka paid a heavy price to defeat terrorism. During eelam war I, it battled several Indian trained Tamil groups, including the LTTE. Towards the end of the 80s, the LTTE emerged as the only group remained committed to the macabre eelam project.

Eelam War III worst

In terms of officers and men killed, eelam war III (April 1995 to Dec 2001) was undoubtedly the worst. In fact, all three services suffered the highest losses during eelam war III, with the army losing 420 officers and 9,028 men, whereas 93 officers and 2,625 were men categorized as missing. The number of wounded army officers and men was placed at 492 and 11,906, respectively.

The number of navy officers and men killed, missing and wounded during eelam war III was placed at 349, 254 and 241, respectively.

The SLAF lost 208 officers and men during eelam war III, while the number of wounded was placed at 116.

 During eelam war I (1983-1987) the army lost 52 officers and 881 men, whereas one officer and four men were categorized as missing. The number of wounded army officers and men was placed at 6 and 152, respectively.

The number of navy officers and men killed and wounded during eelam war I was placed at 41 and 8, respectively.

The SLAF lost 52 officers and men and while 14 were wounded during eelam war I.

Eelam war II was fought between June 1990 and April 1995 with the LTTE making major military gains, particularly in the Vanni region. The army lost 140 officers and 3,399 men, whereas 19 officers and 586 men were categorized as missing. The number of wounded army officers and men was placed at 80 and 2,449, respectively.

The number of navy officers and men killed, missing and wounded during eelam war II was placed at 117, 136 and 74, respectively.

The SLAF lost 138 officers and men during eelam war II, while the number of wounded was placed at 68.

In spite of eelam war IV lasting two years and ten months, the army lost 217 officers and 5,527 men, whereas 10 officers and 93 men were categorized as missing in action. The number of wounded officers and men was placed at 518 and 18, 120, respectively.

The number of navy officers and men killed, missing and wounded during eelam war IV was placed at 210, 56 and 108, respectively.

The SLAF lost 37 officers and men during eelam war IV, while the number of wounded was placed at 36.

Friday, 28 December 2012


War on terror revisited : Part 87

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The 58 was Sri Lanka’s most successful fighting Division during the conflict. It was not only the best but the youngest Division which fought alongside eight other formations on the Vanni front during eelam war IV to pave the way for the final battle on May 18, 2009 at Vellamullivaikkal adjoining the Nanthikadal lagoon.

The then Army chief, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka launched seven new fighting formations, namely the 57 (Maj. Gen. Jagath Dias), Task Force I (Brig. Shavendra Silva), the 59 (Brig. Nandana Udawatte), Task Force II (Brig. Rohana Bandara), Task Force III (Brig. Sathyapriya Liyanage), Task Force IV (Col.Nishantha Wanniarachchi) and Task Force VIII (Col. G.V. Ravipriya) exclusively for an unprecedented multi-pronged Vanni offensive (March 2007 to May 2009). The newly formed formations were joined by the longstanding 53 (Brig. Kamal Gunaratne) and 55 (Brig. Prasanna Silva) Divisions, deployed in the Jaffna peninsula.

Lt. Gen. Fonseka upgraded Task Force I (TF I) to the status of a Division immediately after the liberation of Paranthan and the southern part of the Kilinochchi town by Jan 1, 2009. It would be pertinent to mention that TF I had the strength of a Division at the onset of the offensive on the western flank. A TF comprises two Brigades (six infantry battalions) whereas a Division consisted of three Brigades (nine infantry battalions). Each Brigade comprises three infantry battalions. During the last phase of the offensive, Brig. Silva had nearly two dozen battalions under his command.

Chagi’s role

Brig. Chagi Gallage, who was Lt. Gen. Fonseka’s first choice as TF I commander had to leave the battlefield to undergo heart surgery, though he returned to the field later. Although he commanded 53 briefly during the absence of its commander and subsequently led 59 in the wake of the Feb. 2009 debacle south of Puthukudirippu, Brig. Prasanna Silva succeeded him just ahead of the final battle. The change of command took place in early May 2009.

The 53 was the most senior formation involved in the offensive. Established in early 1990, the 53 consisting Commandos, Special Forces and Air Mobile Brigade played important roles in major operations including Riviresa in late 1995 to liberate the Jaffna peninsula. The army raised the 55 Division in 1996 for the disastrous Jayasikuru offensive. Although 53 and 55 Divisions changed their mode of operations from defensive to offensive in Nov, 2008, they undertook major offensive operations in the second week of Jan. 2009.

The 51 and 52 Divisions which spearheaded the Riviresa offensive, remained in the Jaffna peninsula.

Three major tasks

Of the nine fighting formations, the 57 launched in March 2007, TF II (Sept 2007) and the 59 (Jan 2008) were given the daunting task of liberating Kilinochchi, Pooneryn and Mullaitivu, respectively. Kilinochchi was liberated on Jan 1, 2009, Pooneryn on Nov 15, 2008 and Mullaitivu on Jan 25, 2009. In the case of Kilinochchi, the northern part of the town was liberated by TF I, whereas the 57 captured the southern section. All nine fighting formations contributed to the crushing defeat of the LTTE, with Task Force VIII killing Prabhakaran and a group of his trusted bodyguards on the morning of May 19, 2009, almost 24 hours after the 58 Division finished off the LTTE conventional fighting forces in a bloody battle at Vellamullivaikkal. The battle for the last patch of LTTE held territory was led by Brig. Shavendra Silva, one of the Gajaba Regiment veterans handpicked by Lt. Gen. Fonseka for the Vanni offensive. It was the finest hour for Lt. Gen. Fonseka’s over the 200,000 strong army. Over 80,000 of them were recruited during eelam war IV subsequent to a decision taken by President Mahinda Rajapaksa on the advice of Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksha, another Gajaba Regiment veteran. If the Rajapaksa brothers didn’t provide the wherewithal, the army would never have achieved its battlefield objectives.

58 Division

Brig. Shavendra Silva commanded Task Force I/58 Division throughout the offensive, though he was once given the opportunity to join the Haiti bound Sri Lankan peacekeepers. But Silva felt it would be a mistake on his part to leave the battlefield at the height of operations. Although many expected Lt. Gen. Fonseka to suspend the Haiti mission, he sustained the deployment much to the surprise of the UN. The army maintained over a battalion of troops in Haiti throughout the campaign. The Sri Lankan military still maintains a contingent of 1,000 officers and men under UN command in Haiti. Since the conclusion of the conflict, the army deployed another peacekeeping contingent in Southern Lebanon. Ironically, Maj. Gen. Silva, in his capacity as Sri Lanka’s Deputy Permanent Representative in New York, now oversees Sri Lankan peacekeepers deployed under the UN command.

The 58 Division lost 30 officers and 1,353 soldiers during the campaign (Sept 1, 2007 to May 18, 2009). The Division estimated the number of LTTE cadres killed in combat with its troops at 7,014 and thousands wounded. Col. Suraj Bansajayah (58.1 Brigade), Col. Wanigasekera (58.2 Brigade) and Col. Deshapriya Gunawardena (58.3) functioned as Brigade Commanders, while the 2 Commando, too, was attached to the 58. Depending on ground requirements, Lt. Gen. Fonseka authorized the deployment of 1 Special Forces in support of operations undertaken by the 58 Division. Interestingly, all three Brigade Commanders of the now famous 58 Division are Gemunu Watch veterans. Although all five infantry regiments contributed to Brig. Shavendra Silva’s success, the majority of the infantry comprised Gemunu Watch, Gajaba Regiment and the Sri Lanka Light Infantry.

Longest march

The 58 Division fought its way from the Mannar rice bowl to Vellamullivaikkal on the north-eastern coast-a distance of 201 kms. No other fighting formation had even come close to challenging the 58 Division’s record, though the battlefield success was due to the combined efforts of the armed forces. Had the navy and the air force failed to deliver, ground forces would never have been able to eradicate the LTTE’s conventional fighting power. In spite of limitations, the navy and the air force caused immense battlefield damage in line with the overall military strategy, while taking targets on their own.

Having liberated Adampan on May 9, 2008, the then TF I linked-up with the 57 Division south-west of Periyamadu on June 30, 2008. The 58 captured Vidattaltivu (July, 2008), Illuppaikkadavai (Aug. 2008), Vellankulam (Aug. 2008), Nachchikudah (Aug. 2008), Maniyankulam (Oct. 2008), Vannerikkulam (Oct. 2008), Nochchimoddai (Oc.t 2008), Kiranchi (Nov. 2008), Devil’s Point and Vallaipadu (Nov. 2008), Pooneryn (Nov. 2008), Sinna Paranthan (Dec. 2008), Paranthan (Jan. 2009), Murasumoddai (Jan. 2009), Dharmapuram (Jan. 2009), Vishvamadhu (Jan. 2009), Thevipuram (Feb. 2008), Iranapalai (March 2009), Anandapuram (April 2009), Puthukudirippu (April 2009) and Vellamullivaikkal (May 2009).

Brig. Shavendra Silva achieved his primary objective when his troops liberated the Pooneryn-Sangupiddy area on Nov. 15, 2008, thereby denying the northwestern shoreline to the LTTE. The sea route between the Vanni mainland and Tamil Nadu caused a debilitating setback to the LTTE. Having secured Pooneryn, victorious troops turned eastwards on the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road. They liberated Paranthan situated on the A9 and rapidly advanced along the Paranthan –Mullaitivu road destroying LTTE fortifications, before changing course as the army chief paved the way for Brig. Silva’s troops to wage the final battle.

Unfortunately, soon after the conclusion of the war, once strong relationship between the army chief and the 58 Division commander turned sour as the Sinha Regiment veteran eyed the Office of President. The situation deteriorated rapidly with the army chief accusing once his favoutite commander of executing surrendering LTTE cadres on a directive given by Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Many felt that the Defence Secretary, himself a one-time commanding officer of the first battalion of the Gajaba Regiment, too, was supportive of Brig. Silva.

Those who accused the Defence Secretary of throwing his weight behind a fellow Gajaba Regiment officer conveniently forgot how he influenced President Mahinda Rajapaksa to elevate Sarath Fonseka to the rank of Lt. Gen. at the expense of the then Army chief Lt. Gen. Shantha Kottegoda. Had Gotabhaya Rajapaksa not intervened, Fonseka would never have received an opportunity to command the army. But at the same time, the LTTE couldn’t have been militarily defeated without the tough talking Lt. Gen. Fonseka’s leadership. In fact, it would be pertinent to mention that the Defence Secretary, Army Commander and the 58 Division Commander exploited the media to the hilt throughout the campaign. All three used the media as a tool to undermine the enemy and consolidate the government’s position. Actually, their use of the media was very similar to the LTTE strategy.

The 58 Division’s raid on the LTTE held Puthumathalan was undoubtedly the world’s largest civilian rescue operation. But perhaps the 58 Division’s biggest achievement was the unprecedented operation at Anandapuram, where it killed over 600 LTTE cadres, including the most experienced LTTE commanders. The operation conducted in the first week of April, with the active participation of the 53 Division, enabled the army to hasten the collapse of the LTTE.

US report on Sri Lankan


Sri Lanka’s battlefield success should be viewed against a US study, which dealt with the status of government forces during the premiership of Ranil Wickremesinghe. The US Department of State undertook the study subsequent to Wickremesinghe’s appeal to President George W. Bush in July 2002, a couple of months after the signing of the Norwegian arranged Ceasefire Agreement (CFA). US experts examined operations, doctrine, procurement, training and professional military education before releasing a bulky report, which the then government didn’t want to be discussed. The report pointed out that in spite of having the advantage of manpower and equipment in relation to the LTTE, the army couldn’t defeat the terrorists DUE TO THE ARMY’S LEADERSHIP FAILING TO APPLY ANY OF THE TENETS OF COMBAT OPERATIONS. The US warned, due to shortcomings on the part of the leadership, the government faced ‘probable defeat in the Northern Province and possible defeat in the Eastern Province’ in case of eelam war IV.

The US report highlighted the strength of the fighting forces. Pointing out that training and institutional base is marginal, the US stressed that the quality of soldiers is not an issue. "In fact, the major strength of the army is their impressive soldiers who endure tremendous hardship, while maintaining a fighting spirit that has prevented more drastic defeats."

Monday, 24 December 2012

LTTE checkmated

War on terror revisited : Part 86


By Shamindra Ferdinando

Army chief, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka was on an official visit to China when Brig. Shavendra Silva’s celebrated 58 Division prepared to launch the final clearing operation targeting the cornered Tigers taking refuge among civilians in a two-square-kilometre patch of land in Vellimullivaikkal. Brig. Silva was confident of wiping what remained of the LTTE’s military wing.

 Although the Army Commander was away for about a week, he was in touch with field commanders. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, too, was abroad as the army surrounded Vellimullivaikkal.

 Having finalized preparations for the assault, the 58 Division chief was at his headquarters when a lagoon borne LTTE group overran a section of the frontline held by the 53 Division. The LTTE operation got underway at 3 a.m. on May 17, 2009. Although the LTTE managed to overrun army defences, it couldn’t sustain the assault until it could clear a path for their leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and his family to escape into the nearby jungles. Unbeknownst to the army, Prabhakaran, his family and a team of close protection personnel were trapped either in the Nanthikadal lagoon or the two square km area. A section of the army top bass feared Prabhakaran had escaped amidst battlefield chaos. (The previous piece dealt with two abortive LTTE attempts to escape through the area held by the 53 Division).

 The 58 Division had no option but to suspend the final assault and stabilize the situation in the neighbouring area. Brig. Silva spearheaded the stabilization effort. The absence of Sinha Regiment veteran Lt. Gen. Fonseka worsened the situation. The ground commanders faced the unenviable task of explaining the failure on their part to prevent Prabhakaran’s escape. What they didn’t know at that time was that the leader was still alive and kicking. The 58 Division blocked all land access to the 2 square km area, where the LTTE leader was believed to be trapped, while leaving the lagoon front open.

 At one point Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa directed the SLAF to operate an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) in support of ground forces even after its operating hours. He emphasized that all support should be given to ground forces to achieve their goal event at the risk of losing the precious UAV.

Last minute change in 58 Div command proposed

President Rajapaksa returned to the country on the morning of May 17, 2009 from Jordan. Lt. Gen. Fonseka returned from China close to midnight also on the same day. The hot tempered Army Chief flayed those responsible for the setback. Having reviewed the ground situation, Lt. Gen. Fonseka wanted Brig. Shavendra Silva to handle the crisis caused by the LTTE attack. He suggested that Brig. Silva hand over the command of the 58 Division to Brig. Prasanna Silva, at that time the commanding officer of 59 Division. The proposal was made before the LTTE made its second escape bid in the wee hours of May 18, 2009. Brig. Silva promptly assured the Army chief that he could handle both and went on to launch the final assault. Within hours, the 58 Division cleared the last LTTE pocket. The then Vanni Security Forces Commander Maj. Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya (present Army Commander), too, spoke to Lt. Gen. Fonseka on Brig. Silva’s behalf.

In the second week of May, 2009, Lt. Gen. Fonseka shifted Brig. Silva from the 55 Division to the 59 Division. He succeeded Brig. Chagi Gallage.

58 Div overruns last LTTE pocket

Troops cleared the area around 11. 30 a.m. on May 18, 2009. The Tigers died fighting advancing troops, while some triggered massive explosions killing themselves in the process. Having cleared the area, Brig. Shavendra Silva phoned Lt. Gen. Fonseka to declare that the army had wrested control of the entire area. A jubilant Shavendra Silva told the army chief, "Sir you can now declare that the war is over". Although the body of Prabhakaran wasn’t found, the army declared that ground operations were over on the afternoon of May 18, though troops remained on alert to face possible threats from residual LTTE elements hiding in the area. The army realized the possibility of some Tigers hiding in the Nanthikadal lagoon.

 The government was concerned about the failure to recover the bodies of Prabhakaran and intelligence wing leader Shanmugalingam Sivashankar alias Pottu Amman as well as Sea Tiger leader Thillaiyampalan Sivanesan alias Soosai. During clearing operations during the day, troops recovered over 350 bodies. The army was able to identify bodies of about 30 senior LTTE cadres, though the most wanted men were still missing. However, the army couldn’t point a finger at the navy, though in the run-up to the final phase some alleged the LTTE could escape via the sea. At the conclusion of major ground operations, the 58 Division got down to the task of organizing the gun silencing ceremony. Brig. Shavendra Silva picked the beach close to FARAH III to hold the unprecedented ceremony. The Vanni Commander Maj. Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya was the chief guest on that occasion.

Confrontation in the lagoon

Task Force VIII commanded by then Colonel G.V. Ravipriya (present army spokesman) was given the task of clearing the last remaining patch of mangroves which lies south of the causeway at Karayamullavaikkal. In fact, Prabhakaran was hiding in the mangroves behind the 4 VIR (Vijayaba Infantry Regiment) frontline. The battalion was commanded by Lieutenant Col. Rohitha Aluwihare. Army commandos and 4 VIR launched the clearing operation at 8.30 a.m. on May 19, 2009. As army commandos had cleared a large part of mangroves the previous day, the army believed the clearing operation could be completed swiftly. In fact, the army didn’t expect Prabhakaran to be hiding in the mangroves. Had the top brass believed the LTTE leader’s presence in that particular spot, elite troops would have been ordered to clear the patch the previous day itself. Otherwise, troops would have moved at first light.

An eight-man contingent of 4 VIR Bravo company was deployed for the clearing operation. The team, led by Sergeant S.P. Wijesinghe, faced small arms fire as they advanced towards the mangroves. After the confrontation, Sgt. Wijesinghe’s team recovered five bodies. Among the dead was Vinodhan believed to be one of Prabhakaran’s escorts. Subsequently, two groups comprising 12 men also from 4 VIR Bravo company were deployed. Of them, the eight man team was led by Sergeant TM Muthubanda.

Troops exchanged fire with the Tigers hiding in the mangroves for about one hour. Suddenly, the resistance stopped. Troops cautiously approached the mangroves, where they found bodies of 18 persons, including that of Prabhakaran. He was in civilian attire. The army didn’t find a cyanide vial hanging around the LTTE chief’s neck. Instead, a dog tag bearing the number 001 dated 16.09.95 hung around his neck. Prabhakaran’s ‘Eelam’ identity card with his picture bearing number 01543301002 issued on 01.01.2007 with his personal details, date of birth - 26.11.1954, place of birth - Velvettiturai and occupation - Leader of the LTTE, was in his shirt pocket.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Two rescue bids thwarted, P’karan trapped in lagoon

War on terror revisited : Part 85


by Shamindra Ferdinando

The final battle was fought for four days (May 16-May 19, 2009) in a 4 square km area. The combat zone was a narrow stretch of land opening to the sea from the east and to the Nanthikadal lagoon from the west. According to the then Brigadier Shavendra Silva, the commanding officer of the 58 Division there had been an open beachhead on the east, a scrubby land in the middle and a waterlogged stretch full of mangroves on the west.

The 58 (Brig. Shavendra Silva), 53 (Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne) and 59 (Maj. Gen. Prasanna Silva) Divisions surrounded the LTTE group hiding on a thin neck of land on the Mullaitivu coast. Task Force VIII (Col. G.V. Ravipriya) was also deployed under the operational command of the 53 Division.

Although ground commanders had massive firepower at their command, the 58 Division, tasked to clear the remaining LTTE held area, was deprived of air, artillery and armour support. Had the government authorized utilization of all available assets, the final battle wouldn’t have lasted four days. But in line with an assurance given by President Mahinda Rajapaksa to western powers and India, the army was directed not to deploy heavy weapons due to terrorists still using civilians as human shieds. The army estimated the number of civilians trapped in the area at about 75,000. Troops were instructed to use only small arms, even at the risk of their lives.

Mavilaru to Mullivaikkal

Eelam war IV began in July 2006 in the immediate aftermath of the LTTE closing the sluice gates of Mavilaru in the East. The then army chief, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka launched operations on the Vanni front in March 2008, even before the campaign in the East was brought to a successful conclusion. Having cleared the Eastern Province by July 2008, Lt. Gen. Fonseka intensified the campaign in the Vanni, where ten fighting formations battled the LTTE for 14 months, with Task Force VIII being the last to join the battle as late as Feb 8, 2009.

At the onset of the Mavilaru battles in July 2006, the LTTE held almost 15,000 square kms. By May 16, 2009, Prabhakaran held 4 square kms. The army estimated the strength of the LTTE group trapped on Mullaitivu coast at 900.

Final challenge

The 58 and 53 Divisions and Task Force VII were involved in the final battle. Brig. Shavendra Silva’s troops marched southwards along the A-35 (Paranthan-Mullaitivu road) axis dominating the ground stretching from the road to the coast, whereas Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne’s troops marched on the same axis, dominating the ground stretching from the A-35 to the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon.

Having crossed the Vadduvakal causeway during the second week of May 2009, Maj. Gen. Prasanna Silva’s troops remained defensive holding a line immediately south of the no fire zone. The 59 Division’s move enabled the army to rescue a large group of civilians.

The army pushed the LTTE from the North, East and South leaving only the lagoon bank on the West open for the terrorists.

Int’l effort to save Tigers goes awry

Western powers worked overtime to save Prabhakaran. They made a last minute effort to involve the ICRC to throw a lifeline to Prabhakaran, though the government was not interested in any third party mediated effort to end fighting. President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa ruled out a further role for the international community in the conflict at the expense of national interests. By late May 16, 2009, the LTTE knew the government wouldn’t succumb to international pressure and the army was on the verge of storming the defended area. Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva, Sri Lanka’s Deputy Representative at the UN, says the LTTE could have died defending the area it still controlled or made an attempt to escape and seek refuge in the dense Muthiyankaddu jungles. By then, the Sea Tigers had lost the wherewithal to fight their way through a massive naval cordon off Puthumathalan. The LTTE chose to smash through the army cordon west of the Nanthikadal lagoon.

Norway cancelled its annual garden party on May 17, 2009 to mark the country’s national day due to the situation in Northern Sri Lanka. The party at the Maitland Crescent residence of the Norwegian ambassador attracted many politicians, NGO personalities and almost the entire TNA parliamentary group.

In the north, the army intercepted a message from the LTTE leadership to ordinary cadres to destroy whatever assets left in the battle zone to prevent them falling into the hands of the army (Signs of giving up: Destroy assets, Tiger leaders told-The Island May 15, 2009). In fact, the LTTE began destroying its major assets, including Sea Tiger craft shortly before the 58 Division fought its way through strong LTTE positions to link up with the 59 Division on May 15, 2009, on the Puthumathalan beach.

P’karan’s first bid to escape thwarted

As anticipated by the army, Prabhakaran made his move in the early hours of May 17, 2009. Using all available Sea Tiger craft, the LTTE launched an attack across the Nanthikadal lagoon targeting troops deployed at Keppularu on the western back of the Nanthikadal lagoon, jointly held by the 53 Division (5 VIR-Vijayaba Infantry Regiment)) and 59 Division (19 SLLI-Sri Lanka Light Infantry). Amidst a fierce attack by boats, an LTTE group overran some of the positions held by troops, though they couldn’t sustain the offensive. The LTTE was trying to secure a foothold on the eastern bank of the Nanthikadal lagoon and open up an escape route to the Muthiyankaddu jungles. Soon after the battle ended, this writer was able to contact Gajaba Regiment veteran, Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne, who stressed that the LTTE leadership never had an opportunity to escape, though they went on the offensive. A confident Gunaratne declared that the army could clear the remaining area in a day, adding that during confrontations on May 17, 2009, troops killed Swarnam and Sashi Master in the Vellamullivaikkal area. In the wake of the abortive attack, newly appointed head of the LTTE International Secretariat, Kumaran Pathmanathan a.k.a ‘KP’ declared that the group was ready to silence its weapons on a request made by the international community (Beaten Tigers offer to silence guns at last-The Island May 18-2009).

Defence Secretary Rajapaksa rejected Pathmanathan’s offer, emphasizing that there was no time or space for negotiations on the last day of a 30-year-old war.

At the conclusion of the battle, 5 VIR recovered nearly 50 LTTE bodies, whereas 19 SLLI collected nearly 100 bodies.

In Colombo, Foreign Secretary Paliha Kohona strongly defended continuing military action. Addressing a packed media conference on May 17, Kohona ridiculed the threat to drag Sri Lanka’s political and military leadership before an international war crimes tribunal. Kohona said that like any other country Sri Lanka had a legal responsibility to rescue hostages held by terrorists. The Sri Lankan government couldn’t be held responsible for taking measures to save those held at gunpoint by the LTTE. While Kohona was meeting the media, the army rescued the remaining hostages, bringing an end to the hostage rescue mission. Those resisting the advancing army were killed.

On the late afternoon of May 17, 2009, the LTTE was trapped in an area not more than 600 x 500 meters. The army still kept the western banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon open.

On the night of May 17, 2009, the 58 Division troops and Special Forces began advancing into the area defended by the LTTE. They moved in from the southern edge and gradually pushing back the LTTE.

P’karan’s second attempt to escape foiled

Having failed in his first attempt to reach the Muthiyankaddu jungles, Prabhakaran devised a second plan. The LTTE leader made an attempt to escape with his family and personal bodyguards, while the remaining LTTE force fought the army to the last man. His son Charles Anthony was asked to escape with several senior cadres. Prabhakaran most probably felt that he could have fled the battle zone amidst chaos.

A group of terrorists disguised as civilians approached troops manning defences at Karayamullivaikkal on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon at 2.30 a.m. on May 18, 2009. The area was held by 17 GW (Gemunu Watch) attached to Task Force VIII. The group wanted to enter the army held area. In line with instructions, 17 GW, commanded by Colonel Keerthi Kottachchi, had declined to allow them in, though they pleaded with troops. The group claimed that there were many civilian wounded among the group. The army feared the possibility of mass scale suicide attacks. Although those manning the point hadn’t been aware at that time, there had been a large, heavily armed LTTE group hiding in a nearby islet.

17 GW troops refused to accommodate the group in civilian attire as ground commanders at that time were of the opinion that there couldn’t be any civilians in the area. When the group made an attempt to move towards the entry point at about 3 a.m. in spite of a directive to stay in the water, troops fired in the air to restore control. As soon as troops fired in the air, about 200 LTTE cadres, including those in civilian attire, opened fire. The battle began.

Although troops deployed in the entire sector were ready to face any eventuality, the LTTE quickly overran two army strong points, opening a narrow gap. But the LTTE couldn’t sustain the assault as troops spearheaded by Commandos killed over 100 attackers. Some of them died in the lagoon. At the conclusion of the battle, the army trapped those who had survived the action. The area was surrounded by the 53 and 58, Divisions. The 53 Division held the northern and southern defence lines across the A-35 whereas the 58 Division held the eastern line along the A-35. The army quickly reinforced the northern defence line with Special Forces and Commandos. During a series of confrontations, the LTTE lost at least 90 per cent of its force. Among the dead was the group headed by Charles Anthony. Prabhakaran’s son died at the hands of the 5 GW troops.

The 58 Division dealt with terrorists on the coastal side of A-35, whereas over 100 other LTTE cadres hiding in the mangroves were killed by the commandos, Special Forces and the infantry.

Another group comprising over 100 LTTE cadres was annihilated north of Vadduvakkal early dawn on May 18. By the evening of the same day, the army had completed land clearing operations. Although many felt that Prabhakaran had been killed, the army was yet to find his body. In spite of that, the army felt that there couldn’t be a further challenge, though the lagoon needed to be cleared.

While the army was clearing the last pockets of terrorists, President Rajapaksa, returned to the country on the morning of May 17, 2009, from Jordan.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa, President of Sri Lanka and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces was to officially declare the liberation of the country in Parliament on May 19, 2009. But the LTTE leader’s body was yet to be found.


Capt. Wasantha Jayaweera captured this scene a few days before the conclusion of the conflict on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon on May 19, 2009. Jayaweera, formerly of the Special Forces accompanied the 58 Division from Mannar on the northwestern coast to Puthumathalan on the Mullaitivu coast.


Brig. Shavendra Silva. Col. Ramesh Fernando of the Sinha Regiment stands next to Brig. Silva. Pic was taken by Capt. Wasantha Jayaweera during opertaions at Puthukudirippu in early 2009.


Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne, General Officer Commanding (GoC) 53 Division. The Gajaba Regiment veteran commanded the formation during its advance from Jaffna peninsula to Nanthikadal (Jan 2009-May 2009).

Mullaitivu beach sealed, stage set for final battle

War on terror revisited : Part 84

by Shamindra Ferdinando

Having rescued civilians trapped in Puthumathalan, Brig. Shavendra Silva’s 58 Division launched an operation to capture the Jordanian merchant vessel ‘FARAH III’ stranded off Puthumathalan. The LTTE had seized ‘FARAH III’ in late Dec. 2006 after the vessel developed engine trouble and was anchored off Mullaitivu. At that time, the navy couldn’t rescue ship crew due to heavy Sea Tiger presence in the area.

The 58.1 Brigade mounted an operation to capture the beach close to ‘FARAH III’. On April 22, 2009, the 58.1 Brigade cleared LTTE positions along a 500 m section on the beachfront.

The following day, Commandos and Special Forces evicted the LTTE from another 2.5 km section. The LTTE was retreating in the face of heavy attacks. The 58 Division eyed Valayarmadam, situated about six km away from Vellamullivaikkal, where Prabhakaran, Pottu Amman and Soosai and their families were hiding.

The 58 Division captured Valayarmadam during the last week of April 2009. Troops rescued more than 700 civilians held hostage by the LTTE.

Troops had moved in to the Valayarmadam area after a group of priests, including 14 nuns and four novice nuns belonging to the Pentecostal Mission reached the army held area on Saturday morning.

Meanwhile, the 53 Division crossed an earth bund situated west of Valayarmadam. Although the LTTE resisted fiercely, it couldn’t stall the 53 Division’s advance. Commanded by Gajaba veteran Kamal Gunaratne, the 53 Division, once commanded by war veteran Maj. Gen. Janaka Perera, played a critical role in the campaign against the LTTE, though it joined the offensive in Jan. 2009.

On April 28th, 2009, the 58 Division liberated Rettavaikkal. By the last week of April 2009, the LTTE combatants were trapped in a seven sq. km area. The LTTE continued to fire artillery and mortars to stall troops advancing on its shrinking last stronghold, knowing the army couldn’t retaliate due to the presence of civilians. Although field commanders pointed out that frontline troops were at a great disadvantage owing to the absence of air and artillery support, the government had no option to but to strictly ban the use of heavy weapons.

The international community was closely monitoring what was happening on the ground. The Colombo based western diplomats were of the opinion that the army couldn’t sustain rapid progress without artillery and air support and therefore a last minute arrangement was still possible to save the LTTE leadership. The government strongly resisted international intervention.

UNP MP calls for all out attack on Tigers

Much to the consternation of the UNP leadership, Puttalam District MP Palitha Range Bandara urged the government to maximize the use of all armaments at its disposal to finish off what was left of the LTTE’s conventional fighting capability. MP Bandara declared that there shouldn’t be any restriction on the use of artillery, mortars, air and naval assets in the final battle. The deployment of weapons should be the prerogative of ground commanders, the retired policeman said. Outspoken MP Bandara said that the denial of required firepower could cause losses among frontline fighting units (Use heavy guns, finish off LTTE, UNP MP says-The Island May 4, 2009).

MP Bandara was the only Opposition MP to publicly support the military operation, whereas many campaigned against the government. During Turkish National Day celebrations at a five a hotel in Colombo, TNA leader, R. Sampanthan walked up to the then Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohana and accused the military of trying to eliminate the Tamil community (Tamil MP makes serious accusations to Kohona-The Island May 3, 2009). Sampanthan made a similar allegation when he met British and French foreign secretaries in the last week of April 2009 in Colombo. UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was present on that occasion. The spouses of the then British and Norwegian ambassadors in Colombo were on the payroll of the UN sympathetic to the LTTE. (Govt. points finger at UN, UK and Norway—The Island May 3, 2009).

The LTTE launched a series of suicide attacks in a bid to stall the army, though Prabhakaran knew he couldn’t sustain defensive operations indefinitely. On the instructions of Prabhakaran, the LTTE reached every contact it had in a bid to arrange a ceasefire. But, the government insisted that nothing short of an unconditional surrender would be accepted (Suicide attacks won’t halt final push-The Island May 5, 2009).

Desperate Tigers launched attacks on the naval cordon, though they knew it was not possible to open an escape route. By May 10, 2009, the LTTE was on the verge of collapse with the navy thwarting an LTTE attempt to launch two clusters of boats. The sea battle ended with the navy capturing one explosives-laden suicide craft (Last ditch stand by Sea Tigers-The Island May 10, 2009).

In the second week of May 2009, the LTTE accused the army of massacring about 2,000 civilians in a massive artillery barrage on the no fire zone. The allegation was timed for an informal session of the UN Security Council scheduled for May 11. Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa alleged that the LTTE and a section of the media were trying to jolt Western powers into intervening in Sri Lanka (Tiger spin docs create casualty figures to mislead-Gota-The Island May 11, 2009).

Subsequently, the LTTE accused the army of massacring over 3,200 men, women and children on May 9, 10 and 11. Responding to the LTTE allegation, an irate Defence Secretary Rajapaksa said that the LTTE was making an attempt to cover up death and injuries to several hundred civilians in the no fire zone at the hands of Prabhakaran loyalists. The Secretary said the LTTE had fired small arms and mortars at a group of about 1,000 civilians trying to reach the army frontline, killing and wounding 250 men, women and children (LTTE trying to cover up failure to prevent exodus-Gota-The Island May 12, 2009).

Brig. Prasanna Silva takes over 59 Div

In the wake of a desperate LTTE propaganda effort to compel the international community to intervene in Sri Lanka, the army intensified pressure on the LTTE. The army chief shifted Prasanna Silva from the 55 Division to 59 Division ahead of an important operation to pave the way for the final battle. Under Brig. Prasanna Silva’s command, the 55 Division fought its way to Chalai, having destroyed all LTTE strongholds at Nagarkovil, Kudarappu, Championpattu and Chundikulam. Once the 55 Division consolidated its position north of Mullaitivu, Lt. Gen. Fonseka halted its further advance and moved Brig. Silva to the 59 Division stationed south of Mullaitivu. The 59 Division was given the task to capture the Vadduvakal causeway, and advance a couple of hundred meters to increase pressure on the LTTE leadership. The LTTE carried out three suicide attacks targeting the 59 Division, though troops achieved their objective. A bund cum ditch failed to stall the army, with Brig. Silva’s troops taking up position southeast of Sarvarthottam, adjoining Vellamullaivaikkal, where Prabhakaran, Soosai and Pottu Amman were taking refuge among civilians. Brig. Silva, a Special Forces veteran, played an important role in operations leading to the liberation of the Eastern Province. The 59 Division was to stop its advance outside the civilian safety zone, thereby allowing the 58 Division to finish off the LTTE.

58 and 59 Divisions link up

I GW (Gemunu Watch) of the 59 Division was positioned about 400 m north of the Vadduvakal causeway. Having captured ‘FARAH III’ by April 22, 2009, the 58 Division rapidly pushed southwards along the beachfront. 11 SLLI (Sri Lanka Light Infantry) and 12 GR (Gajaba Regiment) moved along the beachfront, while 8 GR and 6 VIR (Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment) pushed southwards along the Paranthan-Mullaitivu (A-35). The 9 GW (Gemunu Watch) was positioned in between 8 GR and 6 VIR. The 58 Division launched a night operation to destroy LTTE positions north of the 59 Division causing heavy losses to the LTTE. The 58 Division reached 1 GW on the morning of May 15, 2009. It was a historic moment. For the first time since the war began in the 80s, the entire coast was under the government control. At least 900 LTTE cadres, including the remaining leaders and their families were trapped in a small piece of land between the Nanthikadal lagoon and the sea.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

P’karan loses ‘human shield’

War on terror revisited : Part 83


By Shamindra Ferdinando

One-time United Nations Under Secretary General for Disarmament Affairs (1998-2003) Jayantha Dhanapala paid a glowing tribute to the army for eradicating LTTE terrorism in May 2009 by saving as many as 300,000 Tamil speaking people held hostage by the LTTE. Among the rescued were several thousands of LTTE cadres, both men and women, who swiftly took advantage of the rescue operation to drop their weapons and cross the Nanthikadal lagoon.

Dhanapala, a former ambassador to the US (1995-1997 during CBK’s tenure as the President) was making submissions before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) on Aug. 25, 2010, at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations and Strategic Studies.

Unfortunately, the government failed to realise the importance of Dhanapala’s declaration, which could have been used to highlight extremely difficult circumstances, under which the army conducted the operation.

Dhanapala succeeded Ambassador Bernard Goonetilike as the head of the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP) during the Norwegian peace initiative.

Currently, Dhanapala is the 11th President of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs; a member of the Governing Board of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and several other advisory boards of international bodies.

Dhanapala speaks out

This is what Dhanapala had to say about the two important issues, namely the Puthumathalan civilian rescue mission and the concept of responsibility to protect: "We were very fortunate that in the end game of our conflict in May of 2009, we were able through the bravery of our own Army to save ourselves the possible holocaust of 300,000 civilians dying in the final stage. The earth bund behind which they were held as human shields was breached at great sacrifice by our Army and we were able therefore to minimise civilian losses. I do not think we have an accurate estimate as to what the civilian losses were in the crossfire, but there were civilian losses. The tragedy would have been much greater if not for the bravery of our soldiers. But what if there was a tragedy greater than what happened? We would have been then denigrated in the eyes of the international community for no other reason but the fact that these civilians were being held as human shields. We have to I think engage first of all the ICRC and then the rest of the international community in order to perhaps convene a diplomatic conference to discuss the formulation of a new protocol with regard to combat with non state actors. This is a phenomenon that is taking place all over the world and I think the marshalling of international opinion on this issue will be one of the contributions that we can make in the codification of international humanitarian law."

Commenting on the responsibility to protect concept, Ambassador Dhanapala said: "Now I think it is important for us to expand that concept to bring in the culpability of those members of the international community who have subscribed to the situation that has caused injury to the civilians of a nation. I talk about the way in which terrorist groups are given sanctuary; are harboured; are supplied with arms and training by some countries with regard to neighbours or with regard to other countries. We know that in our case this has happened, and I don’t want to name countries, but even countries who have allowed their financial procedures and systems to be abused in such a way that money can flow from their countries in order to buy the arms and ammunition that causes death, the maiming and the destruction of property in Sri Lanka are to blame and there is therefore a responsibility to protect our civilians and the civilians of other nation states from that kind of behaviour on the part of members of the international community, and I think this is something that will echo with many countries in the Non Aligned Movement where Sri Lanka enjoys a very respected position and where I hope we will be able to raise this issue."

Government’s failure

Although Dhanapala made no specific reference to the individual fighting formations, the civilian rescue mission was carried out by the 58 Division, commanded by Gajaba Regiment veteran, Brig. Shavendra Silva. The formation launched operations on the western flank as Task Force I (TF I) in Sept 2007. Having cleared the coastal road up to Sangupiddy by mid Nov. 2008, TF I turned eastwards secured Paranthan, the southern part of Kilinochchi town and Elephant Pass in quick succession before being named 58 Division. On the instructions of the then army chief, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s directives, the 58 Division advanced along the Paranthan –Mullaitivu road gradually evicting LTTE fighting forces from major strongholds, including Dharmapuram, Iranapalai, Vishvamadu and Puthukudirippu. By the third week of April 2009, Brig. Silva was entrusted with the task of executing the civilian rescue mission. Lt. Gen. Fonseka assigned the elite Army Special Forces and Commandos for the operation.

Civilian factor

By the time President Mahinda Rajapaksa visited Kilinochchi on April 16, 2009, preparations were underway to liberate civilians held by the LTTE. The SLAF’s Israeli built Unmanned Aerial Vehicles operated day and night over the targeted zone providing real time intelligence to ground commanders. Those leading the assault knew what was going on the ground. The LTTE-held area was under constant surveillance throughout this period. While the 58 Division prepared to go in, other formations remained on the alert to face a possible attempt by the LTTE to launch a diversionary attack. Nothing short of foreign military intervention could have saved Prabhakaran. The LTTE felt that the international community would be compelled to intervene if an army operation inside the no fire zone went awry. The LTTE expected a bloodbath. Prabhakaran was going to make a case for the international community at the expense of civilians. Had Prabhakaran let civilians flee, he would have been also vulnerable to devastating air and artillery assaults. The navy, too, could have provided support. Therefore, the LTTE needed civilian cover to discourage President Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa from authorising the assault on Puthumathan. Instead of being discouraged, the LTTE action prompted the Rajapaksa brothers to go ahead with the offensive. They believed there was no alternative but to liberate the civilians and then encircled the LTTE.

Special Forces,

Commandos join 58 Div

The LTTE always tried to retain a civilian human shield throughout the Vanni campaign. In fact, Prabhakaran went to the extent of detaining UN employees for helping civilians to flee the battle zone. Initially, they forced the civilians to take refuge in the Mulangavil area, and then move towards Kilinochchi before they were forced to take refuge in Dharmapuram and Vishvamadu. Finally, the LTTE compelled the civilians to move to Puthumathalan, a narrow strip of land between Nanthikadal lagoon and the sea.

The 58 Division was compelled to restrict the use of even small arms as the enemy was positioned among the civilians. The 58 Division was to cross the lagoon regardless of the consequences. Those risking their lives were ordered only to carry small arms.

In spite of time constraints, the 58 Division rehearsed during the night with the emphasis on crossing the lagoon. The 58.1 Brigade was tasked to cross the lagoon on foot. 2 CR (Commando Regiment), l SF (Special Forces) and 9 GW (Gemunu Watch) were tasked to capture a three-kilometre-long earth bund on the banks of Nanthikadal. They were to launch operations from three different locations and link up. In the absence of required craft, the 58 Division used local resources to build rafts.

Midnight crossing

After detailed planning and rehearsals, troops crossed the lagoon at midnight on the night of April 20, 2009. Although troops suffered casualties due to mines on the banks of the lagoon, they crossed the lagoon. The initial exchange of small arms fire caused major commotion among those trapped in the no fire zone. The LTTE command and control structure collapsed quickly as hundreds of LTTE cadres simply dropped their weapons and joined the large crowds fleeing across the Nanthikadal lagoon. By early morning on April 21, 2009, about 80,000 people, including many LTTE cadres, were in the government held area.

The LTTE defence failed primarily due to the absence of any of its senior battlefield commanders in the wake of Anandapuram debacle in April 2009. The success of the Puthumathalan operation depend on the 58 Division’s success at Anandapuram, where over 600 LTTE cadres, including almost all remaining ground commanders died. The 53 Division made the Anandapuram success a reality. Prabhakaran, Pottu Amman and Soosai couldn’t have handled the situation at Puthumathalan as they didn’t have the experience fighting a large scale assault. The LTTE carried out suicide attacks targeting fleeing civilians and shot at them from behind. Many escapees bore gunshot injuries on their back.

From west to east coast

Having cleared the area, 9 GW, 12 GR (Gajaba Regiment), 2 CR and I SF pushed towards the eastern sea. They had 7 SR (Sinha Regiment) on their northern flank, while 11 SLLI (Sri Lanka Light Infantry) on the southern flank. Troops faced fierce resistance. But, they couldn’t call for air, artillery or armour support due to the presence of civilians. Having crossed the narrow strip of land, they captured the coastal area between Puthumathalan and Ampalavanpokkanai, thereby dividing the no fire zone into two. The troops of 7 SLSR under the 58.1 Brigade of the 58 Division and 7 VIR troops under the 55.3 Brigade of the 55 Division linked up on the morning of April 23, 2009.

A raid like no other

The raid on Puthumathalan was likened to hitting a meevadaya or beehive by Capt. Wasantha Jayaweera, who provided all images on this page. Jayaweera, formerly of the Special Forces, accompanied the 58 Division from Mannar to the Mullaitivu coast. Commandos attacked on one flank and the Special Forces moved in from another direction. 11 SLLI and 9 GW infiltrated between the Commandos and Special Forces. It was meant to cause confusion among those defending Puthumathalan to enable civilians to cross then lagoon. Those tasked with the operation rehearsed as many as 30 times. Brig. Shavendra Silva used a sand model to explain his strategy to those going in to save trapped civilians. The infantry dug trenches in the no fire zone and the day before the operation, they crawled in those trenches and waited for the order to go. Commandos and Special Forces carried out several deception drills and targeted the weakest section of the LTTE defence from the north and south of the selected area of the LTTE earth bund. The gun battle lasted several hours and many lost limbs due to anti-personnel mines. On the morning of April 21, troops rescued over 80,000 civilians, including parents of Prabhakaran and Daya Master. By the following morning, the 58 Division rescued 1,74,564 civilians. The army lost 12 personnel including one officer, while the LTTE lost nearly 400 cadres. The credit for the Puthumathalan operation should go to 11 SLLI, 9 GW, 8 GR battalions, 2 Commando and 1 SF regiments.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

MR, GR reject fresh lifeline to sinking Tigers

War on terror revisited : Part 82


By Shamindra Ferdinando

The then Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama was in New Delhi when he received an urgent telephone call from British Foreign Secretary David Miliband on April 13, 2009 seeking an extension of a two-day suspension of offensive operations in the Mullaitivu district to bring the conflict to a negotiated settlement.

The British move followed President Mahinda Rajapaksa declaring a ceasefire on April 13 and 14, 2009 in view of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year. Alleging that suspension of military action would only help the LTTE to strengthen its position in the ‘no fire zone’ thereby prolonging the misery of those trapped in the battle zone, Minister Bogollagama turned down the British request. Throughout the campaign, Bogollagama had the unenviable task of countering Western diplomatic initiatives aimed at undermining the war effort.

At the behest of the pro-LTTE Tamil Diaspora, Miliband reiterated the UK’s call for the appointment of a Special Envoy to engage the Sri Lankan government. Bogollagama said that the government decision not to recognize a special envoy under any circumstance remained unchanged and an extension of two-day ceasefire, too, was not possible.

The UK called for the appointment of one-time Defence Secretary Des Brown as the Special Envoy in the second week of Feb. 2009 (UK call to extend pause in offensive rejected-The Island April 16, 2009).

The LTTE rejected the government’s two-day pause in military action. LTTE leader Prabhakaran called for a permanent ceasefire under the auspices of the international community. In the run-up to the President’s declaration, the LTTE made four abortive attempts to dislodge the 53 Division from positions it held.

President Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary weren’t in a mood to negotiate with the LTTE directly or through a third party. Defence Secretary Rajapaksa insisted that the government wouldn’t agree to anything except an unconditional surrender of the LTTE remnant. They authorized the army to go ahead with plans to rescue civilians held hostage by the LTTE. The army was ordered to neutralize the LTTE in the ‘no firing zone’ whereas the navy was directed to prevent the Sea Tigers from launching another adventure.

Three days after Miliband’s effort to convince Minister Bogollagama, President Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Rajapaksa visited Kilinochchi where they received a briefing from Brig. Shavendra Silva, the commanding officer of the 58 Division given the responsibility of spearheading the rescue operation. At the time of the President’s visit to Kilinochchi, the first by a head of state, forward elements of the 58 Division had been operating as close as 75 metres to the last ‘no fire zone.’ The President spent almost three hours in Kilinochchi where he toured the LTTE administrative complex situated in the southern part of the town captured by the 58 Division on Jan 1, 2009 (President visits Kilinochchi-The Island April 17, 2009).

President Rajapaksa kept the offensive on track amidst mounting international pressure with Miliband accompanied by his French counterpart Bernard Kouchner rushing to Colombo close on the heels of UNSG Ban Ki moon’s Chief of Staff Vijay Nambiar as well as a high level Indian delegation. They strongly pushed for a negotiated settlement.

Although the Indian Central government wasn’t interested in the wellbeing of the LTTE, domestic political compulsion left it with no alternative but to throw its weight behind Western efforts. The Norwegian government, too, worked overtime to save the LTTE leadership until the very end amidst chaos on the Vanni battlefield.

At one point, the US actively considered deployment of its assets to evacuate the LTTE leaders and their families in consultation with the government. The US Pacific Command sent a team of experts to Sri Lanka at the height of ground operations on the Vanni east front to explore ways and means of carrying out an organized evacuation of the top leadership. In fact, the then US Ambassador Robert O. Blake had alerted Foreign Minister Bogollagama regarding the impending arrival of the US team while a few hours before a special flight from the US Pacific Command was to land at the Bandaranayake International Airport.

Naval blockade off M’tivu

The army felt that the LTTE leadership could make a bid to escape by sea as ground forces intensified operations. Lt. Gen. Fonseka publicly declared the possibility of the LTTE leadership making an attempt as it couldn’t face the army. The Sinha Regiment veteran questioned the competence of the navy to thwart a possible LTTE escape bid during the final phase of the conflict. The army chief was not alone in questioning the navy’s capability. Some other senior army officers, too, expressed fears of the LTTE leadership escaping by sea under the very noses of the navy top brass. In spite of the navy being under the excellent leadership of the then navy Chief Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda meeting the LTTE challenge on all fronts, some sections of the defence establishment were fearful of the competence of those deployed to thwart a possible LTTE attempt.

As ground forces advanced eastwards having secured the Kandy-Jaffna A-9 road, the navy launched a special operation off the Mullaitivu coast to foil a possible LTTE attempt to escape. The navy deployed a substantial force to meet the challenging task. The operation involved Fast Attack Craft (FAC), Special Boat Squadron (SBS), Rapid Acton Boat Squadron (RABS) as well as Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs). This writer had the opportunity to visit the FAC squadron deployed north of Mullaitivu at the height of the ground battles to observe the naval cordon in place. The then Commanding Officer of the Fourth FAC squadron, Capt. D.N.S.C. Kalubowila (currently posted to Sri Lankan High Commission in New Delhi as defence attaché) declared that the navy had the wherewithal to destroy LTTE boats. Capt. Kalubowila said that they were on a 24 hour watch and could swing into action anytime. Capt. D.K.P. Dassanayake, the then navy spokesman, who was on a temporary assignment in the northern theatre of operations said that they had the means to detect and destroy hostile boat movements. Capt. Dassanayake was there to supervise small boat operations, a critical element in the overall strategy to trap the LTTE leadership. It was the most successful blockade during the conflict (Sea escape not a reality says navy-The Island April 30, 2009).

Although a section of the security establishment believed the LTTE exploited the presence of the ICRC, the government allowed the humanitarian agency to continue operations. While the guns boomed, the ICRC chartered vessel, Green Ocean anchored off Puthumathalan, took on board several hundred men, women and children, both wounded in fighting and sick as well as their relatives accompanying them. From there, they were moved to Pulmoddai where Indian personnel manned makeshift health facilities. It was a complex operation conducted under the watchful eyes of the ICRC and India.

Some of the navy craft deployed for the blockade carried missiles and a range of other weapons. The navy radar covered the rapidly shrinking sea frontage under LTTE control. By end of April 2009, the coastline under LTTE control was down to just six kms. FACs provided radar coverage necessary for the effective implementation of the blockade involving land based assets. However, naval units deployed on the mission faced a major dilemma due to civilians fleeing the battle zone in fishing craft. The navy realized the danger in the LTTE launching suicide attacks taking cover behind civilians. In spite of the threat posed by suicide cadres, those deployed on the cordon at the risk of their lives facilitated the transfer of escaping civilians to government-held areas. But their primary task remained killing or capturing Prabhakaran in case of an attempt to escape by sea.

Jets moved to China Bay

Fearing the possibility of the LTTE utilizing a ship capable of launching a helicopter to evacuate Prabhakaran and his family, the navy deployed Offshore Patrol Vessels. The SLAF stationed two jets at the China Bay airfield in support of the navy. The SLAF believed it could respond swiftly by having a pair of jets closer to the eastern seas in case of an emergency. The navy and the SLAF were ready for any eventuality, amidst reports of the LTTE pushing western powers to rescue its leadership.

Katunayake based jet squadrons remained on alert to provide support in case of the LTTE launching an operation to break the naval cordon.

Although Prabhakaran’s successor Kumaran Pathmanathan a.k.a ‘KP’ now in government custody claimed that the LTTE made an effort to launch a rescue operation during the final phase of the conflict, such a plan wouldn’t have been realistic due to the heavy naval presence. The LTTE couldn’t have overwhelmed both the navy and the SLAF to evacuate Prabhakaran and his family. The Sri Lankan military felt that there had never been an LTTE rescue plan involving a big ship, though a section of the LTTE asserted the plan failed due to lack of funds. It was nothing but a lie in the wake of their failure to save Prabhakaran. The LTTE couldn’t have moved a large ship into Sri Lanka’s economic zone without being detected. Had they launched a rescue bid involving a ship, it would have ended up in the bottom of the sea. In fact, their only hope was for international intervention to compel the government to stop the ground offensive to pave the way for tripartite agreement involving the government, the LTTE and the international community. Prabhakaran declined to surrender to government forces. Instead, he pushed for an international military presence in the Vanni east to save him from the embarrassment of surrendering to the army. Had he wanted to save his life, he could have ordered his cadres to cease hostilities and join his parents, who crossed the frontline to seek refuge in a government held area. The vast majority surrendered to the 58 Division. The international community, too, worked over time to work out an arrangement to suit Prabhakaran’s future plans. Had they compelled Prabhakaran to surrender without trying to consolidate his position in post-eelam War IV era, he could have been alive today behind bars.

The heavy naval build up discouraged the LTTE from launching an operation to fight its way through the naval cordon. When President Rajapaksa refused to succumb to international pressure, the LTTE leadership had no option but to go down fighting on the Mullaitivu front.

In a bid to force Western intervention, the LTTE ordered the Tamil Diaspora to launch massive protests to pressure their representatives, particularly in the UK, Canada and France. The LTTE found it difficult explain their failure to defeat the army due to its own propaganda campaign, which always depicted the army as being inferior to the elite LTTE fighting units. It couldn’t explain that thousands of LTTE cadres were surrendering to the advancing army and it could no longer hold a single fixed defence line.

P’karan suffers irrevocable loss at Anandapuram

War on terror revisited : Part 81

*Over 600 Tigers die in unprecedented three-day encirclement operation in Puthukudirippu east
*April operation deprived Int’l community much needed time to force ceasefire


Brig. Shavendra Silva takes cover behind the Puthukudirippu name board to look at the Puthukudirippu junction situated about 300 meters away. Picture was taken by Capt. Wasantha Jayaweera immediately after the 58 Division evicted the LTTE from the area. From left Saliya Amunugama, Maj. Vijith Hettiarachchi, Col. Sanjaya Wanigasekera (58.2 Brigade Commander) and Brig. Suraj Bansajayah (58.1 Brigade Commander)

by Shamindra Ferdinando

The army brought the LTTE to its knees in the first week of April 2009, almost six weeks before Prabhakaran was shot dead on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon.

The April battle was undoubtedly one of the most important operations conducted by the army on the Vanni front during the eelam war IV (March 2007–May 2009). The operation involved the rapid deployment of troops to cordon off and annihilate a well-equipped LTTE force commanded by some of its best commanders.

It was the first classical encirclement operation carried out by the Army under difficult circumstances on the Vanni East front, though it had overwhelming firepower as well as unlimited ground forces. The defeat of the LTTE formations at Anandapuram made the outcome of the conflict a foregone conclusion in spite of a section of the international community trying to throw a fresh lifeline to the LTTE.

The then Brig. Shavendra Silva’s battle-hardened 58 Division was given the responsibility of carrying out the operation, which involved Brig. Kamal Gunaratne’s 53 Division, though at that time the Gajaba Regiment veteran was away. Brig. Chagi Gallage was in charge of the 53 Division.

The battle was fought outside the civilian safety zone. The operation was spearheaded by Gajaba Regiment veteran Brig. Shavendra Silva.

The 5 VIR (Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment) of the 53 Division linked up with 11 SLLI (Sri Lanka Light Infantry), 9 GW (Gemunu Watch) and 20 GR (Gajaba Regiment) on April 2, 2009 to drive hundreds of LTTE cadres into an area consisting of one square kilometre in Anandapuram in Puthukudirippu East.

Having bagged the most of major LTTE strongholds, including Vidathalthivu, Pooneryn, Paranthan, southern part of Kilinochchi Town, Elephant Pass, Dharmapuram, Vishvamadhu and Iranapalai, the 58 Division was confident of achieving its objective.

Before targeting the LTTE at Anandapuram, the 58 Division captured Puthukudirippu government hospital and a special medical facility run by the LTTE in the same area to treat senior LTTE cadres wounded in battle. The LTTE fired from both hospitals in a bid to stall the advancing army. The LTTE was in a quandary after losing both Puthukudirippu-Puthumathalan road and Iranapalai-Ampalawanpokkanai road by March 19, 2009. Despite being cut off from the main LTTE body, the enemy resisted fiercely north and north-east of Puthukudirippu to prevent the army from capturing a bungalow belonging to Prabhakaran. Some speculated that Prabhakaran’s wife had given birth to two of their three children, a son and daughter there. Having secured strategically important Puthukudirippu junction, the 58 moved to spearhead the operation at Anandapuram.

First major encirclement operation

The operation was meticulously planned as the ground commanders knew it could be the last big battle before the LTTE’s collapse. The ground commanders were lucky to obtain real time intelligence due to deployment of Israeli manufactured Unmanned Aerial Vehicles over Anandapuram. Although the army couldn’t estimate the number of men and women trapped at Anandapuram, the presence of hundreds of battle hardened cadres was known. In support of the ground forces, the artillery was placed on standby. The 58 Division covered most of the ground, whereas the 53 Division, too, played an important role in the operation. The 58 Division couldn’t have carried out the operation on its own.

On the morning of April 3, 2009, the 58 and 53 Divisions entirely cut off the LTTE group at Anandapuram. Ground commanders deployed three rings of troops backed by armour and artillery to thwart any possible attempt by the cornered Tigers to smash through the cordon.

LTTE counter attack foiled

On the midnight of April 2009, the LTTE made an attempt to breach the army cordon. At some places, elite LTTE units overwhelmed troops deployed on the first and second rings and engaged the third line, where they were annihilated. Although Prabhakaran, Soosai and Pottu Amman taking refuge among civilians knew what was going on they couldn’t intervene. For those trapped in Anandapuram, there was absolutely no help from outside. The LTTE was unable to launch an operation to open a safe passage for those trapped in Anandapuram to escape. By the following morning (April 4, 2009), the 58 and 53 Divisions recovered a large number of bodies. But fierce fighting continued till midnight April 5, 2009 until the two formations supported by the elite Special Forces wiped out the entire enemy force. Tigers went down fighting.

The army directed artillery fire at the trapped enemy. The artillery fire had to be directed cautiously due to presence of own forces at close proximity to the enemy. It was a difficult task. During the battle, the army intercepted LTTE veteran Vidusha calling Pottu Amman asking for reinforcements. Pottu declined suggesting that they had to break free on their own. In fact, Prabhakaran, Pottu Amman and Soosai had left Anandapuram shortly before the army completed the encirclement. Had they, too, been trapped in that village the eelam war IV would have ended in the first week of April 2009.

Over 600 LTTE cadres, including some of their experienced battlefield commanders perished in the battle. The 58 Division recovered over 500 bodies, whereas the 53 Division found over 150. The dead LTTE leaders included Gadafi, Durga, Kapila Amman, Vidusha, Nagesh, Theepan, Maniwannan master, Keerthi and Panjan.

The 58.2 Brigade troops recovered a large number of weapons, including three 130 mm artillery pieces and 12 GR made an important recovery when they got hold of the 85 mm gun captured from the Army at Pulukunawa in Dec. 1996.

The 58 Division also recovered ZPU-4 mobile anti-aircraft weapon. It was the first recovery of a ZPU-4 a specialized anti-aircraft weapon belonging to the LTTE.

In early 2009, Brig. Shavendra Silva had about 22 battalions under his command, though an infantry Division comprised three Brigades each consisting of three battalions. The debilitating defeat he suffered at Anandapuram dashed Prabhakaran’s hopes of holding onto the shrinking territory on the Mullaitivu coast at the expense of civilians until a lifeline was thrown.

The annihilation of the LTTE force sent shock waves through those still battling the army in the Mullaitivu District—Tiger force annihilated near Mullaitivu civilian zone-The Island April 6, 2009). Hearing the Anandapuram debacle, many civilians fled the LTTE-held area to seek refuge in areas controlled by the army. The 58.3 Brigade tasked with controlling IDP transit camps. The army established five IDP transit camps along the Paranthan-Mullaitivu A- 35 road and by April 3, 2009, they facilitated the arrival of over 70,000 civilians to the army-held area.

Gotabhaya vows to finish off Tigers

While the Anandapuram battle was raging, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa declared that it was now too late for the LTTE to negotiate a deal with the government. He ruled out the possibility of allowing those engaged in previous attempts to broker a deal between the government and the LTTE to do so again. The Defence Secretary was responding to media reports pertaining to a discussion between LTTE Political Wing leader B Nadesan and one-time Norwegian peace envoy Erik Solheim—No lifeline for LTTE, assures government-The Island April 5, 2009).

UN in desperate attempt to save Tigers

The UNSG Ban Ki moon went to the extent of sending his Chief of Staff Vijay Nambiar and Hitoki Den of the UN Department for Political Affairs to work out a deal with President Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. The meeting took place in the wake of Prabhakaran losing over 600 cadres at Anandapuram in the single worst debacle suffered by the LTTE during the entire conflict. The dead included Black Tigers and members of elite units.

The government rejected the UN call for an immediate ceasefire on the Vanni east front to facilitate a meeting between UN representatives and LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran in the civilian safety zone on the Mullaitivu coast. The request was made at the behest of the then US Ambassador in Colombo Robert O. Blake.

Defence Secretary Rajapaksa on April 16 evening told Vijay Nambiar and Hitoki Den of the UN Department for Political Affairs that a fresh lifeline wouldn’t be given to the LTTE.

The following day Nambiar had a one-on-one meeting with President Rajapaksa over breakfast at Temple Trees, where the President reiterated the position taken up by his brother.

It was followed by a luncheon meeting attended by the then Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama, Nambiar and the Colombo based envoys of the US, India, EU, UNDP and ICRC. But Norway and Japan, both co-chairs of the group set up after the 2003 Tokyo conference weren’t present.

The Rajapaksas emphasized that a fresh ceasefire would only strengthen the LTTE, thereby prolong the misery of the civilians trapped in the war zone.

Nambiar was told that a visit by UN representatives to the LTTE leadership wouldn’t be in Sri Lanka’s interest.

The UN Secretary General on March 3, 2006, announced the appointment of Nambiar as his Special Adviser with the rank of Under-Secretary-General. At the time he received the appointment, the veteran Indian Foreign Service officer served as Deputy National Security Advisor to the Government of India and Head of the National Security Council Secretariat. 

Government took up the position that there was absolutely no need for a UN role as the LTTE could use the ICRC if it wanted to send a message to the government. The ICRC with staff based in the civilian safety zone continued to evacuate the sick and wounded by ship in keeping with a tripartite agreement involving the government, ICRC and the LTTE, the government pointed out.

The government assured that every effort would be made to protect civilians trapped in the war zone.

US threatens to block IMF loan

Angered by Sri Lanka’s refusal to facilitate a meeting between the UN and the LTTE in Mullaitivu, the US warned President Rajapaksa to comply or face the consequences. The government was told that it wouldn’t be allowed to receive US $ 1.9 mn loan facility unless it immediately declared a ceasefire, suspend the offensive and pave the way for international intervention. The President and the Defence Secretary didn’t succumb to international pressure (In a bid to bail out terrorists—Now US threatens to block IMF loan facility-The Island April 20).

In the third week of April, the LTTE dominated about 18 sq. km. area. Prabhakaran had no option but to surrender unconditionally to advancing troops. He could have surrendered to either 58 Division or the 53 Division.

Defence Secretary Rajapaksa declared in the last week of April 2009 that the LTTE couldn’t be party to any future political dialogue with the government. President Rajapaksa wouldn’t accept Prabhakaran as a party to any future settlement, the Defence Secretary said. The outspoken official was responding to a query by The Island in the wake of the US State Department on April 26, 2009 on behalf of the Tokyo Co Chairs to the Norwegian-led peace initiative reiterating call for an immediate ceasefire. The US proposed that the LTTE hand over its weapons to a third party, whereas President Rajapaksa was asked to offer a general amnesty to the vast majority of LTTE cadres to pave the way for a political dialogue. The US statement coincided with a unilateral declaration of a ceasefire declared by the LTTE, which was immediately rejected by the Defence Secretary (Lanka rules out talks with defeated Tigers-The Island April 28, 2009).

The Defence Secretary told this writer that the LTTE had been restricted to an area consisting of approximately 10 sq. km and was no longer in a position to conduct offensive or defensive operations. Dismissing Prabhakaran’s ceasefire offer as a joke, the Defence Secretary insisted that the government couldn’t allow a third party to move in at the final phase of offensive under any circumstances. He reiterated that there was no other way than a total and unconditional surrender to the army.

58 Div bags Pottu’s den, pet Dalmatian

War on terror revisited : Part 80


By Shamindra Ferdinando

Having secured LTTE strongholds Vishvamadu, Suwandirampuram and Thevipuram east of the Kandy-Jaffna A-9 road, the indomitable 58 Division was poised to advance on Iranapalai, widely believed to be the domain of LTTE Intelligence chief Shanmugalingam Sivashankar aka ‘Pottu Amman.’

The then Brig. Shavendra Silva’s fighting formation was preparing for high intensity battles for Iranapalai when the LTTE struck in Colombo on the night of Feb. 20 2009. It was nothing but an attempt to flaunt its military capability in the wake of successive battlefield defeats.

Last air raids target

Colombo, Katunayake

The air raids on Colombo and Katunayake came as no surprise. In fact, even before the two Tiger aircraft had taken off from Puththukudirippu east, the army on the eastern flank knew the Tigers were mounting its last attack. The 12 GR (Gajaba Regiment) troops of the 58 Division had heard the roar of the rogue aircraft engines. After having briefed an SLAF officer attached to the 58 Division of the impending attack, the army on the eastern flank were placed on the alert. The troops of the Task Force IV commanded by Colonel Nishantha Wanniarachchi, too, had heard the sound of the aircraft engines. The initial detection was made at 8.35 pm.

These were the first suicide attacks attempted by the LTTE since its air wing launched operations two years back. With the area under its control down to approximately 100 sq. km, the LTTE had no option but to use its aircraft on one final mission. With the 58 Division now fighting its way into Puthukudirippu east after having secured Puthkudirippu west and the entire Ampalavanpokkani area under its control by Thursday (Feb. 20, 2009), the LTTE was rapidly losing ground on the eastern flank.

Despite being alerted first by the army and then tracked down by 2D radar supplied by India and 3D radar from China, F7 interceptor aircraft failed to successfully destroy the LTTE planes. Although the Chinese interceptors lost the opportunity, SLAF anti-aircraft fire brought down one of the Czechoslovakian built Zlin 143 aircraft packed with 215 slabs of plastic explosives weighing 140 kgs as it approached the Katunayake air base. A heat seeking missile fired at the aircraft, too, had failed to lock. But, heavy anti-aircraft fire directed by ground troops had hit both the aircraft and its pilot.

In Colombo, the second explosives-packed aircraft approaching the SLAF headquarters was hit by anti-aircraft fire as it flew over the harbour. According to a report posted on Tamil Net on Friday night, Black Air Tigers had targeted the multi-storied SLAF headquarters and Katunayake airbase where the Kfir, MiG and F7 squadrons are based.

The Tigers also released photograph of the two Black Air Tigers, ‘Colonel’ Roopan and "Lieutenant Colonel’ Siriththiran with Prabhakaran before embarking on their suicide mission.

TamilNet reported that both pilots had been previously decorated with what the LTTE called the Blue Tiger award for having carried out successful air raids on enemy targets.

Although the Black Tiger approaching Katunayake had to abort his mission after being hit by small arms fire and crash land his fixed wing aircraft into a marsh, the second suicide aircraft, forced to abandon its intended target (SLAF HQ), hit the Inland Revenue headquarters building triggering a massive explosion. The aircraft is believed to have been hit by a 14.5 mm weapon mounted on the roof top of Rangala naval base.

Defence spokesman Minister Keheliya Rambukwella, who had been with a group of security forces officers on board the Jetliner troop ferry at the Colombo Port had sighted the aircraft first as it flew over the port. Addressing the media immediately after the raid, Minister Rambukwella recalled a cartoon which depicted an LTTE aircraft going through the ears of Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and then through his (Rambukwelle’a legs). Minister Rambukwella said that he could imagine the media blitz had Air Tigers managed to escape (A smaller force for final battle––The Island Feb 23 2009).

Shooting down of the LTTE aircraft couldn’t have come at a better time as the government prepared for elections for the Western Provincial Council (WPC). It gave a tremendous boost to the ruling coalition, particularly in the Western Province and re-assure people that Air Tigers no longer posed a threat.

Troops find P’karan menu

Government propagandists accused Prabhakaran and his senior cadres of having led a luxurious life in the Vanni after the army recovered a menu from an underground facility believed to be used by Prabhakaran, in the Vishvamadu area, during a search operation conducted by the 58 Division north of the Paranthan-Mullaitivu (A35) road on Feb. 6.

The LTTE leadership was accused of feasting on biriyani with chicken curry. According to the menu, the LTTE leadership had been served noodles with meat, fried rice with prawns, cuttle fish or meat and a range of other items including string hoppers, roti, thosai, pittu, chapatti, boiled peas, milk rice, herbal drinks, bread, chutney, dry fish, fried fish, sambol and vegetables.

Fall of Pottu’s bastion

The 58 Division planned meticulously for the assault on Iranapalai held by some of elite fighting cadres of the LTTE. The LTTE had strong fortifications. Troops were aware of the possibility of the defenders causing huge explosions in selected areas in case of being forced to vacate their positions. Although some felt Pottu could destroy his house before fleeing the area they was surprised to see it, intact, at the conclusion of the Iranapalai battle. Troops also found Pottu Amman’s Dalmatians as well as his jeep.

The 58.3 Brigade advancing north of Paranthan- Mullaitivu A-35 road struggled in the face of a fortified earth bund where LTTE fought fiercely. The LTTE fired artillery and mortars at the advancing troops taking cover behind the civilians. The 11 SLLI (Sri Lanka Light Infantry) advanced along the lagoon front under heavy rain.

In spite of inclement weather, 10 SLLI, 11 SLLI, 10 GR troops overwhelmed the LTTE cadres defending Puthukudirippu-Puthumathalan road and Iranapalai and Ampalawanpokkanai road by Mar. 19 2009.

LTTE loses armoured fighting vehicle

Brig. Silva launched a multi-pronged assault on Iranapalai with 10 SLLI and 11 SLLI advancing from one direction and 10 GR from another. Light infantry troops moved from the north whereas Gajaba troops advanced from the south. Although LTTE units fought hard, they couldn’t stall the advancing troops. During the battle, troops destroyed an LTTE armoured fighting vehicle killing all occupants. It was the first destruction of an armoured vehicle during the Vanni offensive by any of the fighting formations launched by Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka.

The LTTE launched several counter attacks on the army advancing on Pottu Amman’s bastion. Ground troops backed by armour and artillery repulsed a series of counter attacks to pave the way for the infantry to move in. Young officers and men displayed exceptional bravery when they carried out a series of claymore mine attacks targeting the LTTE. The 58 Division paid a heavy price to capture Iranapalai mainly due to heavy mortar fire and indiscriminate use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

The fall of Iranapalai and the capture of Puthukudirippu-Puthumathalan road and Iranapalai and Ampalawanpokkanai road, helped many civilians, who had been trapped in Puthumathalan to run across the frontline to take refuge in the government held area. They did so amidst heavy gun battles. The 58 Division was forced to suspend firing on many occasions as civilians fled for their lives. Troops experienced great difficulty due to large groups of civilians trapped within the area of operations.

The 58 Division cleared Iranapalai by the third week of March 2009. By that time, most of the fighting formations had stopped offensive operations and were engaged in clearing operations in liberated areas. The 57 and 59 Divisions as well as Task Force II, TF III and TF VIII received instructions from Lt. Gen. Fonseka to suspend offensive actions as the area under LTTE controlled shrink to about 100 square km. By third week of Feb. 2009, the 58, 53 and 55 Divisions and TF IV remained on the move (A smaller force for the final battle––The Island Feb 23 2009).

The army had no option but to stop five formations as there was no room for all nine to operate east of the A-9. Only international intervention could have saved the LTTE. In a desperate bid, the LTTE massacred 21 Sinhala villagers at Kirimetiyaya in the Inginiyagala police area, situated along the Bibile-Ampara road (Forces on alert after massacre of 21 in the East––The Island Feb 23 2009).

Under heavy pressure from Tamil Nadu, India reiterated its call for a negotiated settlement. But President Mahinda Rajapaksa was not in a mood to suspend Sri Lanka’s most successful combined security forces campaign against the LTTE. As the army declared the fall of Iranapalai, the then Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee declared that there was no military solution to the conflict and Sri Lanka needed an arrangement in which the aspirations of Sri Lankan Tamils and other ethnic minorities in the country could be taken care of.

Satellite communication facility seized

In the last week of Feb. 2009, the 58 Division captured a high-tech satellite communication facility west of Puthukudirippu. Some of the equipment recovered by 10 GR troops belonged INGOs, Oxfam and Save the Children. The facility had been powered by soundproof electricity generators (Gajaba troops seize satellite communication facility––The Island Mar. 2, 2009).

A-9 re-opened

The army re-opened the Kandy-Jaffna A-9 road on March 2, 2009 for military traffic hence bringing costly air and sea transports to an end. Although the army regained the A-9 by Jan 9, 2009, Lt. Gen. Fonseka delayed the re-opening of the road until his troops restricted the enemy to an ears encompassing less than 100 sq. km. The army lost the overland main supply route in June 1990 during Ranasinghe Premadasa’s presidency (A9 opened for ‘Jaffna convoys’––The Island March 2, 2009). Although the Norwegian arranged Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) in Feb 2002 provided for unarmed security forces convoys along the A-9, the armed forces didn’t want to take a chance. The then army Commander Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle told this writer on numerous occasions that only a fool would send unarmed convoys through LTTE infested jungles.

All pictures on this page were provided by Capt. Wasantha Jayaweera, formerly of the Special Forces. Jayaweera accompanied Brig. Shavendra Silva’s fighting formation throughout the Vanni campaign (Sept. 2007 to May 2009)