From left to right: Lt Col. Vipul Boteju, Lt Col. Sarath Jayawardane, Col. Wijaya Wimalaratne, Brig. Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Maj Gotabaya Rajapakse
In response to the growing threat, particularly in the Jaffna peninsula, the army gradually expanded its bases in areas vulnerable to attacks. The then JRJ government brought in foreign instructors to train the army while officers were also sent abroad for specialised training. In spite of the army build-up and the formation of the elite Special Task Force (STF) in 1983 to quell terrorism in the Jaffna peninsula, by early 1987 Tamil militant groups posed a major threat to major army bases in the Northern Province. Of the five terrorist groups sponsored by India, the LTTE was the most efficient and it had the wherewithal to engage any military base in the Northern Province.
The government shifted the STF from the Jaffna peninsula to the Eastern Province in late 1984 giving the army an opportunity to concentrate on security in the area. By 1987 the STF was in a commanding position in the Ampara and Batticaloa districts, though the LTTE remained active.
LTTE emerges as dominant group in Jaffna
In late March 1987 LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran launched a multi-pronged attack on troops based at the Jaffna Fort and nearby army-held telecommunications building. The LTTE also launched simultaneous attacks on troops deployed at Kayts and Mandaitivu. Although the army managed to repulse these attacks, the LTTE showed its capability to engage the army simultaneously on multiple fronts. The army was struggling in the Jaffna peninsula. The police could not meet the terrorist threat on their own in the Jaffna peninsula. The army was compelled to protect police stations.
In early April 1987, the LTTE sent shock waves through the government when it attacked the army base at Valvettiturai. Although it could not overrun the camp, the assault highlighted the LTTE’s growing strength as well as its emergence as the dominant group in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The army bases at Thondamannarru and Point Pedro had to fire artillery in support of the beleaguered Valvettiturai camp.
In the third week of April 1987, the LTTE mounted a major attack on the army detachment at Kankesanthurai. The deployment was in line with the security plan for Kankesanthurai harbour. The LTTE killed nearly 20 troops before calling off the attack. The army realised that the LTTE was rapidly building up its firepower for a major showdown in the Jaffna peninsula.
LTTE attacks in March and April 1987 attracted many new cadres to the LTTE with a section of the media highlighting the LTTE as the dominant Tamil group battling the army. The police were no longer capable of conducting normal law enforcement operations. The LTTE maintained a permanent presence outside all police and security forces bases in the Jaffna peninsula. The army was trapped in the Jaffna peninsula. Movements between bases were increasingly vulnerable to attacks. By early 1987, the LTTE had the upper hand in the Jaffna peninsula. It could also conduct operations elsewhere. Although the army and the STF conducted limited operations in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, respectively, the LTTE could not be subdued.
The LTTE posed a formidable challenge to the army which was struggling to come to terms with the growing sophistication of the LTTE as well as other groups. The army felt threatened inside its well fortified bases in the Jaffna peninsula. The LTTE could never have challenged the army on its own. Within a four-year period since the killing of 13 soldiers at Thirunelveli, Jaffna on July 23, 1983, the LTTE had developed into a force with a semi conventional fighting capability thanks to India. It also developed a capacity to produce some of its own ammunition such as ‘baba’ mortars.
Although India resented Prabhakaran’s efforts to establish superiority over other Tamil groups, the LTTE chief didn’t alter his strategy. The LTTE gradually isolated outfits such as TELO, which at that time was the organisation favoured by India. The LTTE conducted a series of operations in the Jaffna peninsula targeting rival groups, though India strongly objected to the LTTE project. Having crushed the rivals, the LTTE emerged as the dominant Indian trained group in the Jaffna peninsula by early 1987.
Terrorists receive training in Lebanon
Terrorists received military training in Lebanon many years before India launched its destabilisation project targeting Sri Lanka. One-time PLOTE commander Uma Maheswaran was among those who benefited from military training in Lebanon subsequent to contacts UK-based Tamils made with the Palestinians. But, the training received in terrorist bases in Lebanon was nothing compared to the clandestine Indian project. They blew up a brand new Hawker–Siddeley (Avro) 748 turboprop aircraft belonging to Air Ceylon on Sept. 7, 1978 at the Ratmalana airport. An explosion caused a fire in the aircraft shortly after it arrived from Palaly airport carrying a group of passengers. One of the passengers was believed to have left an explosive device. It was the first major terrorist attack carried out five years before the Black July riots in the immediate aftermath of the killing of 13 soldiers in Jaffna.
Fearing a further deterioration of security situation in the Jaffna peninsula in the wake of attacks directed at bases at Jaffna, adjoining telecommunications building, Kayts, Mandaitivu, Valvettiturai and Kankesanthurai, the government felt a large scale military offensive was necessary to dislodge the LTTE from the Jaffna peninsula. The government felt that the LTTE units in the Jaffna peninsula could be annihilated, though some would be able to take refuge in the Vanni mainland. JRJ’s priority was restoring civil administration in the Jaffna peninsula. Although the army had conducted many operations since the escalation of the conflict, it was not conversant with the deployment of Brigade-level formations. The military leadership felt that two Brigades could carry out the first phase of the operation launched at first light on May 26, 1987. The then Brig. Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Col. Wijaya Wimalaratne commanded the two formations. It was the army’s first operation, involving Brigade sized fighting formations, though both were under strength. Although an infantry Brigade comprised three battalions, the formations under Brig. Kobbekaduwa and Col. Wimalaratne had two infantry battalions each and other support elements.
India supports SLA
In the run-up to Operation Liberation, the army received Indian support to train young officers. One-time army Commander Gen. Gerry H. de Silva (1994-1996) in his memoirs, A most noble profession, launched in 2011 discussed Indian support to expand the army before New Delhi threw its full weight behind terrorist groups. During the tenure of General Tissa Weeratunge (1981-1985) as Commander of the army,India trained SLA officer corps. Training of officers of the Short Service Commissioned (SSC) in batches of 50 was carried out in Chennai. They were deployed in operational areas as soon as they returned from Chennai. In a brief interview with this writer last Friday (Jan.4, 2013), Gen. de Silva asserted that they had to be given command responsibility though six months of military training was wholly inadequate to meet the challenging task.
On a suggestion by de Silva, the then Commandant of the Combat Training School (CTS) at Ampara, the army chief authorised an additional six months training for those returning from Chennai in conventional warfare and counter insurgency operations. Training at the CTS was followed by four weeks training at the commando training school.
From the CTS, de Silva moved to Minneriya as the first Commandant of the Infantry Training Centre. In his memoirs, de Silva recalls with respect the role played by the then Majors P. W. Jayantha de Silva, Vipul Boteju and Hiran Halangoda in their capacity as chief instructors at training facilities at Ampara and Minneriya. Training was the key to our ultimate success, Gen. Silva said.
SLA alters battle plan
Gen. Silva explained the circumstances under which the army had launched Operation Liberation in the Jaffna peninsula. Due to reluctance on the part of the JRJ administration to increase the strength of the army, Operation Liberation had to be altered drastically. Although the government wanted to restore civil administration in the Jaffna administrative district, it refused to make available ground forces required to meet operational comments. Operation Liberation was to be implemented in four phases. The first phase envisaged liberation of Jaffna municipal limits in an eight-day operation. The army planned to launch two brigades from Palaly straddling Palaly-Jaffna road. The two formations were to be commanded by Brig. Kobbekaduwa and Col. Wimalaratne. The two brigade commanders and Brig. de Silva were given an opportunity to meet JRJ to discuss the plan in early 1987. Much to the disappointment of the army, JRJ turned down the plan soon after Brig. Silva explained that a Brigade (three battalions) was needed to hold the Jaffna municipal limits. The political leadership ruled out the possibility of additional funds for the expansion of the army. The army was directed to come up with an alternative plan which could be implemented with available assets. The political leadership also overrated the power of the SLAF. The UNP was of the opinion that heavy SLAF bombing campaign targeting terrorist bases in the Jaffna peninsula could facilitate ground operations. According to Gen. Silva, JRJ had inquired why the army needed eight days to march from Palaly to Jaffna – a distance of 11 miles when SLAF could ‘carpet bomb’ the area to pave the way for ground forces to advance swiftly. Although the SLAF gradually developed into a lethal force and played a crucial role in Eelam War IV, it never had the capacity to carpet bomb the Jaffna peninsula comprising Valigamam, Thennamarachchy and Vadamarachchy divisions. Jaffna is situated in Valigamam.
Having received a directive to revise the battle plan, the army decided to liberate Vadamarachchy division.
Operation gets underway
Col. Wimalaratne was on the northern front. The Gajaba Regiment (GR) veteran was to secure the Thondamannar-Point Pedro road. Brig. Kobbekaduwa’s formation was to take Puloly-Point Pedro road. Col. Wimalaratne’s Brigade was tasked to capture Valvettiturai, whereas Brig. Kobbekaduwa was to capture Nelliady. Phase I of the Operation Liberation envisaged restoring civil administration in Vadamarachchy.
Col. Wimalaratne’s Brigade included 1st GR commanded by Maj. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and 1 GW (Gemunu Watch) commanded by the then Lt. Col Vipul Boteju. Brig. Kobbekaduwa’s formation included 2 GR and I CLI (Ceylon Light Infantry a.k.a Sri Lanka Light Infantry) commanded by Lt. Col. Sathis Jayasundera and Lt. Col. Narada Wickremeratne.
The then Lt. Shavendra Silva was Maj. Rajapaksa’s adjutant. The Gajaba Lt. survived in spite of being seriously wounded during Operation Liberation to command army’s most successful fighting formation Task Force I (TF I) subsequently named 58 Division (Sept 2007-May 2009). At the height of Eelam War IV, the then Brig. Shavendra Silva commanded almost two dozen battalions.
The two formations were to trap the enemy combatants within Vadamarachchy. It was a daunting task due to absence of adequate troops to plug gaps. Although the army deployed elite commandos in support of regular troops to prevent the enemy fleeing the area, the army could not achieve the desired results.
The army feared the possibility of the LTTE mounting major attacks in areas outside Vadamarachchy soon after Col. Wimalaratne and Brig. Kobbekaduwa went on the offensive. In line with the overall strategy to meet any eventuality, Brig. de Silva, in his capacity as the senior officer in the peninsula, was responsible for both defensive and offensive action in areas outside Vadamarachchy. Troops under Brig. de Silva engaged in action to camouflage the army’s real objective.
The army launched offensive action at Palaly, Kankesanthurai, Thondamannar, Keeramalai, Jaffna Fort, Navatkuli, Karainagar, Mandaitivu, Pooneryn and Elephant Pass in a bid to conceal the two-pronged thrust.
The operation launched from Jaffna Fort claimed the lives of 28 LTTE personnel, including eight women. It was conducted by the then Lt. Col. Asoka Jayewardene. Jayewardene served the army for many years, mostly in operational areas before retiring in the rank of Maj. Gen. Subsequently he was appointed Defence Secretary by President Chandrika Kumaratunga before being replaced by Lt. Col. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in Nov 2005.
The first phase of Operation Liberation was concluded within five days. The army took a break ahead of the launch of the second phase.