Army chief, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka was on an official visit to China when Brig. Shavendra Silva’s celebrated 58 Division prepared to launch the final clearing operation targeting the cornered Tigers taking refuge among civilians in a two-square-kilometre patch of land in Vellimullivaikkal. Brig. Silva was confident of wiping what remained of the LTTE’s military wing.
Although the Army Commander was away for about a week, he was in touch with field commanders. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, too, was abroad as the army surrounded Vellimullivaikkal.
Having finalized preparations for the assault, the 58 Division chief was at his headquarters when a lagoon borne LTTE group overran a section of the frontline held by the 53 Division. The LTTE operation got underway at 3 a.m. on May 17, 2009. Although the LTTE managed to overrun army defences, it couldn’t sustain the assault until it could clear a path for their leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and his family to escape into the nearby jungles. Unbeknownst to the army, Prabhakaran, his family and a team of close protection personnel were trapped either in the Nanthikadal lagoon or the two square km area. A section of the army top bass feared Prabhakaran had escaped amidst battlefield chaos. (The previous piece dealt with two abortive LTTE attempts to escape through the area held by the 53 Division).
The 58 Division had no option but to suspend the final assault and stabilize the situation in the neighbouring area. Brig. Silva spearheaded the stabilization effort. The absence of Sinha Regiment veteran Lt. Gen. Fonseka worsened the situation. The ground commanders faced the unenviable task of explaining the failure on their part to prevent Prabhakaran’s escape. What they didn’t know at that time was that the leader was still alive and kicking. The 58 Division blocked all land access to the 2 square km area, where the LTTE leader was believed to be trapped, while leaving the lagoon front open.
At one point Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa directed the SLAF to operate an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) in support of ground forces even after its operating hours. He emphasized that all support should be given to ground forces to achieve their goal event at the risk of losing the precious UAV.
Last minute change in 58 Div command proposed
President Rajapaksa returned to the country on the morning of May 17, 2009 from Jordan. Lt. Gen. Fonseka returned from China close to midnight also on the same day. The hot tempered Army Chief flayed those responsible for the setback. Having reviewed the ground situation, Lt. Gen. Fonseka wanted Brig. Shavendra Silva to handle the crisis caused by the LTTE attack. He suggested that Brig. Silva hand over the command of the 58 Division to Brig. Prasanna Silva, at that time the commanding officer of 59 Division. The proposal was made before the LTTE made its second escape bid in the wee hours of May 18, 2009. Brig. Silva promptly assured the Army chief that he could handle both and went on to launch the final assault. Within hours, the 58 Division cleared the last LTTE pocket. The then Vanni Security Forces Commander Maj. Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya (present Army Commander), too, spoke to Lt. Gen. Fonseka on Brig. Silva’s behalf.
In the second week of May, 2009, Lt. Gen. Fonseka shifted Brig. Silva from the 55 Division to the 59 Division. He succeeded Brig. Chagi Gallage.
58 Div overruns last LTTE pocket
Troops cleared the area around 11. 30 a.m. on May 18, 2009. The Tigers died fighting advancing troops, while some triggered massive explosions killing themselves in the process. Having cleared the area, Brig. Shavendra Silva phoned Lt. Gen. Fonseka to declare that the army had wrested control of the entire area. A jubilant Shavendra Silva told the army chief, “Sir you can now declare that the war is over”. Although the body of Prabhakaran wasn’t found, the army declared that ground operations were over on the afternoon of May 18, though troops remained on alert to face possible threats from residual LTTE elements hiding in the area. The army realized the possibility of some Tigers hiding in the Nanthikadal lagoon.
The government was concerned about the failure to recover the bodies of Prabhakaran and intelligence wing leader Shanmugalingam Sivashankar alias Pottu Amman as well as Sea Tiger leader Thillaiyampalan Sivanesan alias Soosai. During clearing operations during the day, troops recovered over 350 bodies. The army was able to identify bodies of about 30 senior LTTE cadres, though the most wanted men were still missing. However, the army couldn’t point a finger at the navy, though in the run-up to the final phase some alleged the LTTE could escape via the sea. At the conclusion of major ground operations, the 58 Division got down to the task of organizing the gun silencing ceremony. Brig. Shavendra Silva picked the beach close to FARAH III to hold the unprecedented ceremony. The Vanni Commander Maj. Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya was the chief guest on that occasion.
Confrontation in the lagoon
Task Force VIII commanded by then Colonel G.V. Ravipriya (present army spokesman) was given the task of clearing the last remaining patch of mangroves which lies south of the causeway at Karayamullavaikkal. In fact, Prabhakaran was hiding in the mangroves behind the 4 VIR (Vijayaba Infantry Regiment) frontline. The battalion was commanded by Lieutenant Col. Rohitha Aluwihare. Army commandos and 4 VIR launched the clearing operation at 8.30 a.m. on May 19, 2009. As army commandos had cleared a large part of mangroves the previous day, the army believed the clearing operation could be completed swiftly. In fact, the army didn’t expect Prabhakaran to be hiding in the mangroves. Had the top brass believed the LTTE leader’s presence in that particular spot, elite troops would have been ordered to clear the patch the previous day itself. Otherwise, troops would have moved at first light.
An eight-man contingent of 4 VIR Bravo company was deployed for the clearing operation. The team, led by Sergeant S.P. Wijesinghe, faced small arms fire as they advanced towards the mangroves. After the confrontation, Sgt. Wijesinghe’s team recovered five bodies. Among the dead was Vinodhan believed to be one of Prabhakaran’s escorts. Subsequently, two groups comprising 12 men also from 4 VIR Bravo company were deployed. Of them, the eight man team was led by Sergeant TM Muthubanda.
Troops exchanged fire with the Tigers hiding in the mangroves for about one hour. Suddenly, the resistance stopped. Troops cautiously approached the mangroves, where they found bodies of 18 persons, including that of Prabhakaran. He was in civilian attire. The army didn’t find a cyanide vial hanging around the LTTE chief’s neck. Instead, a dog tag bearing the number 001 dated 16.09.95 hung around his neck. Prabhakaran’s ‘Eelam’ identity card with his picture bearing number 01543301002 issued on 01.01.2007 with his personal details, date of birth – 26.11.1954, place of birth – Velvettiturai and occupation – Leader of the LTTE, was in his shirt pocket.