29th April 2001
The sun's rays were receding in the horizon on Monday when the Sri Lanka Air Force Hercules C-130 lowered to make a smooth touchdown at the Palaly airfield.
It taxied to a halt on the apron. On board were over a hundred soldiers in uniform, returning to battle areas after home leave. I was the only exception, the only journalist on board.
The Load Master reached out to a console that hung at the end of a wire. He pushed a button. The lower ramp and the upper hatch door that hydraulically seals the rear of the aircraft began to slowly part. The ramp, with food supplies strapped on the floor, slowly hit the ground. The hatch rose towards the tail wing.
I saw the latest phase in the 19 year long separatist war unfolding before me. Just ahead, beneath a shade tree, a large white patch was ominous in the semi-darkness. A closer look revealed they were bodies of dead soldiers neatly wrapped in shining white cloth.
On the left side of the apron, rows of ambulances lay parked. Inside, some soldiers lie uncomfortably on stretchers. Saline bottles hang over their heads. Others, dressed in brown striped pyjamas stand in a queue. Almost all of them allow only one foot to rest on the ground. The other is bandaged. They hold on to their colleagues to prevent a fall. Helpers clasp their hands and allow soldiers, with both legs bandaged, to sit in the middle. To prevent falling, they throw their arms around the necks of the helpers.
The ramp is cleared of its cargo. I step down, followed by the soldiers. A helper appeals to disembarking soldiers to hurry up. The engines continue to whir. As the last batch of soldiers alight, helpers rush to load the casualties, and the dead, for their flight to Colombo.
Within minutes the C-130 takes off. Two Russian built AN 32s then arrive. The pilots keep the engines running whilst more soldiers, returning from leave, disembark. Casualties are then rushed in. Soon they are airborne, one after another. The ritual seems never ending. Ambulances, even service vehicles, are still bringing in more casualties.
From a bedroom in the security forces headquarters complex I hear noises of aircraft taking off or landing until well past midnight. As an Air Force official later explains, both the pilots and the aircraft need rest. Hence the short break. But the ritual begins again at crack of dawn.
Those events tell the story of the latest security forces offensive, "Operation Agni Khiela" or Rod of Fire. Two divisions of the Sri Lanka Army broke out from their southern defences in the Jaffna Peninsula at 1.48 a.m. on April 24. It came barely two hours after Tiger guerrillas called off a four-month long unilateral ceasefire and vowed to carry out attacks.
The breakout was from the defence lines that ran contiguously from Nagar Kovil in the east through Eluthumadduval to the Kilaly lagoon in the west. The objective was to re-capture Pallai, the palm fringed village that lies on the thin isthmus connecting the Jaffna peninsula to mainland Sri Lanka.
It lay astride the A-9 Jaffna-Colombo highway. The operational plan set out two days, or more precisely, April 26, to achieve the objective. New defence lines were to come up on either side of Pallai after troops captured the area. The offensive, the first major thrust in the current year, was a precursor to a future security forces operation to re-capture Elephant Pass – a victory that would have boosted the Government's image and given it a stronger bargaining position. That is if and when Norway's efforts to facilitate peace talks materialise.
It was in this month, last year, the security forces made a humiliating withdrawal from Elephant Pass. Thereafter they pitched positions at Pallai. But Tiger guerrilla attacks were to push them further to the rear, to Eluthumadduval. Here the security forces defences remained until they advanced to the village of Muhamalai, last year. On the east, their defences ran to Nagar Kovil while on the west, it was further ahead of their earlier positions at Kilaly.
The offensive began with the Army's 55 Division, led by Major General Sunil Tennekoon, advancing on the eastern flank of the A-9 highway. On the western flank, the Army's elite 53 Division advanced.
By late Monday, troops had made a steady advance on the two flanks. The guerrillas were caught by surprise. However, there was heavy resistance at the centre – along the A-9 axis. This came when troops proceeded over two kilometres on either side.
A yawning gap remained at the centre. The guerrillas were pounding the two flanks with artillery, mortar and multi-barrel rocket fire. As dusk fell on Monday, troops belonging to the 53 Division were facing serious problems. Both military and other supplies could not be moved. Enemy fire had become intense. There was serious concern at the Operations Room of Security Forces Headquarters in Jaffna.
After consulting Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle, who was on hand in Palaly, Major General Anton Wijendra, Security Forces Commander, Jaffna, gave orders to Major General Sivali Wanigasekera, General Officer Commanding (GOC) to return to their original defence lines. This was after several skirmishes caused gaps isolating advancing troops. Some of the dead soldiers were trapped and their bodies could not be retrieved. By dawn on Wednesday, troops were back to the defence lines from which they broke out.
On the eastern flank, troops holding on to an extent of some four square kilometres, came under fierce attacks. It intensified on Tuesday and continued for the next two days. Guerrillas infiltrated this newly captured stretch on Friday. That led to intense battles. Once again, there was serious concern in the Operations Room of SF headquarters in Palaly. Maj. Gen. Wijendra, for a second time, consulted Lt. Gen. Balagalle, who was then in Colombo. Soon , the Chief of Defence Staff, Gen. Rohan de S Daluwatte was apprised of the position by Lt. Gen. Balagalle. He directed that Maj. Gen. Wijendra be advised to order troops to withdraw if he felt it necessary. Later, the orders were passed down by Maj. Gen. Wijendra to Maj. Gen. Sunil Tennekoon, GOC of the 55 Division to return to the defence lines from which they broke out. By 5.30 a.m. yesterday, the withdrawal was completed.
"Operation Agni Khiela" ended, four days after its launch, with two Divisions of the Army returning to the very defence lines from which they broke out. The enemy attacks appeared to be too much to contain. The four day long adventure had cost the lives of over 180 troops including three officers. The clandestine Voice of Tigers radio, monitored in the Wanni, had announced the LTTE had recovered the bodies of 30 soldiers. They were to be handed over to the ICRC at LTTE controlled Mallavi in the Wanni yesterday. They are due to arrive in Vavnniya today. That would place the death toll at over 210. Those wounded were over 1600 soldiers, at least 225 of them seriously. Senior Army officials dismissed an LTTE claim that 51 soldiers, including three officers, were missing in action.
Most of the injuries were from improvised mines or battas the guerrillas had placed ahead of their well fortified defences. Maj. Gen. Wijendra told The Sunday Times "an attacking force always sustains more casualties." He said troops had moved along lanes after clearing the mines but the fall of artillery and mortars forced them to scatter for cover. "When that happened, they stepped on mines," he said. (See interview in box story on this page)
Whilst some of the land mine victims will have to walk on one leg for the rest of their lives, others will be minus both. Most with minor injuries will return to the battlefield. That will be after six to seven weeks when their wounds heal. It is these injured soldiers that the persevering pilots of the Sri Lanka Air Force ferried to Colombo, in one flight after another, until past midnight.
The injured were collected from secure points behind the advancing columns mostly by ambulances and other vehicles. Serious cases were airlifted by helicopter from the battlefield to Palaly. On the Kilaly lagoon side, Commodore Upali Ranaweera, the Navy's Northern Commander, had deployed boats. Some of the casualties were moved by Navy boats to Kankesanturai and later transported in ambulances to Palaly.
If an unusually large number had paid the supreme sacrifice in just four days of a military offensive, a larger number were wounded in the first major thrust against guerrillas in the current year.
After the debacles at Elephant Pass and the setbacks in the Jaffna peninsula, last year, the Government was compelled to pour in billions of rupees to further modernise the security forces. All the required equipment arrived and the troops had re-trained for four months before embarking on the latest offensive.
More importantly, this time, there has been no Government or political pressure on the security forces top brass to launch an operation. At several meetings of the National Security Council, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who had met all the fresh requirements of the security forces, only made it clear that her Government would not reciprocate the LTTE demand for a ceasefire. She re-iterated that the security forces were therefore free to continue with their offensive operations. She neither ordered a particular offensive nor placed any deadline.
Why then did "Operation Agni Khiela" or Rod of Fire misfire? For anyone closely monitoring developments in the north, particularly after the fall of Elephant Pass, last year, it was crystal clear that the LTTE were fortifying their defences. They, like many others, expected a security forces advance to re-capture Elephant Pass some day.
If they made preparations to pre-empt such a move, which appeared very logical, during a four month long, self imposed unilateral ceasefire, the LTTE had also resorted to an unprecedented weapons build up. Here is proof now that whilst talking peace, the Tiger guerrillas prepared well for war. They demonstrated how ready they are by forcing two Divisions of the Army to return to the defence lines they occupied before the operation.
What of the security forces? It is no secret that the Government spent billions of rupees since last year, to re-arm them with more modern equipment. Even if it compromised national security interests badly, the Army announced two weeks ago that it had received battle tanks, multiple rocket launchers and other military equipment from the Czech Republic. Millions of dollars spent on that deal was just a part of many other such procurements, some of them controversial and concluded under strange circumstances. With all this, what went wrong?
One is not sure, whether like all other military blunders, the disasters of Agni Khiela will end up in the limbo of forgotten things. If that were to happen, the sacrifices made by those brave men in the battlefield would be in vain. That certainly is a dilemma for the Government. If one were to go by the propaganda blitz that accompanied the offensive, that too under a censorship, the public would no doubt have favoured a military settlement instead of going for peace talks with the LTTE. Why talk when the LTTE is being militarily weakened? And now that there is a setback, it would again come as a strong point for the peace lobby.
They could argue, once more, that with all the new weapons the military cannot fight the rebels or win the war.
In these circumstances, it is in the Government's own interest to lift the censorship. Instead, it could well work out a guideline with the media on reporting the war and related matters. The public would then be given a correct picture, be it on the war or on peace moves. This is particularly because it is the military that is fighting the war that is now disseminating the news about it. Needless to say the recent events will cause more problems for the Norwegian facilitators. Both sides had talked of peace but prepared for war. And now, they have begun to fight it out.
When the fighting raged on Tuesday, I joined Brigadier Sharman Kulatunga, the GOC of a Division and his men on a tour of the frontlines. At one location, his men were providing artillery and multi-barrel rocket launcher support to advancing troops. The ground shook as artillery exploded. Volley after volley of rockets spewed out from a vehicle mounted launcher. It resembled a louder version of an express train, rushing past when one stood near the rail tracks. The rockets looked like large sticks of fire darting across the skies on a bright morning.
As the noise receded, I heard the radio of an officer crackle. A voice was asking other users to stand by and not speak on that channel. I learnt there was an emergency. A young officer, just ahead of enemy lines, giving locations for artillery and MBRL targets, had been hit on both legs by gunfire. He was lying on the ground with three other soldiers close by. What came as the biggest salvation was the communication set he had carried. The caller had asked others to stand by so that the location of the officer could be determined. That was before the battery of his set ran out.
Stepped up artillery and MBRL barrages were being fired at locations forward of where the injured officer lay. This was to help a commando team detailed for a rescue operation. More firing continued as the rescue effort was successfully carried out.
As we drove out from there, Brigadier Kulatunga warned we were in an area vulnerable to artillery attack. It was bereft of civilian presence. It was only the previous day, three artillery shells fired at advancing troops, fell there. The double cab we travelled in cut through cross roads and areas where there is thick vegetation and coconut plantations.
Later, after a drive through Meesalai and Chavakachcheri we arrive at Thanankilappu, a sprawling area of grassland which was once lush paddy land. The open expanse could easily accommodate a large airport. The area lay in LTTE hands until last New Year's eve when troops seized control. That included the adjoining coastal village of Ariyalai.
Tiger guerrillas had left behind several tell tale signs. In the middle of the sprawling grasslands, grazed by herds of cattle, lay an underground bunker. The walls are 16 to 20 inches thick. The steps down led to a spacious area, which could accommodate at least 15 beds. Portholes on the wall give a view of the surrounding areas. One could see for several kilometres from all sides. After driving a little distance, closer to a lagoon, I am warned that travel by vehicle would be hazardous. We decide to leave our vehicles and walk single file. I follow Brigadier Kulatunga. We were still in a wide expanse of open land overlooking a vast stretch of water.
Ahead of us is Sangupiddy, where a ferry service once linked Pooneryn (on the mainland) to the Jaffna peninsula. Across the lagoon where the LTTE had their installations, movements of vehicles were being observed by spotters. They would direct artillery fire if our presence was noticed.
Closer to the edge of the lagoon, more guerrilla concrete constructions remain. A thick wall with passages running in different directions lay half complete. It is linked to a well-like structure. Was it an anti-aircraft gun position with facilities to hide a barrel? Or was it for an artillery gun position ? The question is baffling security officials.
A little distance away, through binoculars, I see the LTTE installations in Pooneryn. What is most striking is a tall tower, presumably for communications. One is reminded of the many towers in the countryside that serve as repeater stations for cellular telephone services. The LTTE tower is as tall as one of those and lies just near the coast marked by sand dunes. We decided to move out for fear of being spotted and drawing artillery fire.
Driving to another area of the peninsula, we see that life goes on uninterrupted. Workers at Point Pedro harbour, who were once fishermen but could not any longer carry out their trade due to a fishing ban, were unloading cement and flour from barges. These barges had been loaded in mid-sea from cargo ships that weigh anchor. Life in the town area was normal too. But the gunfire on the battlefield were still audible.
A return journey to Colombo was delayed after fears that the guerrillas had fired a surface to air missile at an AN 32 aircraft coming in to land. The aircraft was immediately diverted after officials on the ground saw a plume of dark smoke billowing down. It took a while before flights resumed.
The return journey again was a reminder of the hazards of war. Only a few seats remained in the AN 32. The others had been removed. On the floor lay badly wounded soldiers. They were on stretchers. Further away, towards the cockpit, seated on the ground were other wounded soldiers. Some held on to saline bottles with the tubes connected to their wrists. Others had X-ray and medical reports in their hands. Many could barely manage to sit comfortably.
To his credit, the pilot was outside the cockpit as his colleague kept watch whilst the engines were running. He painstakingly found little spaces for the injured to sit down. Some who did not have space were told to wait until the cabin doors were closed. Then they were told to sit in the little space that became available.
But when the aircraft was airborne, he was to meet some unexpected problems. Heavy rains and poor visibility were causing difficulty. He made efforts to land at the SLAF airfield in Anuradhapura but the conditions were not conducive. He flew the aircraft cautiously and landed at the SLAF base at Katunayake. He had radioed Ratmalana airport to redirect the ambulances waiting there, to Katunayake.
As I alighted from the aircraft, I saw an officer pointing to a soldier on a stretcher and say "he is dead." These are the vagaries of a war.
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