A visibly emotional President Chandrika Kumaratunga addresses the nation from Temple Trees. It was her first address after she survived an LTTE assassination attempt on her life on the night of Dec 19, 1999 at Town Hall, Colombo. Lt. Gen. Sri Lal Weerasooriya (left) and Air Marshal Jayalath Weerakkody look on.
Unceasing Waves aka Oya Alaigal was perhaps the LTTE’s most successful campaign during the entire conflict. The third phase of the offensive launched on Nov. 2, 1999 forced the army to vacate almost the entire area liberated in four offensives, namely Jayasikuru (May 1997-Dec 1998), Edi bala (Feb 1997), Rivi bala (Dec. 1998) and Ranagosa( March 1998-Nov. 1999) in both east and west of the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road. The LTTE blitz took the SLA by surprise.
The first phase of Unceasing Waves was directed at 25 Brigade comprising two regular infantry battalions of the Sinha Regiment and Vijayaba Infantry Regiment and support elements, on July 18, 1996. The base fell within seven hours!
Unceasing Waves II threw out the SLA from Kilinochchi in late Sept./Oct. 1998, causing massive loss of life. Unceasing Waves II pushed the SLA frontline northwards by about 4.5 km. The newly created 54 Division headquartered at Elephant Pass, never recovered from the loss suffered at Kilinochchi captured by Sath Jaya troops in late Sept 1996. The SLA paid a heavy price to liberate Kilinochchi, which became the LTTE nerve centre shortly after Riviresa troops liberated the entire Jaffna peninsula in late May 1996.
Although, in terms of territory liberated in the Vanni, Ranagosa was the most successful, it didn’t cause any damage to the LTTE, as pointed out previously in this series.
In fact, the SLA never had an opportunity to mount a counter-attack as LTTE combatants engaged in Unceasing Waves III executed a series of operations on both the eastern and western flanks. The deployment of the SLN and the SLAF on the Vanni frontlines made the situation worse. The SLN and the SLAF ground forces holding positions at critically important locations hadn’t been exposed to high intensity battles. They simply vacated their positions leaving behind arms, ammunition and equipment. Their retreat was so rapid that the LTTE failed to inflict heavy losses on those fleeing SLN and SLAF ground forces! The SLA was no better. The three Divisions, 55, 56 and the elite 53 miserably failed to halt the LTTE advance on both the eastern and western flanks.
Nov 23, 1999: Retired Maj. Gen. Lucky Algama at his Narahenpita residence immediately after the CID questioned him on his alleged involvement in a politico-military conspiracy to thwart President Kumaratunga’s re-election bid. Algama was assassinated on the night of Dec 19, 1999 by the LTTE. (Pic Jude Denzil Pathiraja)
The military lost 10 major bases within a week. The PA took cover behind censorship to hide the actual ground situation in the Vanni in a bid to prevent UNP presidential candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe from capitalising on the Vanni debacle. The PA obviously regretted calling for the presidential polls on Dec. 21, 1999.
By Nov. 15, the LTTE had advanced in a southwesterly direction from Oddusuddan on the A-34 road to the outskirts of Omanthai on the Jaffna-Kandy A-9 highway. The Tigers also moved southwards on the eastern flank to towards Weli Oya. Vavuniya, the southernmost town in the Northern Province, came under artillery and long range mortar fire.
The LTTE fired about 28 rounds of artillery on Vavuniya on Nov. 18, 1999 to cause an exodus of people (LTTE attacks Vavuniya with artillery––The Island Nov. 19, 1999). The attack on Vavuniya marked the resumption of the Tiger advance following a brief respite. The LTTE launched simultaneous assaults on military positions in the northwestern sector of the Vanni region, which comprised the districts of Mullaitivu, Mannar, Kilinochchi and Vavuniya. The Tigers captured several Army camps in those areas and took control of the famous Holy Rosary Church at Maruthamadhu, popularly known as Madhu. However, the SLA recaptured it within 48 hours. In the process, 38 civilians who had taken refuge in the Catholic Church were killed and 60 injured. The Army and the LTTE blamed each other for the killings. The LTTE also started attacking military positions on the island off Mannar on the northwestern coast.
Within three weeks the LTTE had regained almost all territory it lost owing to Jayasikuru, Edi bala, Rivi bala and Ranagosa troops. Having inflicted a humiliating defeat on the SLA, the LTTE began re-deploying forces for a multi-pronged assault on the 54 Division having its southernmost defences at Paranthan, Iyakachchi and Vettilaikerni on the Mullaitivu coast. The LTTE-re deployment made the entire Jaffna peninsula vulnerable. A demoralized 54 Division was not in a mood to engage in either offensive or defensive action. The 51 and 52 Divisions deployed in the Jaffna peninsula, too, weren’t going to meet the LTTE challenge.
The then PA leadership never realized the LTTE strategy. The Kumaratunga administration conveniently blamed the unprecedented debacle on the UNP. The government went to the extent of alleging a conspiracy involving a section of the SLA and some retired officers involved in UNP politics. The PA alleged that those who engineered the Vanni debacle, intended to undermine President Kumaratunga’s re-election bid at the Dec. 21, 1999 polls.
On Nov. 1999, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), at the behest of the PA questioned retired SLA Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. Lucky Algama, regarding his alleged involvement in the so-called Vanni conspiracy. The PA felt that the Gemunu Watch veteran had influenced a section of the then Vanni command to vacate the area soon after the LTTE launched the offensive (CID to question Maj. Gen. Algama today––The Island Nov. 23, 1999). The PA assertion was influenced by the Maj. General’s decision to contest the next parliamentary polls. Algama was also involved in UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s presidential election campaign.
The SLA veteran was accused of conspiring with a section of the military in Weli Oya in Sept 1999. The government asserted that the UNP had engineered the debilitating Vanni setback to undermine the relationship between the military and the political leadership ahead of a crucial election. The outspoken Maj. General’s criticism of the war strategy as well as his consistent demand to do away with the censorship facilitated the PA’s cause.
The PA government didn’t want to be held accountable for the humiliating battlefield defeat at the time of the presidential election (CID questions Maj. Gen. Algama with strap line Involvement in conspiracy against state alleged––The Island Nov. 24, 1999).
The CID team was headed by its Director, SSP Keerthi Gajanayake. The police visited the Gemunu Watch veteran’s Narahenpita residence after he declined to present himself at the fourth floor. Having denied allegations as regards a conspiracy by the SLA to undermine Kumaratunga’s presidential election campaign, Maj. Gen. Algama told The Island that he would never fish in troubled waters. The CID conducted the inquiry parallel to one initiated by the SLA.
On behalf of the LTTE, the Tamil United Liberation Front on Nov 22 reiterated its call for a third party mediation to resolve the national issue. The plea was made when a top level TULF delegation led by its General Secretary R. Sampanthan met President Kumaratunga at Temple Trees. The delegation comprised MP Mavai Senathirajah, MP P. Selvaraj and the then Acting Mayor of Jaffna N. Raviraj. In spite of the LTTE assassinating Jaffna Mayor Sarojini Yogeswaran, the widow of Vettivelu Yogeswaran on May 17, 1998 in Jaffna, the TULF had no option but to play ball with the LTTE. Sarojini’s successor Ponnuthurai Sivapalan, too, was assassinated by the LTTE. On Sept 11, 1998, Sivapalan, Jaffna town commandant Brigadier Susantha Mendis, and several senior police officers and officials of the Municipal Council were killed in a powerful blast in the Jaffna Municipal Council building at Nallur. Still, the TULF had to speak on behalf of the LTTE. The TULF move placed the PA leadership in an extremely difficult position. The PA feared any move on its part to initiate talks could be a serious impediment to Mrs. Kumaratunga’s re-election bid. The PA rejected the TULF move.
Talks between the PA and the LTTE collapsed on April 19, 1995 subsequent to a truce that lasted around 100 days.
On Nov. 26, 1999, LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran offered to return to the negotiating table provided there was third party mediation. Prabhakaran, over clandestine Voice of Tigers (VoT) declared that he was ready for third party mediation to resolve the national issue. In fact, the LTTE leader contradicted his previous position as regards the resumption of talks. Prabhakaran, during his ‘heroes week’ speech on Nov. 26, 1995, less than two weeks before the SLA wrested control of Jaffna town declared: “The door to peace would be closed as long as troops occupied the town. They may hoist the flag and light fire crackers, but we want to express one thing. As long as the Sri Lankan armed forces occupy Jaffna, the door to peace talks will always remain tightly shut.”
The following year (1996), Prabhakaran insisted on the withdrawal of the SLA from Jaffna, Chavakachcheri, Point Pedro and Valvettiturai, captured during Riviresa offensive (Oct. 1995-May 1996) with a view to creating what he called a congenial environment with military de-escalation as a prerequisite for any third party mediated political negotiations (LTTE’s call for third party mediation contradicts its earlier stand on Jaffna––The Island Nov. 30, 1999).
In 1997, Prabhakaran rejected President Kumaratunga’s much-talked about devolution package. The LTTE chief declared that the so-called political package and the on-going military action were all part of the overall GoSL strategy.
The LTTE again reiterated its call for third party mediation in his ‘heroes’ week’ message in 1998. Unlike on previous occasions, the heroes’ week message was delivered from an unprecedented position of military strength. The LTTE was on top on the Vanni front.
The LTTE increased pressure on the government by releasing a small number of troops captured during Unceasing Waves III. But the group never revealed the exact number of officers and men taken prisoner during confrontations. The transfer of prisoners was handled by the International Committee of the Red Cross (LTTE offers to release two more servicemen––The Island Dec. 5, 1999).
Inquiries revealed the failure on the part of the SLA high command to take counter measures in spite of observing a major LTTE build-up off Oddusuddan liberated in Dec. 1998. Had there been an effort on the part of the SLA to rectify weaknesses, the LTTE offensive could have been thwarted (Gross negligence of Vanni top brass led to swift collapse of frontlines––The Island Nov. 7, 1999). The rapidity of the LTTE advance stunned the SLA. At some bases, troops simply refused to fight. On the Vanni east, SLAF ground forces booed at their senior officers when they were told to take up frontline positions. All three services struggled to restore confidence among fighting men. The LTTE threatened Vavuniya on the main A9 road, whereas Weli Oya, east of the road, too, was under heavy pressure. The government felt a direct assault on Vavuniya could cause a catastrophic situation. The SLA didn’t have strong fortifications in Vavuniya as it had never felt the LTTE could roll back ground forces to such an extent. The government actually considered whether the Dec. 21, 1999 Presidential poll would have to be put off due to the precarious ground situation (Presidential election in the balance: Vavuniya comes under LTTE threat as two more strategic towns fall ––The Island Dec. 7, 1999). Voice of Tigers asked the people living in Vavuniya and its suburbs to leave the area. For some reason, the LTTE halted its offensive and diverted the bulk of its forces to finish off the SLA on the Jaffna front. Karuna Amman was at the forefront of the offensive. The LTTE mounted major offensive action on the Jaffna front on Dec. 11, 1999 with operations directed at SLA positions both east and west of Elephant Pass. The LTTE intended to create sufficient pressure on Elephant Pass, where the 54 Division was headquartered to force troops deployed south of Elephant Pass to retreat. The LTTE also fired artillery at densely populated areas to destabilize the peninsula (LTTE pounding residential areas-Army––The Island Dec. 20, 1999).
In spite of taking heavy losses, the LTTE continued attacks on SLA positions both east and west of Elephant Pass. Gradually, the SLA began to resisit, mostly on the eastern flank. The then Jaffna Security Forces Commander, Maj. Gen. Sarath Munasinghe couldn’t handle the situation. The SLA continued to downplay losses, though the LTTE’s London Secretariat issued statements regularly. The London Secretariat declared that the SLA was retreating and wasn’t in a position to resist the LTTE advance.
PA, UNP targeted
Sri Lanka was facing an unprecedented crisis. The SLA was under attack on the Jaffna front. It was on the defensive. The SLA deployed in Vavuniya, Mannar and Weli Oya, too, was on a defensive posture having experienced a humiliating defeat at the hands of the LTTE. The SLA didn’t have any reserve forces for deployment in the northern theatre, whereas the LTTE freely operated in the Vanni. It had the wherewithal to engage demoralised government forces. Amidst the crisis in the North, the LTTE struck in Colombo on the night of Dec. 18, 1999, two days before the presidential election. A lone suicide bomber targeted President Kumaratunga at her final propaganda rally at Town Hall, whereas another assassin blew up Maj. Gen. Algama at a UNP election rally at Ja-ela. The female bomber, who targeted the President, is believed to have come for a meeting with the supporters of an SLFP Minister. It was the second occasion, where the LTTE targeted a presidential candidate. In the run-up to the Nov. 1994 Presidential election, the LTTE assassinated UNP candidate, Gamini Dissanayake. Mrs. Kumaratunga was in the presidential fray for the first time in Nov 1994. In Dec. 1999, it was her turn to be targeted by the LTTE.
On the night of Dec 4, 1999, TULF General Secretary, R. Sampanthan made an important announcement as regards the Dec 21, 1999, presidential election. At the behest of the LTTE, the TULF veteran declared that Tamil speaking people would boycott the presidential poll. The decision was taken by the Central Committee of the TULF (TULF asks voters to reject both Chandrika and Ranil – The Island Dec. 5, 1999).