War on terror revisited : Part 149June 25, 2013, 12:00 pm
by Shamindra Ferdinando
For want of capacity to undertake such a huge task on its own, the SLA had to seek assistance from Pakistan. The then Pakistani leader General Zia-ul-Haq had agreed to help Sri Lanka notwithstanding other commitments. Due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan had been deeply involved in a major US military operation. Major Rajapaksa had been closely involved in the project. In fact, on the instructions of his superior, the then Colonel C.H. Fernando, Major Rajapaksa had been liaising with the Pakistan High Commission in Colombo.
Having undergone strenuous training under Pakistani as well as Israeli military instructors both here and overseas, the Sri Lanka Army (SLA), in the early part of 1987, prepared to launch its first brigade-level offensive against the LTTE .
While the Pakistani army trained junior leaders at Saliyapura, Anuradhapura for a duration of over one year, the Israelis were here for a much shorter period to conduct live firing exercises at Maduru Oya.
Lt. Gen. Nalin Seneviratne was at the helm of the SLA, having succeeded Lt. Gen. Tissa Weeratunga on Feb 12, 1985. Although President JRJ had one of his close confidants, Gen. Cyril Ranatunga as the Joint Operations Commander (JOC) there was absolutely no dispute over the ground level leadership.
Army headquarters placed Brigade Group I consisting of the First battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (IGR) and the First battalion of the Gemunu Watch (IGW) under the command of Colonel Wijaya Wimalaratne. The Brigade Group III comprised the Third battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (3 GR) and the Third battalion of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (3 SLLI). Brigadier Denzil Kobbekaduwa was in command of Brigade Group III.
Gerry de Silva
Gotabhaya takes over I GR
Following the appointment of Commanding Officer of the I GR, Wimalaratne as one of two Brigade Commanders, his deputy, Major Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had the opportunity to lead the formation. Lt. Colonel Vipul Boteju was in command of the I GW.
Defence Secretary Rajapaksa said: "Operation Liberation got underway on May 26, 1987. Colonel Wimalaratne’s Brigade was on the northern axis astride the Thondamannar-Valvettiturai –Point Pedro road, while Brigadier Kobbekaduwa’s fighting formation was on the southern axis astride the Puloly-Nelliady-Point Pedro road. Our primary objective in the first phase was to regain Point Pedro as quickly as possible. Both Brigades were to converge on Point Pedro."
Army headquarters assigned another Brigade Group consisting of I SLLI and 5 GW for holding operations. Brigadier Gerry de Silva, who had been the senior officer in charge of the Jaffna peninsula at that time, commanded what was called the holding Brigade.
According to Defence Secretary Rajapaksa, even the battalion commanders hadn’t been informed of the overall objectives. "Initially, we were told the objective was to regain Jaffna. At the eleventh hour, we were told of two brigades on separate axes advancing on the LTTE stronghold at Point Pedro. Perhaps, the Brigade Commanders planned to deceive the LTTE through such leaks as regards the impending attack on Jaffna town."
In hindsight, President JRJ had no option but to pursue a military option consequent to the collapse of the Indian sponsored Thimpu initiative in July and August 1985. The then Indian Premier Rajiv Gandhi made both overt as well as covert moves to persuade the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) as well as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO), the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (EROS) and the People’s Liberation Origination of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) to reach an understanding with President JRJ. The TULF and terrorist groups resented the Indian moves as they felt they could overwhelm the SLA in the Jaffna peninsula. They believed that the eelam project could be fast tracked by defeating the SLA in the Jaffna peninsula.
JRJ orders Operation Liberation
Obviously, terrorists as well as their Indian masters had failed to realise the significant preparations made by the SLA since the collapse of the Thimpu initiative, thanks to training provided by Pakistan, Israel as well as the Channel Island based mercenary group called KMS.
In spite of India strongly objecting to Operation Liberation, President JRJ gave the green light to the SLA to launch the offensive.
The Defence Secretary recollected how I GR troops had almost trapped LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran at Valvettiturai, though he managed to escape. Major Rajapaksa had surprised Prabhakaran by attacking Valvettiturai after having changed the direction of his thrust. "Valvettiturai was his headquarters then. The LTTE believed it was impregnable. Unfortunately, due to the failure on the part of those tasked with blocking escape routes, Prabhakaran managed to slip out before we fought our way into VVT. Terrorism could have been eradicated a long time ago had we managed to finish off Prabhakaran during the first phase of Operation Liberation. Having liberated Valvettiturai, I GR and I GW fought their way to Point Pedro. Brigadier Kobbekaduwa’s formation, too, reached Point Pedro to conclude the first phase of the offensive."
The I GR lost Captain Shantha Wijesinghe hours after the SLA regained Valvettiturai due to an exchange of fire between SLA units. The then Brigadier Gerry de Silva, who had been in Jaffna at that time in his memoirs titled ‘A most noble profession: Memories that Linger’ recalled the circumstances under which his own troops had fired a 40 mm grenade round at the officer who wasn’t even wearing his flak jacket. According to de Silva, Captain Wijesinghe had rushed to assist troops on the southern flank, believing they were under attack from a group of terrorists trapped between the two brigades. However, the Defence Secretary asserted that Captain Wijesinghe had been shot dead possibly by an LTTE sniper before they launched the push towards Point Pedro.
Major Rajapaksa’s nephew, Second Lieutenant Prasanna Wickremasuriya, also of the I GR too, was shot in the chest during the first phase. Although many thought injuries suffered by the young officer could be fatal, he survived due to timely evacuation from the battlefield.
Subsequently, the then Lt. Shavendra Silva, suffered serious injuries in a grenade attack. Silva, also attached to I GR too, survived the blast though all thought he wouldn’t return to the battle field. Major Gen Silva said: "I was unconscious and my injuries were so extensive my colleagues thought I was dead. In fact, some mistakenly identified the body of another soldier killed in the battle as mine. At one point I thought I was going to die on the battlefield due to the extreme difficulty in evacuating the wounded from the battlefield."
Wimalaratne addresses troops
The Defence Secretary said: "Having regained Point Pedro, the SLA prepared for the next stage of the offensive aimed at liberating Jaffna. Colonel Wimalaratne addressed the troops subsequent to the liberation of Point Pedro. Acknowledging the difficulties experienced by troops during the first phase, the Brigade commander inquired whether we were ready to advance on Jaffna. There was absolutely no hesitation on our part. We were ready to advance on the LTTE heartland."
In his memoirs, General Gerry de Silva has said that the SLA launched the second phase of the offensive in early June 1987 following a short break, with the primary objective of regaining Jaffna. It was the first attempt made by the SLA to evict the LTTE from Jaffna after having lost control of the town a few years back. The same Brigades were tasked to carry on the offensive with Brigadier Kobbekaduwa on the western flank and Colonel Wimalaratne on the eastern flank keeping the Palaly-Jaffna road as the axis of the advance. According to him, Brigadier Kobbekaduwa’s brigade had reached Tellipalai and Colonel Wimalaratne’s troops regained Achchuveli when he received instructions from JOC General Cyril Ranatunga to halt the advance. Gen. de Silva, in his memoirs quoted Gen. Ranatunga as having told him: "Stop the advance and consolidate the line you are holding or the Indians will come."
Gotabhaya denied promotion
Having halted the offensive, the SLA began consolidating its positions in the Jaffna peninsula. President JRJ had been engaged in secret negotiations with Premier Gandhi to finalise the Indo-Lanka Accord (ILA) to pave the way for the deployment of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in the northern and eastern districts. The Defence Secretary said: "We were really disappointed and resentful. Had we managed to eliminate Prabhakaran at Valvettiturai during the first phase of the offensive, the situation could have been different. Unfortunately, Prabhakaran and all his key lieutenants managed to escape before we could effectively cut off Valvettiturai. Soon after the halting of military action, Colonel Wimalaratne called me. Having told me that he was going to recommend me for a field promotion, Colonel Wimalaratne requested army headquarters to appoint me to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. The Brigade Commander felt that I deserved it, though army headquarters dismissed the recommendation. Army headquarters asserted that a field promotion wasn’t necessary. At one time, regular battalions were really big. When Wimalaratne was at the helm, IGR comprised about 1,800 officers and men. During my tenure as the IGR Commanding Officer, it had about 1,200 officers and men whereas a battalion today consists of 400 personnel."
The Defence Secretary said: "As I couldn’t take a staff appointment at army headquarters immediately after my return from Defence Services Staff College in Wellington in December 1983, Wimalaratne intervened again to have me posted at headquarters. Thanks to his intervention, I got a Grade II staff appointment in the G branch responsible for training. Although there had been intense speculation about Indian intervention, the actual IPKF deployment was yet to materialise. Then, much to our surprise, army headquarters received instructions from the government to launch a special project to expand the army by 200 more officers and 2,000 men. I was among those involved in the project."
Special Pakistani project
For want of capacity to undertake such a huge task on its own, the SLA had to seek assistance from Pakistan. The then Pakistani leader General Zia-ul-Haq had agreed to help Sri Lanka notwithstanding other commitments. Due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan had been deeply involved in a major US military operation. Major Rajapaksa had been closely involved in the project. In fact, on the instructions of his superior, the then Colonel C.H. Fernando, Major Rajapaksa had been liaising with the Pakistan High Commission in Colombo. The Defence Secretary said: "Pakistan acted swiftly and decisively. In fact, the Pakistan army arranged for a high ranking military official responsible for training to visit Colombo to finalise the project. The visiting official’s itinerary included Kandy. I was instructed to accompany the visiting officer. Then two days before the scheduled visit, I was told of the sudden decision to cancel the proposed training project. I was stunned. I really didn’t know what to do. But the most difficult part was to inform the then Defence Attaché of the Pakistan High Commission of President JRJ’s decision to cancel the project. Those involved in the project on behalf of Pakistan were really surprised. A day or two after I was told of the cancellation of the project and Indian Premier Rajiv Gandhi arrived in Colombo for the signing of the Indo-Lanka Accord."
The Defence Secretary said that he felt humiliated and embarrassed by the episode. The then Defence Secretary General Sepala Attygalle had directed Army chief Lt. Gen. Nalin Seneviratne that there was no requirement for the expansion of the SLA due to the impending accord with the LTTE facilitated by India.
Within hours after the signing of the agreement, Indian troops began arriving in northern Sri Lanka. Having landed at the Palaly air base, the IPKF swiftly took control of the control tower. The SLAF had been unceremoniously asked to leave the control tower while all forces deployed in the northern and eastern districts were gradually confined to barracks as the IPKF expanded its deployment to cover the entire region. In accordance with the understanding with India, the Sri Lankan military had to give up the entire area liberated by troops of Operation Liberation. India insisted that the SLA should be re-positioned at bases it had held prior to the launch of Operation Liberation on May 26, 1987.
Gotabhaya picked for US course
The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) exploited the Indo-Lanka Accord to intensify its campaign of death and destruction. The Defence Secretary said: "Overnight, those troops fighting on the front were airlifted from Palaly to the South for immediate deployment. Having moved out of the Jaffna peninsula, the I GR was positioned in Colombo in accordance with the overall plan to secure Colombo. While in Colombo, I was selected for the Advanced Infantry Course at Fort Benning, Georgia, and was away for over six months during 1988-early 1989. I joined the US course as a Major, but received promotion to the next rank of Lieutenant Colonel there. While I was there, Sarath Fonseka (Sinha Regiment), K.B. Egodawela (Gemunu Watch) and C Jayantha Ranaweera (Sri Lanka Light Infantry) arrived at Fort Benning, Georgia. Subsequently, G. H. Ariyaratne, also of the Sinha Regiment arrived at Fort Benning. Ariyaratne was killed along with Major General Kobbekaduwa and Brigadier Wimalaratne at Araly point, Kayts on August 8, 1992."
Lt. Colonel Rajapaksa returned to Colombo from the US in early 1989, ahead of the parliamentary election on Feb. 15, 1989 and resumed duties at the training branch at army headquarters.
Having won the presidential election on Dec. 19, 1988, Ranasinghe Premadasa was in power, though he was under heavy pressure due to the second JVP led insurrection. Immediately after the parliamentary polls, President Premadasa initiated moves to launch direct talks with the LTTE. The President also sought direct talks with the JVP in a bid to reach a settlement. Unfortunately, the JVP rejected his offer thereby setting the stage for police and military operations until the conclusion of the conflict in the South.