By Shamindra Ferdinando
The Operational Headquarters of the Defence Ministry at Flower Road scheduled a special meeting for the morning of June 21, 1991 to discuss ways and means of improving living conditions of people living in the Eastern Province in the wake of the then Archbishop of Colombo Rt. Rev. Nicholas Marcus Fernando urging the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa to take tangible measures to alleviate the sufferings of those people. The confab was to be chaired by the then Additional Secretary for Defence Mahinda Bandusena, though Acting Defence Secretary Air Marshal Walter Fernando was in Colombo. Defence Secretary Gen. Cyril Ranatunga was in China.
The absence of Air Marshal Fernando meant that the meeting wasn’t a priority for the armed forces under heavy pressure in the Northern theatre of operations.
Lt. Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe was the Commander of the Army.
An LTTE suicide cadre drove an explosive-laden vehicle up to the second entrance of the Operational Headquarters situated on Flower Road around 10 a.m. The LTTE blew up the vehicle at the entrance, causing several deaths among military personnel based there. The LTTE struck shortly before the commencement of the meeting delayed due to failure on the part of those responsible for rehabilitation and reconstruction to turn up at the venue on time.
The then Brigadier, Wajira R. Wijeyaratne of the Gemunu Watch (GW) had been the Principal Staff Officer (PSO) at Operational Headquarters generally called the Joint Operations Command. Wijeyaratne, served at the Operational Headquarters from March 90 to Sept 1991 before he assumed duties as Security Forces Commander, in charge of 5 Brigade Group deployed in the Mannar sector.
Major General Wijeyaratne, USP, now retired, recollected the first major suicide attack directed at a military target outside the then temporarily merged North East Province.
The high profile LTTE strike was meant to humiliate the military and cause uncertainty in the defence establishment. Infiltration of Colombo in the wake of a series of battlefield debacles in the east as well as the north sent shock waves through the army. The then army chief, Lt. Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe never recovered losses suffered at the onset of eelam war II due to humiliating defeats at Kokavil (during the second week of July 1990), Kilinochchi (last week of July, 1990), Mankulam (last week of November, 1990) and Kalawanchikudy and Kiran (July 1990).
Wijeyaratne said that the Operational Headquarters had been the nerve centre of security forces operations directed against the LTTE since the eruption of hostilities during the second week of June 1990. It had also played a significant role in the bloody anti-insurgency campaign against the JVP and its military wing Deshapremi Janatha Viyaparaya (DJV). The then State Minister for Defence, Ranjan Wijeratne on the late afternoon on Nov. 13, 1990 announced the capture and the subsequent killing of JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera.
Balagalle receives tip-off
The Military Intelligence Corps (MIC) had received information regarding an impending terror strike though the security forces couldn’t thwart the suicide attack. Asked to explain the events leading to the attack, Maj. Gen. Wijeyaratne said: "One day Lionel Balagalle, the then senior officer in charge of Military Intelligence (MI) came running to my office, having sought an urgent appointment. Balagalle functioned as the Director of MIC. Lionel, I believe, a Lieutenant Colonel at that time, appeared to be terribly worried when he rang me up and said, "Sir it’s very important, can I see you immediately?" When Balagalle met me, he disclosed the LTTE plan and when I inquired about the accuracy of available information, he emphasised that the attack would take place."
Balagalle had asserted that as information regarding the planned operation had come from the LTTE, it couldn’t be wrong. Balagalle had been the first chief of MIC and is credited with many successful operations over the years, including the destruction of some of those floating LTTE warehouses in 2003 and 2006/2007 periods. None other than former Navy chief, Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda discussed the contribution made by the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI), successor to MIC, for their success on the high seas. Those who had served under Balagalle still talk affectionately of the soft spoken officer, one of those directly responsible for planning and the execution of hit and run attacks behind LTTE lines during the tail end of President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s first term.
Major Gen. Wijeyaratne had promptly briefed his staff and additional security measures had been taken with a view to beefing up security near the Operational Headquarters. Asked whether he could remember when exactly he had received Balagalle’s warning, Wijeyaratne said: "Perhaps, a week or two before the suicide blast. I deployed some personnel in civvies in the vicinity, in accordance with the overall security plan. The main gate was also closed, though the enemy made an attempt to gain entry through the second entry/exit point. They exploded the vehicle bomb at the entrance as the second gate, too, was closed. The blast took place at 9.54 a.m."
The attack claimed the lives of eleven troops, while 72 personnel, including five officers received injuries. It killed 12 civilians and injured 85. Wijeyaratne escaped with minor injuries.
The explosion created a large crater. The writer visited the scene soon after the blast. Most of the bodies were beyond recognition and some of them were in the crater. The explosion damaged and destroyed about 40 vehicles, belonging to the military and civilians. Many houses in the vicinity were also damaged. The blast blew away parts of the roof of the Operational Headquarters.
Among the damaged houses were those rented by Indian, American and Australian diplomats.
First experience facing
At the time of the blast, Wijeyaratne was with Nalin K. B. Angammana, who was at that time stationed in Batticaloa. Angammana, probably a Lieutenant Colonel at that time, was in Colombo to receive instructions like many other senior officers. They were in Wijeyaratne’s office on the upper floor. (Angammana was killed on the morning of July 30, 1995 in a pressure mine blast on the Valaichenai-Mukaral road. The Engineers’ Corps officer was the senior officer in charge of the Third Division deployed in Batticaloa at the time of his death. He was posthumously promoted to the rank of Major General)
Wijeyaratne said that it was his first experience with an LTTE suicide attack. He recalled walking to several houses situated close to the Operational Headquarters shortly after the blast and apologising profusely to those terror stricken civilians, though the officer didn’t actually know why he did that. "Moving the wounded to the National Hospital as well as the Military Hospital wasn’t an easy task. The blast caused total chaos, though we quickly restored order," Wijeyaratne said.
First lady visits PSO
Among the wounded was Brigadier Tilak Paranagama, Director of Operations. He had come there from army headquarters, where he was based. Wijeyaratne said that Colonel Rohan Antonisz, Commander Suraj Munasinghe, Lt Col Musafer, Marcus Silva, a former Deputy PMG, and a young officer from the Signal Corps had been badly injured. "I recall going to see him. By the end of the day I was finding myself losing balance and was admitted to hospital and after tests etc and, was discharge 24 hrs later. I believe."
The Sandhurst trained Wijeratne recollected the then first Lady Mrs. Hema Premadasa coming to see him. "She offered help which I thought was absolutely genuine," Wijeyaratne said, adding that the First Lady had come to the Operational Headquarters immediately after returning from Kataragama. "Subsequently, at night she rang me at the Military Hospital, too, and wanted to visit me and offered assistance again."
Contrary to reports at that time, the then Brig. Wijaya Wimalaratne hadn’t been at the Operational Headquarters on the day of the blast, though he may have been scheduled to visit the command centre later in the day.
Former Army chief and Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), Gen. Lionel Balagalle told the writer that he couldn’t say anything more than what Maj. Gen. Wijeyaratne said. "Frankly, I can’t remember the circumstances leading to the sudden meeting with the then Brigadier Wijeyaratne or how I came across specific info on the planned attack. On many occasions, we managed to obtain specific intelligence, though we weren’t always successful in exploiting the situation. Intelligence gathering is an arduous task. Those who had been in the field as well as officers directing them may never come out with the full story. They always tend to leave out things," Balagalle said.
Former first lady Mrs. Premadasa said that during the conflict she had visited victims of LTTE terror attacks. "I always felt that it was my duty and responsibility. During eelam war II, I visited the scenes of several major terrorist attacks. I was one of the first to rush to Galle Face when the LTTE assassinated the then Navy Commander, Vice Admiral Chancy Fernando on the morning of No. 16, 1992."
In the wake of the suicide attack on Operational Headquarters, the police and the army stepped up operations targeting undercover LTTE operatives in the city and its suburbs. They raided suspected hideouts and safe houses, and many suspects were taken in. But the then high command never bothered to examine the lapses on the part of the army and the police in spite of having specific intelligence on a high profile target. The attack revealed the vulnerability of one of the most guarded locations at that time.
The blast was the second major vehicle bomb attack in Colombo in early 1991. On the morning of March 2, 1991, a roadside car bomb blast claimed the lives of 19 persons, including the then State Minister for Defence Ranjan Wijeratne and five police commandos. Others were civilians. Plantations Industries Minister Wijeratne was also the Chairman of the UNP. Unlike the blast at the Operational Headquarters, there hadn’t been a warning of the Havelock Road attack, though Minister Wijeratne was high on the LTTE hit list. He strongly opposed the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s fresh bid to resume talks with the LTTE. Much to the surprise of the government, President Premadasa appointed Premier Dingiri Banda Wijetunga as Minister Wijeratne’s successor. At the time of the Flower Road blast, Wijetunga was in charge of the defence portfolio. Within a week after assuming the defence portfolio, PM Wijetunga, at the behest of President Premadasa, invited the LTTE for a fresh round of talks.
PM Wijetunga declared that the doors were still open for anyone who wished to join the political mainstream. Addressing a meeting in Colombo, PM Wijetunga announced President Premadasa’s commitment to finding a solution through a process of consultation, compromise and consensus. PM Wijetunja functioned as the Chairman of the National Security Council before being appointed State Minister of Defence, in the wake of minister Wijeratne’s assassination.
The police never succeeded in tracking down those responsible for minister Wijeratne’s assassination. The suicide attack on Operational Headquarters took place three months later, against the backdrop of the government’s failure to neutralise the LTTE squad involved in the high profile Havelock Road blast. The LTTE infiltrated the city and its suburbs and carried out attacks with impunity.
In spite of both Havelock and Flower road bomb blasts claiming the lives of over 20 civilians and wounding close to 100, none of the Colombo based diplomatic missions and civil society organisations were bothered at least to condemn the LTTE. Instead, they pushed the government to reach an understanding with the LTTE without delay, to end the bloodshed. Successful LTTE operations in the city and its suburbs had a demoralising effect on the armed forces fighting on the northern and eastern fronts.