Having secured LTTE strongholds Vishvamadu, Suwandirampuram and Thevipuram east of the Kandy-Jaffna A-9 road, the indomitable 58 Division was poised to advance on Iranapalai, widely believed to be the domain of LTTE Intelligence chief Shanmugalingam Sivashankar aka ‘Pottu Amman.’
The then Brig. Shavendra Silva’s fighting formation was preparing for high intensity battles for Iranapalai when the LTTE struck in Colombo on the night of Feb. 20 2009. It was nothing but an attempt to flaunt its military capability in the wake of successive battlefield defeats.
Last air raids target Colombo, Katunayake
The air raids on Colombo and Katunayake came as no surprise. In fact, even before the two Tiger aircraft had taken off from Puththukudirippu east, the army on the eastern flank knew the Tigers were mounting its last attack. The 12 GR (Gajaba Regiment) troops of the 58 Division had heard the roar of the rogue aircraft engines. After having briefed an SLAF officer attached to the 58 Division of the impending attack, the army on the eastern flank were placed on the alert. The troops of the Task Force IV commanded by Colonel Nishantha Wanniarachchi, too, had heard the sound of the aircraft engines. The initial detection was made at 8.35 pm.
These were the first suicide attacks attempted by the LTTE since its air wing launched operations two years back. With the area under its control down to approximately 100 sq. km, the LTTE had no option but to use its aircraft on one final mission. With the 58 Division now fighting its way into Puthukudirippu east after having secured Puthkudirippu west and the entire Ampalavanpokkani area under its control by Thursday (Feb. 20, 2009), the LTTE was rapidly losing ground on the eastern flank.
Despite being alerted first by the army and then tracked down by 2D radar supplied by India and 3D radar from China, F7 interceptor aircraft failed to successfully destroy the LTTE planes. Although the Chinese interceptors lost the opportunity, SLAF anti-aircraft fire brought down one of the Czechoslovakian built Zlin 143 aircraft packed with 215 slabs of plastic explosives weighing 140 kgs as it approached the Katunayake air base. A heat seeking missile fired at the aircraft, too, had failed to lock. But, heavy anti-aircraft fire directed by ground troops had hit both the aircraft and its pilot.
In Colombo, the second explosives-packed aircraft approaching the SLAF headquarters was hit by anti-aircraft fire as it flew over the harbour. According to a report posted on Tamil Net on Friday night, Black Air Tigers had targeted the multi-storied SLAF headquarters and Katunayake airbase where the Kfir, MiG and F7 squadrons are based.
The Tigers also released photograph of the two Black Air Tigers, ‘Colonel’ Roopan and “Lieutenant Colonel’ Siriththiran with Prabhakaran before embarking on their suicide mission.
TamilNet reported that both pilots had been previously decorated with what the LTTE called the Blue Tiger award for having carried out successful air raids on enemy targets.
Although the Black Tiger approaching Katunayake had to abort his mission after being hit by small arms fire and crash land his fixed wing aircraft into a marsh, the second suicide aircraft, forced to abandon its intended target (SLAF HQ), hit the Inland Revenue headquarters building triggering a massive explosion. The aircraft is believed to have been hit by a 14.5 mm weapon mounted on the roof top of Rangala naval base.
Defence spokesman Minister Keheliya Rambukwella, who had been with a group of security forces officers on board the Jetliner troop ferry at the Colombo Port had sighted the aircraft first as it flew over the port. Addressing the media immediately after the raid, Minister Rambukwella recalled a cartoon which depicted an LTTE aircraft going through the ears of Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and then through his (Rambukwelle’a legs). Minister Rambukwella said that he could imagine the media blitz had Air Tigers managed to escape (A smaller force for final battle––The Island Feb 23 2009).
Shooting down of the LTTE aircraft couldn’t have come at a better time as the government prepared for elections for the Western Provincial Council (WPC). It gave a tremendous boost to the ruling coalition, particularly in the Western Province and re-assure people that Air Tigers no longer posed a threat.
Troops find P’karan menu
Government propagandists accused Prabhakaran and his senior cadres of having led a luxurious life in the Vanni after the army recovered a menu from an underground facility believed to be used by Prabhakaran, in the Vishvamadu area, during a search operation conducted by the 58 Division north of the Paranthan-Mullaitivu (A35) road on Feb. 6.
The LTTE leadership was accused of feasting on biriyani with chicken curry. According to the menu, the LTTE leadership had been served noodles with meat, fried rice with prawns, cuttle fish or meat and a range of other items including string hoppers, roti, thosai, pittu, chapatti, boiled peas, milk rice, herbal drinks, bread, chutney, dry fish, fried fish, sambol and vegetables.
Fall of Pottu’s bastion
The 58 Division planned meticulously for the assault on Iranapalai held by some of elite fighting cadres of the LTTE. The LTTE had strong fortifications. Troops were aware of the possibility of the defenders causing huge explosions in selected areas in case of being forced to vacate their positions. Although some felt Pottu could destroy his house before fleeing the area they was surprised to see it, intact, at the conclusion of the Iranapalai battle. Troops also found Pottu Amman’s Dalmatians as well as his jeep.
The 58.3 Brigade advancing north of Paranthan- Mullaitivu A-35 road struggled in the face of a fortified earth bund where LTTE fought fiercely. The LTTE fired artillery and mortars at the advancing troops taking cover behind the civilians. The 11 SLLI (Sri Lanka Light Infantry) advanced along the lagoon front under heavy rain.
In spite of inclement weather, 10 SLLI, 11 SLLI, 10 GR troops overwhelmed the LTTE cadres defending Puthukudirippu-Puthumathalan road and Iranapalai and Ampalawanpokkanai road by Mar. 19 2009.
LTTE loses armoured fighting vehicle
Brig. Silva launched a multi-pronged assault on Iranapalai with 10 SLLI and 11 SLLI advancing from one direction and 10 GR from another. Light infantry troops moved from the north whereas Gajaba troops advanced from the south. Although LTTE units fought hard, they couldn’t stall the advancing troops. During the battle, troops destroyed an LTTE armoured fighting vehicle killing all occupants. It was the first destruction of an armoured vehicle during the Vanni offensive by any of the fighting formations launched by Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka.
The LTTE launched several counter attacks on the army advancing on Pottu Amman’s bastion. Ground troops backed by armour and artillery repulsed a series of counter attacks to pave the way for the infantry to move in. Young officers and men displayed exceptional bravery when they carried out a series of claymore mine attacks targeting the LTTE. The 58 Division paid a heavy price to capture Iranapalai mainly due to heavy mortar fire and indiscriminate use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
The fall of Iranapalai and the capture of Puthukudirippu-Puthumathalan road and Iranapalai and Ampalawanpokkanai road, helped many civilians, who had been trapped in Puthumathalan to run across the frontline to take refuge in the government held area. They did so amidst heavy gun battles. The 58 Division was forced to suspend firing on many occasions as civilians fled for their lives. Troops experienced great difficulty due to large groups of civilians trapped within the area of operations.
The 58 Division cleared Iranapalai by the third week of March 2009. By that time, most of the fighting formations had stopped offensive operations and were engaged in clearing operations in liberated areas. The 57 and 59 Divisions as well as Task Force II, TF III and TF VIII received instructions from Lt. Gen. Fonseka to suspend offensive actions as the area under LTTE controlled shrink to about 100 square km. By third week of Feb. 2009, the 58, 53 and 55 Divisions and TF IV remained on the move (A smaller force for the final battle––The Island Feb 23 2009).
The army had no option but to stop five formations as there was no room for all nine to operate east of the A-9. Only international intervention could have saved the LTTE. In a desperate bid, the LTTE massacred 21 Sinhala villagers at Kirimetiyaya in the Inginiyagala police area, situated along the Bibile-Ampara road (Forces on alert after massacre of 21 in the East––The Island Feb 23 2009).
Under heavy pressure from Tamil Nadu, India reiterated its call for a negotiated settlement. But President Mahinda Rajapaksa was not in a mood to suspend Sri Lanka’s most successful combined security forces campaign against the LTTE. As the army declared the fall of Iranapalai, the then Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee declared that there was no military solution to the conflict and Sri Lanka needed an arrangement in which the aspirations of Sri Lankan Tamils and other ethnic minorities in the country could be taken care of.
Satellite communication facility seized
In the last week of Feb. 2009, the 58 Division captured a high-tech satellite communication facility west of Puthukudirippu. Some of the equipment recovered by 10 GR troops belonged INGOs, Oxfam and Save the Children. The facility had been powered by soundproof electricity generators (Gajaba troops seize satellite communication facility––The Island Mar. 2, 2009).
The army re-opened the Kandy-Jaffna A-9 road on March 2, 2009 for military traffic hence bringing costly air and sea transports to an end. Although the army regained the A-9 by Jan 9, 2009, Lt. Gen. Fonseka delayed the re-opening of the road until his troops restricted the enemy to an ears encompassing less than 100 sq. km. The army lost the overland main supply route in June 1990 during Ranasinghe Premadasa’s presidency (A9 opened for ‘Jaffna convoys’––The Island March 2, 2009). Although the Norwegian arranged Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) in Feb 2002 provided for unarmed security forces convoys along the A-9, the armed forces didn’t want to take a chance. The then army Commander Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle told this writer on numerous occasions that only a fool would send unarmed convoys through LTTE infested jungles.
All pictures on this page were provided by Capt. Wasantha Jayaweera, formerly of the Special Forces. Jayaweera accompanied Brig. Shavendra Silva’s fighting formation throughout the Vanni campaign (Sept. 2007 to May 2009)