Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Tigers retreat on all fronts

War on terror revisited : Part 75

By Shamindra Ferdianndo

Having restored the Mannar-Pooneryn overland road (A-32) by Nov 15, 2008, the then Army Chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka opened a new front targeting Mankulam, 30 km north of Vavuniya on the Kandy-Jaffna A-9 road. Newly raised Task Force III (TF III) liberated that township on Nov. 17, 2008 following a series of confrontations with LTTE units.

The LTTE captured Mankulam on Nov. 5, 1999 during a major offensive, which brought the army to its knees in the Vanni during President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s presidency (Mankulam regained, progress on the Jaffna front –The Island Nov, 18, 2008). The army suffered the debilitating setback following the collapse of its own offensives on the Vanni theatre.

TF III was commanded by Brig. Sathyapriya Liyanage launched operations from Vannivilankulam, west of A-9. It was the second fighting formation to manoeuvre along with west-east axis across A-9. The first was Task Force II (TF II) commanded by Brig. Rohana Bandara. Although TF II launched operations in June 2008, it was TF III which first overran an LTTE base on A-9. TF I was yet to reach A-9. Having completed operations on the western flank with the liberation of Pooneryn, TF I was positioned about ten kilometres west of Paranthan, while the 57 Division continued to consolidate its position at Kokavil, 12 km south of Kilinochchi on A-9 road. The LTTE overran Kokavil detachment in July 1990 during Ranasinghe Premadasa’s presidency. The base fell due to the army’s failure to move reinforcements to save two platoons commanded by Lt. Saliya Upul Aladeniya.

‘Colonel’ Swarnam’s truck captured

TF III captured an armour plated truck during the battle for Mankulam. Swarnam and his elite bodyguards fled leaving the vehicle behind when TF III troops fired at it. The liberation of Mankulam threatened LTTE fortifications along with the Mankulam-Mullaitivu road.

Although several offensive formations threatened the A-9 road in Nov. 2008, the LTTE deployed bulk of its forces to defend the Kilinochchi town and therefore the 57 Division deployed on the central front faced heavy resistance. The LTTE went to the extent of declaring that the liberation of Kilinochchi would be only a daydream of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The LTTE felt that a devastating attack on the 57 Division could change the ground situation in the Vanni. But the army stepped up pressure with TF III and 53 and 55 Divisions launching operations in Nov. 2008.

But the LTTE faced the biggest threat from Brig. Shavendra Silva’s TF I, which was now in a position to direct operations at LTTE fortifications at Elephant Pass and northwards of the gateway to the Jaffna peninsula, Paranthan as well as Kilinochchi.

Progress on eastern flank

On the eastern flank or the Weli Oya front, the 59 Division was in a commanding position by late Nov. 2008. The 59 Division consolidated its positions at Kumalamunai, a fishing village about 13 km south of Mullaitivu. Since the launch of operations east of A-9, in January 2008, the 59 Division fought under extremely difficult conditions to reach Kumalamunai, having secured Munagam base (May 30, 2008), Michael base (July 4, 2008), Sugandan base (July 27, 2008), Jeevan base (Aug. 16, 2008), west of Nayaru lagoon (Aug. 21, 2008), Gajabapura (Oct 23, 2008) and Otiyamalai (Nov 29, 2008).

By end of Nov. 2008, the LTTE was struggling on all fronts. But it still remained confident of Western powers and India coming to its rescue. At the behest of Prabhakaran, a section of the international community brought pressure to bear on President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to halt the offensive. The Rajapaksa brothers ignored their pleas. They insisted that nothing short of an unconditional surrender could save the LTTE fighting forces. The government committed all available forces for the final phase of the offensive. By the third week of Nov. 2008 all fighting formations both east (59 Division) and west (57 Division, TF I, TF II and TF III) as well as Jaffna front (53 and 55 Divisions) were engaged in offensive actions. The government realized the urgent need to finish off the LTTE in view of growing international pressure to call of the offensive. The LTTE pushed hard for a third party intervention in an effort to secure a truce before the 57 Division captured on the town. But the successful conclusion of operations on the western flank paved the way for the opening of a front, which hastened the collapse of the LTTE power on the Vanni east.

Tigers overwhelmed at

northern FDL

The 53 and 55 Divisions launched a concentrated attack on the enemy’s first line of defence on Nov. 14, 2008 as the TF I was moving towards Pooneryn. The LTTE abandoned an 800-meter deep and eight-kilometre wide complex of fortifications in the early hours of Nov. 20, 2008 following a weeklong assault. An earth bund built across a 12-kilometre stretch of land extending from Kilaly to Nagarkovil via Muhamalai failed to thwart the combined assault. It was the fourth attempt made by Lt. Gen. Fonseka to overcome the LTTE on the Jaffna front. Three previous abortive attempts claimed the lives of about 500 officers and men and caused injuries to several hundred. Of the three failed attempts, the first was the worst with the Air Mobile Brigade troops suffering a major setback (Gateway to Elephant Pass opened-The Island Nov. 21, 2008).

Fall of Kokavil on Nov. 5, 2008 and Mankulam on Nov. 17, 2008 as well as TF I taking up position 10 km west of Paranthan brought Kilinochchi under immense pressure. The LTTE no longer had reserves to meet troops advancing on multiple fronts. Although the then army top brass never publicly appreciated the role played by the Navy, a series of successful operations on the high seas (Sept. 2006-Oct. 2007) deprived the enemy of the much-needed ammunition. The LTTE was running out of ammunition with the collapse of its international sea supply route (Mankulam the key for strategic push into Tiger heartland-The Island Nov. 23, 2008). In spite of having some improvised runways east of A-9, the LTTE never succeeded in airlifting at least one load of ammunition. The SLAF mounted several attacks on runways both east and west of A-9 to prevent Air Tigers from launching small fixed wing aircraft against military and economic targets. The SLAF also wanted to prevent the LTTE from bringing ammunition by air. The then SLAF Chief Air Marshal Roshan Goonetilleke remained confident that his forces could thwart LTTE attempt to replenish their depleted arsenal. Air Marshal Goonetilleke was responding to an article headlined, Fight and Fight-The LTTE’s air cargo ambitions in Jane’s Nov. 13, 2008 issue

(Time running out for LTTE runways—The Island Nov 24, 2008).

Olumadu captured

TF III captured Olumadu, situated about five kilometres north-east of Mankulam along 40-kilometre Mankulam-Mullaitivu A-34 road as an LTTE counter attack caused heavy losses among TF I and 57 Division troops west of A-9 road. Army headquarters placed the number of dead and missing at 30 and 80, respectively, though actual figures were much higher. But their offensives couldn’t be derailed (Bloody battles for Kilinochchi-Paranthan stretch-The Island Nov. 25, 2008). The army lost both Olumadu and Karapaddamurippu on Nov. 5, 1999 (Army bags Olumadu-The Island Nov. 26, 2008).

President’s call for surrender

In the immediate aftermath of the liberation of Pooneryn President Mahinda Rajapaksa urged the LTTE to surrender to bring fighting to an end. The LTTE turned down the offer. None of those wanting an international inquiry into accountability issues in Sri Lanka urged the LTTE to accept the President’s offer. Instead they stepped up pressure on President Rajapaksa to call off the offensive. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) remained strongly supportive of the LTTE’s efforts to force a stalemate on the battlefront. Had Prabhakaran responded positively to the President’s proposal, the government would have been forced to negotiate for an organized surrender. As the LTTE ignored the President’s offer, the army went ahead with its offensive action.

Another offensive formation launched

Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka launched Task Force IV (TF IV) on Dec 10, 2008. Colonel Nishantha Wanniarachchi commanded TF IV, which was the second fighting formation to launch operations east of the A-9. The 59 Division was the first to begin offensive action on the eastern flank in January 2008. TF IV brought Nedunkerny, south of Olumadu, on Dec 19, 2008.

Paranthan, Kilinochchi


The successful conclusion of operations on the western flank deprived the LTTE of its longstanding mortar and artillery launching pads at Pooneryn and Kalmunai point. The operation brought great relief to civilians living in the Jaffna peninsula. Having ignored President Rajapaksa’s offer, the LTTE deployed all its available forces to meet the rapidly growing threat on Paranthan and Kilinochchi. In spite of inclement weather, TF I stepped up operations with Lt. Gen. Fonseka directing Brig. Silva to seize Pooneryn-Paranthan road (B -69). It was one of the toughest tasks given to TF I, which controlled a sizeable section of the Pooneryn-Paranthan road even before it received a directive to liberate Paranthan. TF I advanced towards Sinna Paranthan situated 19 km east of Pooneryn. The LTTE manned strong fortifications, with an earth bund extending from Jaffna lagoon to Kilinochchi being the main obstacle.

TF I launched a night operation to breach the earth bund. The task was given to 582 Brigade. The operation involved Gemunu Watch (17 GW), Gajaba Regiment (12 GR) as well as Special Forces and Commandos. Although they managed to secure a foothold at night, the LTTE mounted a major counter attack on the following day. Gemunu and Gajaba troops were compelled to move in. They dug up positions amidst heavy LTTE attacks.

TF I sustained offensive operations under extremely bad weather. The 583 Brigade deployed north of B-69 road fought a series of battles leading to the infantry breaching the earth bund from two points west of Kollan Aru with the support of armour and artillery. Amidst fierce fighting, Light Infantry troops (11 SLLI) liberated Sinna Paranthan on Dec. 17. The day after Christmas, troops seized Navanalankulam. The LTTE struggled in the face of TF I build-up, which seriously threatened not only Paranthan but LTTE fortifications north and south of the town.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Mission accomplished on western flank

War on terror revisited : Part 74

by Shamindra Ferdinando

‘Never to relax, maximum attrition 24 hours, 365 days, to keep the enemy on the run, always’, was the then Army Chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s motto. All fighting formations on the Vanni front, namely the 57 Division, Task Force I (TF I) and Task Force II (TF II) west of the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road and the 59 Division east of the road did as the Sinha Regiment war veteran directed.

Karambakulam earth bund breached

The 57 Division and TF I struggled in the face of well organised LTTE resistance. An earth bund extending from Nachchikudah to Akkarayankulam, prevented its progress on the Central and Western flanks. Both formations fought under extremely difficult conditions, though they adopted new tactics. The 57 Division, deployed on the Central front, was tasked to regain Akkarayankulam, whereas TF I, on the western flank, targeted Nachchikudah and Vannerikulam. The LTTE successfully resisted their attempts to breach the bund. Amidst mounting casualties, Lt. Gen. Fonseka ordered those commanding troops on the combined western front to breach the earth bund at any cost. The Army Chief declared that an LTTE earth bund wouldn’t be allowed to derail the ongoing offensive. Although troops intensified their efforts, the LTTE held on to its fortifications. Experienced enemy units manning gun positions along the earth bund, thwarted spirited efforts by the infantry. The troops, however, didn’t give up their offensive action until TF I made a breakthrough, at Karambakulam, to pave the way for the 57 Division to wrest control of Akkarayankulam. The much anticipated success at Karambakulam and Akkarayankulam boosted the morale of the frontline combat forces. It brought relief to those spearheading the offensive. Brig. Shavendra Silva’s TF I had given a fresh impetus to Sri Lanka’s war against the LTTE. The offensive was on track.

Special SLAF operation launched

Having breached the Karamakulam earth bund, TF I expanded its operations. Their next priority was severing the LTTE line of communications between Nachchikudah to Akkarayankulam. It was an unenviable task. Brig. Silva assigned the 581 Brigade to liberate Nachchikudah, whereas the 582 Brigade’s task was to seize Vannereikulam.

The 581 Brigade was positioned south of Nachchikudah. They made several abortive attempts to overrun Nachchikudah. The LTTE remained in control at Nachchikudah, though Kfir and MiG 27 jet squadrons, as well as the artillery, carried out a series of attacks on the town.

For the first time since the launch of operations on the Central and Western fronts, low flying jets targeted LTTE strong points atop the Karambakulam tank bund. Kfirs and MiG 27 launched from the Katunayake air base bombed enemy fortifications. On the instructions of Lt. Gen. Fonseke, jet pilots along with the then Director of Operations, Harsha Abeywickrema (present SLAF Chief), were brought to TF headquarters to finalise the joint operation. It was one of the most successful joint operations during the eelam war IV. A devastating air strike forced the LTTE to abandon some of its fortifications, hence paving the way for the infantry to regain territory.

The 582 Brigade, tasked with liberating Vannerikulam, also, experienced stiff resistance for about a period of six weeks (Sept-Oct 2008). The LTTE thwarted several attempts by the 582 Brigade to penetrate the earth bund south of Vannerikulam. Subsequently, TF I changed the direction of its operation in a last ditch attempt to breach the enemy defences. TF I battalions launched operations to test LTTE defences before making a fresh attempt to breach enemy fortifications.

Crucial breakthrough

The Gemunu Watch (9GW) succeeded in its attempt. In a daring operation, 9GW troops seized a 300 metre section of the earth bund prompting the LTTE to launch 18 counter attacks. The enemy couldn’t dislodge troops, who fought for five days continuously to help the Gajaba Regiment (10 GR) evict the LTTE from another 300-meter segment of the bund. The stage was set for 6 GW and 12 GW, to seize sections of the earth bund. The 582 Brigade brought Vennerikulam under its control on Oct. 20, 2008. The LTTE suffered heavy losses in its attempts to thwart the 582 Brigade. The success at Vannerikulam eased pressure on the 57 Division. Although the LTTE used a chemical weapon against 12 GW troops, it couldn’t derail the assault on Vannerikulam. Contrary to speculation, that was the only occasion the LTTE carried out a chemical attack targeting TF I troops. Those admitted to field hospitals recovered quickly. However during operations at Iranapalai in Puthukudirippu area in March 2009, TF I troops again experienced respiratory problems due to explosions caused by ‘chemical devices’ which the army believed was still at experimental stage.

Close on the heels of the Vannerikulam battle of the 583 Brigade, also of TF I, captured an earth bund at Pandieddikulam, situated two kilometres northwest of Vannerikulam. The army top brass believed that the LTTE would quit Nachchikudah in the wake of Vannerikulam debacle. But, much to the surprise of the army, the LTTE held onto its positions at the coastal town, the launching pad of many Sea Tiger operations in the Gulf of Mannar.

Battle for Nachchikudah

In a bid to intensify pressure on the LTTE, TF I mounted operations on multiple fronts targeting Nachchikudah. The 583 Brigade brought Madam, situated 12 km northeast of Nachchikudah along the Mannar-Pooneryn A 32 road, and Jayapuram, under its control. The LTTE offered fierce resistance in and around Jayapuram, though finally TF I neutralised the enemy positions there. While the LTTE thwarted attacks on Jayapuram, 8 GW and 11 SLLI (Sri Lankan Light Infantry) troops moved across jungle to liberate Madam. By Oct 28, 2008, 8 GW and 11 SLLI blocked A 32 to increase pressure on those defending the town. The liberation of Madam automatically made LTTE presence at Jayapuram irrelevant. The LTTE abandoned Nachchikudah as the 581 Brigade pushed Northwards of its positions to link up with 583 Brigade south of Madam. TF I liberated Nachchikudah on Oct 28, 2008. As jubilant TF I consolidated its positions at Nachchikudah, the 57 Division captured Akkarayankulam tank bund.

TF I now threatened all LTTE fortifications north of Nachchikudah as the LTTE regrouped in a bid to defend Pooneryn, its last coastal bastion north of Mannar.

Sea route to TN severed

TF I brought Devils Point under its control by Nov. 11, 2008. Although the LTTE resisted TF I troops at Nallur, situated about eight kilometres southeast of Pooneryn, it didn’t have the wherewithal to prevent the fall of Pooneryn, where Prabhakaran inflicted a massive loss on the Army way back in Nov. 1993. In fact, with the fall of Nallur, LTTE defences collapsed on the western flank. The LTTE was no longer capable of implementing a cohesive battle plan on the western flank, though it still battled the 57 Division on the Central front. The LTTE had strong forces deployed on the eastern front, where the 59 Division was making a determined effort to overcome enemy resistance. The 59 Division was tasked with liberating Mullaitivu, the LTTE’s main stronghold on the eastern coast. Having achieved a series of stunning victories, TF I entered Pooneryn without a major fight. In fact, 11 SLLI, 8 GW and 9GW advanced seven kilometres on a single day to liberate Pooneryn on Nov. 15, 2008.

TF I completed the mission with troops taking Sangupiddy and Nagathevanthurai. Brig. Shavendra Silva’s troops achieved what many felt was beyond the conventional capability of the army. Having secured Pooneryn, TF I cleared Kalmunai point on Nov 17, 2008. The LTTE used Kalmunai point as a launching pad for artillery strikes targeting vital military installations deep in the Jaffna peninsula. For the first time since the conflict erupted in 1983, the army controlled the entire coast north of Mannar hence cutting LTTE sea supply routes to and from Tamil Nadu. It dealt a massive blow to the LTTE. It could no longer depend on sea access to Tamil Nadu, one of the two major supply routes. With that, Sea Tigers ceased to operate in the Mannar waters. The army was now able to cross the Jaffna lagoon. The LTTE never recovered from losing the battle on the western flank. Operations on the western flank (Sept. 2007-Nov 2008) caused irreparable losses to the LTTE. But nothing could have been worse than losing the entire sea frontage on the western flank. The debacle eroded confidence among the fighting cadre. Long before TF I regained Pooneryn, civilians had fled across the A9 road towards Vanni east. In the immediate aftermath of the Pooneryn debacle, large groups of fighting cadres deserted the organisations, though Prabhakaran still believed he could stop the army. He hoped that India and Western powers would intervene in Sri Lanka. The LTTE waited for an international lifeline. Having achieved its primary target, TF I turned eastwards to open a new phase of operations, which would hasten the disintegration of LTTE defences on the northern front.

Tigers face three fighting

formations on Jaffna front

At the onset of the government offensive in March 2007, the LTTE would never have anticipated the army to advance from Vavuniya-Mannar defence line up to Kalmunai point and the turn eastwards. The LTTE now faced three fighting formations, namely TF I, the 53 division and 55 Divisions commanded by Brigadiers, Kamal Gunaratne and Prasanna Silva, respectively. The 53 Division was deployed south of A9 whereas 55 based north of A9. A demoralised LTTE faced the powerful grouping. LTTE forces on the northern front were demoralised. They lacked the arms and ammunition to face a confident army backed by the political leadership, which vowed to keep the offensive on track regardless of international pressure.

In mid Nov. 2008, both 53 and 55 Divisions changed their mode of operations from defensive to offensive. The army chief wanted at the onset of the campaign to open up Jaffna front, though the LTTE thwarted his plans by causing heavy losses on the army. A foray by 53 and 55 Divisions ended up disastrously. The debacle forced the army to suspend the offensive. Since then the two divisions remained on a defensive posture until TF I regained Pooneryn.

The LTTE faced defeat on the northern front.

Friday, 23 November 2012

When the going gets tough, the tough get going…

War on terror revisited : Part 73


by Shamindra Ferdinando

The Vanni military offensive launched in March 2007 was undoubtedly the single most difficult mission undertaken by the Sri Lankan military during the eelam war. The failure on the part of one fighting formation either east or west of the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road could have easily caused irrevocable damage to the entire war effort.

The 57 Division advanced on the central front, west of A9, whereas Task Force I (TF) was on the western flank. Having launched operations in March 2007 and Sept 2008, respectively, the two fighting formations continued to encounter strong enemy resistance in late July/early Aug. 2008, in spite of their linking up on June 30, 2008 to form the widest ever frontline against the LTTE.

The going was extremely tough, particularly due to the Tigers exploiting ground conditions to their advantage.

East of A9, the 59 Division tasked with destroying LTTE fortifications in the Anandakulam and Nagacholai forest reserves, which stood as natural defences for Mullaitivu, too, was facing extreme difficulties. The 59 Division had been on the move since Jan 2008.

Task Force II (TFII) given the responsibility of clearing enemy positions along the west-east axis, too, didn’t find its task easy, though it secured Navvi on July 11, 2008. TF II used south of Palamoddai as a springboard to launch offensive action in June 2008.

SLA on four fronts

By the end of July, the then Army Chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka had four fighting formations deployed on the Vanni front-three west and one east of the A9 road. On the northern front, two fighting formations, namely the 53 and 55 were in the defensive mode. The then Brig. Kamal Gunaratne commanded the 53 Division deployed south of A9. The 55 was under the Brig. Prasanna Silva. It was deployed north of A9. Both formations remained in defensive posture until Nov. 2008.

In spite of losing some territory on all four flanks, the LTTE still remained strong. It had the capacity to resist troops on all fronts and cause a battlefield defeat, which could have had a devastating impact not only on that particular theatre but also the entire war effort. The Army Chief was mindful of the emerging threat, though he remained supremely confident of defeating the LTTE.

Battle for Vellankulam

Having liberated Adampan (May 9, 2008), Mullikkandai, Mannar ‘rice bowl’ (June 29, 2008), Vidattaltivu (July 16, 2008) and Illuppaikkadavai (Aug 2, 2008), TF I launched the battle for Vellankulam. TF I commander, the then Brig. Shavendra Silva deployed all three Brigades for the offensive. In spite of having superior firepower, the Gajaba Regiment veteran faced an extremely difficult situation. The LTTE defences at Vellankulam interconnected with strong units deployed in adjoining Mullankavil and Pallavarayankadu.

Adampan Aug. 2008: Brig. Shavendra Silva (right) speaks with an officer

TF I couldn’t even think of targeting Nachchikudah, one of its main objectives unless it regained control of Vellankulam, Mullankavil and Pallavarayankadu. The LTTE brought in additional forces to halt TF I. Prabhakaran obviously felt if he could deliver a crippling blow to TF I, all four fighting formations deployed on the Vanni front would be demoralised.

Brig. Silva tasked 583 Brigade to clear enemy positions west of A-32 (Mannar-Pooneryn road), whereas 582 was deployed east of A-9. The remaining 581 Brigade was deployed to thwart sea borne LTTE attacks.

The advancing 582 Brigade struggled to cope with heavy LTTE resistance causing many casualties. Defenders had gun and grenade points atop two earth bunds which extended two kilometres and 500 meters to east and west of A9, respectively. Troops of 9GW (Gemunu Watch) and 12 GW fought courageously in spite of rising casualties to overcome enemy resistance. While bloody fighting was continuing, the LTTE erected another earth bund about two kilometres south of Vellankulam to halt TF I. But 9GW and 9 GR (Gajaba Regiment) cleared the second earth bund. As the LTTE retreated, 9GW troops moved into Vellankulam on the afternoon of Aug. 2, 2008 to liberate the entire Mannar administrative district from the LTTE. It was a major milestone in the battle against the LTTE.

By the end of Aug second week, TF I captured Mulankavil and Pallavarayankaddu.

Shavendra Silva speaks out

Shavendra Silva, now Sri Lanka’s No 2 in New York, says Mulankavil posed a major challenge, though TF I had the ability to take on the enemy in one of the major strongholds. The LTTE strongly defended Mulankavil as it was their second major administrative base in the Vanni region. In fact, Mulankavil was the most important civilian centre north of Mannar, Maj. Gen. Silva, who now holds ambassadorial rank asserts. The area was the home for thousands of MAHAVEER families, those who contributed their children to the LTTE. The Tigers obviously realised that the failure on its part to prevent TF I from moving into Mulankavil could demoralise the population, Ambassador Silva says. The LTTE forced the entire population to join its fighting cadre on the run, whereas the international community looked the other way, he says. Had there been a choice for the Mulankavil population, they would have definitely surrendered to TF I to save their lives, the Maj. Gen. says. Instead, they ended up providing cover to the LTTE combatants trapped on the Vanni east front in April-May 2009.

The LTTE had an elaborate administrative set up in Mulankavil. Thamileelam police maintained a strong presence in the area, with three police stations in place to manage the population. The LTTE used Mulankavil and Pallawarayankaddu to sustain clandestine sea line of communications between Vanni and Tamil Nadu. The LTTE Intelligence, too, operated in the area to prevent infiltration by government operatives. As Prabhakaran was confident of repulsing government offensive to liberate the area, it established the largest LTTE cemetery in the area. Bodies of those laying down their lives for the LTTE’s cause were buried there. During the Norwegian arranged Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) the cemetery attracted thousands of visitors, including many foreigners. Expatriates working for UN and other INGOs as well as members of the then Norwegian-led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) visited the place. In fact, Prabhakaran’s heroes’ week celebrations took place at Mulankavil Maha Vidyalaya and the nearby Mahaveer stadium. Such events were used to attract more children to the organisation.

While TF I evicted the LTTE from Mulankavil and Pallawarayankaddu, the 57 Division regained Kalvilan. Another Gajaba Regiment veteran, Maj. Gen. Jagath Dias was spearheading the 57 Division, the first offensive formation raised by Lt. Gen. Fonseka. The Division was tasked with liberating Kilinochchi, the main LTTE administrative centre following the fall of Jaffna in Dec. 1995 to troops of Operation Riviresa. The two fighting formations relied on each other. The combined forces of TF I and the 57 Division threatened LTTE bastions west of A 9. By the second week of Aug. 2008, forward elements of TF I were far ahead of the 57 Division, which having captured Kalvilan on Aug 13, 2008, faced the daunting task of liberating strategically situated Thunukai along the Vellankulam-Mankulam road. TF I was poised to move against Nachchikudah. The Army observed rapid deployment of additional LTTE forces as well as assets to defend Nachchikudah and Thunnukai. The elite Charles Anthony ‘Brigade’ confronted the 57 Division. The Army top brass realised that the LTTE was making a determined effort to halt TF I and the 57 Division. Major battlefield defeats at Nachchikudah and Thunnukai would have helped the LTTE turn the tables on the Army.

Massive earth bund

Israeli built Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) operated by the SLAF provided real time intelligence on what was going behind the enemy lines. The footage was available to senior battlefield commanders as well as headquarters of three services in Colombo. UAV footage underscored the difficulty in the mission given to TF I and the 57 Division. Troops faced the longest earth bund erected in the Vanni. The LTTE defence line extended from Nachchikudah to Akkarayankulam through Vannerikulam. South of the defence line was heavily mined, whereas LTTE units manned strong points atop the earth bund. It was a formidable target. TF I and the 57 Division faced the prospect of a long and bloody battle across the Vanni west. The earth bund effectively thwarted TF I push towards Nachchikudah, a town situated about eight kilometres north of Vellankulam along the A-32 road.

The LTTE thwarted a series of attempts by TF I and the 57 Division to make a breakthrough. The Tigers held out in spite of air strikes. Both formations took many casualties. Having realised that existing strategy adopted to overcome the earth bund was ineffective, the Army modified the battle plan. It feared its failure to overcome the obstacle could help the LTTE launch a major counter attack.

The LTTE could have transferred a section of the forces deployed on the northern front to thwart a possible attempt by the 53 Division and the 55 Division could have been deployed for an all out assault on TF I and the 57 Division. Had the LTTE succeeded in breaking through the combined defences of the two formations, there would have been disaster.

Army compelled to modify  battle drill

Ambassador Silva says that bund crossing drill had to be amended and modified, quickly to meet the challenging task. "We deprived them of an opportunity to seize the initiative again."

In the end the LTTE’s strategy on the Vanni west front hasten the collapse of the organisation. As Prabhakaran felt that the advancing Army could be stopped at the earth bund, the organisation didn’t bother to establish elaborate defences beyond the defence line extending from Nachchikudah to Akkarayankulam.

Addressing the annual symposium 2011 ‘Challenges of post conflict Sri Lanka’ of the General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University (KDU), Maj. Gen. Dias explained the circumstances under which his Division and TF I had mounted offensive action to overcome the earth bund. Maj. Gen. Dias said that troops had adopted a new battle drill, which proved successful. Veteran of many battles, Maj. Gen. Dias declared that the capture of the earth bund was one of the major achievements during eelam war IV.

Earth bunds on Vanni front and INGO factor

July 2008 - LTTE seize Norwegian vehicles
Defence Ministry lashes out at INGO community
July/Aug - 57 Div, TF I confront ditch cum bunds
57 Div takes Thunnukai and Uilankulam
TF I captures Nachchikudah
Trincomalee SLN base bombed
Gemunu Watch under chemical attack

War on terror revisited : Part 72

by Shamindra Ferdinando

At a time a section of the international community, the media and various LTTE front organisations are using a recently released UN report to support their call for a war crimes investigation against the Sri Lankan government, the role played by the UN and some INGOs during eelam war IV, with the focus on the Vanni offensive (March 2007-May 2009) needs to be examined.

The INGO community was under the impression that the government couldn’t and shouldn’t interfere with its operations. They easily influenced politicians as well as officials, who turned a blind eye to their activities. They had the protection of the UN mission in Colombo. Successive governments chose to ignore what was going on in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, though it was only too well known that certain INGO representatives collaborated with the LTTE.

Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa took a strong stand on clandestine INGO operations. Acknowledging that the UN and INGOs had an important role to play to alleviate the suffering of civilians, Defence Secretary Rajapaksa insisted that the LTTE couldn’t be allowed to exploit those engaged in humanitarian operations.

Norwegian NGO exposed

Retreating Tigers removed several heavy vehicles belonging to Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) to build a ditch cum bund to protect its major bases. The Army received information about the removal of vehicles in late July 2008. Having verified the incident, Defence Secretary Rajapaksa accused the LTTE of using equipment belonging to the INGO community to strengthen its defences. A highly embarrassed William Atkins, the Resident Representative of the NPA, in a letter to Defence Secretary Rajapaksa claimed that the LTTE had removed one earth moving vehicle, one tractor with water bowser trailer, one Toyota Land Cruiser, one Tata pick-up, one Mitsubishi canter twin-cab, two Ashok Leyland trucks, one Tata 407 mini truck and one Tata water tanker.

The NPA launched mine clearing operations in Sri Lanka immediately after the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) in late Feb 2002. Although the organisation suspended its operations in Jan. 2008 in the Vanni due to the escalation of the conflict, it kept all its vehicles in the war zone. The NPA, which worked under the auspices of the UN, represented the Norwegian trade union movement. The agency declined to respond to The Island queries in this regard. The Norwegian Embassy, too, refused to comment.

The NPA remained silent on the alleged forcible removal of its vehicles until the Defence Ministry exposed the incident. In the wake of Defence Ministry criticism of the NPA’s conduct, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Country Team issued a brief media statement through the UN mission in Colombo requesting the LTTE to return all NPA assets immediately (UN confirms MoD charge on INGO vehicles in LTTE hands––The Island July 31, 2008). Subsequently, the NPA claimed that three of the vehicles had been returned. It was the second known incident of its kind. In early 2007, the Defence Ministry accused the UN mission in Colombo of having had secret negotiations with the LTTE to secure the release of two local UN employees detained by the LTTE for civilians to flee the war zone (LTTE detains UN workers––The Island April 20, 2007 and ‘UN had talks with Tigers on the sly’ with strap line UN workers in LTTE custody––The Island April 23, 2007)). Subsequent to The Island revelation, the UNSG office admitted that its mission in Colombo had not informed UN headquarters of the abduction until the media revealed the incident (UN HQ admits Colombo office kept it in the dark––The Island April 28, 2007).

The LTTE blatantly used the UN and INGO community in support of its operations. In early 2008, troops arrested an armed local UN employee while trying to cross the Irretteperiyakulam checkpoint. He was entering a government held area carrying a pistol when a route check led to the recovery of the weapon. The UN worker was either an LTTE assassin or a helper tasked to transfer a pistol to a hit man operating in a government held area.

Gotabhaya speaks out

Defence Secretary Rajapaksa declared that depriving the LTTE of INGO and NGO support was a prerequisite for defeating terrorism. An irate Rajapaksa said that Task Force I (TFI) and the 57 Division advancing on western and central fronts, respectively had come across heavily fortified defence lines, consisting of ditches cum bunds across open terrain and waterways. The mounds built by the LTTE linking the western coastal line at Nachchikudah via Akkarayankulam to Thiruvurukandi posed a major challenge to the advancing troops. The Defence Secretary asserted that the LTTE could never have built such fortifications without using equipment made available by INGOs. (Defence Secretary: terrorists benefited by INGOs, NGOs––The Island Aug 8, 2008).

The bunds and ditches hindered the operations on both the Central and Western fronts in the Vanni. Although troops had encountered similar LTTE fortifications on the Jaffna front earlier, they never expected to encounter earth bunds constructed with an obstacle belt. The Defence Secretary alleged that the LTTE had used both INGO equipment and used forced civilian labour to build those defences.

Addressing the media in Colombo, Peace Secretariat chief, Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha on Aug 18, 2008 urged the international community not to allow the LTTE to hold back civilians against their will. Wijesinha and Commissioner General of Essential Services, S. P. Divaratne estimated the number of INGO vehicles in the LTTE’s hands at 38 (Govt. vows to defeat Tigers, re-settle IDPs––The Island Aug 19, 2008).

Thunukkai liberated

The 57 Division liberated strategically important Thunnukai on the Vellankulam–Mankulam road and Uyilankulam situated 5 km north of Thunukkai on Aug. 22, 2008. Elite Special Forces played a crucial role in the battle for Thunukkai and Uilankulam. The Special Forces had fought ahead of 57 Division troops since the launch of its operations in March 2007. In May 2007, the then Army chief, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka replaced the then Brigadier Sumith Manavadu, the General Officer Commanding (GoC) of the Division. The change of command was made in the wake of the division suffering some battlefield setbacks. The liberation of Thunukai was one of the significant victories achieved by the division during 2008. The elite Charles Anthony ‘Brigade’ spearheaded the LTTE counter offensive. Having suffered heavy losses due to ground operations as well as continuing air strikes, the LTTE abandoned Thunnukai and Uyilankulam (Army takes commanding position west of A-9––The Island Aug. 23, 2008).

Nachchikudah regained

Having captured Illuppakkadavai (Aug 2, 2008), Vellankulam (Aug 12, 2008), Mulankavil and Pallavarayankaddu (Aug 12, 2008), Task Force I (TF I) evicted the LTTE from its base at Nachchikudah on Aug 21.

By the side of the A 32 road at Mulankavil, troops found a large LTTE cemetery where over 3,000 LTTE cadres had been buried over the years. Hundreds of LTTE families lived in the area, prompting the LTTE to engage in a desperate fight to halt the Army.

TF I achieved its target one day ahead of the 57 Division taking the equally important Thunukkai. Army Commandos made a huge contribution to the success achieved by TF I on the western flank, whereas Special Forces fought on the Central front. TF I came across another earth bund the LTTE had constructed to defend Nachchikudah, situated 8 km north of Vellankulam along the A 32 road. The LTTE earth bund extended from Nachchikudah to Akkarayankulam through Vannerikulam.

Earth bunds posed a massive challenge to the army. TF I struggled to demolish them. The SLAF played a critical role in the destruction of LTTE positions along the Karambakulam tank bund. Two days ahead of the operation, those pilots tasked with carrying out the operation were brought to TF I headquarters in the Mannar sector to rehearse under the instructions of the army chief.

During the battle for Nachchikudah, the LTTE used a chemical weapon against troops of the 12 Gemunu Watch (12GW). TF I and the 57 Division paid a heavy price to capture targets given to the respective formations.

Meanwhile, close on the heels of significant battlefield victories, the SLFP-led UPFA swept the Aug. 23, 2008 PC polls in the North Central and Sabaragamuwa Provinces bagging all 27 electorates in Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Ratnapura and Kegalle districts. The government’s war against terror contributed immensely to the UPFA’s success on the political front. It was a personal victory for President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who vowed to finish off the LTTE soon (President wins ‘referendum’ on the war front––The Island Aug. 25, 2008).

Air raid on Trincomalee navy base

In a desperate bid to offset heavy battlefield defeats, the LTTE launched an air attack targeting the Trincomalee navy base on the night of Aug. 26, 2008. Although it didn’t cause serious damage, the government was upset over its failure to shoot down the aircraft involved in the operation. The SLAF launched jets from the Katunayake air base, in an abortive bid to intercept ‘Air Tigers.’

Sunday, 18 November 2012

A mysterious Indian among Tigers

War on terror revisited : Part 71

By Shamindra Ferdinando

In part 69 and 70 in ‘war on terror revisited’ series, our reference to the territorial gains made by Task Force II (TF II) on the Western front during the Sept 2007-July 2008 period is erroneous. The credit should go to Task Force I (TF I) commanded by the then Brig. Shavendra Silva. TF I was the second fighting formation established during Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s tenure as the Commander of the Sri Lanka Army (SLA). The first was 57 Division.

The SLA chief launched TF II in late June, 2008 to facilitate operations undertaken by 57 Division on the Central front and TF I on the Western front. The TF II commanded by Brig. Rohana Bandara commenced offensive operations from an area south of Palamoddai. Brig. Bandara’s troops were the first to manoeuvre along the west-east axis across the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road. The LTTE, struggling to resist the 57 Division, TF I and 59 Division on the eastern flank aka the Welioya front was forced to divert men and material to face TF II. The SLA created the 61 Division to hold approximately 600 sq. km. area liberated by 57 Division since launch of operations on March 5, 2007 (Army springs another surprise, opens new front west of A9; Task Force II advances on new targets, Tigers retreat––The Island June 25, 2008).

In the wake of TF II launching operations, 57 Division and TF I linked up southwest of Periyamadhu on the afternoon of June 30, 2008.

The SLA would never have been able to undertake offensive actions on four fronts (three west of the A9 and one east of the road), simultaneously and deploy another Division on a holding role, if President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had deprived the SLA of the required strength. The SLA increased its strength from 116,000 at the onset of the eelam war IV to 220,000. In spite heavy losses, the SLA was able to quickly recover thus giving ground commanders the opportunity to sustain large scale operations. Unlike on previous offensives, the SLA never experienced a shortage of men.

President speaks out

Having bagged the Eastern Provincial Council at the May 10, 2008 election, President Mahinda Rajapaksa dissolved the North Central and the Sabaragamuwa Provincial Councils. With the elections set for August 2008, President intensified offensives on the political front. Addressing a public rally at the opening of a fishery harbour built with Chinese aid at Beruwela on June 27, 2008, President Rajapaksa declared that the LTTE would be finished off soon. The statement was made close on the heels of a section of the media alleging that the government was giving into Indian pressure to stop the offensive. The President didn’t mince his words as he vowed to sustain the offensive (LTTE will be ‘finished off’ says President––The Island June 29, 2008).

Threat to parliament

As the SLA made headway on different battlefronts, the government took extraordinary measures to thwart possible LTTE attempts to cause mayhem in Colombo. Fearing that the LTTE would use someone to smuggle in an explosive device into Parliament to assassinate a group of MPs, the government prohibited members from bringing in electronic devices. Acting on the instructions of security services, the then Speaker, W. J. M. Lokubandara directed members not to bring in laptops and similar equipment. Lokubandara directed that the ban on laptops remain until the situation improved. The government believed that the LTTE could make an attempt to derail the ongoing offensive by causing political instability. (House bans laptops to prevent LTTE infiltration––The Island June 30).

Fall of main Sea Tiger base

The fall of the Vidattaltivu Sea Tiger base on July 16, 2008, sent shock waves through the LTTE. As the LTTE abandoned Vidattaltivu and retreated northwards, the Sea Tigers faced a major dilemma. Although the LTTE propaganda organs still vowed to halt the SLA offensive, Prabhakaran realised the possibility of the Sea Tigers losing all bases northwards of Vidattaltivu. The loss of the Vidattaltivu–Pooneryn stretch could have effectively deprived the LTTE of its main supply lines between the Vanni mainland and Tamil Nadu. Having liberated Vidattaltivu, the TF I now threatened to cut off the LTTE sea line of communications. Tamil Nadu had remained the LTTE’s main supply base.

Indians among Tigers

The SLN deployed a sizeable force in the Gulf of Mannar in a bid to hinder the LTTE sea supply line. The LTTE cunningly used the Tamil Nadu fishing fleet to its advantage. The SLN deployed every available asset to prevent the Sea Tigers crossing the Indo-Lanka maritime. The SLN stepped up its deployment close on the heels of the arrest of 290 Tamil Nadu trawlers on July 2, 2008.

The SLN intercepted a boat carrying seven persons on July 16, 2008 in the Gulf of Mannar. The boat was approaching the Indo-Lanka maritime boundary when the SLN forced it to stop. Among the seven persons onboard was Selvam Sudesh Kannan. The Indian carried a passport bearing ETN/059/001/355/2001. The Indian told the SLN that he had arrived in LTTE held territory on Jan. 10, 2003 during the Ceasefire Agreement. The SLN promptly pointed out that the suspect hadn’t entered the country through the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA), though he was in possession of a valid passport. The man told the SLN officers how he, along with his colleagues, had been detained by the LTTE. Many an eyebrow was raised when he claimed that the LTTE used them as labourers.

The SLN brought Kannan to Colombo and handed him over to the Indian High Commission. Kannan failed to explain why his family had failed to raise his disappearance with the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commissioner’s mission in Chennai or the Indian High Commission for so long. What had he been doing in the Vanni for so long? How did he manage to escape from those holding him? Why didn’t he didn’t get in touch with the UN officers in the Vanni or other international agencies, including the ICRC based in the LTTE-held region? (Mysterious presence of Indian in Tiger territory––The Island July 18, 2008).

SF’s strategy

After losing Vidattaltivu, the LTTE took up positions in and around Illuppaikkadavai, Mundampiddi and Vellalakulam in a bid to prevent TF I from advancing towards Nachchikudah. The Army Chief personally supervised the ground situation on a daily basis. Unlike his predecessors, the Sinha Regiment veteran didn’t place the war effort under the command of an Overall Operations Commander (OOC). He made it a point to regularly visit the Northern areas to confer with his senior commanders to ensure that the offensive was on track. Those who had failed to accomplish tasks given to them incurred the wrath of the hot tempered, tough talking infantry officer.

By the third week of July 2008, the 57 Division was operating about four kilometres south of Thunnukai, situated along the Vellankulam-Mankulam road. The 57 Division threatened to cut off the vital road link. A rapid SLA build-up compelled the LTTE to move additional forces to thwart the TF I and 57 Division crossing the road even at the expense of formations fighting on other fronts (Rapid progress on war front; Army eyes Thunnukai on Mankulam-Vellankulam road––The Island July 21, 2008).

The SLN and the SLAF launched an unprecedented raid targeting Nachchikudah in the third week of July 2008. Having bagged Vidattaltivu and Illuppaikkadavai, TF I now targeted Nachchikudah, situated about 17 kms north of Illuppaikkadavai. The elite Special Boat Squadron (SBS) and the Rapid Action Boat Squadron (RABS) raided Nachchikudah as jets launched from the Katunayake airbase zeroed in on LTTE assets there.

Tigers lose first 120 mm

on the Vanni front

The 57 Division recovered one 120 mm mortar following a fierce confrontation about three kilometres south-east of Mallavi on July 24, 2008. It was the first heavy mortar recovered on the Vanni front since the launch of offensive action on March 5, 2007. Fighting elements of the 57 Division and elite Special Forces attacked the gun position after cutting off the gun crew’s escape route. Troops found 120 mm mortar along with 33 LTTE bodies, five T-56 assault rifles, two 81 mm mortars and about 100 mortar rounds. The SLA hit the gun position as the LTTE was making an effort to shift the weapons. Among the dead were two senior LTTE cadres, including one holding the rank of ‘Lieutenant Colonel’ of the Charles Anthony ‘Brigade.’ The losses suffered by the elite Charles Anthony ‘Brigade’ had a demoralising impact on the LTTE. Close on the heels of confrontation south-east of Mallavi, the SLN deployed Fast Attack Craft and SBS craft to target Chilawatte, two miles south of Mullaitivu (SLN raids Mullaitivu, SLA strikes on Vanni front––The Island July 25, 2008).

The LTTE’s morale sagged in view of the growing SLA build-up on the Western and Central fronts. The LTTE faced a severe shortage of manpower, whereas the SLA sustained the offensive, in spite of taking heavy losses. The LTTE withered under heavy SLA and SLAF pressure. The SLAF caused heavy losses among enemy fighting formations, which had been deprived of both reinforcements as well as required ammunition.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Tigers lose Balraj as Army makes progress

War on terror revisited : Part 70


By Shamindra Ferdinando

In the wake of modest success on the central (57 Division) and western (Task Force II) flanks, the then Army chief, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka opened a new front in the North of on April 23, 2008. The elite 53 and 55 Divisions advanced from their 8 km-wide frontline from Kilaly extending to Kadolona in the early hours of Wednesday and reached the LTTE’s first line of defence without much difficulty. Having secured about 700 m, troops were in the process of consolidating their positions when the LTTE launched a devastating artillery and mortar barrage, causing heavy loss of life. They were forced to retreat leaving bodies of some of their colleagues on the battlefield. The LTTE returned the bodies through the ICRC. (Government jolted by outcome of Muhamalai battle—The Island April 25, 2008).

The capture of Madhu on April 24, 2007 by the 57 Division didn’t lessen the demoralizing impact the Jaffna catastrophe had on the war effort.

LTTE propaganda picture of women cadres in the process of recovering bodies of SLA personnel killed on the northern front

In the immediate aftermath of the Jaffna debacle, Lt. Gen. Fonseka declared that the setback suffered on the Jaffna front wouldn’t impede the ongoing military action to bring the Tigers to their knees. The veteran of many battles emphasized that a multi-pronged ground offensive was on track, hence the LTTE couldn’t change the outcome of eelam war IV. He said that Wednesday’s battle involved five battalions of the 53 and 55 Divisions, while denying reports as regards deployment of the Mechanized Infantry. Rejecting LTTE claims that over 150 officers and men died in the high intensity battle and over double that number wounded, the Army chief placed the number killed at 47, 300 wounded and 33 categorizes as missing. He declared that the LTTE was not what it used to be, while reiterating his commitment to finish off terrorists during his tenure as the commander (Fonseka: Northern offensives on track-The Island April 26, 2008).

Eastern front

May 2008 Vanni east: Prabhakaran pays his last respects to Balraj, posthumously promoted to the rank of ‘Brigadier’

Having launched the 57 Division (Mar. 2007) and TF II (Sept 2007), the Army raised the 59 Division in late 2007 to undertake one of the most difficult tasks on the battlefront. Lt. Gen. Fonseka picked Armoured Corps veteran Brigadier Nandana Udawatta as the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the 59 Division. The 59 Division launched offensive action in early Jan. 2008 on the Eastern front. Brig. Udawatte was given the daunting task of capturing the Andankulam and Nagacholai forest reserves to reach Mullaitivu. The 59 Division troops had to fight in extremely difficult conditions. The Mullaitivu jungles deprived them of effective armour and artillery support. Speaking on the Eastern front, Lt. Gen. Fonseka said that since the launch of operations in Jan. 2008, the 59 Division had advanced about 4.5 km by the beginning of the last week of April, 2008. The Army chief said that the Eastern front was about 12 km wide and the 59 Division was positioned about 2 km south of a major LTTE base. Referring to operations on the Central, Western, Eastern and northern fronts, the war veteran said that the enemy couldn’t successfully resist the army on four different fronts simultaneously. Unfortunately, the April 23, 2008 debacle forced the SLA to suspend major offensive operations on the northern front, until the middle of Nov. 2008. Having overcome fierce attacks spearheaded by elite enemy units specializing in jungle warfare, the 59 Division brought the LTTE’s Munagam base under its control on May 30, 2008. It was a significant victory. Although the LTTE compelled the army to halt major offensive operations on the northern front, three fighting formations now threatened its bases both east and west of the A9 road.

LTTE suffers another setback

The LTTE’s No 2, Kandiah Balasegaran aka ‘Brigadier Balraj’ was spared the shame of seeing the ultimate decline and fall of the tigers in May 2009. Balraj, regarded as one of the best field commanders credited with a spate of major achievements, including the overrunning of the strategic Elephant Pass base in April 2000, died of a heart attack at Puthukkudiyiruppu in the Mullaitivu District on May 20, 2008. He died as the LTTE was making a desperate bid to resist troops advancing on the Munagam base. Balraj hadn’t been involved in counter attacks, though he sometimes supervised their defenses both east and west of the A9 road. During Ranil Wickremesinghe’s tenure as Prime Minister (2002-2004), the LTTE, with the help of Norway, sent him for heart surgery in an expensive Singaporean medical facility. In spite of the death of Balraj, the LTTE had thousands of battle hardened cadres and a group of experienced commanders.

Govt. offensive on track

The Colombo-based diplomatic community felt the LTTE had the wherewithal to derail the government offensive. A section of the Tamil media as well as the TNA, which in late 2001 declared the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil speaking people, too, remained confident of halting the government offensive. A section of the international community, the TNA and the media undermined the military effort. They never realized President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political will to sustain the offensive, regardless of the consequences. The President’s position was strengthened by Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who worked overtime to ensure that combined security forces action remained on track. The Gajaba Regiment veteran had the difficult task of maintaining a strong link between the military leadership and the President.

In the wake of securing of Madhu and the debacle on the northern front, the Army captured Palampiddi on May 16, 2008, (57 Div), Mundumurippu on May 23, 2008 (57 Div), Periyamadu on May 15, 2008, Adampan on May 9, 2008 (TF I), Mullikandal, Minnaniranchan and Marattikannaddi on June 24, 2008 (TF I) and the Mannar rice bowl comprising 10 villages on June 29, 2008 (TF I), before the two fighting formations linked up on the following day southwest of Periyamadu. While the two formations established one continuous defence line west of the A9, the 59 Division on the Eastern front battled it out on its own. By end of June, 2008, Brig. Udawatta’s Division had bagged the Munagam base. It would be important to mention that the 57 Division and TF I conducted operations independently of each other, though they linked up on June 30, 2008.

First PC polls in the East

Having liberated the Eastern Province on July 11, 2007, the government launched a rapid resettlement and reconstruction project, paving the way for elections for the Eastern Provincial Council on May 10, 2008. President Mahinda Rajapaksa surprised the Opposition as well as the international community by accommodating the breakaway LTTE faction headed by one-time LTTE field commander Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan on the UPFA ticket. It was perhaps the most significant political development since the conclusion of major military operations in the Eastern Province. The fielding of Karuna’s TMVP (Thamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal), overshadowed all other issues as the UNP-SLMC combine targeted the UPFA. The JVP contested on its own, whereas the TNA boycotted the election at the behest of the LTTE. While the political parties campaigned in the East, with the JVP lambasting India for facilitating the UPFA-TMVP marriage, the Army intensified operations in the Vanni theatre.

Defence Secretary Rajapaksa, on the eve of the Eastern polls, emphasized the importance of the TMVP’s entry into national politics. Noting that the TMVP had contested local government elections in the Batticaloa District in March 2008, the Defence Secretary said that the TMVP’s move would hasten the collapse of the LTTE, at that time struggling on three fronts. The government strategist said that the EP poll was in line with the overall government strategy aimed at defeating the LTTE (TMVP in polls overshadows all issues-The Island May 9, 2008).

On the eve of the polls, the LTTE triggered a blast near the Ampara clock tower killing 16 persons and causing injuries to 30. The bomb was concealed in a parcel left inside a café near the clock tower. About five hours before polling began, the LTTE infiltrated the strategic Trincomalee harbour to carry out a daring attack. Frogmen, used high explosives to blast the SLN vessel A 520. The vessel, formerly ‘MV Invincible’, built in 1971 had been taken into custody in 2003, while carrying 254 illegal Pakistani immigrants off Tangalle and subsequently handed over to the SLN on a court order. The LTTE also fired seven rounds of 81 mm mortars at Pannalagama, a remote village in the Ampara district. LTTE attacks failed to derail the election process. The UPFA emerged victorious at the election, the first since the de-merger of the Eastern Province from the North in Oct. 2006.

July 2008

The Army scored significant victories in all fronts in the month of July, 2008. Although the LTTE mounted a series of attacks in the Eastern and Northern Provinces, it couldn’t prevent the Army from achieving critically important military goals. The 57 Division liberated Naddankandal on July 11, 2008. On the western flank, Brig. Shavendra Silva’s troops overran Viddattaltivu, a Sea Tiger stronghold on July 16, 2008. The LTTE held the coastal town since the withdrawal of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in early 1990. On the Weli Oya front, the 59 Division captured Michael and Sugandan bases, on July 4 and July 27, respectively, hence giving the Army a commanding position.

Northern offensive begins amidst battle for East

War on terror revisited : Part 69


By Shamindra Ferdinando

The 57 Division and Task Force I (TF I) linked up southwest of Periyamadhu on the afternoon of June 30, 2007. Having liberated Periyamadhu in the third week of June 2007, the 57 Division pushed towards Pallamadu to meet TF I troops. The move brought 1,084 square kilometers in Vavuniya, Mannar and Mullaittiuvu districts under government control. TF I troops took up positions two and half kms south of Sea Tigers’ main base at Vedithalthivu.

The then Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka launched operations on the Northern front on Mar.5, 2007. The opening of a new front was a bold decision as the LTTE still retained the capability to wage large scale combat operations in the Eastern Province. The newly raised 57 Division launched operations from the army frontlines west of Vavuniya between Vavuniya and Mannar. Operations were badly hampered for want of effective armour and artillery support. The General Officer Commanding (GOC) 57 Division Maj. Gen. Jagath Dias told the annual symposium May/June 2011 of the General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University (KDU) that effective deployment of armour and artillery couldn’t be achieved due to initial confrontations between 57 Division troops and the LTTE in jungles. The Division struggled in the face of fierce LTTE resistance. But the 57 Division persisted with offensive action on the central front. The Army Chief named Gajaba Regiment veteran Dias as the GOC of the 57 Division, subsequent to some setbacks suffered by the formation at the onset of the offensive.

The offensive got underway in the wake of an LTTE mortar attack directed at SLAF choppers immediately after they landed in Batticaloa in the morning. The Feb 27 attack caused injuries to 10 persons, including the then Italian and German ambassadors and a UN official. The LTTE fired mortars from Vavunativu. The attack prompted Dr. Rohan Gunaratne, who was also a guest speaker at the 2011 KDU symposium ‘Challenges of Post Conflict Sri Lanka’ to declare that war couldn’t be won by either party.

A story captioned, ‘Sri Lanka, Tamil Tiger Rebels Fight a War That Can’t be Won,’ by Colombo based Anusha Ondaatjie, quoted head of terrorism research at Singapore’s Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, Rohan Gunaratna as having asserted: "Continuing the current spate of violence is not going to bring about a different outcome or change the status quo. Both parties have developed significant support to be able to recover from losses, but this type of warfare is protracted." Gunaratna declared: "What is needed is a negotiated settlement to the conflict."

The website also quoted Gunaratna as having claimed: "The two parties have decided to fight each other," hence conveniently forgetting the circumstances leading to eelam war IV in Aug. 2006.

Three months after Dr. Gunaratne stressed the need for a negotiated settlement, the military cleared the entire Eastern Province. Addressing the KDU symposium Maj. Gen. Chagi Gallage explained the circumstances leading to the infantry and Special Operations troops backed by armour, artillery and other support elements launching offensive action on July 28, 2006 in response to the LTTE closure of the sluice gates of Mavilaru on July 21, 2007. Troops restored the water supply on Aug. 8, 2006.

The Eastern campaign was brought to a successful conclusion on July 11, 2007 with the clearing of Narakkumulla and Thoppigala. Although some LTTE units remained in the East they couldn’t pose a formidable threat to the Army, though on-and-off confrontations caused some anxiety among the civilian population.

Had the LTTE succeeded in assassinating the then Lt. Gen. Fonseka on April 25, 2006 and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa on Dec. 1, 2006, Sri Lanka’s campaign against the LTTE would have suffered an irrevocable setback. In fact, the success of the LTTE’s grand strategy to overwhelm the military in about two years hinged on the assassination of the Sinha and Gajaba veterans.

Madhu church April 25, 2008: Officers and men of 57 Division

Three days after 57 Division swung into action, Defence Secretary Rajapaksa told visiting US State Department official Steven Mann and Ambassador Blake that the LTTE leadership was an obstacle to peace and had to be eliminated. Defence Secretary Rajapaksa also called for US support to thwart LTTE attempts to procure advanced armaments, while promising the government would work out a solution to meet the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil speaking people. Mann was visiting Colombo in the immediate aftermath of Defence Secretary Rajapaksa and Ambassador Blake signing the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) to enhance military relations/cooperation between the GoSL and the US (No halt on offensive against the LTTE; Lanka seeks more US support to stop arms flow—The Island Mar. 11, 2007).

Having cleared the Eastern Province, the Army intensified operations on the Vanni front. However, the progress was extremely slow due to heavy LTTE resistance. Although the 57 Division made some territorial gains, it couldn’t achieve a significant battlefield victory throughout 2007. The LTTE remained confident of halting the 57 Division, though Army headquarters made available required men and material. Although it was not immediately felt on the battlefield, the LTTE suffered a heavy setback on Mar. 18, 2007, when the Navy intercepted two ships carrying arms and ammunition for the LTTE (LTTE suffers double blow on high seas; faces critical shortage of ammunition-The Island Mar. 19, 2007).

The LTTE almost succeeded in wiping out the SLAF offensive capability on the night of Mar. 26, 2007 when its aircraft bombed the Katunayake airbase. Had they destroyed jet squadrons comprising Israeli and Ukrainian fighters, the war effort would have suffered a debilitating setback. The LTTE aircraft escaped amidst anti-aircraft fire. (Abortive raid jolts govt. to review defences; Low flying light aircraft escape SLAF radar—The Island Mar. 27, 2007). The raid revealed the inadequacy of the Indian radar installed at selected bases, including Katunayake. In response to the LTTE threat, the government immediately revived an abandoned plan to acquire advanced Chinese radar. India strongly objected to Sri Lanka’s plans made during the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s tenure to install a Chinese radar network (Faulty radar helped Tigers?—The Island Mar. 28, 2007).

On Mar. 28, 2007, the SLA evicted the LTTE from Kokkadicholai, one-time Karuna Amman’s base, where an eelam court, ‘police’ and political office constituted the centerpiece of the power structure. The failure to repulse an army at Kokkadicholai had a devastating impact on LTTE forces still fighting in the East (Last major LTTE-held civilian center in East falls—The Island March 28, 2007).

The LTTE deprived the 57 Division of a major victory until late April 2008. After a series of battles on the central front, the 57 Division liberated Madhu on April 24, 2008.

In the wake of the Madhu debacle, the LTTE made an abortive bid to launch an attack on the strategic Palaly air base. Troops forced a low flying aircraft approaching Palaly to turn back by firing at it. The aircraft dropped two improvised explosive devices close to the Malady beach (Military thwarts LTTE aerial attack on Palaly air base—The Island April 25, 2007).

Task Force II on the Western front

The Army Chief opened a second front west of Vavuniya in mid Sept. 2007, with the launch of Task Force I (TF I). The TF I was commanded by the then Brigadier Shavendra Silva also of the Gajaba Regiment. The TF I was given the unenviable task of manoeuvring along the northwestern coast and the LTTE was forced to divert some of its resources to resist TF I. In spite of the army opening two fronts west of the Kandy-Jaffna A 9 road, the LTTE maintained a strong offensive posture with elite units spearheading action. The 57 Division and TF I encountered fierce resistance. The TF I evicted the LTTE from its stronghold at Adampan on May 9, 2008. It was the first of a series of major battlefield victories scored by Brig. Shavendra Silva’s formation.

The LTTE re-grouped quickly to resist the TF I advance towards the Mannar Rice Bowl. The LTTE deployed some of its best fighting units against Brig. Shavendra Silva’s troops, who gradually forced the defenders to abandon their positions. By June 29, 2008, TF I had secured the Rice Bowl, paving the way for TF I and the 57 Division to link up southwest of Periyamadhu, hence forming the widest ever front on the northern front. The two formations posed a formidable challenge to LTTE forces deployed west of the A9 road. Still, the LTTE retained strong forces capable of meeting multi-pronged offensive action. The LTTE had strong reserves deployed along the Jaffna front line extending from Kilali to Nagarkovil via Eluththumaduuval and Muhamalai and the Weli Oya/Mullaitivu region. But, the LTTE couldn’t re-deploy them as the LTTE leadership realized the possibility of the army opening new fronts.

Lt. Gen. Fonseka personally supervised battle plans with specific instructions to ground commanders on the front on a daily basis. A battle scared veteran of many high intensity battles in the Northern Province, including the Jayasikuru offensive (May 1997-Dec 1998) and the Jaffna battle (April to late July 2000), he didn’t tolerate excuses cited by ground commanders. The Army chief visited Security Forces headquarters, Vavuniya as well as other bases for regular briefings.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Tigers’ two-track policy: talks and assassinations

War on terror revisited : Part 68

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Having won the Dec. 5, 2001 parliamentary polls comfortably, the UNP-led United National Front (UNF) moved swiftly to finalise a tripartite Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) with the LTTE and Norway. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe didn’t even bother to discuss the CFA with the service chiefs, leaving the then Ministers, Prof. G. L. Peiris and Milinda Moragoda in charge of the initiative. The UNF felt that the military could jeopardise the peace process or at least delay the signing of the CFA. The government also feared that those military chiefs close to President Chandrika Kumaratunga could pass vital information as regards the Norwegian-led initiative to the President cum Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces.

A simmering dispute between the government and the army over the exposure of a secret Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) project had soured relations between the UNF and the military. In fact, the UNF exposed the ongoing operation directed at LTTE leaders behind enemy lines in the run-up to the Dec. 5, 2001 election.

Ministers Prof. Peiris and Milinda Moragoda played a critical role in negotiations leading to the finalisation of the CFA on Feb. 23, 2001. The government didn’t even brief its own parliamentary group as regards the forthcoming CFA.

The then Norwegian International Development Minister Erik Solheim said that he had had a long discussion with LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham in London and Prof. Peiris and Moragoda in Colombo as regards the main requirements. Solheim was responding to NGO Guru Kumar Rupesinghe, who at that time played a pivotal role in the Norwegian initiative (Negotiating Peace in Sri Lanka: Efforts, failures and lessons Volume II). Rupesinghe was the Chairman of the Foundation for Co-existence responsible for propagating the Norwegian ‘peace’ message in Sri Lanka. Rupesinghe quoted Solheim as having commented on his meetings with Balasingham, Prof. Peiris and Moragoda: "We spent tens of hours discussing issues and concerns and the looking at the text. The two parties made a lot of changes and brought it back to us and it was discussed orally. Then again I drafted a new proposal, which took about two months. It was signed on the 22n of Feb, 2001. A period of six to eight weeks were spent in discussion and writing the agreement."

It would be pertinent to mention that the Norwegians successfully concluded negotiations on the CFA in the wake of a four party Tamil alliance led by the TULF calling for the lifting of the ban on the LTTE (imposed consequent to the truck bomb attack on the Dalada Maligawa on Jan 25, 1998), removal of ‘economic embargo’ and the declaration of a ceasefire to pave the way for the resumption of talks.

On the morning of Aug 29, 2001, the then Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar declared that the PA government was ready for a mutually agreeable ceasefire with the LTTE ahead of peace talks and said it was considering a fresh invitation to the LTTE to begin negotiations. Addressing the media at a hurriedly arranged briefing at the Information Department, government’s chief negotiator said: "There has been a re-assessment of policy on this matter and we are now ready for a mutually agreeable ceasefire before talks." It was a dramatic shift in the PA’s policy, as pre-talks ceasefire was a major LTTE demand which had stalled the Norwegian initiative. The government made the offer immediately after the collapse of talks between the PA and the UNP as regards a joint statement on the Norwegian-led peace process. Originally, the offer to declare a pre-talks ceasefire was planned as part of a joint statement issued by the PA and the UNP (Kadirgamar says government ready for truce, considers talks offer––The Island Aug. 30, 2001).

Kadirgamar declared that there was a ‘lull in the peace process’ while insisting that President Kumaratunga hadn’t given up the Norwegian initiative. "The Norwegians are still very much in the picture and I am still very hopeful," Kadirgamar said.

Obviously, President Kumaratunga and Minister Kadirgamar didn’t envisage a damaging split in the PA leading to an influential section led by the then SLFP Gen. Secretary S.B. Dissanayake and Prof. Peiris switching their allegiance to UNP leader Wickremesinghe. An irate Kumaratunga sacked Minister Dissanayake in the first week of Oct. 2001. Wickremesinghe picked leading PA dissident Prof. Peiris as the chief negotiator for talks with the Norwegians as well as the LTTE. The Norwegian government clearly followed a two-track policy. On the one hand it pursued talks with the LTTE, which compelled the TULF-led Tamil National Alliance to declare it as the sole representatives of the Tamil speaking people in the run-up to the Dec. 5, 2001 parliamentary polls. And on the other hand, the Norwegian government had parallel talks with the GoSL and the UNP.

Norwegian role

Norway first offered its services as a peace facilitator to Sri Lanka as well as the LTTE way back in January 1991 during President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s tenure. The Norwegian offer was made in the wake of the government struggling on the northern front. Following 14 months of direct talks (May 1989-June 1990), the LTTE resumed hostilities with the massacre of several hundred police officers and men in the second week of June 1990. Within a few weeks, the SLA lost the Kandy-Jaffna A9 Main Supply Route (MSR) to the Jaffna peninsula. The overland MSR remained in the hands of the LTTE until Jan 2009 until the then Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s army regained the vital supply line. It was perhaps one of the army’s greatest feats.

The army couldn’t meet the LTTE’s challenge. Having realised the difficulties on the war front, even the late President Premadasa sought Norwegian help to negotiate a fresh peace deal with the LTTE. At the President’s behest, the then Foreign Minister A.C.S. Hameed contacted the Norwegian government through one-time Norwegian politician, Arne Fjotoft, Secretary General of the Worldview International Foundation. The LTTE hadn’t been interested in entering into a fresh dialogue with President Premadasa as it would have meant giving up on their military initiative. In a series of operations, the LTTE evicted the army from all its bases north of Vavuniya up to Elephant Pass. About six months after President Premadasa’s attempt to involve the Norwegians, the LTTE launched a massive multi-pronged assault on the Elephant Pass base. The LTTE almost succeeded in overrunning the base, if not for the SLA’s largest amphibious operation codenamed Balavegaya to break the siege.

Shortly before the assassination of President Ranasinghe Premadasa on May Day 1993, Minister Hameed had met LTTE representatives in Geneva under the auspices of the Norwegians. Subsequent police investigations revealed the LTTE infiltrating President Premadasa’s inner circle during secret talks to carry out the assassination. Premadasa’s successor, D. B. Wijetunga didn’t pursue the peace initiative. Instead, he declared that the LTTE was a terrorist organisation and should be treated as such. After the change of government in Aug. 1994, the PA, Prime Minister Kumaratunga invited Norway to help monitor a truce agreement between the PA and the LTTE finalised in the second week of Jan 1995. Norway, Canada and the Netherlands agreed to deploy a ceasefire monitoring mission. Some of the monitors arrived in Sri Lanka, where they had the opportunity to meet both government and LTTE representatives. While the deployment of international truce monitors took place under Norwegian leadership, the LTTE resumed war on the night of April 19, 1995 by sinking two gunboats at the Trincomalee harbour. Within 10 days, the LTTE shot down two fixed wing transport aircraft killing about 100 security forces personnel. The Norwegians remained silent.

Having resumed the war in April 1995, Prabhakaran invited Norway to play the role of a mediator. The fresh LTTE move involved Norwegian NGO FORUT, leading to Norwegian representatives meeting Anton Balasingham in a bid to arrange a meeting between the GoSL and LTTE representatives in Bergen in Feb 1996 on the sidelines of a seminar organised by the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI). This attempt was made in the wake of the Catholic clergy pushing for fresh negotiations under Norwegian supervision (Evaluation of Norwegian peace efforts in Sri Lanka, 1997-2009). Norway commissioned the CMI and Jonathan Goodhand of the School of Oriental and Asian Studies (SOAS) in London to evaluate the process. The report was released in Sept. 2011 with the participation of Solheim and Moragoda at a well attended function in Oslo.

The bid to resume a fresh dialogue was made close on the heels of the government regaining Jaffna town in early Dec. 1995. The armed forces brought the entire peninsula under their control in May 1996, with the liberation of Vadamaratchchy.

Another secret move

Another covert Norwegian move launched in Jan. 1997 to bring the warring parties back to the negotiating table came to light only after the LTTE had made an abortive bid to assassinate President Kumaratunga at her final presidential campaign rally on Dec. 18, 1999. On the same day, the LTTE assassinated retired Gemunu Watch veteran, one-time Army Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. Lucky Algama at a UNP rally at Ja-ela. Had the LTTE succeeded in eliminating President Kumaratunga, that particular secret wouldn’t have become known.

It would be of pivotal importance to examine the circumstances leading to the signing of the CFA between the UNF and the LTTE on Feb. 23, 2002. The CFA was signed on the basis of talks initiated by President Kumaratunga. Had she been killed in the Dec. 19, 1999 suicide attack, Wickremesinghe would have won the presidency, leading to a CFA between him and Prabhakaran.

The LTTE adopted a similar strategy under different circumstances in the run-up to the presidential election in 1994. Having led the PA to a resounding victory at the Aug 16, 1994 parliamentary polls, Kumaratunga initiated direct talks with the LTTE. The go-between was Wasantha Raja, the then presenter and producer of BBC’s Sinhala service Sandeshya. Kumaratunga gave the go ahead to Raja in May 1994, even before the parliamentary polls. Her move led to a first round of talks on Oct. 13 and 14, 1994. On the day before the second round of talks (Oct 23, 1994) the LTTE assassinated UNP presidential election candidate Gamini Dissanayake at a political rally at Thotalanga. President Kumaratunga was compelled to put off the second round of talks due to strong feelings among the Sinhala community. Eventually, the second round of talks was also held in Jaffna on Jan 2, 1995. (CBK-LTTE talks will be discussed in a separate installment).

Coming back to the 1999 peace initiative, President Kumaratunga secretly invited Norway to bring the LTTE back to the negotiating table in May. This was in the wake of Solheim initiating talks with the LTTE following the organisation making representations to him in Oslo. There is absolutely no doubt that Solheim would never have come to the attention of the LTTE if not for him being in Colombo during Jan-Feb 1998. The contact was made through Arne Fjotoft, Secretary General of the Worldview International Foundation, who also helped President Premadasa to establish contact with Norway in the aftermath of heavy military defeats on the northern front in the middle of 1990.

Those who believed that the LTTE had accepted Norway as the facilitator after President Kumaratunga had given the group an opportunity to pick one out of five countries, conveniently forget that Norway sent a message through Norwegian NGO Forut inviting Norway to be the mediator soon after the collapse of talks with the PA on the night of April 19, 1995.

The failed assassination bid helped President Kumaratunga win a second term. SLFP General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena in his memoirs admitted that the UNP candidate Dissanayake had posed a formidable challenge to the incumbent President.

Although President Kumaratunga led the PA to victory at the parliamentary polls in Oct. 2000, a series of clever moves by UNP leader Wickremesinghe deprived her of a majority in the House a year later. The President called for early general elections on Dec. 5, 2001. She lost badly, leading to the formation of the UNF administration and signing of the CFA on Feb 23, 2001.

US push

The change of government in Norway on Oct. 19, 2001, may have changed that country’s position on the Sri Lankan peace process. Newly appointed Foreign Minister Jan Petersen had been quite doubtful about the Norwegian role in Sri Lanka. But, he changed his position and threw his weight behind Solheim’s initiative due to US influence. Petersen acted swiftly to take up the issue with Kadirgamar, who appreciated the Norwegian role. On the night of the Dec. 5, 2001 general election, a confident Wickremesinghe requested Westborg to go ahead with preparations for talks with the LTTE (Evaluation of Norwegian peace efforts in Sri Lanka, 1997-2009). Premier Wickremesinghe and his top aides were in a hurry. While the Sri Lankan top brass were denied an opportunity to examine the CFA, Norwegian military experts worked behind the scenes to finalise the agreement with regard to a gradual withdrawal of government forces from the Jaffna peninsula, forward defence localities etc. The CFA had the blessings of India, though President Kumaratunga, in spite her being the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, was denied the opportunity at least to peruse the document.

War on terror series dealt with the situation from 2002 to 2009 including naval and air operations during this period.

PA strangled; way cleared for CFA

War on terror revisited :Part 67


By Shamindra Ferdinando

Jan 10, 2002: Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgeson shakes hands with PM Wickremesinghe (from left) Norway’s special envoy to Sri Lanka Erik Solheim, Norwegian ambassador Jon Westborg, Vidar Helgeson, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Prof. G.L.Peris.

The LTTE reacted angrily to an unprecedented political pact between the ruling SLFP-led PA and the JVP signed on Sept. 5, 2001. The short-lived agreement threatened to undermine the LTTE’s strategy to force President Chandrika Kumaratunga to call for early parliamentary polls to pave the way for a change of government. The LTTE felt that as long as the PA remained in power, the Norwegian peace initiative wouldn’t bear fruit and, therefore, a major destabilization effort was needed to wreak chaos in a bid to facilitate a conspiracy against the incumbent administration. The LTTE obviously knew of the ongoing UNP project to engineer an influential group of SLFPers to switch its allegiance to Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham lambasted the PA-JVP for having reached an agreement.

On Sept 15, east of Foul Point Trincomalee, sailors onboard an SLN Fast Attack Craft (FAC) observed a fiber glass dingy carrying three persons, including a child. P 422 was escorting ‘MV Lacerta’ leaving the Trincomalee harbour. Although the dingy flew a white flag, the FAC crew was suspicious. The Commanding Officer of the Israeli built Dvora FAC didn’t want to take a chance. SLN gunners fired several warning shots over the dingy while keeping a distance of approximately 100 meters. Suddenly, the dingy, powered by one Outboard motor started moving rapidly towards the FAC. SLN gunners managed to successfully engage it when the explosives laden dingy was about 20 meters away. The blast disabled the FAC. One sailor suffered head injuries. The abortive bid was a diversionary attack.

The following day, about 20 Sea Tiger craft, including some explosives laden boats, targeted an SLN convoy about 27 km northeast of Point Pedro. It was on its way from Trincomalee to Kankesanthurai. While a section of the attacking craft engaged escorts, some targeted ‘MV Pride of South’ carrying over 1,300 officers and men. In the absence of proper troop carriers, the SLN was using privately-owned vessels to move personnel returning to their bases. Over 50 security forces personnel received injuries during the battle. Several FACs were damaged. Had the Sea Tigers succeeded, the consequences would have been catastrophic. It could have had a devastating impact on the PA, in view of the impending parliamentary polls. The SLN wasn’t equipped to rescue those onboard ‘MV Pride of South’ in the event of a terror strike. On the other hand, the Trincomalee–Kankesanthurai lifeline would have been severed. That would have been disastrous as the SLA didn’t have an overland main supply route to Jaffna since June 1990. (LTTE targets ship carrying 1300 men after abortive bid to blast DvoraThe Island Sept. 17, 2001).

The attempt to destroy ‘MV Pride of South’ should be examined in the wake of the disastrous Operation Agnikeela in April 2001 and the attack on the BIA in July 2001.

On the evening of Oct. 30, 2001, the LTTE attacked a ship 12 nautical miles north of Point Pedro. Silk Pride was on its way to Kankesanthurai carrying a stock of fuel. The LTTE was stepping up pressure on the CBK administration in the wake of political instability (LTTE blasts ship carrying fuel to Jaffna –The Island Oct 31, 2001). But, subsequently, the SLN identified the ill-fated ship as Dunhinda. The SLN said the vessel, which was attacked 10 nautical miles north of Point Pedro had carried diesel and kerosene. A small group of sailors managed to put out a fire onboard the vessel caused by two simultaneous suicide attacks directed at the ship’s engine room. The navy managed to rescue the entire 11-man civilian crew and 13 out of the 16 security forces personnel onboard the vessel. The SLN recovered bodies of three personnel. The SLN towed the stricken vessel to the Kankesanthurai harbour (Sailors put out blaze in oil tanker, ship limps into KKS portThe Island Nov. 1, 2001).

UNP steps up political


Both the SLMC and the CWC joined the UNP-led United National Front (UNF), along with the dissident SLFP group led by S.B. Dissanayake, who was the General Secretary of the party. Jeyaraj Fernandopulle quit the dissident group at the eleventh hour, though he was one of the leading conspirators. The SLFP-led PA struggled both on the political and security fronts. Minister Dissanayake’s move stunned President Kumaratunga, who backed his candidature for the post of SLFP General Secretary at the expense of Minister Maithripala Sirisena.

TULF led move

Amidst political turmoil, a four party Tamil alliance led by the TULF dropped a bombshell. Addressing the media in Colombo on the morning of Nov. 3, 2001, the then TULF General Secretary R. Sampanthan and ex-Batticaloa District MP Joseph Pararajasingham declared that the newly formed alliance had the backing of the LTTE. The alliance comprised the TULF, TELO, ACTC and the EPRLF (Suresh Premachandran faction). Throwing its weight behind the Norwegian peace initiative, the alliance said that its primary objective was to facilitate the return of the warring parties to the negotiating table. They indicated their support for the talks between the LTTE and the next government. The Tamil alliance indicated that there wouldn’t be further talks between the LTTE and the incumbent CBK administration. It declared that it would field candidates in the electoral districts in the then temporarily merged northern and eastern provinces and Colombo under the TULF’s rising sun symbol.

The LTTE resumed hostilities on the night of April 19, 1995, by sinking two SLN gunboats in the Trincomalee harbour.

The TULF-led briefing was held with the blessings of the LTTE and Norway. The alliance declared a four point plan to resume the dialogue between the GoSL and the LTTE. The alliance insisted that its support for the SLFP-led PA or the UNP-led UNF would entirely depend on their response to the alliance demands, which, in fact, were LTTE’s prerequisites for the resumption of talks: lifting of the ban on the LTTE (imposed consequent to the attack on the Dalada Maligawa on Jan 25, 1998), the declaration of ceasefire, the lifting of the ‘economic embargo and resurrect the Norwegian peace initiative.

Responding to a query, Sampanthan declared that there was no point in Tamil political parties talking with the government. From now on it would be the LTTE, Sampanthan declared (LTTE will talk for the Tamils, says Alliance – The Island Nov 4, 2001).

Although the Tamil alliance strongly denied having a secret pact with the UNP-led UNF ahead of the parliamentary polls on Dec 5, 2001, it very clearly indicated that there wouldn’t be any reason for the LTTE to negotiate with the incumbent administration. Sampanthan said that the EPDP, which represented the interests of the government, wouldn’t pose a challenge to the alliance in any part of the country at the forthcoming parliamentary polls.

Colombo based Western embassies supported the Opposition initiative as they, too, felt that the resumption of talks would depend on the government agreeing to LTTE’s prerequisites reiterated by the Tamil alliance.

The Tamil alliance gave an assurance that the LTTE wouldn’t mount major operations in the run-up to the general election. The LTTE wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize their initiative, the alliance declared.

‘Attempt to kill Ranil’

In the wake of the Tamil Alliance giving an assurance on behalf of the LTTE that major military operations wouldn’t be launched in the run-up to the polls, the UNP accused the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) of planning to assassinate UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe during the campaign. The UNP’s unprecedented allegation was endorsed by its partners. International news agencies gave wide coverage to the alleged attempt on Wickremesinghe in spite of the then Army chief, Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle personally assuring the UNP that the DMI wouldn’t interfere with the campaign. The DMI was accused of planning to use high explosives and thermo baric weapons targeting Wickremesinghe. Lt. Gen. Balagalle was responding to the then UNP Chairman Charitha Ratwatte and UNP Vice Chairman Daya Palpola (Army Chief says no truth in UNP claims–The Island Nov. 11, 2001). Immediately after the election, the UNP ordered the police to expose what it called a DMI operation involving ex-LTTE cadres behind enemy lines. This matter has been dealt with in detail previously.

The PA was in disarray. The coalition never recovered from SLFP General Secretary Dissanayake’s crossover; The UNP had the support of all major political parties except the JVP. The army was in a collision course with the UNP over the alleged attempt on Wickremesinghe’s life. The PA remained silent, leaving Lt. Gen. Balagalle to deal with the situation. The DMI affair placed the entire Sri Lankan military in an extremely vulnerable situation with some alleging the DMI operation was aimed at thwarting the resurrection of the Norwegian peace imitative.

A few weeks before the election, an unidentified gunman shot dead retired Chief Inspector Thambirasa Jayakumar near Ondaachchimadam Junction in the Kalawanchikudy police area. Forty-eight year old Jayakumar had been on the UNP nomination list for the Batticaloa District. He was the first candidate to be killed. The UNP and the Tamil Alliance remained silent, though they knew Jayakumar was a victim of LTTE terror.

JVP leader returns

Self-exiled JVP leader Somawansa Amarasinghe returned to Sri Lanka on the morning of Nov. 22, 2001 to take over the JVP polls campaign. The PA facilitated his return following a 12-year exile in the UK. The PA leadership felt that Amarasinghe’s return would be beneficial to the PA, under fire by the UNP, PA rebels, CWC, SLMC as well as the Tamil Alliance. Somawansa returns to lead polls campaign––The Island Nov. 23, 2001). SLFP strategist Mangala Samaraweewa was of the opinion that the PA and the JVP could continue to work together, though their bilateral agreement signed on Sept. 5, 2001 had failed to save the PA government. Samaraweera blamed the PA rebels for creating the conditions which forced President Kumaratunga to go for early elections.

PA fights back

The PA accused the UNF-led UNP of having a secret deal with the LTTE. The PA also alleged a clandestine Norwegian role in the project. Interestingly, the PA offensive was led by Mangala Samaraweera, who identified Gampaha District UNP MP Dr. Jayalath Jayawardena as the go-between. Samaraweera lambasted the UNPer for seeking the LTTE’s cooperation to win the forthcoming election. Samaraweera’s onslaught sent shock waves through the Opposition alliance. The vast majority of people reacted angrily to alleged secret negotiations between the UNP and the LTTE. With the general election two weeks away, the UNP leader called a special media briefing at the UNP Media Centre on Nov 23, 2001. On his instructions, Dr. Jayawardena launched a counter-offensive against Mangala Samaraweera, at that time CBK’s chief political strategist. Dr. Jayawardena was flanked by S. B. Dissanayake, who boldly accused CBK and Mangala Samaraweera of planning to assassinate one of their own to win sympathy on the eve of the poll. Leading PA rebel, Prof. Peiris and the then UNP spokesman Dr. Karunasena Kodituwakku, too, strongly countered Mangala Samaraweera’s allegations (Jayalath denies ‘secret deal with LTTE’; challenges Mangala to prove charges–The Island Nov 24, 2001).

In the wake of S. B. Dissanayake’s allegation, the PA detailed the STF to protect National Unity Alliance Leader Ferial Ashraff, M. L. M. Hisbullah and S. Ganeshamoorthy. All of them contested electoral districts in the Eastern Province. The PA denied STF security to Prof. Peiris and Rauff Hakeem after they had deserted the government (Special STF security for favoured few––The Island Nov 25, 2001).

Prof. Peiris on Nov. 23, 2001 released a copy of a letter Wickremesinghe sent to US President George W. Bush, UK Premier Tony Blair and the President of the European Union, Romano Prodi, attacking President Kumaratunga over a statement attributed to her during a campaign rally. Wickremesinghe said that the President had encouraged violence against his party supporters. Wickremesinghe likened President Kumaratunga to that of General Pinochet, Idi Amin and President Ceaucescu. Soon after joining Wickremesinghe’s team, Prof. Peiris was named the UNF spokesman (Ranil asks US, British leaders to take notice of CBK threat–The Island Nov. 24, 2001).

Wickremesinghe had the explicit support of Western powers to go ahead with the Norwegian initiative. Being a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Norway had the required international backing for its initiative. They believed that the UNP could dislodge the CBK administration, which remained the only impediment to the resumption of a fresh round of talks on the LTTE’s terms. By the first week of Dec, the Norwegians and the LTTE had basically reached agreement on the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA). They waited for the outcome of the general election to make an annoucement. Wickremesinghe had a clear edge over CBK and a UNF victory was inevitable.

In the wake of Prabhakaran’s heroes’ day message, TULF politician Joseph Pararajasingham reiterated their commitment to the LTTE’s condition for the resumption of talks. Pararajasingham asserted that the stand taken by the Tamil Alliance would strengthen the hands of the LTTE. On Dec. 1, 2001, the then Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar declared that the LTTE wouldn’t be de-proscribed in the run-up to the polls. "It can be considered only if and when the peace process has advanced to a point of irreversibility and it is clearly agreed that all discussions will take place within the parameters of a single indivisible State of Sri Lanka." Releasing an eleven-page statement on behalf of the GoSL, Minister Kadirgamar alleged that the LTTE was making an attempt to psychologically intimidate voters, manipulate the democratic process against the incumbent PA administration.