debacle: The shocking story
- President, NSC and JOH were
not aware of Wednesday's ill-planned operation
- Hundreds of soldiers trapped
in the killing fields of the LTTE
- Disastrous operation reverses
military successes of recent weeks and embarrasses
Norwegian Ambassador Hans Brattskar's
telephone rang on Wednesday morning. It was a senior
member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)
complaining that the Security Forces had launched a
major military offensive.
Infantry backed by battle tanks and
armoured personnel carriers were advancing from their
defended localities at Muhamalai towards guerrilla positions.
Air Force Kfir jets were bombing areas nearby. Artillery
and mortar were raining on their bunker lines and behind,
|A photograph in a Tamil website
shows Tiger guerrillas in the process of retrieving
one of Army's Main Battle Tanks that was stuck in
a soggy ditch.
The caller protested that this was
despite assurances given to Mr. Brattskar by their Political
Wing leader, S.P. Tamilselvan, last Tuesday that the
LTTE would accept "unconditionally" the dates
suggested by the Government (October 28 and 29) to resume
peace talks in Switzerland. He said the attack had come
despite an LTTE warning that the Security Forces were
preparing for a major offensive from Muhamalai just
days earlier. This charge was strongly denied by the
Later that morning, Mr. Brattskar
wanted to ascertain the factual position. He raised
issue with Palitha Kohona, Secretary General of the
Government's Peace Secretariat during a previously scheduled
meeting. It was meant to discuss matters relating to
the upcoming round of peace talks. Last Tuesday, Mr.
Brattskar had, in fact, used his satellite telephone
to speak to Mr. Kohona from Kilinochchi. That was to
tell him that the LTTE was willing to resume talks and
had accepted the dates offered by the Government. An
official announcement in this regard was made in Oslo
by the Royal Norwegian Government only thereafter.
Mr. Kohona flatly denied the Security
Forces had launched any fresh offensive. He would have
known if there was one. It was his Secretariat that
had set out the Government's official position vis-à-vis
military action against the LTTE. Their website said
the Government reserved the right to counter measures
if the guerrillas undertook actions of "an offensive
and provocative nature." Moreover, he was present
when President Mahinda Rajapaksa told envoys of Donor
Co-chairs on Monday that the Security Forces would not
carry out any offensive military operations against
the LTTE in the run-up to the peace talks. That was
a credible assurance coming from the highest in the
land. He, however, re-iterated the military's right
to retaliate only if attacked.
|The guerrillas are seen with a
gun removed from the same MBT.
If there were any "offensive" or "provocative"
acts and a retaliatory response by the Security Forces,
Mr. Kohona would have known. He was also conscious of
President Rajapaksa's firm assurance to the Donor Co-chairs.
Hence, his strong denial that there was a military offensive
That no doubt would have left the
much maligned Norwegian Ambassador perplexed. Having
succeeded in getting the protagonists to resume talks,
sorted out dates and a venue, there was now a fresh
obstacle. The guerrillas were claiming they were under
attack from the Security Forces. The head of the Peace
Secretariat, one of the key Government agencies he dealt
with, was vehemently denying it. Evidently, Mr. Brattskar
could not ascertain the ground situation from members
of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) since they
were not present in the area.
It was the Government Peace Secretariat,
and not the Ministry of Defence, that gave the reason
for this on Wednesday evening. "The Government
cannot guarantee the safety of the Ceasefire Monitors
in the Muhamalai area due to sporadic shelling and attacks
by the LTTE," a statement said. Such a situation,
quite clearly, has arisen for the first time during
the ceasefire. As Eelam War IV continued, the role of
the SLMM had diminished.
As hours ticked by the confusion began
to spread. Has the Government launched a military offensive
to seize more guerrilla territory ahead of the peace
talks? Was this the reason why the Government declared
that it reserved the right to retaliate if the LTTE
resorted to "offensive" or "provocative"
action? These were among the many questions raised in
Colombo's diplomatic community, media circles and civil
Their concerns were heightened by
the first known account to enter the public domain through
the pro-LTTE website Tamilnet. A report on Wednesday
morning said the Army has launched ground troop's movement
into LTTE-controlled territory with heavy artillery
and MBRL (Multi Barrel Rocket Launcher) fire since 6.30
a.m. Wednesday. Pointing out that the SLMM had been
notified of the attack; the website quoted their "Military
Spokesman" Irasiah Ilanthiriyan as saying that
the new offensive, shattering peace hopes, comes few
hours after an official announcement by Norway that
the parties agreed to meet in Switzerland.
If there was a major military offensive,
which indeed has turned out to be the case, the political
leadership was completely unaware. So were high ranking
officials except for one who had tried to persuade an
"over enthusiastic" military official, awaiting
an extension of service only few weeks later, not to
go ahead. Like many others during past occasions, did
he under estimate the enemy capability? Much has been
said on this subject in The Sunday Times in the recent
weeks. Even this official was unaware of the magnitude
of the measures planned and how they were to be executed.
The Joint Operations Headquarters
(JOH), the unified apparatus of the Army, Navy, Air
Force and Police, tasked to jointly carry out counter
terrorist operations, The Sunday Times learnt, was unaware.
Nor was its head, Chief of Defence Staff, Air Chief
Marshal Donald Perera. It has come to light that air
support to take on specified targets was sought and
obtained from Commander of the Air Force, Air Marshal
Roshan Gunathilaka. It has also come to light that some
of the senior officers engaged in the action expressed
serious reservations earlier but were over ruled.
Even the National Security Council
chaired by President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Wednesday
morning, The Sunday Times learnt, was not in the picture.
"If they, particularly President Rajapaksa, were
aware, he would have called a halt to it. He is very
pleased and proud of the successes of the Security Forces.
That showed he was willing to face threats of violence
but wanted to negotiate a political settlement. He made
his commitment known both to the people and to the international
community," said a source at the Presidential Secretariat.
Those remarks, later confirmed by The Sunday Times,
showed that other military top brass were blissfully
unaware that whilst they were at the NSC, something
disastrous was taking place in the battlefields of Muhamalai.
Official silence was broken when a
staff member of the Media Centre for National Security
(MCNS) sent out SMS messages on a mobile phone to media
personnel, particularly foreign correspondents. It said
"LTTE attack Muhamalai, Nagerkovil and Eluthumaduval
FDLs since last few days and strong build (sic) in front
of FDLs. Tps (troops) retaliate."
Late Wednesday afternoon the MCNS
said in a news release: "the security forces have
not attacked any area in the North and East. The Government
forces have no intention of carrying out such attacks."
It added: "Security Forces successfully repulsed
continued LTTE attempts to breach the Muhamalai forward
defences since last (Tuesday) night. To counter the
intensity of these attacks the assistance of the Air
Force was sought."
The MCNS statement declared, "the
Government believes that the LTTE is engaged in a calculated
attempt to mislead the International Community by propagating
false media reports through Tiger sympathetic media
groups." There was also a significant assertion
in the MCNS statement. This was a line which said, "The
Government categorically stated in the conditions to
resume talks that the Security Forces retain the right
to retaliate if the LTTE continued with their attacks."
This is the first official confirmation that that the
right to retaliate is very much a condition for resumption
As for the denials, whether the MCNS
was unaware of the goings on at Muhamalai battlefields
on Wednesday morning, like the Joint Operations Headquarters
(JOH), remains an important question. Or, were they
forced to do damage control without knowing the fuller
picture? The questions are best left unanswered.
For many days from last week, Security
Forces have been directing artillery and mortar fire
from their defended localities that straddle the one
time Entry-Exit point at Muhamalai towards Tiger guerrilla
positions. By hindsight, it became clear this was to
soften up guerrilla targets. I cannot comment on whether
the Security Forces offensive was prompted by guerrilla
build-ups and attacks. However, it was planned to be
launched last Monday and had been delayed by two days.
From morning until late afternoon on Monday, there had
been very heavy downpours, signs that the North-East
monsoon was setting in. Nor can I give a detailed account
of the debacle, how exactly the fighting broke out and
ended in just over two hours, the shortest but the worst
during the four-year-old ceasefire. This is due to severe
However, it can be said that the action
against the LTTE was carried out by the Army's 53 Division
which has been placed in a reserve role in the Jaffna
peninsula. That was made up of the Air Mobile Brigade
and 533 Infantry Brigade. They were supported by men
of the 55 Division that has been tasked for a holding
On Tuesday night, Special Infantry
Oriented Teams (SIOT) from the Air Mobile Brigade moved
out of the defence lines. They had stealthily walked
towards the guerrilla defence lines and were helping
in directing artillery and mortar fire. They were also
providing the required battle field information on the
radio to their commanders. That included enemy disposition,
machine gun emplacements and mortar positions.
On Wednesday morning, troops finished
an early breakfast of tuna fish curry, dhal and rice.
Backed by Czech-built T-55 Main Battle Tanks (MBTs)
and Chinese-built armoured personnel carriers they moved
out. The break out was two pronged -- from the general
areas of Kilali (east of A-9 highway) and Muhamalai.
The H hour, the time when concentrated artillery/mortar
fire had to be directed to enable the mechanized and
infantry units to attack guerrilla positions was 8 a.m.
When a couple of minutes to 8 a.m.
approached, artillery and mortar fire at guerrilla positions
were increasing. The loud explosions reached a crescendo.
It was then that some of the mechanized columns faced
trouble. One of the MBTs was hit by an anti tank mine.
The track was destroyed and the tank was immobilised.
Another MBT that overtook the damaged one faced the
same fate. Another fell into a soggy ditch, a tank obstacle
near the guerrilla lines. Three more tanks were disabled.
Three armoured personnel carriers too were hit. Infantry
movement at this point was slowed down by heavy barrages
of RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade) and mortar fire.
Yet, the troops pushed ahead bravely.
After the mechanized units burst through a part of the
guerrilla defences, infantry troops dismounted in order
to engage them. This was in an open area. Within seconds,
it became clear the troops had moved into a guerrilla
killing field. Mortar fire began to rain on the concentration
of troops. Just then, guerrillas also opened up on them
with Machine Gun fire. Troops fell dead on the ground.
Some who ran for cover stepped on the heavily mined
areas. At some points, troops were fighting close quarter
battles. They had dislodged the guerrillas from some
of their bunkers and occupied their defence lines. Most
of the soldiers, who saw their colleagues fall dead,
were so strong willed that they pushed forward to fire
at their enemy. In the process, many of them sacrificed
But soon troops began to realize they
had unwittingly walked into a trap and began a tactical
withdrawal. Communications were cut off. There was a
paucity of information and confusion reigned. Later
that evening troops had all reached their original positions,
giving up the areas they captured, some of the mechanized
vehicles and other military hardware. The battle had
just ended in a little over two hours. Yet, field commanders
found it difficult to discern a fuller picture of what
had happened and what went wrong. They had a bigger
priority on hand - rush the large number of injured
for treatment. Several private buses were requisitioned
and the casualty evacuation exercise began.
A hangar like building, located adjoining
the Control Tower of the Air Force base in Palaly, was
immediately converted into a temporary hospital due
to pressure on the Army Hospital in Palaly. This building
was once used as a reception hall for passengers taking
flights. A serious lapse, in planning the military attack
seems the failure to give consideration to casualties
if a serious eventuality occurred. Was it over confidence
and an under estimation of the enemy capability? Even
ambulances were in short supply and there were no arrangements
in Colombo to receive a large number of casualties.
From the two hospitals, cases that needed greater medical
attention were flown in Air Force flights to Anuradhapura
With the task of dealing with casualties
over, it was only on Thursday that battalion commanders
got down to the job of taking a count of their men.
The purpose was three fold - who were missing, who were
known to be killed and how many were exactly injured.
Even yesterday, a full and clear picture has not emerged
in terms of statistics. Figures available on Thursday
night showed that 8 officers and 47 soldiers were killed.
A further 78 including four officers were declared missing
in action. But the same night the LTTE handed over to
delegates of the International Committee of the Red
Cross (ICRC) the bodies of 74 troops. They were in turn
handed over to the Army at Omanthai (Vavuniya) in the
presence of members of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission.
This LTTE handover of bodies proved wrong the MCNS claim
that there were no Security Forces attacks in the North
The figures available show 129 soldiers
were killed. Three more wounded soldiers died on Friday.
The LTTE said the body of another soldier had been recovered
on Thursday evening. It is not clear whether it has
been handed over. That would bring the total to 133
dead. Whilst one soldier is in LTTE custody, in terms
of these figures, two are not accounted for. Senior
Army officials say the figures could become higher when
a final count is made. But this cannot be verified.
Even in official accounts, the figures are not fully
reflected. A situation report circulated to senior political
and military leaders on Thursday declared two officers
and 35 soldiers missing - just half the number of 72
bodies returned by the LTTE on Thursday night. The Army
strongly denied LTTE claims that more bodies of dead
soldiers lay in the "no man's" land that divided
their defence lines from the rebels.
Soldiers injured, according to figures
available, have been placed at 483. Of this number,
283 are described in military parlance as P 1 and P
2. They are considered serious cases. The three deaths
reported on Friday would bring this number down to 280.
The rest are P 3 or those who received minor injuries.
Here again some officers argue the figures are higher
but this cannot be verified.
The guerrillas remained silent over
their casualties. A guerrilla radio intercept by a security
arm spoke of 23 dead and 101 wounded. But Security Forces
claim the number was over 200. However, this cannot
be independently verified.
The LTTE, which suffered one military
reversal after another, sought to make capital out of
Wednesday's incidents. Several pro-LTTE websites, particularly
ones in Tamil, ran video footage of burning battle tanks
and the bodies of soldiers to gain propaganda mileage.
Guerrilla vehicles escorting the ICRC convoy carrying
the bodies of the dead soldiers were bedecked with white
flags and moved slowly along the A-9 highway from Kilinochchi
to Omanthai. Prior announcements were made for civilians
to view this and learn more about the LTTE's latest
Even if they threatened to pull out
of the upcoming talks if attacked by the Security Forces,
the LTTE still wants to travel to Switzerland. The mood
that was one of despondency for them seems to be now
upbeat. Whether they would make it, their turn to place
preconditions cannot be ruled out.
More than anything else, Wednesday's
ill planned operation conducted without the knowledge
of the political leadership and against the wishes of
senior officials has clearly embarrassed the Mahinda
Rajapaksa Government. Its credibility has been brought
to question in the eyes of the international community.
The great sacrifices made by the Security Forces and
the Police to deliver success after success, to give
the Government a stronger bargaining position at the
talks and the Sri Lankan public a greater morale boost
have now taken a nose dive.
There was compelling need for a careful
appreciation of ground realities before engaging in
last Wednesday's military action. Firstly, the LTTE
complained in writing to the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission
(SLMM) that the Security Forces were planning an offensive
operation. This was strongly denied by the Government.
In the wake of this, the Army's Directorate of Military
Intelligence (DMI) reported that the LTTE had fortified
their defence lines in Muhamalai. They also reported
that cadres had been pulled out from other deployments
and assigned to the defence lines in fear that a major
attack was in the offing. Did not the military action
require a more careful study and endorsement by the
political and defence leadership?
If there is one glaring fact Wednesday's
incident reveal, it is the wide gulf between the political
and military leadership. The former does not seem to
have proper and closer control. Any deterioration of
the situation, no doubt, would not be in the best interest
of the Government or the public who have voted it to
Gaining a military edge over the LTTE,
by weakening it, is no doubt a key aspect. But to a
Government that has committed itself to a negotiated
settlement, the political aspects matter equally. One
cannot be ignored at the expense of the other.
With the series of military successes,
the Government was sitting pretty. President Mahinda
Rajapaksa was riding a very high wave of public popularity.
Just one ill conceived military action that led to a
major reversal threatens to undo all that.