An LTTE propaganda picture released at the height of the conflict
In July 1996, the LTTE stepped up activity in the Jaffna peninsula. It made threatening moves south of Elephant Pass as well as Pooneryn on the Vanni west sector. The SLA was made to believe the LTTE was preparing to intensify attacks or launch a major operation. On July 14, 1996, the LTTE struck at SLA positions south of Sarasalai, Jaffna peninsula, killing 13 personnel and wounding two. It was the biggest attack since the SLA had brought the entire peninsula under its control in late May 1996. Earlier, a woman suicide bomber had assassinated Jaffna town commander, Brig. Ananda S.S. Hamangoda opposite the Stanley Road outlet of the Building Materials Corporation (BMC). Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva survived the blast, though he received injuries. But Mullaitivu remained calm until 1 am on the night of July 18, 1996, when hundreds of terrorists launched frontal assaults on SLA’s 25 Brigade comprising two regular battalions, 9th battalion of the Sinha Regiment (9SR) and 6th battalion of Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment (6VIR). The LTTE crushed SLA resistance within seven hours in a battle, which saw its land forces and Sea Tigers conducting an unprecedented operation, with multiple objectives.
Mullaitivu SLA base July 18, 1996: Tigers remove heavy weapons after overrunning the camp.
The LTTE overran the isolated Mullaitivu Brigade on July 18, 1996 following a seven-hour battle with Sinha Regiment (SR) and Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment (VIR) troops. The LTTE took control of the entire area held by the 25 Brigade deployed in Mullaitivu hours before reinforcements began arriving by air. The first reinforcements arrived in Mullaitivu at 4. 30 pm the following day.
Having lost the entire Jaffna peninsula by late May 1996, the LTTE mounted on a multi-pronged assault on the Brigade to offset the failure on its part to thwart Operation Riviresa which forced the group to evacuate all its men and material across the Jaffna lagoon for re-deployment in the Vanni. Having vacated the Jaffna town in the first week of Dec 1996, the LTTE had ample time to move its arsenal from Jaffna to Vanni as the second phase of Operation Riviresa to cut off the Jaffna lagoon didn’t get underway till April 1996. The SLA obviously ignored the threat posed by the sudden increase in LTTE strength in the Vanni. As the LTTE hadn’t mounted a major attack on Mullaitivu for some time, the SLA should have anticipated an LTTE operation consequent to the outfit’s debacle in Jaffna. The Mullaitivu Brigade comprised two battalions, 9 SR and 6 VIR and support units, including artillery. The 6 VIR had been there for over four years and was obviously complacent. Colonel U. B. Lawrence, Commanding Officer of the Mullaitivu Brigade was in Colombo, whereas the Commanding Officer of 9 SR, too, was away. The rapidity with which the LTTE overcame 9SR and 6VIR defences sent shock waves through the SLA high command. The Mullaitivu debacle placed President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s government in an extremely embarrassing position, with the Opposition UNP questioning the PA’s war strategy.
The LTTE removed the entire arsenal, including two 122 mm artillery pieces, two 120 mm mortars, five general purpose machine guns, forty one 60 mm mortars and fifteen 81 mm mortars. The LTTE released pictures of Mullaitivu arsenal being removed. While the government claimed that the attackers couldn’t remove heavy armaments, The Island editorial received pictures of the LTTE removing two 122 mm artillery pieces. We published that particular photograph immediately after the government lifted censorship.
The Island columnist, C. A. Chandraprema has asserted that the SLN was sharply divided over maintaining the Mullaitivu base. Some felt that the Mullaitivu debacle had paved the way for the LTTE to take control of the entire stretch of the coast, whereas others believed it was nothing but a heavy burden on the SLN. Chandraprema has also revealed that the SLA had intended to abandon Mullaituvu even before the launch of Operation Riviresa on Oct. 16, 1995. That decision was revealed by none other than the then Maj. Gen. Rohan de. S. Daluwatte during a visit to Mullaitivu in 1995. (Gota’s War: Crushing of Tamil Tiger Terrorism in Sri Lanka-Chapter 37)
In spite of losing the base within hours after the assault launched at 1 am on July 18, 1996, the Operational Headquarters of the Defence Ministry and the political leadership continued to deceive the public. A censorship imposed by the military prevented the print media from reporting what was going on the Mullaitivu battlefield. All reports pertaining to Mullaituvu and other security related news items couldn’t be published unless cleared by the Censor. In hindsight, it was obvious that the then government felt that if the base could be restored by reinforcements, the public could have been told a different story. The Operational Headquarters of the Defence Ministry made a desperate bid to imply that 9 SR and 6 VIR were holding on to a part of the base until the reinforcements fought their way in. The government largely succeeded in its bid due to the print media being prevented from reporting the actual ground situation. The PA was following the UNP strategy. Both political parties imposed censorship to restrict the publication of politically embarrassing news. (The writer used to take news reports to Mrs. Manel Abeyratne, Dr. Sarath Amunugama as well as Ariya Rubasinghe who censored reports according to their whims and fancies). However, the LTTE through its London Secretariat issued press statements as regards the Mullaitivu battle and its aftermath.
Ratwatte on debacle
The then PA strongman Deputy Minister of Defence Anuruddha Ratwatte told a hastily arranged media briefing at the Defence Ministry on July 22, 1996, that 9 SR and 6 VIR troops were in control of part of the Mullaituvu base. Although the much-talked about link-up between the base and the reinforcements hadn’t been made even at the time of media briefing, the Kandy District MP insisted the rescue operation was on track. What MP Ratwatte didn’t say was that it had turned out to be a battle between reinforcements and the LTTE in the absence of any organized resistance from 9 SR and 6 VIR. The minister said that President Kumaratunga had cut short a foreign visit and returned to the country due to the crisis caused by LTTE attack on Mullaitvu. Ratwatte declared that the Mullaitivu debacle was not a set back for the SLA. He stressed that Mullaitivu wouldn’t be vacated (Mullaitivu base not fallen to the enemy-Ratwatte––The Island July 23, 1996)
Only a few survived the Mullaituvu debacle. The SLA lost about 1,300 officers and men. The SLN lost a small contingent of personnel deployed at Mullaitivu. About 80 civilians attached to Mullaitivu base as well as 50 police contingent deployed there, too, perished. Although the government desperately wanted to hold on to Mullaitivu, the SLA and SLN strongly opposed any effort to re-build the base. The top brass insisted that they couldn’t divert men and material to maintain an isolated outpost hence giving the LTTE another opportunity to pounce on it. In fact, the top brass felt that the isolated bases should be abandoned before the LTTE caused further destruction. The destruction of the Mullaitivu base gave the LTTE upper hand in the northern theatre, though the SLA controlled landlocked Jaffna. The realization that the SLN had to move supplies needed by over two Divisions of troops deployed in the Jaffna peninsula demoralized the top brass, particularly due to inadequate naval assets to meet the requirement. Both the SLN and the SLAF struggled to move supplies to the peninsula in the wake of the LTTE having shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles and the Sea Tigers enhancing their firepower, which became evident during the battle for Mullaitivu.
Sea Tiger in Mullaitivu battle
The armed forces reacted fast though they didn’t have a specific contingency plan in case of a major attack on Mullaitivu. They had neither reserve formations for deployment nor the means of rapidly deploying them quickly. In fact, the LTTE wouldn’t have expected to make such a rapid breakthrough on the Mullaitivu front. It may have expected Mullaitivu defences to last a little longer than Pooneryn, where a section of the troops held on to their positions until reinforcements fought their way in. The SLA’s Mullaitivu defences had collapsed even faster than Pooneryn base in Nov 1993. Obviously, the SLA hadn’t learnt anything from its humiliating experience at Pooneryn, where several hundred men lost their lives. The LTTE killed 700 officers and men during a lightning assault on Pooneryn base and nearby Nagathevanthurai SLN base, established to control the Jaffna lagoon. The primary difference between Pooneryn-Nagathevanthurai and Mullaitivu was that the defences at the latter collapsed even before the reinforcements landed. Anticipating stiff resistance at Mullaitivu, the Sea Tigers deployed everything it had off Mullaitivu to thwart SLN attempts to land reinforcements. The SLN found it extremely difficult to move in landing vessels or smaller craft carrying troops due to heavy Sea Tiger presence. In spite of air strikes, Sea Tigers maintained strong presence off Mullaitivu, thereby preventing amphibious landings. By the time, the SLN managed to land troops, nothing remained of the Mullaitivu base! The LTTE obviously had no intention of holding onto the base. They demolished all buildings to ensure that even if SLA reinforcements did manage to reach the base, they wouldn’t have anything left to occupy.
During confrontation at sea, two explosives laden Sea Tiger suicide craft rammed Ranaviru, a Shanghai Class gunboat killing over 30 officers and men onboard on Friday (July 19) at 5.45 pm. In spite of having a heavy SLN presence in the area, it couldn’t at least recover bodies of all personnel. Only a few survived the blasts. The LTTE also damaged several other SLN craft and choppers during the battle. It was the first large Sea Tiger blockade mounted in support of a ground offensive. The SLN had never experienced a similar situation before hence had to struggle to achieve its objectives.
Having destroyed the Mullaitivu base, the attackers joined those deployed on the coast to prevent reinforcements from coming in. Although the SLA deployed some of its most experienced troops spearheaded by Special Forces and Commandos, it couldn’t move rapidly due to heavy enemy resistance. For some reason, the Operational Headquarters of the Defence Ministry called the rescue operation Thrivida Pahara in a bid to divert the attention of the public from the worst debacle.
The LTTE killed Col. Aslam Fazly Laphir on Friday (July 19) shortly after Mi 17 dropped him along with a Special Forces contingent on the beach. Laphir was the Commanding Officer of the First Battalion of the Special Forces. The following day, Lieutenant Col. Raj Wijesiri, the Commanding Officer of the Second battalion of the Special Forces was wounded and evacuated. Laphir and Wijesiri were batchmates. Reinforcements lost about 100 officers and men during battles at sea as well as land. Reinforcements withdrew by air as well as sea by July 26, 1996 leaving the LTTE in control of the entire coast. Mullaitivu remained in the hands of the LTTE until the 59 Division commanded by the then Brigadier Nandana Udawatte liberated the town on January 25, 2009. The 7 Gemunu Watch under the command of Lt. Colonel Chaminda Lamahewa, 15 Sri Lanka Light Infantry battalion and 14 Vijayaba Infantry Regiment troops under 593 Brigade commanded by Colonel Jayantha Gunaratne secured Mullaitivu. The 59 Division comprised 591 Brigade under the command of Colonel Aruna Ariyasinghe and 592 Brigade under the command of Lt. Colonel Maneesha Silva attached to the 59 Division were partners to the victory. The 59 Division launched operations in January 2008 fought its way through thick jungles to reach its primary objective one year later. It was perhaps the one of the most difficult tasks undertaken by a newly raised Division during the 30-year-old conflict.
A fully-fledged fighting Division supported by armour, artillery, engineers as well SLAF took one year to achieve what the LTTE had achieved in just seven hours!
The UNP appointed a 15-member fact-finding-committee headed by the then Digamadulla electoral district MP P. Dayaratne to inquire into Mullaitivu tragedy, though it didn’t punish anyone of those responsible for several setbacks, including killing of 700 personnel at Pooneryn-Nagathevanthurai in Nov. 1993 as well as destruction of Janakapura army camp in July 1993. The UNP appointed disgraced Army Chief Lt. Gen. Cecil Waidyaratne, who accepted the responsibility for the Pooneryn debacle, Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Thailand. None of the senior officers blamed for Pooneryn and Janakapura debacles were punished. The SLA and the SLN, too, appointed special committees to investigate the circumstances under which the LTTE had overrun Mullaituvu and the failure of the rescue effort. The UNP and the PA played politics with the war effort, whereas the LTTE was preparing for a major campaign in the Vanni. The PA didn’t realize what it was getting into when President Kumaratunga authorized an operation to avenge the Mullaitivu debacle. The PA was going to pay an extremely heavy price for political and military miscalculations on the Vanni front. The consequences were grave. It was too late when the PA leadership realized that it couldn’t depend on the censorship to cover up its mistakes and remedial measures were necessary. The fact that the media was prevented from revealing what was going on the battlefield didn’t help alter the ground situation.