LTTE fires 152 mm artillery piece captured from Elephant Pass army base (pic released by the LTTE International Secretariat in London)
Having survived an LTTE assassination bid on her life on the night on Dec 19, 1999, an irate President Chandrika Kumaratunga, in an exclusive interview with BBC, revealed secret negotiations she had had with the LTTE to allow LTTE theoretician, Anton Balasingham to leave the Vanni for urgent medical treatment abroad. President Kumaratunga named Norway as the go-between the GoSL and the LTTE, much to the embarrassment of Norway. Years later, Norwegian Minister Erik Solheim revealed how he had initiated secret talks through the Norwegian Ambassador in Colombo at that time Jon Westborg. Solheim was acting on representations made to him by the LTTE in Oslo. According to Solheim negotiations had been handled by President Kumaratunga and Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in the run-up to the assassination attempt. However, talks failed to produce an agreement on safe passage for the former British High Commission employee married to Australian born, Adele. (Negotiating Peace in Sri Lanka: Efforts, Failures and Lessons Volume II).
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), too, was involved in the abortive attempt to arrange for Balasingham’s safe passage. In her 2001 book, The Will to Freedom: an inside View of Tamil Resistance, Adele accused President Kumaratunga of having laid down unreasonable conditions, hence causing the collapse of her negotiations with the Tigers.
But, the LTTE managed to smuggle out the Balasinghams to a South East Asian country on a ship before British authorities could help them fly to London. In an interview with the UK based Tamil Guardian International, Balasingham revealed the role played by the UK in helping them to reach London. The attempt on President Kumaratunga was made after the Balasinghalms had left Sri Lanka. In fact, the British High Commission denied having any prior knowledge of the LTTE spokesman’s arrival in London during 1999 (Balasingham reveals British hand in secret journey––The Island March 26, 2000).
The attempt on President Kumaratunga’s life should be examined against the backdrop of the LTTE blaming her for the collapse of talks on safe passage for Balasingham. When the LTTE tried to assassinate President Kumaratunga two days before Dec. 21, 1999 presidential poll, the LTTE was in full control on the Vanni front. The LTTE was on the offensive when President Kumaratunga was recuperating at the Nawaloka Hospital, under heavy guard.
Tigers secure beachhead in Jaffna
LTTE flag raised at Elephant Pass
By the time President Kumaratunga returned to Temple Trees following surgery at Nawaloka within 48 hours of the attack, the LTTE had established its presence in the Jaffna peninsula. The GoSL liberated the entire Jaffna peninsula in late May 1996, forcing the LTTE to withdraw across the Jaffna lagoon to the Vanni mainland. Having regained all areas it had lost to the Sri Lankan military during the period from May 1997 to Nov. 1999, the LTTE stepped up attacks on the peninsula. By the third week of Dec. 1999, the LTTE had secured a foothold at Thanankilappu, Jaffna. The LTTE gradually overcame SLA and SLN resistance to set up base at Thanankilappu. Sea Tigers ferried combat units across the Jaffna lagoon to Thanankilappu in the Chavakachcheri sector. The SLA was preoccupied with the deteriorating situation at Elephant Pass, where the 54 Division was under massive attack. The SLA failed to dislodge the group conducting operations in and around Thanankilappu.
While fighting continued on the northern front, one-time Norwegian Foreign Minister Knut Volleback visited Colombo on Feb. 16, 2000 to discuss ways and means of bringing the LTTE back to the negotiating table.
In March 2000, President Chandrika Kumaratunga prematurely retired seven SLA officers, including two Majors General and one Brigadier for their failure to thwart an LTTE offensive in Nov 1999 directed at the SLA deployed on the Vanni front. The government asserted that the situation in the Northern Province wouldn’t have deteriorated to such an extent if the SLA repulsed the LTTE offensive. They were found guilty by a tri-services Court of Inquiry. But, they were cleared of political conspiracy, though the PA accused a section of the SLA of having engineered the Vanni debacle at the behest of the UNP, a charge vehemently denied by the main Opposition party (Government retires seven army officers over Vanni defeat …but fails to link them with political conspiracy––The Island March 2000). Security Forces Commander Vanni Maj. Gen. Wasantha Perera, Maj. Gen. Gamini Gunasekera (General Officer Commanding 56 Division) and Brigadier T. Bohoran (General Officer Commanding 55 Division) and three officers of the Sri Lanka National Guard (SLNG) and one Sinha Regiment officer were sent out of the SLA.
LTTE secures second beachhead
In the wake of the LTTE strengthening its position at Thanankilappu and both east and west of Elephant Pass, the LTTE carried out its biggest amphibious operation on the night of March 26, 2000 to open a new front targeting Elephant Pass. The Sea Tigers deployed every available craft it had to ferry about 1,200 personnel from the Vanni mainland to the Vadamaratchchy coast. Obviously, the SLA didn’t anticipate such a large scale deployment of amphibious forces. The SLN couldn’t thwart the transfer of men, though Fast Attack Craft (FAC) intercepted some Sea Tiger craft off the Vadamaratchchy coast. Having secured Kudaarappu and Manmunai swiftly, the attacking force crossed the inland lagoon and marshy lands to reach an earth bund erected by the SLA at Massaar. The SLA retreated, paving the way for the LTTE to reach the Kandy-Jaffna A 9 road. Within hours, the LTTE cut off the road at Pallai. The LTTE evicted the SLA from the Pallai-Eluthumaduval sector. The rapidity of the LTTE assault took the SLA by surprise. It didn’t even have the time to react. Obviously, it didn’t have a contingency plan. Sea borne raiders led by Balraj, one of the most experienced LTTE commanders caused heavy damage to the SLA (LTTE mounts major strike on Elephant Pass-Jaffna MSR––The Island March 28, 2000, Navy intercepts boats carrying LTTE reinforcements with strap line Forces vacate Manmunai detachment––The Island March 29, 2000, Troops withdrawn from Maruthankerny––The Island March 30, 2000 and LTTE pours more reinforcements into peninsula battle––The Island March 30, 2000).
Although the SLA succeeded in regaining a part of lost territory, the LTTE continued to hinder supplies to the beleaguered troops deployed under the command of the 54 Division. The LTTE sustained offensive action on multiple fronts as demoralized troops abandoned their positions. Some even inflicted gunshot injuries on themselves to get themselves admitted to a medical facility. In the face of an unprecedented defeat, some senior officers sought medical leave. The SLA realized that it couldn’t reverse the situation in the Jaffna peninsula. By the middle of April 2000, the LTTE was able to cut off the 54 Division troops deployed in and around Elephant Pass. By then, the SLA had abandoned the entire area liberated during Operation Sath Jaya (July-Sept 1996). The SLA abandoned Elephant Pass on April 22, 2000. With that the 54 Division, which was established in the wake of the liberation of Kilinochchi in late Sept 1996, ceased to exist. The SLA never explained its failure to prevent the LTTE overrunning the 54 Division. It was the worst defeat experienced by the SLA since Independence. The Elephant Pass battle transformed the LTTE from a guerilla force to a conventional fighting force capable of conducting operations on multiple fronts. The SLA retreated leaving behind a massive stock of arms, ammunition and equipment, including artillery pieces. Some of the officers, including the last General Officer Commanding (GoC) 54 Division Maj. Gen. K. B. Egodawela survived the battle. Soon after the government authorized the SLA to vacate Elephant Pass on the late afternoon of April 20, 2000, Maj. Gen. Egodawela escaped ahead of troops. His deputy, Colonel Percy Fernando died while retreating with troops. At the time SLA abandoned Elephant Pass, President Kumaratunga was overseas.
PA, UNP under fire
The National Joint Committee (NJC) spearheaded a strong campaign in support of the SLA calling for an all out war against the LTTE. The NJC demanded that the PA adopt a tangible action plan to eradicate terrorism. Dr. Piyasena Dissanayake of the NJC was one of the very few people, who publicly condemned the PA and the UNP for failing to fight the common enemy. In the immediate aftermath of the LTTE stepping up operations targeting Jaffna in late March, 2000, Dr. Piyasena pointed out the absurdity in the PA and the UNP having talks with the LTTE through the Norwegians at a time the enemy was all out to strengthen its position in the Northern Province (PA-UNP talks while LTTE seeks military gains––The Island March 29, 2000).
The NJC appreciated Army chief, Lt. Gen. Sri Lal Weerasooriya’s declaration that the LTTE should be defeated, militarily. Making a passionate statement on March 16, 2000, the Army Commander said that the LTTE could be defeated if sufficient number of troops was made available for the fighting forces. Much to the embarrassment and anger of the political leadership, the Lt. Gen. strongly backed the four Mahanayakes’ call to destroy the LTTE (Army echoes Mahanayakas’ call to destroy terrorists––The Island March 19, 2000).
The NJC stoutly opposed the Norwegian intervention. The SLFP remained mum. No one dared to issue a statement on behalf of the SLFP as the SLA struggled on the Northern front. Having captured Elephant Pass, the LTTE brought in additional forces into the Jaffna theatre. Until experiencing the debilitating loss at Elephant Pass, the PA never thought of assigning Maj. Gen. Janaka Perera to take over the Jaffna Command. The PA also ignored Maj. General Sarath Fonseka. Maj. Gen. Perera was named the Overall Operations Commander (OOC) and sent to Jaffna. Maj. General Fonseka was named Jaffna Security Forces Commander. It was nothing but a great mystery why the PA had waited for so long to assign the experienced duo to counter the LTTE attack. President Kumaratunga and her advisors obviously didn’t realize the gravity of the situation. Having allowed the LTTE to take the upper hand in the northern theatre, the President emphasized in April that the SLA should regain what had been lost (President orders recovery of all lost areas––The Island April 23, 2000).
Interestingly, the President recreated the post of OOC, which she had scrapped on June 9, 1999. The appointment was made with effect from April 21, 2000, a day after the SLA had decided to vacate the base. The post of OOC was created on May 27, 1999. Seven days later Lt. Gen. Rohan De S. Daluwatte was named the first OOC and a member of the National Security Council (NSC). President Kumaratunga scrapped the post on June 9, 1999 citing an alleged attempt by some officials to prompt her to make an unnecessary appointment (Post set up, scrapped and restored––The Island April 23, 2000).
The prevailing censorship prevented the media from reporting what was going on in the North. The Operational Headquarters of the Defence Ministry engaged in a desperate damage control exercise.
The Operational Headquarters completely censored a statement issued by the LTTE Secretariat in London on the late afternoon of April 22, 2000 as regards the situation at Elephant Pass (Massive attack on Elephant Pass––The Island April 23, 2000).
Post-Elephant Pass media briefing
Army chief, Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya and Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. Lionel Balagalle on April 24, 2000 declared in Colombo that Jaffna could be defended, though Elephant Pass had been abandoned. They asserted that the SLA could consolidate its positions at Soranpattu, north west of Iyakachchi thereby thwarting further LTTE advances (New strategy needed after Elephant Pass loss says army chief––The Island April 26, 2000). The then military spokesman Brigadier Palitha Fernando (now on Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s staff), explained the difficulties experienced by the SLA due to vacancies among fighting battalions. Brig. Fernando asserted that the shortage of manpower faced by regular fighting formations was acute when compared with the elite 53 Division. They were addressing the media at SLA headquarters on the night of April 24, 2000. They were joined by Vice Admiral Cecil Tissera and Air Marshal Jayalath Weerakkody.
Obviously, Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya and Maj. Gen. Balagalle underestimated the crisis. The SLA couldn’t hold Soranpattu in the face of coordinated LTTE attacks. The LTTE increased pressure on the SLA by returning bodies of officers and men through the ICRC. On one occasion, the LTTE handed over 126 bodies of those killed in and around Elephant Pass to the ICRC to be moved to Vavuniya (LTTE returns bodies of 126 army men through the ICRC––The Island April 24, 2000).
The army chief also downplayed the losses suffered by his troops. The LTTE issued a statement from London claiming that the 54 Division had retreated, leaving behind three 152 mm artillery pieces, two 122 mm artillery pieces, twelve 122 heavy mortars, one 25 mm cannon, several 50 calibre guns, rocket propelled grenades, armoured fighting vehicles, trucks and sophisticated communication equipment. Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya asserted that the failure to abandon the base, could have trapped thousands of personnel, causing a catastrophic situation (Pass withdrawal purely military, says Army chief––The Island April 25, 2000).
The Army chief stressed that he had never asked the government to impose censorship. The media raised the issue of ongoing censorship at the special media briefing called in the wake of Sri Lanka’s worst battlefield defeat.
Responding to a query, Air Marshal Weerakkody declared that Palaly was not under threat from LTTE field guns. The President was still away from the country.
The SLA suffered another heavy loss about a week after the Elephant Pass debacle. It abandoned its positions at Ittavil, Pulopullai and Pallai, leaving behind the bodies of officers and men. The retreating SLA didn’t even try to recover weapons or at least destabilize them. (LTTE captures Pallai––The Island May 2, 2000). The LTTE continued to return bodies of soldiers through the ICRC to humiliate the SLA (LTTE to return 50 bodies––The Island May 2, 2000).
In the first week of May, 2000, the government announced its decision to establish full diplomatic ties with Israel. The Foreign Ministry said that it was part of overall measures taken to strengthen Sri Lanka’s fight against terrorism. The PA never bothered to explain why it had waited till the LTTE threatened to attack Jaffna to resume full diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.