Battles for Yalpanam
By Gihan Indraguptha
@ The Nation
There are a few places in the world which are almost cursed by conflict throughout the ages. The piece of desert between the Mediterranean and the Jordon River which we called Israel, is one such land fought for by countless generations who most probably have forgotten what they are fighting for. In the northern tip of Sri Lanka, the Jaffna peninsula too seems to be cursed with continuous conflict.
After the establishment of a semi-autonomous kingdom in Jaffna, it has been the desire of many aspiring princes to unify the island under one banner with the recapture of Jaffna. After a couple of centuries of autonomy, the kingdom was finally brought under the control of the Kotte monarch during the time of Parakramabahu VI. He sent his nephew Prince Sapumal to Jaffna as the regent. The prince established himself in the city after defeating the Arya-Chakrawathi ruler. Later however, the prince returned to Kotte after the death of the king to claim the throne and in the process lost the treasured procession in the north. In the year 1621, the Portuguese captured Jaffna and killed the ruling family. However in an ironical end to the Jaffna kingdom, it was a Kandyan army that fought the last battle in its name. They had arrived in Jaffna too late after being requested for help and ended up fighting the Portuguese.
Since the beginning of the northern conflict, Jaffna has been the coveted price that many have sought to obtain. It was here in Jaffna that the first seeds of dissention against the state were sowed. It was in Jaffna that the LTTE ambushed an army convoy on July 23, 1983 which ignited the war. Since then, Jaffna has changed hands several times between the two parties to conflict. Even today the renewed violence has flared up in Jaffna with both parties desperately trying to claim supremacy over the peninsula. While the battle of Jaffna rages on in the trenches of Muhamalai The Nation looks back at Jaffna’s bloody past, in a bid to comprehend why this infertile lime soil is worth dying for.
On July 30, before the ink on the Indo-Lanka accord was dry, Indian forces started arriving in the country. Their task was to ensure the smooth implementation of the accord. President J.R. Jayewardene, known as the “old fox” had outsmarted the young Rajiv Gandhi by adding a clause in the accord stating that the disarmament of the militant groups was the responsibility of the Indians.
Having been forced to abandon Operation Liberation and being forced into an accord, Sri Lankans, especially President Jayewardene would have the last laugh over ‘Big Brother’s intervention.’ Before too long, the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) tasked with disarming the LTTE were fighting the very men they once trained. By October, the IPKF launched operation Pawan (wind) to overrun the LTTE’s headquarters in Jaffna.
Initially the Indians intended to surprise the LTTE leadership which was believed to be operating from the Jaffna University premises. The plan was to drop commandos into the university premises to take out the LTTE leadership while infantry columns would move out from Palaly and link with the commandos in the city. The initial heliborne assault involved a company from the 10th Para battalion. However the LTTE had prior knowledge of this assault since they were listening into the Indian communications. When commandos landed in a soccer field they were immediately pinned down by heavy machine gunfire. Two helicopters were damaged and six commandos killed instantly. A second wave of choppers containing a platoon from the 13 Sikh Light Infantry came under more intense fire, making further reinforcements impossible: all but one of the Sikhs perished. Their battalion commander, Lt. Col. Dalbir Singh, personally led a column of T-72 tanks the next morning to relieve his beleaguered men.
After the failure of the commando assault, the infantry brigades slowly fought their way into Jaffna City over the next 16 days. Because of heavy LTTE resistance, two more brigades were rushed to Jaffna before the end of the battle.
By the end of November, Jaffna was completely in IPKF hands.
Rescue of Jaffna Fort
While the IPKF was in the country, the Sri Lankan security forces were humiliatingly restricted to few large camps. When the IPKF left, the LTTE moved in rapidly to fill the vacuum leaving the security forces powerless. In the northern peninsula, the security forces were only present in Palaly, Kankesanthurai, Elephant pass and Jaffna town.
With the commencement of Eelam War II, the LTTE laid siege to the Jaffna fort trapping several hundred security forces personnel inside the old Dutch Fort. The 107 day siege ended when a rescue operation code named “Midnight Express” was launched from Mandaithivu Island. The Air Force played a vital role in keeping the personnel trapped inside alive and evacuating the injured. In a daring operation, Bell Helicopters landed inside the fort amidst heavy fire to deliver supplies to the besieged garrison. The withdrawal from Jaffna fort in September 1990 would mark the beginning of LTTE dominance of the peninsula.
This Operation like the Vadamarachchi Operation would make military history. It would be most definitely the most important military campaign undertaken by the Sri Lankan military. From the time the IPKF left in 1990 till the commencement of Riviresa the LTTE enjoyed a near sovereign state in the northern Jaffna peninsula. Except for international recognition they had obtained all other prerequisites for an independent state including their own judiciary, military and police force. With the honeymoon after the peace talks now just a memory, the Sri Lankan government undertook their most bold initiative to recapture the traditional capital of the pseudo state run by the LTTE. Military and political leaders even now believe that if not for the recapture of Jaffna, the LTTE was in a position to declare independence unilaterally.
This was a time when troop morale was at an all time low. The security forces that were ill prepared to face the LTTE after the ceasefire were demoralised by several devastating blows. The LTTE had entered Eelam War III by crippling the air force with newly acquired Surface to Air Missiles which brought down two Avro aircraft. By the time Riviresa was launched in Jaffna, the Air force had not come up with a deterrent to the LTTE missiles. The navy too was ineffective since they constantly faced the threat of Sea Tiger suicide boats. However, the air force and navy played vital roles in keeping the supply lines intact and evacuating casualties. It was almost a do or die situation for the security forces. Capturing Jaffna would burst the LTTE’s bubble of governing a pseudo state and deny it the population base to recruit. For the LTTE and its Leader Prabhakaran, Jaffna represented the most valued possession which had to be protected by any means.
Riviresa, the largest military operation at the time, was launched in October 1995 and would make military history as the first time in Sri Lanka that divisional level formations were used in a campaign. Three divisions moved out of the Palaly base and advanced through two routes to Jaffna. Deputy Minister of Defence, Anuruddha Ratwatte was in the midst of the action, with the three divisions reaching Jaffna in 50 days. The LTTE would however deny the military the full joy of victory by ordering a total evacuation of the civilian population. Though unnoticed by the local and foreign media at that time, this exodus would be recorded as one of the largest civilian displacements in 24 hours ever recorded in recent times. Some 500,000 people left the peninsula on the LTTE’s orders that day in October. The Tigers wanted the Sri Lankan forces to occupy a Jaffna without its people.
Touching the Sri Lankan psyche, the victorious army held a victory parade in Jaffna with the hoisting of the national flag being broadcast Live on television. In dramatic fashion, Minister Anurudha Ratwatte presented a Sannasa to President Chandrika Kumaratunga, declaring the conquest of Jaffna.
Operation Unceasing Waves III
The military complex at Elephant Pass was long considered the gateway to the Jaffna peninsula and its fall in April 2000 constituted the greatest debacle faced by the Sri Lankan forces. After the LTTE overran the base on April 22 - they were enroute to achieving their ultimate victory, the routing of the Sri Lankan military from Jaffna.
Elephant Pass has been a defence base for Jaffna since 1760, during Portuguese rule. A military camp was built in 1952. The Sri Lankan Army held the base even when the LTTE controlled the peninsula from 1990 to 1995.
After the fall of Elephant Pass, the LTTE had pushed the military to the doorstep of Jaffna. They were within four kilometres of the town when the security forces launched their counter attack. The government in desperation asked for military aid from foreign countries. India offered “humanitarian assistance,” - ships to evacuate the 40,000 troops if the eventuality occurred. Pakistan played a more decisive role by providing offensive weaponry, key among them Multi Barrel Rocket Launchers which tipped the balance of power back to the security forces. After halting the LTTE advance towards Jaffna, the security forces in the next few months launched a series of operations to recapture Chavakacheri and push the LTTE up to the point where the current defence lines stand.
After the outbreak of full-scale war, the LTTE came to dominate the Jaffna peninsula after it eliminated all rival military groups in 1986. The Sri Lankan security forces were confined to several large military complexes.
In May 1987, the Sri Lankan army began a major ground and air campaign against the LTTE concentrated in the Jaffna Peninsula. The campaign which was called ‘Operation Liberation’ was more popularly known has “The Vadamarchchi operation.” Many political and military leaders who later went on to stamp their mark would prove themselves in this operation. Under the sanction of President J.R Jayewardene, the then minister of National Security Lalith Athulathmudali gave the necessary political backing for the operation, while army officers such as then Brigadier Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Colonel Wijaya Wimalarathne became household names after their heroics in Vadamarachchi.
On May 26, the army moved out of Thondamanaru accompanied by heavy aerial bombing and shelling, particularly in Valvettithurai. There was also military activity, bombing and shelling near the Jaffna Fort. By the 28th, Udupiddy and Valvettithurai had been recaptured. A column of soldiers took Nelliady and advanced northwards to Pt. Pedro. Another group of soldiers advanced eastwards towards Pt. Pedro by moving in three lines. The LTTE was not given the time to regroup or to put up fresh land mine barriers. The LTTE made a quick withdrawal abandoning its vehicles and a large quantity of arms.
This was a historic operation for many reasons. It marked many firsts for the security forces. Operation Liberation was the milestone which marked the first time the Sri Lankan security forces were engaged in conventional warfare. For the first time, the three arms of the army, infantry, support and logistics were organised into two battalions which were commanded by Brigadier Kobbekaduwa and Colonel Wimalarathne. The operation also marked the advent of electronic warfare and the helicopter gunships of the Air force were also effectively used for the first time.
About 8000 troops from the Gemunu Watch and Gajaba Regiments were involved in the recapture of Vadamarachchi. The L.T.T.E. Colonel Wimalarathne would later admit they did not know at the time how close they were to capturing LTTE Leader Prabhakaran in his native Valvettithurai. Due to some delays in sealing the area, Prabhakaran along with current Sea Tiger Leader Soosai were able to make a daring escape from advancing troops. Two days after the operation began, General Officer Commanding, Joint Operations Command, General Cyril Ranatunga called a halt to the offensives and doled out rice, sugar and dhal to the people of the peninsula, who had been displaced by the fighting and had taken shelter in schools and other public buildings. By June 1, 1987 the whole Vadamarachchi sector was under the control of the Sri Lankan security forces.
Operation Liberation had to come to an abrupt end when India carried out one of its most shameless acts in recent history with the infamous “parippu drop” over Jaffna. On the pretext of providing humanitarian aid to the people of Jaffna, the Rajiv Gandhi Administration sent out a clear message to Colombo that India was seriously contemplating military intervention to settle the country’s conflict. On June 4, 1987, India launched Operation Poomalai (Garland). Five AN-32s escorted by four Mirage 2000Hs air-dropped 24 tonnes of “humanitarian aid’ which was ridiculously inadequate to fulfil the stated goal of relieving the suffering of the Jaffna masses. The Indian High Commissioner to Colombo, J.N. Dixit had given notice to the Sri Lankan government about the impending operation just 30 minutes before it was launched. The violation of Sri Lankan air space had its intended results with the Sri Lankan government backing out of the operation to recapture Jaffna and then being forced to accept the Indo-Lanka Accord.