6th May 2001
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Just two weeks before the launch of “Opera tion Agni Khiela” (Rod of Fire), the air-conditioned conference room at the Security Forces Headquarters in Jaffna, was a hive of activity.
Security Forces Commander, Major General Anton Wijendra, who was responsible for the launch of this failed offensive, was busy with his colleagues playing War Games.
This was the first time such an exercise, resorted to by armies around the world as a prelude to the launch of offensive operations, was carried out in the 19 year long history of the separatist war.
The frequent participation by top officers on training and other programmes in military academies abroad had brought the concept to Sri Lanka.
The idea underlying such War Games is to put to test the operational plans to a simulated exercise without committing troops. Such a move helps military planners to not only rectify flaws but also make a general assessment of casualties.
So, when the War Games began, there was Tiger guerrilla leader, “Velupillai Prabhakaran and his two close associates” at the conference room.
They made many a counter move when “Operation Agni Khiela” was launched at the War Games.
The exercise continued for three days. When it ended, an estimated 50 to 60 troops were “killed in action” and a further “600 were wounded” during the first phase of the offensive.
Playing the role of Prabhakaran during the War Games was the General Officer Commanding 55 Division, Major General Sunil Tennekoon, a former Director of Military Intelligence and Military Spokesman, a man who was to earn the ire of Tiger guerrillas when the operation proper got under way.
Playing the role his “aides” as Prabhakaran were Col. Jagath Rambukpotha, Commanding Officer 552 Brigade and Col. Aruna Jayasekera, Commanding Officer of the Fourth Battalion of the Gemunu Watch.
With every aspect of the phase one of “Operation Agni Khiela” neatly rehearsed with inputs from “the enemy,” Major General Anton Wijendra, was to report on the outcome of the War Games to General Rohan de S. Daluwatte, Chief of Defence Staff, and Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle, Commander of the Army. It was only thereafter that the top brass gave the final go ahead for him to launch the offensive.
At the auspicious time of 1.48 am on April 25, 2001, the first elements broke out from either side of Muhamalai, which lies on the A-9 Jaffna-Kandy highway.
It is located in the middle of a nine kilometre long defence line, stretching from the north eastern coastal village of Nagar Kovil to the Kilaly lagoon on the western side. By 5.30 a.m. troops had come out in full strength. The 55 Division advanced from north of the A-9 whilst the 53 Division moved from the south of it.
The declared aim of phase one of “Operation Agni Khiela” was to clear “terrorist positions and further expand areas brought under Security Forces control” up to Pallai, located on the palm fringed thin stretch of land that links mainland Sri Lanka to Jaffna peninsula. Details of how the operation misfired were reported exclusively in these columns last week.
Needless to say the inability of the operation to achieve its declared objective worried not only those in the defence establishment but also the People’s Alliance leadership.
Chief of Defence Staff, General Daluwatte, who was at his regular meeting with the service commanders – Lt. Gen. Balagalle, (Army), Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri (Navy) and Air Marshal Jayalath Weerakkody (Air Force) discussed the matter at length last Monday.
They saw and heard Maj. Gen. Wijendra, on a TV screen during a tele conference linking the Security Forces Headquarters, Jaffna, with the Joint Operations Headquarters (JOH), Colombo. He gave an explanation.
Even before that, the SFHQ in Jaffna, had in a report to the Joint Operations Headquarters detailed some of the reasons set out on Monday by Maj. Gen. Wijendra. Here are edited excerpts:
“The offensive resumed by Security Forces in the peninsula immediately after the termination of the self imposed truce of the LTTE, in order to push them back from present positions, which was long anticipated by the LTTE, has experienced a slow progress in its advance due to concentrated heavy volume of indirect fire and also burden of casualties suffered in a series of mine fields.
“Although SF did not experience heavy resistance at the initial stage in its advance up to the second line of defence of the LTTE, it came under heavy volume of artillery and mortar fire at the second line of defences, which slowed down the momentum in the advance.
“By and large, both the LTTE and Security Forces suffered heavy losses on day one itself. Subsequently, troops advancing south of the A-9 road were forced to fall back to their original defence line at Ponnar. However, SF column advancing north of A-9 road was able to hold the newly captured areas between first and second line of (LTTE) defences until day three and later they too were forced to fall back to the original line at Muhamalai due to heavy volume of indirect fire….” In essence Maj.Gen. Wijendra gave three distinct reasons for not being able to achieve the main objective of the operation he was personally tasked to execute. They were: (i) heavy enemy artillery fire (ii) heavy enemy mortar fire (3) series of enemy minefields. Why were these not known earlier ? Anyone keeping a close track of the daily news releases put out by the Special Media Information Centre (SMIC) would have easily known that the LTTE was both re-training and re-arming ? The man who laboriously pieces together those hand outs is also a hardened infantryman, Brigadier Sanath Karunaratne, who had played a second role to Maj. Gen. Wijendra in the battle zones.
The question is being raised in the public interest since “Operation Agni Khiela,” the first major offensive in 2001, involving two Divisions of the Army, had taken a heavy toll both in terms of dead and injured. Were the dead and the injured compelled to make sacrifices purely for the reasons that the enemy artillery/mortar fire was heavy and that the enemy had placed a large volume of improvised land mines ahead of their defences ? Was this explanation justifiable since the enemy’s indirect firepower capability and the placing of mines were hardly a secret ? Who then was accountable for this ?
Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Balagalle is learnt to have reported to CDS, Gen. Daluwatte, that the death toll in the failed four day offensive was over 240. Since then, The Sunday Times has learnt that those killed would exceed 300. This is particularly after the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) delegates received an unexpected number of bodies of troops from the LTTE on four different days.
ICRC spokesman, Harsha Gunawardena, set out the details to The Sunday Times yesterday. This is what he revealed.
April 28 – ICRC delegation received 30 bodies in Kilinochchi. They were transported across guerrilla held territory and handed over to the Army at Piramanalankulam.
April 29-ICRC delegation received 26 more bodies. They were also transported across guerrilla held territory and handed over to the Army at Piramanalankulam.
April 30-ICRC delegation received eight bodies at Kilinochchi and handed them over to the Army at Piramanalankulam.
May 4-ICRC delegation received 29 bodies at Kilinochchi and handed over to the Army at Piramanalankulam.
According to Mr. Gunawardena, the total number of bodies of soldiers handed over from the LTTE to the Army was 93. He said that the ICRC delegation had also taken charge of ten bodies of guerrillas from the Army and handed them to the LTTE at Pallikudah. This was after the bodies were ferried across the Jaffna lagoon in fishing boats.
The string of security forces reversals last year, including the abandoning of Elephant Pass among other matters, was attributed to a lack of will on the part of the troops to fight. But, in marked contrast, troops were in high morale during the conduct of “Operation Agni Khiela.” They bravely fought their way.
Men of the elite 53 Division had during a period of five hours almost reached their objective. But it became difficult for 55 Division to get past the first and second defence lines of the LTTE. Hence a link up of the two advancing columns became difficult. There was very heavy concentration of guerrilla cadres in the belly, in the middle of the two advancing divisions. They were firing from some 40 mortar and 19 artillery positions.
Artillery fire was being directed at the troops from Pooneryn, Iyakachchi and other locations. Maj. Gen. Wijendra himself is now probing the reasons, if any, that led to the inability of the troops to adhere to operational orders and effect a link up. There have been claims of some units not moving according to the orders given and shortcomings on the part of some of the Commanding Officers. At least one Commanding Officer of a regiment is to be moved out immediately from the north.
It seems highly unlikely that Lt. Gen. Balagalle, who was in Jaffna during the launch of “Operation Agni Khiela,” will appoint a Court of Inquiry to ascertain the sequence of events that led to the failure. At most, only a Court to probe the losses is likely, according to Army sources. He is learnt to be awaiting a full debrief from Maj. Gen. Wijendra on the conduct of the operation. The latter is expected to make this available before the end of next week. This is because Maj. Gen. Wijendra has been nominated for a tour of the United States, where he is billed to take part in a military event at Harvard University in Boston. Major General Susil Chandrapala, Deputy Commander, SF, Jaffna will act for him.
Initially, it was LTTE’s Theepan who had led the defensive action against the advancing troops. He had later been joined by LTTE’s “Overall Commander,” Balraj. Artillery support had been led by Banu.
A radio intercept by the Police Special Task Force (STF) has prompted the Army to believe that the Tiger guerrillas were to launch an offensive against them on April 26. By launching “Operation Agni Khiela,” they had pre-empted the move, some senior officers argued.
Even if this was true, whether the troops would have suffered such heavy casualties in a defensive role, warding off a guerrilla offensive, remains a serious question.
A copy of the transcript of the STF radio intercept, obtained by The Sunday Times reveals a conversation between Karuna, currently in Batticaloa and the 28 Base in Elephant Pass. It took place in the morning of April 25. This is what it said:
Alpha (Karuna’s Mobile Unit): I am Karuna speaking. Is there anything special ?
Base 28: Yes. Kilo Sera informed that fighting has started in Pallai area. The Army has attacked two of our defence lines and fighting is going on inside the defence lines.
A code message has been received from Prabhakaran requesting all leaders in the East to start the battle immediately. Several messages have been received from Ravi who is in the North.
Alpha: I will send a member. Send all the messages through him. Contact Jeevan and Rabat and ask them to speak to me.
Base 28: Ram is here. Speak to him.
Kilo Sera: I am Ram speaking. The Army has advanced two and a half kilometres from the side of Pallai, Kilaly and from the rear and are attacking us. Our men have made plans to encircle them and attack. But we do not know what will happen later. The Army started firing mortars and artillery continuously from 5.45 am before entering our forward lines.
They should have suffered heavy losses as we had buried landmines in that area.
Similar attacks have been carried out by the 55th and 52nd Division at Kattakadu area. The commanding officer is Tennekoon. We were to start the offensive on the 26th. But the Army has come to know of it and attacked us earlier.
Alpha: Brigade Commander Tennekoon will be taught a good lesson very soon.
Kilo Sera: The fighting is continuing. Thirty two of our men have been killed and 30 injured. In the morning, three battle tanks have come from the sea side and attacked us.
Alpha: Inform me the situation later. I will inform all the leaders here and start the fighting.”
Karuna’s reference to starting the fighting, it has become clear, was to carry out attacks including those on civilians. This week, at least seven civilians have been killed in the Ampara district. Contrary to belief that the guerrillas will not target civilians in view of the ongoing Norwegian initiative, there were still very strong indications they were planning attacks on civilians and even some villages. But some senior security officials dismissed this view saying it was not likely.
On May 3, the failure of “Operation Agni Khiela” was to figure at the regular National Security Council meeting at Janadhipathi Mandiraya. President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, the Commander-in-Chief was in the chair. Maj. Gen. Wijendra was summoned to Colombo to explain what happened. However, the meeting was interrupted many a time with the President focusing greater attention on the incidents at Mawanella.
Deputy Defence Minister, Anuruddha Ratwatte, who flew from Kandy to Colombo for the NSC meeting had to ask his helicopter pilot to hover over Mawanella a few times to see what was going on. Minister Ratwatte also expressed the urgent need to tighten security measures to prevent a conflagration in the area.
In between discussing the “Agni Khiela” failure, President Kumaratunga sent out instructions to Police and security forces. She also gave instructions to senior PA leaders in several areas to personally ensure peace was maintained.
When the four and half hour NSC meeting ended, the dilemma faced by the PA Government was starkly clear. As one high ranking source, who wished to remain anonymous explained, “President Kumaratunga is caught in a delicate issue. She concurred with the security forces demand that there should be no ceasefire. She gave them all the funds to further modernise and increase their fire power. And now, they cannot deliver. What does she do in such a situation ?”
Needless to say last week’s developments were uppermost in President Kumaratunga’s mind as she met Norwegian Special Envoy, Erik Solheim, for two rounds of talks this week. The latter had also emphasised on the need for a halt to fighting for peace talks to get under way. Mr. Solheim who arrived in Colombo on Wednesday left for London on Friday. He was due to meet LTTE chief negotiator, Dr. Anton Balasingham, as part of his shuttle diplomacy to facilitate peace talks between the Government and the LTTE.
President Kumaratunga summoned another meeting of the National Security Meeting on Friday afternoon. This time, it was to focus on events that have arisen in the aftermath of the failure of “Operation Agni Khiela.” She sounded out the views of security forces top brass and other top defence officials about a possible halt to fighting during a given time frame. She received a unanimous mandate from those present.
But President Kumaratunga is not intent on an open ended halt to hostilities, whatever nomenclature may be used to describe it,be it a ceasefire, cessation of hostilities, or a periodic halt to offensive action.
Now that the heads of the armed forces have made their position known, particularly in the wake of the “Agni Khiela” setback, President Kumaratunga is to await the return to Colombo of Mr. Solheim, possibly in the coming week or two.
That may see a major step forward in the proposed peace talks, one within a limited time frame where it is hoped that the core issues could be discussed and finalised whilst the combatants on both sides hold their fire. But, the days before this materialises would undoubtedly be important. Tiger guerrillas may retaliate. Their response to “Operation Agni Khiela” is likely. That will not be the only concern for the security forces.
They have a bigger responsibility.
That is to ensure more losses do not further enhance both the LTTE’s image and their bargaining power until proposed talks materialise.
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