Operation Liberation One

In this extract from the General Cyril Ranatunga's autobiography 'Adventurous Journey - From Peace to War, Insurgency to Terrorism', he provides an inside account of 'Operation Vadamarachchi'

There were many considerations for the selection of Vadamarachchi. It was selected after hours of meticulous planning and a lot of afterthought. Since assuming duties as General Officer Commanding of the JOC, many operations were conducted in various areas and the war was fought in many fronts with several groups of terrorists, ranging from EPRLF, PLOTE, LTTE, TELO and EROS. Each group employed different guerrilla tactics with the common aim of becoming the supreme group with a popular tag in calling themselves the liberators of the suffering Tamil population of the north and east of Sri Lanka.

All the localized operations were carefully planned with the army, navy, the air force and the police and subsequently, had the desired results. I was fortunate to have a crack team of offcers in the forces who undertook these operations with great commitment and valour. Th e intelligence unit which was formed during my days in Gurunagar played a vital role in all these operations. With most terrorist groups becoming weak after the security forces launched successful operations, the remaining cadres joined the emerging group LTTE and the people who opted not to join, were brutally murdered by the LTTE. We, in the JOC saw what was happening in a completely di erent perspective. It was clear that the LTTE would soon be the sole terrorist group, and that the security forces would have to deal with them consequently.

The requirement of a full-scale war aiming at the leaders of the LTTE, giving them a crippling blow was in my mind. I kept on thinking about the various aspects for a couple of days without letting any of my inner circle of commanders and the intelligence officers know, as I had to be convinced in my own mind that an operation of this magnitude needed to be carefully thought about, as civilian casualties, security forces casualties, the reaction of the international community, the impending Indian support for the LTTE, arms and ammunition were all of utmost importance. Everything needed careful and precise planning. During those first few days, my mind was racked with questions and I was crippled with doubt and uncertainty. Some of the officers working closely with me noticed that I was preoccupied and it later came to be known that after many discussions amongst them, they had decided to confront me.
This discussion did take place. Their confrontation had the desired results _ I proceeded to tell Brig, Denzil Kobbekaduwa, Col. Lionel Balagalle and Lt. Col. Sunil Tennakoon my idea. I immediately saw Denzil's mind drawing up battle plans. Lionel and Sunil, the most senior intelligence officers with a tremendous track record, were in deep thought. They left my room with a promise that only the four of us will know what was going on in my mind.
Briefing the President of the intended battle plan.

Denzil was very keenly involved and wanted any vital information conveyed to him. Once, when a top terrorist was apprehended, a soldier rushed to his quarters to tell Denzil the news. Denzil, who was shaving in the bathroom, walked out. Th e soldier got the shock of his life to see a completely naked Denzil, who had been so excited by the news that he forgot to wrap a towel round himself. He could well have told the soldier, as in the famous case involving Winston Churchill in the buff, "Sri Lanka has nothing to hide".

With tremendous pressure on the Sri Lankan Government from the international community to solve the ethnic problem by negotiations and the Sri Lankan forces being unfairly accused of human rights violations, President JRJ requested that I kept him informed of the real situation on a regular basis at the time of my appointment. I was authorized to drive into his residence 'Braemar' anytime in the evening to brief him about the situation at the time. However, I did feel that to inform the President of an idea of an operation of this magnitude was premature.

In the meantime, plans were underway for 'Operation Short Shift'. This was an offensive carried out mainly by the Sri Lanka Navy with the air force to get food supplies to the besieged Jaffna Fort as light machine gunfire by the LTTE had hampered air operations hitherto carried out. I convened a meeting of the commanders of the three forces, IGP, a few selected senior officers and my intelligence staff to discuss the plan for an all out war. I must reiterate that I had total confidence in the initial team I selected for this purpose. I was fortunate to have a team of such professional officers and discussions were only limited to the operations room in the JOC headquarters.

Intelligence units in the north were mobilized in full-scale to gather information regarding the LTTE hierarchy. Other intelligence teams worked on civilian population, smuggling operations, LTTE arms and ammunition procurement systems. With credible information from all intelligence units, who at great risk to their lives obtained vital intelligence helped us to dot the map for the operations. It was decided to launch the offensive in the Vadamarachchi area covering VVT, which is at the northern tip of the Peninsula. This incidentally happened to be the birthplace of the LTTE Leader and his senior cadres. Th e heart of the Tamil separatism and its military arm of terrorism originated and was kept alive in VVT.

When the planning process and selecting the ground commanders for the operation was _ nalized, I visited Beamer and spoke of my plan with the President. He became very quiet and went into deep thought. With a sudden smile on his face, he offered me a Cuban cigar and a brandy which I had to politely refuse as the operations team was waiting for my return. Instead I was given biscuits and tea whilst we discussed the possible repercussions. Finally he nodded and said, 'You can flatten Jaffna, if this menace can be eradicated and I will build a new Jaffna!'……

The Vadamarachchi operation was kept as a top secret among the officers and Lalith Athulathmudali was told about the planned attack a few hours before it began, or to be precise the last day before the attack. It was not a question of trust. I got permission from President Jayewardene for the operation and to inform only my immediate staff and 3 service commanders.

Lalith Athulathmudali wanted me toflatten Vadamarachchi and even, wanted to arrange for the bulldozers to do the job. I refused to do it and said, 'Not a single house will be destroyed by dozer while I am in command'. The forces were blessed with the presence of prominent civil doctors who volunteered to work in Palaly to treat the wounded during the Operation Liberation. Dr. Roshnara Gunaratne, Dr. Rohan Pethiyagoda, Dr. Michael Abeyratne, the late Dr. Mrs. Kamalika Abeyratne, Dr. Narendra Wijemanne and Dr. Mrs. Hiranthi Wijemanne were some who worked along with the army doctors in the Palaly Army Hospital. Before the 'D' day, I had the final briefing with the three ground commanders and the intelligence team to ensure that the entire plan was in place. Thus Operation Liberation was launched on 26 November 1987.

Among those who participated in the Vadamarachchi operation were Sarath Fonseka (now the Army Commander) and Gotabhaya Rajapakse (now the Defence Secretary).

'Liberation- 1' was electrifying and is best brought back to memory through a letter written by Lieutenant Commander Lucky Dissanayake to his wife, Cynthia, which was received by her after Operation Liberation began.

"The situation here is unbelievable. It is the preparation for war on a scale I have only seen in films. There are about 5,000 troops, armoured cars, armoured vehicles, artillery etc. Yesterday the entire brigade had assembled for review by the General on the adjoining airfi eld. About 10-15 times bigger than any Independence Day parade, with fighter planes, helicopters, transport planes etc. As the troops in their full battle dress, camouflage, kept marching into the grounds, we in the hospital realized that this was history in the making. This was the first time ever in the history of Sri Lanka that a number of Brigades had assembled. The sight of all of these young boys (18-20) all looking trim, loaded with equipment made us feel proud. The cream of the army was here. The General (GOC of JOC) addressed the officers before the battle. It was reminiscent of the likes of General Patton. He ended his address saying that he assembled here, the best medical teams in the country and that they had nothing to worry. He repeated this at the Commanders_ conference too. I have gone with him to some of the smaller companies and feel proud to serve with him and his team. Work-wise, so far we have dealt with accidental explosions and misfires _ but no doubt, we will be stretched soon. Tell the boys (sons) that I am taking part in history and that perhaps one day they too may have the same opportunity…The air is full of expectations, but the morale is high. I wish you could have been here, You would be proud of our services. Pray for me and for an easy victory. God Bless!"….

As Operation Liberation got into full swing, my ground commanders were reporting successful completion of tasks which were meticulously planned, executed and monitored. The military machinery got into top gear and weeks of planning every aspect was now beginning to yield results.

We were confident that by now the Tigers were running out of supplies, arms and ammunition and would start crying for international help. For the fi rst time the LTTE announced that their demand for a separate state was negotiable. Sri Lankan military intelligence was a hive of activity. It was just another 10 days of intense fighting that would have killed or captured the Tiger hierarchy. Even at the planning stages of Operation Liberation a great deal of thought was given to Indian involvement. One thing that haunted me was how Mrs. Indira Gandhi initially supported the rebel groups by training different groups in various parts of India. M.G. Ramachandran, then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, was a strong supporter of the so-called Tamil cause and the involvement of the Indian intelligence agencies with various Tamil groups……

There is no doubt in my mind that Indian policy makers during the early years of the conflict had ulterior motives in getting involved in the conflict through training and supplying of arms to terrorists. As we went into the fi nal stage of planning this operation, we had credible information that RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) was involved in arming the terrorists. However, the Indian intelligence agencies and the Government of India kept denying this publicly. With all the backing the terrorists received from India and the money pouring into LTTE coffers from Tamil Nadu, we knew that India will not allow the Sri Lankan forces to completely crush the LTTE, if the operation dragged on for too long.

We were also aware of the sea route to Tamil Nadu, which the Tigers used at will to ferry and treat the injured cadres. With limited resources, the Sri Lankan Navy did a remarkable job as per the operational plan in blocking Tigers plying on this sea route. Our signals unit monitoring Tiger communications intercepted urgent pleas going to the cadres in Tamil Nadu to take up the issue of saving them from annihilation with the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister. One common excuse used was the killing of the innocent Tamil civilians. During the operation in VVT, I often conferred with the ground commanders in their mobile headquarters in the battle fi elds and the urgency of completing the task was discussed at length. Our ground intelligence received vital information which confi rmed that the Tiger hierarchy was getting cornered. The morale of the ground troops was high and we were sensing a prize catch when I was called by the President to be told that the Indian Government was exerting pressure on the Sri Lankan Government to halt the offensive and relief supplies for the Tamils in the north will be sent from Tamil Nadu on hired boats.

President Jayewardene and Mr. Lalith Athulathmudali were furious. We took a decision to block the relief supplies and send them back saying that we can manage our own affairs. This was a clear indication of India's interference in Sri Lankan aff airs. Strong protests were lodged in the Indian High Commission and the newspapers carried detailed information regarding the unsolicited help from India. It is sad that except Pakistan and China, all other foreign missions chose to ignore this. The flotilla of Indian boats decided not to proceed towards Sri Lanka when our Navy confronted them within sight of our territorial waters and said they will be fired on if they come within our waters.

The following day, President Jayewardene called me and ordered a temporary halt of the Operation as the Indian Air Force was bringing in food supplies. When I protested, a visibly angry President retorted that we could not fight India. I was given a Presidential order and I had to carry out the instructions. India is one party to this internal conflict who should take the majority of the blame. They trained, armed and provided financial assistance to the terrorists and was now instrumental in halting an operation that would have wiped out the LTTE menace.

International leaders and so-called superpowers chose to ignore this blatant interference, which I call hypocrisy. A nation like ours was too small to benefit the bigger players in the world to get involved irrespective of human duty. I was thoroughly dejected and wondered how I could give instructions to stop the offensive, which was nearing completion. Th e troops on the ground who were ready to sacrifice their lives to liberate our country from the terrorist menace would react in different ways.

The instructions I received gave me approximately two hours to bring the offensive to a halt. I had to visit the troops on the battlefield and break the news. For the fi rst time, I saw the disappointment in their faces. Some found it difficult to accept and even questioned their company commanders how India could do such things. Finally, Operation Liberation was called off.

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