10th September 2000
The new millennium thrust that failed
As election fever engulfed the nation with the closure of nominations last Monday, the next of kin of at least over 125 officers and men mourned the deaths of their dear and loved ones at funerals countrywide.
They were the latest to pay the supreme sacrifice for the nation. In a war about which only few Sri Lankans or most voters at the upcoming Parliamentary general elections on October 10, increasingly know very little about – a war fought in the backwoods of Sri Lanka with hardly any witnesses despite the sophisticated information technology of the new millennium.
If an over-reaching censorship has denied to Sri Lankans details of how the soldiers, the real heroes of the 17 year long separatist war, sacrificed their lives to ensure a better future for their fellow countrymen, a ban on media visits have deprived them much more. They will not learn of the honour, courage, valour and heroism these men and women displayed when they paid the supreme sacrifice. Like most of their brave colleagues who have died, official military history will merely record they took part in an exercise which the Operational Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence would routinely and characteristically call a "successful operation."
It is not only the case of the over 125 who achieved martyrdom. There were hundreds among the over 800 wounded who lost a limb. Some may not walk. They have lost a leg or both. Others have lost a hand or suffered deformities which will leave them out of battle and disabled for the rest of their lives. There was one instance when an over-heated artillery gun exploded with no trace of the two soldiers who stood close. A third, a sergeant, who stood nearby was identified by the remains of a small upper part of his body including his head.
This is after last Sunday's military offensive. Some 5,000 troops from the Army's 51st and 53rd Divisions, wanted to oust Tiger guerrillas from some of the territory in the Jaffna peninsula they seized in April, this year.
It came after a four month long lull during which Government poured in some 800 million US dollars for fresh military procurements to further modernise the security forces. Many of the items had arrived, only a few remain to be delivered. If allegations of widespread corruption in procurements prompted the Government to exclude this subject from a media censorship imposed in June, 1998, things were to change.
The re-introduction of censorship to matters relating to procurement has again put paid to the openness and transparency regarding the million dollar and billion rupee procurement deals without tender procedures. Details of omissions and commissions in some of these deals are now emerging, but the public will know very little, for the censorship, it was officially announced, will continue until after the polls. Ironically monies for these new procurements were raised through enhanced direct and indirect taxes since April, this year. This saw a sudden spurt in the prices of consumer items and the resultant rise in the cost of living.
As one would logically expect, moves to oust Tiger guerrillas, firstly from the territory they have seized in the Jaffna peninsula, have been on the drawing boards of military planners for a few weeks. This initial thrust was to be a precursor to other phases intended to drive out the guerrillas from large chunks of territory they captured during a string of military successes.
This began in November, last year, when the LTTE ousted troops from almost all their newly set up encampments and newly captured territory in the Wanni. That included Odusuddan, Nedunkerny, Olumadu, Ampakamam, Mankulam and Kanakarayankulam. This was followed in April, this year, by more than 10,000 troops being forced to withdraw from the Elephant Pass defence complex ceding the entire area to the LTTE. Thereafter, security forces lost control of more chunks of territory in the southern parts of the Jaffna peninsula.
A successful onslaught during last Sunday's offensive would have augured well for both the military and the Government. For the military, success in the first offensive in the new millennium would be the beginning of a process of redeeming its lost prestige. For the Government, a success would have been the ideal platform to kick off their polls campaign. But unfortunately, the operation turned sour.
With most of the new equipment including Multi Barrel Rocket Launchers (MBRL) and artillery guns in their hands, plans were finalised for a major thrust to oust the Tigers, firstly from the Jaffna peninsula. As reported in these columns (Situation Report – August 27) Deputy Defence Minister, Anuruddha Ratwatte, took time off his political programmes in view of upcoming elections to visit Jaffna.
During top level conferences, he reviewed military arrangements for the conduct of the operation. He heard senior military officials spell out their requirements. On hand was Chief of Defence Staff, General Rohan de S Daluwatte and other high ranking Army, Navy and Air Force officials.
The return of Minister Ratwatte and the military team to Colombo saw further hectic preparations under way. Urgent requirements were shipped or air-freighted. Troops in the peninsula were put through their paces. Re-inforcing existing strength in Jaffna were a large group of soldiers, once deserters. They had been put through an orientation course after they surrendered or were arrested and posted to the north.
Views differed on how the operation itself should be titled. Some were of the view it should be named "Operation Rolling Thunder" or 'Thunderbolt' to underscore the heavy MBRL, artillery and mortar fire that was to be unleashed. But a strong nationalist among the top rungers wanted a name with a local flavour. He called it "Operation Rivikirana." It was not only consonant with "Operation Riviresa," the series that led to the re-capture of the Jaffna peninsula from LTTE hands in 1995, but also had the same meaning – sun's rays.
"Operation Rivikirana" was launched at 5.30 a.m. on Sunday, September 3. Its aim was to link a large chunk of territory eastwards from the security forces held Jaffna town to near Navatkuli and later to chavakachcheri and northwards to Sarasalai. The Operational Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence said the aim was to "expand the security forces controlled areas of Columbuthurai in order to give better protection to the city of Jaffna."
It can now be confirmed that "Operation Rivikirana," was preceded by four days of harassing fire to soften LTTE targets beginning Wednesday, August 30. As exclusively reported in these columns last week (Situation Report – September 3, 2000), troops from the Army's 51 and 53 Divisions fired hundreds of rockets from MBRLs, artillery and mortar shells at suspected LTTE positions. This was whilst Sri Lanka Air Force low flying MIG 27 jets strafed suspected Tiger guerrilla bases.
Just before crack of dawn last Sunday, troops broke out from two flanks, as air, artillery and mortar attacks were directed at LTTE positions in support of the advancing troops.
One thrust was from their defences at Sarasalai and neighbouring Nunavil. Troops were to advance in a south easterly direction through marsh land towards the A-9 (Jaffna-Kandy highway) at Chavakachcheri. Troops of the 53 Division including commandos, Special Forces, the Air Mobile Brigade and twelve other battalions were involved in the operation. They were 6th and 12th Gajaba Regiment, 3rd and 8th Ceylon Light Infantry, 4th and 15th Ceylon Light Infantry, 6th and 7th Sinha Regiment, 1st and 10th Sinha Regiment and 4th and 9th Gajaba Regiment.
Towards noon, they had advanced well over one and half kilometres. It seemed the Tiger guerrillas allowed them to move in. Suddenly, sporadic guerrilla artillery and intense mortar fire began to rain on the advancing troops causing heavy casualties. Many were killed or severely injured. These developments forced the troops to revert to their original positions.
The second thrust came from the security forces controlled Jaffna town area. Troops broke out from their defences at Columbuthurai. Four battalions from the 512 Brigade (6th and 11th Ceylon Light Infantry, 9th and 8th Vijayaba Infantry Regiment) and three battalions from the 516 Brigade (1st, 10th and 8th Gajaba Regiment) led the advance.
They advanced some half a kilometre in an easterly direction though they were still in the general area of Columbuththurai, towards the Navatkuli bridge area astride the A-9 highway. Here again, heavy mortar fire was interspersed by occasional artillery rounds. Troops held on to the newly captured stretch but stopped their further advance due to the heavy shower of mortars. That stretch was to become the only gain.
The exceptionally heavy mortar fire, which Military Intelligence sources claimed was well over 10,000 rounds in the first few hours, had taken an unexpected toll. The evacuation of the large number of wounded caused serious problems. The ambulances available were inadequate. At one point, ambulances assigned to the Sri Lanka Navy's Northern Command headquarters at Karainagar were also deployed in addition to those from other sources.
But there was more bad luck when the authorities attempted to send the badly injured from Palaly to hospitals outside the peninsula, particularly to Anuradhapura. Two Sri Lanka Air Force Antonov 32 transport planes, which would usually have done the job, had developed mechanical problems. They were being repaired at Anuradhapura.
The new Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle, had boarded an SLAF helicopter in Pallekelle (Kandy) that Sunday after calling on the Mahanayakes of the Malwatte and Asgiriya chapters in Kandy to receive their blessings. From Anuradhapura, the AN 32s could not take him. He boarded one of the SLAF's fleet of Mi – 17 transport helicopters that were rushing the injured to fly to Palaly.
The call on the Mahanayakes had delayed his presence there for the very first offensive since assuming command. The Commanders of the Air Force (Air Marshal Jayalath Weerakoddy) and Navy (Vice Admiral Cecil Tissera) were already in Palaly together with Chief of Defence Staff, General Rohan de S. Daluwatte.
"Operation Rivikirana" was called off, some eight hours after it was launched, due to the unexpectedly high casualty count. Attention on Sunday afternoon turned to the evacuation of soldiers requiring urgent medical attention. At one point, Israeli built Dvora patrol craft of the Sri Lanka Navy ferried a group of injured soldiers from Palaly to Trincomalee. By late Sunday evening, the two AN 32s of the SLAF were repaired and casualty evacuation continued till close upon midnight.
Although more than 125 officers and soldiers were killed, there is still confusion over the exact toll. The official count was given in two instalments by the Op. Hq. of the Ministry of Defence in an obvious attempt to cushion any shocks the announcement might create. On Sunday night it said 71 (eight officers and 63 soldiers) were killed. The next day (Monday) it added that "another 43 soldiers were killed."
Other highly placed Army sources say the final death toll, of both who died in the battlefield and those who succumbed to their injuries whilst being evacuated or in hospital, were close to 200. The Sunday Times has been able to ascertain from various sources the deaths of at least 125 soldiers. The injured, from those receiving minor scratches to severe injuries was over 800, the same sources said.
Military Intelligence sources claim that according to LTTE radio intercepts, 115 cadres including women have been identified by name as killed during last Sunday's offensive. This had included at least 12 female cadres from Batticaloa who are members of "Charlie Akka's" Wing.
Last Sunday's short lived military offensive turned out to be the hot topic of discussion at Tuesday's (September 5) National Security Council chaired by President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.
Needless to say the outcome of the offensive disappointed President Kumaratunga, who is also the Commander-in-Chief. She had personally ensured that all requirements of the security forces were met at tremendous cost to the state. She wanted to know what went wrong.
Deputy Defence Minister, Anuruddha Ratwatte, who had visited Jaffna to personally ensure all arrangements were in place for the successful conduct of the operation, was also an angry man. He also sought to know what went wrong and who was accountable for last Sunday's fiasco.
The remarks drew a polite but sharp response from Chief of Defence Staff, General Rohan de S. Daluwatte, now the top most military officer responsible for planning and executing military operations. He said if it was felt he was accountable, he was ready to put up his papers for retirement. Minister Ratwatte was quick to point out that he was not on a personal witch-hunt but was only highlighting the need for some form of accountability in situations like last Sunday's.
If the meeting ended on that heated note, reverberations were felt the same evening too at "Temple Trees" where the National Security Council met on Tuesday morning. The same evening, President Kumaratunga, hosted a farewell dinner for Lt. Gen. Srilal Weerasooriya, former Army Commander, who is now High Commissioner designate to Pakistan. Security top brass, who were among the invitees, spoke in whispers about the morning's discussion.
The next day, (Wednesday) the three service commanders, Lt. Gen. Balagalle (Army), Vice Admiral Cecil Tissera (Navy) and Air Marshal Jayalath Weerakoddy (Air Force) flew to Jaffna to make a personal assessment of the situation, particularly in the aftermath of "Operation Rivikirana." After a top level conference and meetings with senior officials on the ground, they returned to Colombo the same evening. With lessons learnt from last Sunday's offensive, senior military officials at Jaffna have been advised to continue to maintain the pressure against the enemy.
This is particularly in the backdrop of further intelligence reports that the Tiger guerrillas were planning a major thrust against the security forces, particularly in Jaffna. This is in addition to efforts by the LTTE to disrupt the October 10 polls.
Yesterday, Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Balagalle flew to Jaffna again for top level meetings with ground commanders there.
From available information, it would appear that "Operation Rivikirana" was stalled due to the high casualty rate from intense LTTE mortar fire. That the LTTE would rely on mortar fire to resist any Army advance should not be a surprise to anyone. Since "Operation Jaya Sikurui" (Victory Assured), it has been evident that the LTTE tactical doctrine, in both offensive and defensive operations, has been to rely on artillery and mortar fire to compensate for their limited manpower resources.
Undoubtedly, it is in recognition of this factor that the troops attacked LTTE defences with artillery, MBRL and air bombardment before launching "Operation Rivikirana." However, that the LTTE were able to retaliate with intense mortar fire in spite of those attacks indicates that the softening up operations ahead of the main operation were not effective. The offensive either lacked accuracy or else the intelligence on which LTTE targets were selected as well as post strike damage intelligence was faulty.
Furthermore, that the Army was unable to retaliate against LTTE mortar fire during "Operation Rivikirana" to enable its continuance reflect either defects in planning or else in the Army's equipment capability to detect and counter enemy artillery and mortar. Both serious lapses, if in fact such was the case.
The massive expenditure on procurement after the Elephant Pass debacle was to re-inforce the military armoury so as to confer both an equipment and technological superiority over the LTTE. Any procurement assessment therefore would obviously have considered the military capability of the LTTE in terms of equipment, technology, resources etc.
Such assessment, in the hindsight of operational experience had to focus heavily on procuring weapons and equipment to counter the LTTE artillery and mortar capability, which was and continues to be corner stone of their tactical doctrine. That being the case, that the LTTE were still able to use mortars to make "Operation Rivikirana" impotent poses to the defence establishment a major question on the need to reappraise equipment, tactics and strategy. Little wonder that the post "Operation Rivikirana" discussion at the National Security Council attracted heated debate.
That the LTTE were able to halt "Operation Rivikirana" must give them a boost of confidence and a fresh think of their strategy in the Jaffna peninsula. A factor greatly inhibiting large-scale LTTE operations in Jaffna is because it is an urban environment supporting a considerable population. That feature on the other hand confers on the LTTE the advantage of small-scale mobile operations using the population as a human shield as well as an indigenous environment in which they could diffuse without detection.
The Army also operationally restricted by the population factor is compelled to select unpopulated terrain to launch major operations, as was the selection of Sarasalai in the case of the latest Operation. Manoeuvering in open and unpopulated ground makes the Army vulnerable as soft targets to LTTE mortars and artillery.
In that situation, the stalemate in Jaffna is to a large extent influenced by the environment factor. This is to the advantage of the LTTE who would tactically prefer small-scale operations whilst denying manoeuverability to the Army. As against that, the Army's preference is for larger scale operations of a conventional or semi-conventional nature, which are greatly restricted by the environment factor.
Hence, the prevailing stalemate has as much to do with tactical perception as it has with politico-military and human considerations. Considering that dislodging the Army or the LTTE from their presently entrenched positions in the Peninsula would require a major operation. In the given situation it is unlikely that the military deadlock could be altered either way.
It is unlikely that the forthcoming elections will have any positive impact on the military situation either given the lack of political dynamism in the Peninsula. The impasse will, therefore, continue. So, will the war.
A war in which many military reversals and debacles, and those responsible for them have been kept out of public knowledge by media censorship even though the Government is accountable to the public for the conduct of the war, the sacrifice of lives and the enormous expenditure involved. It is common knowledge that many have amassed vast riches through military procurement.
It is also common talk that the war will never end so long as the attraction to acquire wealth remains. Directly connected to the issue is whether the quality of equipment is being sacrificed by the attraction for filthy lucre. These are matters of public and national interest now unexposed by censorship.
The public have a right to that knowledge, for defence expenditure concerns public funds and more importantly it is the sons and daughters of the public that are called upon to sacrifice life and limb. Free discussion and transparency of information can only fulfil this inalienable public right. Not a censorship that will hide the truth and promote propaganda- all under the guise of "national security".
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