Gajaba, Sinha bid to regain Jaffna goes awry
* War on terror revisited
by Shamindra Ferdinando
On board SLNS Pabbatha off Punkuduthivu Island late September 1990 : (L to R) Brigadier Janaka Perera, Captain Prasanna Rajaratne - Commanding Officer SLNS Elara and Command Operations Officer, Lt. Col. Gotabhaya Rajapaksha, CO 1 GR, Major Jayampathi Wijeratne, CO 5 GW, Lt. Colonel Palitha Fernando, Commander M.R.U. Siriwardane, Lt. Commander S.U. Lanka Prasada ,CO SLNS Pabbatha, Lt. Colonel Sarath Fonseka, CO 1 SLSR and Lt. Colonel Gamini Gunasekara - Commanding Officer 4 GR. Picture was taken after the SLA called off the offensive spearheaded by I GR and I SLSR to regain Jaffna town after having rescued those trapped at the Jaffna Fort
(Picture courtesy Commander Lanka Prasada)
The then Lieutenant Ranjith Walisundara of the First battalion of the Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment (SLSR) said: "Having reached land at about 5.30 a.m., my contingent reached the ramparts amidst enemy fire. As we ran towards the ramparts, those under siege at the Fort dropped long ropes for us to climb and enter the Fort. We had to risk our lives to enter the Fort by climbing the rampart as entry points to the Fort had been sealed at that time due to heavy LTTE attacks."
Having served in Colombo and its suburbs during the July-Oct 1987 period, the First battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (IGR) was deployed in the Trincomalee district, where it remained until May 1989. In accordance with the Indo-Lanka Accord (ILA), the IGR had been confined to barracks. In May 1989, the newly promoted Lt. Colonel Gotabhaya Rajapaksa succeeded Colonel Wijaya Wimalaratne as the second Commanding Officer of the celebrated battalion. Wimalaratne was promoted to the rank of Brigadier.
The then army commander, Lt. Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe shifted the IGR from Trincomalee to the Matale District, where the JVP was on the rampage. In keeping with a government directive, Lt. Colonel Rajapaksa functioned as the District Coordinating Officer. It was not an isolated appointment. In fact, military officers functioned as Coordinating Officers in all districts affected by JVP violence. President Ranasinghe Premadasa had no option but to depend on the military to run the civil administration. As Matale was one of the worst affected districts, army headquarters assigned the IGR, one of the best available battalions, to quell the JVP.
Following the London-based LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham meeting with President Premadasa at Sucharitha during the first week of May 1989, the President ordered the military to observe the truce with the LTTE. The President ordered the military to adhere with the truce, with the LTTE whatever the provocation. The military was ordered to suppress the JVP-led insurgency.
Ranjan visits Gota in Matale
President Premadasa reacted furiously after the JVP spurned his offer to return to the negotiating table. The President went to the extent of releasing about 1,800 JVP suspects to appease the outfit. At the behest of the government, army headquarters made additional troop commitments to fight the JVP.
However, an influential section of the ruling UNP, resented Lt. Colonel Rajapaksa’s appointment as the Matale Coordinating Officer. The UNP felt that the then Opposition lawmaker Mahinda Rajapaksa would exploit his younger brother’s appointment to pursue his political agenda. President Premadasa was also urged to intervene to get Lt. Colonel Rajapaksa out of Matale. In fact, the UNP wanted to keep him away from the ongoing anti-insurgency operations.
The UNP interfered with the deployment of troops. The top government leadership intervened with the decisions taken by army headquarters. The First battalion of the Gemunu Watch (IGW) commanded by the then Lt. Colonel Hiran Halangode was shifted from Moneragala to Ampara, consequent to complaints from local UNP politicians. From there, IGW moved to the neighbouring Batticaloa District, where the unit excelled at the onset of eelam war II in June 1990.
In the wake of a relentless campaign against the new appointment, the then State Minister of Defence Ranjan Wijeratne flew in to Matale to review the security situation there. Defence Secretary Rajapaksa said: "I didn’t care where army headquarters posted me and my battalion. I was ready to serve in any part of the country. One day, army headquarters alerted me to Minister Wijeratne’s visit to Matale. I received him on arrival in Matale, conducted him to the Matale rest house where I had my headquarters. Having briefed him as regards ongoing operations, deployment of detachments as well as planned action, Minister Wijeratne had lunch with us. Then he walked out of the premises while calling me to follow him for a private chat. I knew Minister Wijeratne wanted to tell me of protests against my appointment."
Defence Secretary Rajapaksa quoted Minister Wijeratne as having told him that local politicians were strongly opposed to his appointment as he was MP Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother.
After having consulted Brigadier Wimalaratne, Army chief, Lt. Gen. Wanasinghe had told Minister Wijeratne that in case he wanted to shift Lt. Colonel Rajapaksa, the entire battalion had to leave the district. Brigadier Wimalaratne had insisted that an officer couldn’t be harassed for being the brother of a prominent politician. Minister Wijeratne told the new Coordinating Officer to remain in Matale and get in touch with him, in case he had any difficulty with politicians.
Wimalaratne was director operations at the Joint Operations Command (JOC) and was one of the most influential military officials at that time. The Defence Secretary quoted Minister Wijeratne as having said at the end of the conversation: "I don’t want to remove you, go ahead with your job and if any of the local UNP politicians cause trouble, tell me."
Among those officers who had been with I GR at that time was Sumedha Perera (currently at the National Defence College, China. Perera holds the rank of Major General). Udaya Perera, (Security Forces Commander, Kilinochchi. He, too, holds the rank of Major General) and Jagath Dias (Adjutant General at Army headquarters. Dias holds the rank of Major General). Shavendra Silva, himself a native of Matale, too, was with IGR at that time (Major General Silva is Sri Lanka’s Deputy Permanent Representative at the UN in New York).
Arms transfer in Weli Oya
The JVP collapsed in early 1990 after the capture and the execution of its leader Rohana Wijeweera and some of his key lieutenants. During the latter part of 1989, IGR served in Weli Oya. The Defence Secretary said: "The then government maintained close links with the LTTE. Once, army headquarters ordered me to withdraw troops temporarily from a certain area in the Weli Oya region. I carried out the instructions, though I remained vigilant, as I knew the government was secretly handing over weapons to the LTTE. My men observed LTTE cadres taking delivery of weapons from the SLA. I GR served in Weli Oya until the outbreak of hostilities on the night of June 10, 1990 in Batticaloa".
The UNP-LTTE honeymoon lasted for 14 months (May 1989-June 1990). After the outbreak of fighting in the Batticaloa District, the IGR had launched anti-terrorist operations in the Weli Oya region. The LTTE had a strong presence in the area close to Weli Oya, though it didn’t engage IGR in a major battle. The Defence Secretary said: "Suddenly, we were told to move to Vavuniya. We joined 4GR, which was under the command of Lt. Colonel Gamini Gunasekera. The then Brigadier Janaka Perera was in charge of troops in Vavuniya. We cleared the Vavuniya-Mannar axis upto Parayanakulam. Having completed the task, we returned to base. Subsequently, we advanced from Vavuniya to Thandikulam. As usual, we returned to Vavuniya, where Major General Denzil Kobbekaduwa addressed us. We were told to get ready for a rescue operation in the Jaffna peninsula, where the SLA was under siege at the Jaffna Fort."
Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa had been the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Anuradhapura headquartered Division II. The war veteran took over the Division deployed in the northern region from Maj. Gen. Stanley de Silva, a few weeks after the outbreak of Eelam war II. Just four months into the battle, the LTTE was in a commanding position having overrun several camps. The Jaffna Fort was under the verge of collapse, with the LTTE stepping up attacks. Those under siege at the Jaffna Fort wouldn’t have survived without the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) sustaining a major operation. The SLAF deployed almost all it had in support of troops fighting a desperate battle at the Jaffna Fort. The SLAF northern zonal command based in Anuradhapura waged a desperate battle to protect the Jaffna Fort with a series of operations.
It was definitely one of the most critical periods of the conflict. SLAF Commander, Harsha Abeywickrema recollected their efforts in support of those stationed at the Jaffna Fort. During a particular mission, the Chinese–built Y 12 aircraft piloted by him had been hit over a dozen times. For want of dedicated bombers, the SLAF had to deploy transport aircraft to drop locally made bombs targeting LTTE positions. SLAF personnel had to push what was called barrel bombs at the risk of their lives. Although young Abeywickrema had escaped LTTE fire, an SLAF trooper tasked with pushing barrel bombs had a gaping wound on his buttocks. Abeywickrema had flown different types of aircraft, including Y 12s, and Italian built Siai Marchettis.
Gota, SF in joint mission
The Defence Secretary recalled that Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa had stressed the urgent need to somehow rescue those trapped in the Jaffna Fort. Kobbekaduwa had asserted that the failure on the SLA’s part to save them would have a catastrophic impact on the entire war effort. The northern commander hadn’t minced his words when he warned the I GR commander that the SLA could lose more officers and men in the rescue operation than the number of personnel trapped in the Jaffna Fort. According to army and police headquarters records, there had been 52 personnel of the sixth battalion of the Sinha Regiment (6 SR) and 118 police personnel. The rescue of those trapped in the Jaffna Fort had been of paramount importance in the wake of several major setbacks. The LTTE overran the Kokavil army detachment during the second week of July 1990. Two weeks later, the SLA abandoned its base at Kilinochchi. The LTTE also pounded isolated SLA bases at Mankulam, Elephant Pass as well as Mullaitivu. Kobbekaduwa told Rajapaksa that IGR and I SLSR (Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment) would have to carry out the unprecedented operation. The Defence Secretary said: "We had not carried out a similar operation before. We were airlifted from Vavuniya to Palaly. From there, IGR moved overland to Kankesanthurai and were ferried to Karaitivu Island in boats. From there we moved to Kayts Island and then cleared Mandaitivu."
Rajapaksa said that the two battalions had been highly successful in the operation carried out in Mandaitivu. "The enemy suffered heavy losses. Several dozens of terrorists, including some senior cadres died in action. The loss of Mandaitivu sent shock waves through the LTTE. Monitored LTTE transmissions revealed its cadres in total disarray in the Jaffna peninsula. We could have exploited the situation had we crossed the lagoon immediately after securing Mandaitivu. Unfortunately, Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa felt that the SLA should consolidate its position in Mandaitivu before launching the rescue mission. In hindsight, the delaying of the rescue mission was a mistake. But, Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa, as the senior officer in charge of the action on the northern front must have had some reasons for delaying the operation for more than two weeks."
A daring mission
The then Lt. Ranjith Walisundara of the I SLSR was the first officer to enter the Jaffna Fort after having crossed the Jaffna lagoon under fire. At that time, the SLA had never undertaken such a large scale lagoon borne raid targeting perhaps one of the heaviest LTTE defended localities. The LTTE had some of its most experienced cadres deployed there as the use of Mandaitivu as a launching pad for an SLA rescue mission was a foregone conclusion in the wake of I GR and I SLSR setting up base there.
Having being promoted to the rank of Colonel, Walisundara is now based at the Panagoda cantonment. Colonel Walisundara recalled the I SLSR serving in the Gampaha District at the time Eelam war II erupted with unprecedented attacks on the police and the SLA in the Ampara and Batticaloa sector. The battalion had been immediately shifted to the eastern theatre, in support of operations involving other formations, including the First Special Forces Regiment (ISF).
Col. Walisundara said: "We fought a series of battles in the east. Subsequently, the I SLSR moved overland to Vavuniya and from there was airlifted to Palaly. Having reached Palaly, we moved overland to Kankesanthurai and were ferried to Karaitivu Island before crossing over to Kayts and then Mandaitivu. Although there had been some other fighting formations in Mandaitivu, the Jaffna Fort operation was undertaken by I SLSR and I GR."
Each battalion had assigned 120 men each to form a combined assault group tasked with crossing the lagoon under whatever the circumstances and fight its way into the Jaffna Fort. The I SLSR contingent (Bravo Company) had been commanded by the then Captain Kumar Ganegoda. Colonel Walisundara said: "The SLN assigned 10 fibre glass dinghies each to I SLSR and I GR troops to move troops across the lagoon during the early hours of September 13, 1990. Each boat was to carry 12 army personnel. I was in one of the boats operated by the then Sub Lieutenant Noel Kalubowila. During the crossing under fire, some of the boats assigned to I SLSR were struck in the lagoon. However, Kalubowila managed to reach the Jaffna peninsula first. Having reached land at about 5.30 a.m., my contingent reached the ramparts amidst enemy attacks. As we ran towards the ramparts, those under siege at the Fort dropped long ropes for us to climb and enter the Fort. We had to risk our lives to enter the Fort by climbing the rampart as entry points to the Fort had been sealed at that time due to heavy LTTE attacks."
(Kalubowila, now a Commodore, is Sri Lanka’s Defence Attache in New Delhi. During Eelam war IV, the then Captain Kalubowila commanded the Fast Attack Craft (FACs). The veteran is remembered for his role in saving the SLN’s largest troop career off Trincomalee in early August 2006 during a major confrontation between FACs and Sea Tiger suicide squads).
Both the I SLSR and I GR troops scaled the ramparts using ropes. Subsequently, they opened one of the entry points as the remaining troops crossed the lagoon, amidst heavy LTTE fire. The crossing took place under the protection of I SF deployed on either side of the path selected by the SLN for the troop induction.
Colonel Walisundara recollected how his colleagues, Lt. Wasantha Kumarapperuma and Lt. Athula Rajapaksa fought alongside with him after crossing the Jaffna lagoon in what he called the first wave.
Having consolidated their position at the Jaffna Fort, the I SLSR and I GR made an abortive attempt to advance on two flanks towards Jaffna. Due to a delay on the part of the SLA, the LTTE had prepared extremely strong defences, thereby in spite of a determined bid, troops couldn’t pierce enemy defences. Each battalion lost about 100 personnel during fighting in Mandaitivu and in and around the Jaffna Fort area, during the month of September 1990. It was the first SLA attempt to regain Jaffna town since Indian intervention in June 1987 to prevent the fall of Jaffna to the SLA.