Shocking politico-military miscalculations
The army liberated Kilinochchi in the first week of Jan. 2009. It had vacated kilinochchi in late July 1990. The town was regained again in late Sept. 1996, but the LTTE took it back two years later. The town remained the LTTE’s main bastion until Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s army defeated the LTTE. President Mahinda Rajapaksa was the first head of state to visit Kilinochchi after the liberation of the town. President Rajapaksa with Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa Gen. Fonseka, Maj Gen. Jagath Dias and Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva.
by Shamindra Ferdinando
Having destroyed the isolated Kokavil army detachment in the second week of July 1990, the LTTE intensified attacks on security forces camps in the Jaffna peninsula and the Vanni. The Kokavil debacle stunned security forces top brass beyond measure. The army was no longer able to move overland supply convoys to detachments north of Vavuniya along the Kandy-Jaffna road (A9). The loss of the overland Main Supply Route (MSR), sent shock waves through the security forces.
President Ranasinghe Premadasa didn’t even realise the gravity of the situation. Security forces chiefs as well as the President’s advisors, including Gen. Cyril Ranatunga remained mum. No one dared to explain to President Ranasinghe Premadasa the consequences of losing the MSR. It caused an irreparable loss to the military.
The poorly equipped SLAF had to undertake risky missions to supply bases situated north of Vavuniya. But the heavy build-up of LTTE forces in the Vanni prevented the SLAF from moving adequate supplies to the beleaguered Kilinochchi and Mankulam camps. The LTTE had thwarted SLAF attempts to evacuate the wounded, though some missions were successful. Those killed in LTTE attacks had to be buried within the camp premises.
The LTTE mounted a series of attacks on army camps at Mankulam, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu and Elephant Pass. Army headquarters quickly ordered the vacation of the Kilinochchi camp. Troops based at Kilinochchi moved to Elephant Pass, leaving the Mankulam camp situated midway between Vavuniya and Elephant Pass vulnerable to an LTTE onslaught. The then Army chief, Lt. Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe, couldn’t cope with the crisis. His army was facing a certain defeat in the Vanni. The loss of Vanni meant that forces based in Jaffna had to be supplied by air and sea, an unenviable task, given the paucity of fixed wing aircraft and ships.
The army faced multiple challenges in the Vanni and Jaffna peninsula. All its bases in the Northern Province were under fire. None of the bases could be supplied overland due to the LTTE being in a commanding position. Army chief, Lt. Gen. Wanasinghe was struggling in the face of the growing LTTE challenge. Both the UNP government and the military didn’t have a cohesive strategy to meet the LTTE threat.
The LTTE launched a major attack on the army camp at Mullaitivu in August 1990. The LTTE fired locally built mortars. Although those based at Mullaitivu repulsed many attacks, they didn’t have the strength to move out of the base to engage the enemy. The army lacked the strength to launch an operation on its own to reinforce the besieged Mullaitivu camp. The country was in chaos, with the army under siege in the Northern Province, while battling it out in the Eastern Province. The LTTE stepped up attacks on Mullaitivu immediately after the Army vacated Kilinochchi, close on the heels of the LTTE overrunning the detachment at Kokavil.
Govt. decides to quit Kilinochchi
The then Capt. Maithri Dias of the 6th battalion of the Sinha Regiment (6SR) arrived in Kilinochchi several days before the LTTE resumed hostilities with the massacre of hundreds of policemen in the Eastern Province. Dias was responding to a directive from Lt. Colonel H. R. Stephen, the then Coordinating Officer, based in Kilinochchi (Lt. Col. Stephen was killed on the morning of Aug.8, 1992 at Araly point, Kayts. He was one of the officers killed along with war veterans, Maj. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa, Brig. Wijaya Wimalaratne. The dead included Rear Admiral Mohan Jayamaha, Lt Colonel G. H. Ariyarathne, Lt Colonel Y N Palipana, Commander Asanga Lankathilaka, Lt Colonel Nalin de Alwis, Lt Commander C. B. Wijepura and Private W J Wickremasinghe).
Brigadier Dias recounted the situation in Kilinochchi leading to the army headquarters directive to vacate the town in the last week of July 1990. Dias, currently based at Talladi, Mannar said: "I was tasked to function as a staff officer in Kilinochchi under Lt. Colonel Stephen. The deployment comprised one platoon of 6SR, another platoon of 3 SR (Volunteer) as well as support personnel. There were altogether about 90 personnel. As the then government was having talks with the LTTE, we never expected any trouble. Along the A9 road north of Vavuniya, we had several camps. North of Kilinochchi, troops were positioned at Elephant Pass, Jaffna Fort and Palaly. South of Kilinochchi, troops held Mankulam and Kokavil. Immediately after arriving in Kilinochchi, I was told by Lt. Col. Stephen to prepare to evacuate the troops. On the instructions of the Coordinating Officer, I met a Catholic priest in Kilinochchi to discuss transport arrangements for my men. Lt. Col. Stephen was away in Palaly. He was to go on leave following the conference in Palaly. Following the conference I received further instructions from Lt. Col. Stephen regarding the planned withdrawal. I was told to prepare a plan for an immediate withdrawal. As earlier discussed, I went out to meet the Catholic priest, who promised to help us move men and material from Kilinochchi to Elephant Pass. The sudden disappearance of the priest made me uneasy. The following day (June 11, 1990), the LTTE started attacking the police and the army in the Eastern Province."
It was evident that the then government had decided to abandon Kilinochchi even before the outbreak of hostilities in the second week of June 1990.
Kilinochchi police disarmed
Commenting on the situation immediately after the LTTE resumed hostilities, Brig. Dias, the General Officer Commanding (GoC) 54 Division said: "I received instructions from Maj. Gen. Stanley Silva on June 12, 1990 to make immediate arrangements to accommodate the entire police contingent at Kilinochchi in our camp. But to my surprise, the police declined to follow instructions. I was told of their decision to stay at the police stations. They probably felt the police station was safer than our camp! When the headquarters was informed of their refusal to move in to the Kilinochchi army camp, I was told to disarm them. We quickly removed all arms, ammunition and equipment along with two vehicles and a powerful motor cycle. Tamil policemen assured us that they would protect a group of Muslim policemen based there. There were 40 Muslims. At the time of the crisis, there wasn’t a single Sinhala policeman in Kilinochchi.
On the night June 12, 1990 I got up after hearing a Sergeant reprimanding a soldier who was found sleeping in spite of strict instructions to be on alert due to the rapidly deteriorating situation. I sat on a chair facing the road. Shortly thereafter, a lorry moved past the camp carrying a group of people. Within minutes, I saw the same vehicle moving back northwards. I felt uneasy. The terrorists attacked our camp around 2.30 a.m from the direction of the police station. Subsequently, we knew the LTTE had taken control of the police station before mounting its first attack on the Kilinochchi army camp."
"We lost three personnel, while seven received injuries. SLAF choppers made two abortive bids to land close to our camp to evacuate the wounded. We had one 120 mm mortar with about 200 rounds. The 120 mm tube and rounds had been kept in an abandoned house within the area held by the army. As the government was engaged in negotiations with the LTTE, we felt confident the mortar would never have to be used. Once they fired at the camp, I ordered those in charge of the weapon to prepare it for action. They pointed that the weapon couldn’t be deployed without the presence of an artillery officer. I pointed out that it was not the time to follow procedures. I ordered the immediate deployment of the weapon."
During the battle for Kilinochchi, the LTTE had deployed personnel to target SLAF choppers trying to carry out casualty evacuation. Dias said: "In a desperate bid to facilitate SLAF choppers to land safely, we ran towards one direction while firing our guns. Our action confused the attackers, thus giving time and space for two choppers to land. Lt. Col. Stephen and 11 soldiers got off the choppers, while the wounded got in. A few days later, Lt. Col. Stephen was on board an SLAF chopper, which brought fresh vegetables for us, as the government and the LTTE had reached an agreement on a fresh ceasefire. But the ceasefire didn’t materialize. The LTTE resumed attacks on the Kilinochchi army camp, again."
Troops lay landmines
Talking about defences at Kilinochchi, Brig. Dias said: "We began deploying landmines as defences. We reinforced our positions. Most importantly, we cut trenches. A soldier who received injuries couldn’t be evacuated due to heavy LTTE fire. With a heavy heart I turned back an SLAF chopper deployed on a special mission to evacuate the wounded. I felt we weren’t in a position to risk the lives of the SLAF crew.
At that time, Maj. Gen. Jaliya Nanmuni had been Security Forces Commander Jaffna. He was based in Palaly and in touch with camps in the region.
Brig. Dias said: "We heard heavy gunfire from the direction of Kokavil, where troops were fighting a desperate battle. The Kokavil debacle had a devastating impact on the army. A section of troops based at Kilinochchi declared their intention to vacate the camp, regardless of the consequences. Having calmed them, I took measures to further strengthen the defences until a large force could intervene to facilitate our withdrawal northwards.
Subsequently, the 6th battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (6 GR) and the 5th battalion of the Gemunu Watch (5 GW) moved from Elephant Pass to Kilinochchi in the last week of July 1990 to save those trapped at the Kilinochchi camp.
During the rescue mission, troops had almost lost communication with those coming to their rescue. "We ran out of fuel needed to maintain communications. Luckily, the two land cruisers, which we removed from the Kilinochchi police station, had fuel in their tanks and it was adequate to meet our immediate requirement."
Brig. Dias said that they had found one of the 40 Muslim policemen near the camp. He stayed in the army camp for a few days, but left immediately after the government announced a fresh ceasefire. He simply walked out of the camp and got into a vehicle going southwards, the Brig. said.
Interestingly, Brig. Dias is the first GOC of the re-established 54 Division. Army headquarters restored the Division on Sept. 10, 2010. The LTTE defeated the 54 Division headquartered at Elephant Pass in late April 2000. Heavy losses suffered by the Division compelled army headquarters to disband the formation. It was the worst battlefield defeat experienced by the army during the entire conflict.
Operation Sea Breeze
In Aug. 1990, the LTTE stepped up attacks on the Mullaitivu army camp. As the army lacked the wherewithal to launch a ground assault to break the siege on the Mullaitivu camp, a major sea-borne operation had to be conducted. Maj. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa planned the operation. In spite of saving the Mullaitivu base, the army couldn’t launch a large scale operation to destroy LTTE bases in the Northern region. The LTTE sustained offensive operations both in the Jaffna peninsula and the Vanni. The army had no option but to respond to LTTE threats. That deprived the army top brass of an opportunity to launch an offensive campaign of its own against the LTTE. The LTTE always had the initiative.
Jaffna fort, Mandathivu vacated
Having boasted that the Jaffna Fort would be held at any cost, the then Deputy Minister of Defence Ranjan Wijeratne announced the government decision to vacate the Dutch Fort. The army occupied the Jaffna Fort in 1985 following a presidential directive. Immediately after making the announcement, Minister Wijeratne and Army chief, Lt. Gen. Wanasinghe left for Seoul to attend the South Korea National Defence Day celebrations. The army vacated both Jaffna Fort and Mandathivu Island after having sacrificed almost 200 personnel of the 1st GR and 1 SR, commanded by Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Sarath Fonseka, respectively, to break the siege on the fort on Sept. 13, 1990. The army abandoned the fort two weeks later. In fact, the costly mission to save those trapped in the Jaffna fort was to pave the way for an assault on Jaffna. There had been about 50 soldiers and 120 police officers. While Fonseka’s battalion had been tasked to regain the telecommunications building and the Pannai causeway, Rajapaksa was given the daunting task of fighting his way into Jaffna town. Both failed to achieve their assignments. In hindsight, they could have managed to achieve their objectives if troops had moved into the fort as soon as they regained Mandaitivu, having caused substantial losses on the enemy. A delay on the part of the army top brass gave the LTTE time and space to bring in additional units. The army obviously underestimated the LTTE’s strength as well as the experience it had gained from fighting against the Indian army. It would have been an impossible task for two battalions to achieve the given tasks, including the capture of Jaffna. The LTTE’s International Secretariat in London declared that LTTE fighters had captured the Jaffna Fort after chasing out the Sri Lankan army. The Foreign Ministry didn’t even bother to counter LTTE propaganda.