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 Post subject: 'Four Four Bravo’ ambush - July 23, 1983
 Post Posted: Sat Jul 29, 2006 1:52 am 
'Four Four Bravo’ ambush - July 23, 1983
Shades of a Black July

Few of us remember that there were 14 soldiers involved in the fateful July 23 ambush in Jaffna more than two decades ago. They belonged to the First Battalion of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry and they were on a routine patrol on the Palaly Jaffna road when the Tigers struck. Thirteen members of the patrol, including the commanding officer, Second Lieutenant Vas Gunewardane perished in the ensuing battle – one man lived to tell the tale.

Source - The Nation / Sunday Observer
25 July 2006

Upali Perera who still serves as a Lieutenant of the Sri Lanka Army, is probably the only man alive today with such unique insight into the battle that paved the way for the period known as Black July - a frenzied week of mob violence against the Tamil community in Colombo and other parts of the country. The ambush and the subsequent communal backlash – state sponsored or otherwise - was quite possibly the defining moment of the north east problem, transforming it from being just a question of Tamil militant insurgency to a full fledged civil war.

It was 1983. The LTTE militancy was growing stronger and the bank robberies and assassinations were becoming more frequent. The Chavacachcheri Police station had just been attacked by the Tigers. On July 5, 1983, the LTTE had attacked the Kankesanthurai Cement Factory and made away with an Exploder machine. The First Battalion of the light infantry were called in to intensify security in Jaffna. The battalion was being commanded by Col. Upali Tilakeratne. Jaffna Commander at the time was Brigadier Lyle Balthazaar. His headquarters were at Gurunagar. It was Major Sarath Munasinghe who was commanding officer at the Gurunagar Prevention of Terrorism Unit at the time.

Based on intelligence information, the army moved towards eliminating a major LTTE target – the man who was supposed to be Prabhakaran’s right hand. This was none other than Lucas Charles Anthony alias Seelan, who commandeered the Tiger operations while Prabhakaran was in India.

Seelan was surrounded in Meesalai, Chavacachcheri on July 15, 1983 and was killed along with two others in Sri Lanka Army fire. Seelan’s death reportedly incensed Prabhakaran, who felt his loss keenly and believed that this was to be a big blow for the LTTE. He vowed to avenge Seelan’s killing and intensified attacks against military targets. So greatly did Seelan’s death affect the LTTE leader, that he named his only son for his slain assistant, christening the child Charles Anthony.

Sathasivam Selvanayagam alias Sellakili and Kittu were entrusted with the task of attacking the army. By July 20, the Sri Lankan government had completely banned the media from reporting news about the LTTE. The government’s hardline further angered Prabhakaran who began plotting his revenge in earnest then. Sellakili decided on his Leader’s orders to ambush a military patrol. For two or three nights, he lay watching the movements of the night patrols. He decided that the best time for the attack would be between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. It was finally decided that a motor patrol of the Gurunagar base would be ambushed.

Near the Jaffna University, lay a very thin strip of road. At the time, ditches had been dug by the Telecommunications Department for new telephone wires to be laid. The LTTE seized the spot to lay their trap for the army patrol.

A committee comprising Tiger leaders Sellakili, Kittu, Aiiyar, Appaiyah, Victor, Pulendran, Santhosham was convened by Prabhakaran to sanction the attack. The date was chosen. The plan well laid out. The ambush was to take place on the night of July 23. The exploder machine – used for breaking up large stones at the cement factory was to be used to lay landmines which were to be exploded at the time of the ambush, the committee decided.

As this plan of attack was being laid, the military establishment received information about the movements of Sellakili and decided to send a commando unit to surround him somewhere near Kondavil on the same night – July 23, at a minute past midnight. Prior to the attack, the routine patrol was to go out and clear the area.

Second Lieutenant Vas Gunewardane was commanding officer of the route patrol that day. The Army convoy consisted of a Jeep bearing number AY 4889 and a Tata Benz half truck, 26 Sri 3193. In the Jeep was 2nd/Lt. Waas Gunawardene sitting next to the driver Private N.A.S. Manutange. In the rear seat were Lance Corporal G.D. Perera and Privates S.S. Amarasinghe, S.P.G. Rajatillake, K.P. Karunaratne. The 2nd/Lt had a SMG and the others SLRs (Self Loading Rifles).

All except the driver carried a hand grenade. In the half truck was Sergent S.I. Thelakaratne in the front seat with Corporal G.R. Perera at the wheel and Private A.J.R. Fernando between them. In the rear were Corporal R.A.U. Perera, Lance Corporal Sumathipala, Privates M.B. Sunil and D.N.A.D. Manapitiya all seated, Privates G. Robert and A.J. Wijesiri standing in the lookout position.

Within five minutes of leaving Urumpirai the Jeep was slowing down near Tinneveli because of the obstruction on the road due to the installation of telecommunication equipment. As it was passing the excavation on the road, the exploder set off the mines. There was a thunderous explosion, followed by a hail of machine gun fire on the Jeep and a still bigger barrage on the half-truck.

Corporal Upali Perera had just returned from providing security to the gunpowder storage unit of the KKS cement factory when he was assigned to the patrol.

“It must have been about 21:47 (9:47 p.m.). We were on our way back from the factory in Madagal and we were asked to report to Gurunagar. When we got there, we were informed of the route were to patrol. We were asked to return to base by midnight. After the route patrol, we had been assigned to provide security to the Gurunagar base,” Lt. Perera recalls.

The patrol unit was given the code word ‘Four Four Bravo’ to communicate with base. The LTTE plan of ambush still stood. Twenty five LTTE cadres including Sellakili, Victor, and Appaiyah had already arrived at Thithnaveli on the Palaly-Jaffna Road and told the residents nearby to shut their windows and doors. The orders to the residents went out in Sinhalese – the cadres were also dressed in uniform similar to those worn by the security forces personnel, in order to confuse the people of the area about their identity. The LTTE group then lay the explosives in the ditch as planned and lay in wait for the SLA patrol.

Sellakili had divided his men into two groups – the killers and the cut-offs – and stationed them on either side of the road. They were armed with weapons stolen from police stations they had recently attacked and others that had been brought from India.

An unsuspecting Lt. Gunewardane led his men onward patrolling the roadway. The patrol was in constant touch with base via radio. Ironically, the last message radioed to base, was misleadingly calm. “Four Four Bravo. We are now leaving Urumpirai Junction. Absolutely nothing to report. The town is very quiet,” the patrol radioed in.

“It was Esela Poya, so it was raining slightly in the area,” the only survivor of the ambush remembers. We passed the Thithawela Farm and saw barrels laid on the road ahead. This was because the Telecommunications Commission had broken the road to lay wires. Since there was soil on the road, our vehicles moved slower. Not a second passed before Lt. Gunewardane’s vehicle in front exploded with a massive noise. The driver of our truck slammed the brakes so hard that all of us who were sitting inside fell down and our weapons went flying about. The Tiger fire slammed down on us soon afterwards. They threw petrol bombs at us. It must have been about 11:30 p.m.”

According to Lt. Perera, as soon as the explosion occurred, Lt. Gunewardane jumped off the jeep and began shouting orders at his men. The men in the truck behind followed suit and shot at the LTTE cadres, who greatly outnumbered them. “Because they had surrounded us and were shooting at us non stop, many of us died inside the vehicles itself.”

Despite the concussion due to the explosion and injury sustained by machine gun fire 2nd/Lt Waas Gunawardene leapt out of his Jeep and pulled out his hand grenade. Before he could lob it he was mowed down by machine gun fire. The driver Pte Manatunge was injured by machine gun fire. He staggered out of the vehicle and was killed. The explosion had injured Pte Karunaratne, Pte Rajatillake and Pte Manatunge. They somehow scrambled out of the vehicle and attacked the enemy with hand grenades before being killed. L/Cpl C.D. Perera was probably not injured. He stormed out of the Jeep with his SLR blazing and pursued the enemy. His dead body was found quites some distance from the Jeep.

On seeing the explosions around the Jeep, Cpl. G. R. Perera who was driving the half truck applied brakes sharply. It resulted in Pte Robert and Pte Wijesiri in the lookout position falling on top of the others. The vehicle came in for heavy fire from both the "killer squad" and the "cut off party" thus taking fire from four sides. it killed Cpl. Perera in the driver's seat Ptes Robert, Sunil and Wijesiri in the rear compartment and all but killed Pte Manapitiya. Sgt. Thelakaratne and Pte Fernando who were both injured scrambled out of their seat, took cover from the vehicle and opened fire on the enemy.

Pte. Fernando was soon killed while Sgt. Thilakaratne kept on firing till a home-made grenade blew off one hand and all but blew off one foot.

Cpl. R. A. U. Perera and L/Cpl. Sumathipala kept on firing and the latter in addition lobbed his grenade. In his dying moments Pte Manapitiya gave his grenade to the L/Cpl. Sumathipala who changed their magazines and kept on the pressure on the enemy. At one stage they alighted from the vehicle and kept on firing at the enemy in two different directions thus pinning them down.

In the meantime, the radio operator at Gurunagar was constantly calling.

"Four Four for Four Four Bravo can you hear me?"
"Four Four for Four Four Bravo can you hear me?"

It is believed that Velupillai Prabhakaran himself led the in the July 23 ambush. It is said that the future Jaffna commander of the LTTE Kittu killed an injured soldier after pursuing him down a lane. The soldiers who were not killed in the initial explosion fought gallantly, though severely outnumbered. Upto 25 LTTE cadres took part in the attack. Only one of them Sathasivam Selvanayagem alias Sellakili died in the confrontation, another loss that devastated the Tiger leader.

At 2340 hours a message was sent to Brigadier Balthazar that radio contact with the patrol was lost and that a sentry had heard gunfire and explosions in the distance. The Brigadier who was still in civilian dress rushed into the radio room. having checked on the information he alerted the Army camps in Palali, Madagal, Thondamanar and Velvettiturai. The Brigadier then cancelled the ambush prepared for Four Four Charlie due to leave at 0001 hours and instead sent them in search of the missing patrol, Four Four Bravo.

At 0009 hours the radio at Gurunagar cackled,
"Four Four Charlie for Four Four
Have located Four Four Bravo.
Both vehicles destroyed, all dead
repeat both vehicles destroyed, all dead.
Location ..."

About that time Cpl. R. A. U. Perera (subsequently given a battlefield promotion) telephoned from the Kondavil CTB Depot. Having fired till his ammunition was almost exhausted he ingeniously retreated. In view of injuries in both legs he had removed his boots, made tourniquets with the boot laces and had run to safety. He gave the exact location of L/Cap. Sumathipala (subsequently given a battlefield promotion), who likewise had fired till his ammunition was almost expended, and thereafter had retreated and was lying injured.

Brigadier Balthazar and his staff rushed to the scene. On arrival they found Sgt. Thelakaratne still alive but bleeding profusely from the loss of a hand and one foot dangling from its skin. He was rushed to hospital but died on admission ... L/Cpl. Sumathipala was also rushed to hospital but was pronounced out of danger. Cpl. Perera was then despatched to hospital. Thereafter the dead were removed.

Thus ended patrol Four Four Bravo of July 23rd, 1983 a day which will surely go down into the annals of history of the Sri Lanka Army. The Army can indeed be proud of this patrol which fought so bravely against fearful odds and had inflected many casualties on the enemy and had even killed Sellakili. Of those who made the supreme sacrifice for Sri Lanka the nation could proudly say,

"They shall not grow old,
As we that are left grow old
Age shall not weary them,
Nor the years condemn
At the setting of the sun
And in the morning,
We shall remember them".

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