It was just a week after Medin Full Moon Poya, last year. The north eastern seas were calm when night fell. The sea glittered as rolling waves kissed the sandy beaches. The mild wind that swept across the shore blew inland, past the hundreds of guerrillas, clad in Tiger striped fatigues, boots and armed to the teeth.
It was March 26, 2000. The Sun had set and there was hectic activity along the coast, at three villages, one next to the other – Kadaikadu, Aliyawalai and Vettilaikerni. Rows of boats lay berthed at the edge of the coast. Guerrillas who were to board them said their farewells to colleagues. Some shook hands whilst others clasped them in worship.
Escorted by his bodyguards, Sea Tiger leader, “Colonel” Soosai, went from one village to another wishing good luck to the guerrillas about to embark on an important mission. Sea Tigers had been tasked to move the cadres for a sea borne landing. In a speech he made at all three boarding points, “Col.” Soosai reminded the gathering about the words of their mission commander, “Col.” Balraj.
During training, which included mock attacks and instructions on a sand model at a base in Pooneryn, “Col.” Balraj had remarked “we are to step again in our land under enemy occupation. We are going to show them what the Tigers are. We’ll liberate the Jaffna town. Go ahead.” As the guerrillas, grouped into various units, jumped into their designated boats, the voice of ‘Col.” Banu, who was ‘Overall Co-ordinating Commander’, crackled on the radio. He told ‘Thalaivar’ (leader) Prabhakaran, at a base somewhere in the jungles of Wanni, that all was clear and the mission had been launched.
That was Phase Four of ‘Operation Oyatha Alaikal’ (or Ceaseless Waves). Its aim – to capture the sprawling Elephant Pass Defence Complex. It was to be the precursor for the capture of Jaffna town. Mr Prabhakaran, who designated 2000 as the ‘Year of Liberation,’ told his cadres the future of Jaffna city depended on who held military bases in surrounding areas. That was Elephant Pass and its environs. He wanted to oust the Security Forces and pave the way for a thrust for Jaffna.
Having achieved sweeping successes in evicting Security Forces from the Wanni in November, 1999, (during the first two phases of Ceaseless Waves), the very next month (December), the LTTE set the stage to isolate Elephant Pass. That was during Phase Three, launched on December 11, last year. They established a beach-head at Vettilaikerny. Simultaneously they also seized control of Paranthan, the southernmost part of Elephant Pass, forcing troops to fall back to the rear of their defence lines. And now they were poised to seize Elephant Pass.
Balraj and his men in the flotilla fought heavy gun-battles at sea with the Navy. That over, the guerrilla boats landed at night, undetected, along the stretch of beach at Championpattu, Kudarappu, Mulliyan and adjoining areas. They had joined up with two other groups awaiting them. Some made a strong thrust to advance north and north west, towards Manalkadu and Kodikamam. They met heavy resistance from troops. But their main effort was elsewhere. The main elements of the group that landed by boats headed southwards towards Vathirayan seizing Kudarappu, Championpattu, deep inside Aliyavalai and Mulliyan. It is here that the Security Forces defences at Elephant Pass take the shape of a box – a rectangular stretch that juts inland between the coastal villages of Mulliyan and Vannankulam. Military officials named the area, which encompasses a battalion headquarters at Vathirayan and a Brigade Headquarters at Mulliyan, the Vathirayan Box. At the same time, a little away from the coconut palm fringed Pallai, three teams of the Leopard’s Group, each comprising four cadres, had arrived at ‘Artiwatte’ the name soldiers had given for the Artillery Gun Positions coming under the 53 Division. They strapped heavy explosives to at least five of the 24 guns positioned there and placed timing devices.
They were made up of two 140 mm and three 152 mm guns. They were exploded. Large stocks of artillery ammunition went up in flames. The entire gun position became ineffective until morning. A Quick Reaction Team (QRT) and squadron of commandos were inducted as dawn broke. They were followed by infantry troops. They secured the outer perimeter of the gun positions and a gun fight ensued. The guerrillas moved out after four of their colleagues succumbed to gunfire. Balraj and his men crossed the narrow lagoon and headed towards the A-9 (Jaffna-Kandy) highway, the Main Supply Route (MSR) from Jaffna to Elephant Pass. They seized a four kilometre stretch from Muhamalai to Pallai, after blasting a bridge at the former.
The move was to cause shock-waves in the highest circles of the Government and the defence establishment. Security forces hurriedly cleared an alternative route via Kilali, Kachchai to Chavakachcheri.(See map on this page) It turned out to be a hazardous one. Though the alternative route was two and a half to three kilometres away from A-9 highway MSR at various points, guerrillas who had infiltrated the area were firing Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs). Mortars were also falling on the alternative route. The four kilometre stretch was to see the bitterest of battles between troops and Tiger guerrillas in and around the village of Ittavil. So much so, the LTTE called them the fiercest battles in the history of their struggle.
When increasing danger signals reached Colombo, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, summoned a top level meeting at Temple Trees. Among those taking part were the three service commanders – Lt. Gen. Srilal Weerasooria (Army), Vice Admiral Cecil Tissera (Navy) and Air Marshal Jayalath Weerakkody (Air Force). Also present was Chief of Defence Staff, General Rohan de S. Daluwatte, who was re-appointed following the string of military setbacks.
It transpired that the Tiger guerrillas had launched their offensive on the same day troops planned to carry out one. Brigadier Gamini Hettiaratchi, (now Major General), who had planned the offensive for March 26, had sought to put it off by 48 hours on grounds that some logistics had not arrived. Either with prior knowledge or otherwise, the guerrillas seized the initiative and mounted the offensive to seize Elephant pass.
President Kumaratunga, who was deeply concerned over the situation ordered the three service commanders to fly immediately to Jaffna. She said they should remain there until the guerrillas were ousted from all areas in and around Elephant Pass. After issuing the order and ensuring that the service commanders carried it out, President Kumaratunga, flew to London. Accompanying the service commanders to Jaffna was then Army’s Chief of Staff, (and now Commander) Major General Lionel Balagalle. Whilst at Palaly, the three Service Commanders and senior officers at the Security Forces Headquarters in Jaffna planned an offensive to evict the LTTE from Vettilaikerny, Paranthan and areas captured during attacks on March 26. In view of the intervening Sinhala – Hindu New Year it was scheduled to begin on April 17. But, the operation could not take off the ground. Naval support was not available. Navy Commander, Vice Admiral Cecil Tissera, had ordered his men to curtail all activity that week. He had feared reprisal attacks by the LTTE to mark the sixth anniversary of Eelam War Three.
On April 19, 1995, the LTTE attacked the Navy’s Dockyard in Trincomalee after peace talks with the PA government failed. Ironically for the second time, the LTTE launched its attack on Army positions on April 17. This was the continuing Fourth Phase of ‘Operation Oyatha Alaikal Four,” to cut off Elephant Pass from the Jaffna peninsula. It began with what has now turned out to be a deceptive move. More than 200 rounds of 81 mm and 80 rounds of 120 mm mortars began to fall on security forces positions south west of the Jaffna peninsula. They were being fired from Thanankilappu, fuelling fears that a final attack to cut off Elephant Pass had begun from there. There were also fears it would extend from there towards Chavaka-chcheri, Eluthumaduval across the narrow lagoon to Nagerkovil.
These fears also prompted worries of an LTTE thrust from Chavakachcheri towards Navatkuli, Kodikamam and Mirusuvil. But the real thrust of the LTTE was elsewhere. Using the Vathirayan area, which they re-captured earlier Tiger guerrillas launched a three pronged attack on the re-constituted security forces defence lines in the area. They pounded positions coming under the 551 Brigade. They were areas held by 14th battalion of the Sinha Regiment (14SR) and the northern edge held by the 8th battalion of the (8GR) Gajaba Regiment continuously. Later, they extended the assault towards defences held by the 16th battalion of the Gajaba Regiment. By then, both the 14 SR and 8 GR lost 18 bunkers. Re-inforcements that rushed in fought their way and formed a second line of defence for the troops to fall back.
A Special Forces group from the 53 Division that moved into the area bolstered the defensive positions in the area. They fired several rounds of artillery. But soon they also came under heavy artillery bombardment from Tiger guerrilla positions in location south of Elephant Pass. This forced the security forces to re adjust their defences further by ceding a large extent of the A-9 (Jaffna-Kandy main highway), which was the Main Supply Route (MSR) and falling back to the abandoned rail track that ran parallel, some half to one kilometre.
The attacks, reportedly by a group of not more than 600 Tiger cadres, led to security forces fighting pitched gun battles for five days since April 17. On April 19, at night, Tiger guerrillas attacked two T-55 Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) and four (T63-41) Armoured Personnel Vehicles damaging them badly. The surprise attack led to a disruption in the joint movement of armour and infantry units forcing those inside the tanks and the APVs to leave their vehicles. A huge explosion hours after the incident made senior security forces officials believe Tiger guerrillas had exploded the armoured vehicles. But high ranking Military Intelligence officials, however, felt the explosion was an LTTE ploy and that they had seized the vehicles. The heavy fighting forced the security forces to further back out of their defence lines. From the abandoned rail track area, they retreated to just ahead of the road that ran hugging the coast via Kilali, Kachchai, Chavakachcheri towards Jaffna – the alternative Main Supply Route (MSR) since the LTTE captured the stretch between Muhamalai to Pallai. The LTTE later extended northwards beyond Muhamalai to Eluthuma-duwal. Control of the area kept changing hands from the LTTE to security forces and vice versa as the fighting continued. In the fighting that followed, the LTTE extended their area of control by more than four kilometres.
That is by making a thrust southwards taking over positions held by security forces south of Pallai and moving closer to Elephant Pass. With this thrust over, they began a westerly advance to reach the shores of the Jaffna lagoon – a move that almost snapped ground links between Elephant Pass and Jaffna. A badly shaken Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Weerasooria (now Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in Pakistan), telephoned senior Defence officials in Colombo to relate details on the grim situation. Later, he boarded a Sri Lanka Air Force flight to brief an emergency session of the National Security Council on April 21, last year.
In the absence of President Kumaratunga, Deputy Defence Minister, Anuruddha Ratwatte, was in the chair. He heard Lt. Gen. Weerasooria say that troops had planned an operation to commence on the night of April 17 but Tiger guerrillas had pre-empted the move by launching one during the morning. He was now frightened they would surround Elephant Pass and the troops would be trapped.
As Commander of the Sri Lanka Army, he gave the National Security Council three options: (1) Arrange for air attacks and adequate cover for troops at Elephant Pass (2) For the Government to talk to the LTTE and obtain a ceasefire (3) If one of these options cannot be accepted, approval be granted for troops in the Elephant Pass defence complex to withdraw en masse.
Minister Ratwatte was conscious of the shortcomings that prevailed in the Sri Lanka Air Force at that time. He was strong in his conviction that there was no question of pleading with the enemy for a ceasefire, a move that would not only amount to a humiliating admission of defeat but also ruin the image of the People’s Alliance Government. He had only one choice left – accede to the desperate plea of the Army Commander to allow the troops in the Elephant Pass complex, more than 10,000 of them, to withdraw. Ironically that was against a threat posed by less than 1,500 guerrillas.
Soon after the National Security Council meeting that night, Lt. Gen. Weerasooria, drove to Army Headquarters. From there, he telephoned his Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. Lionel Balagalle, and ordered him to issue Withdrawal Orders on behalf of the Commander of the Army. It was late on Friday (April 21) night when Maj. Gen. Balagalle wrote the orders, in his own handwriting and despatched it through a courier. The courier was to return hours later. Heavy fighting on the alternative MSR (see map) prevented him from crossing over to Elephant Pass. Maj. Gen. Balagalle was to then speak to Brigadier P. Egodawala, officiating General Officer Commanding (GOC) the 54 Division at Elephant Pass. It was on the radio. He told Brigadier Egodawala that a fax would arrive in his office. He was to read the contents and act on it. Thereafter, he was to destroy the fax. That was how the withdrawal order was passed down.
Major General Janaka Perera, who had by then moved into Jaffna as Overall Operations Commander (North), had to hurriedly prepare withdrawal plans. Brigadier Percy Fernando, Deputy GOC at Elephant Pass who co-ordinated it at his end began preparations for a pull out. Time constraints were posing problems for them late Friday night. After destroying as much equipment as possible, it was only in the sweltering pre noon heat that the troops began their withdrawal on Saturday, April 22.
Moving northwards from Elephant Pass, withdrawing troops had to pass through a narrow front. Brigadier Percy Fernando who was seated in the front of a vehicle was hit by sniper fire. He and his men had to alight and take cover. Soon he was dead. It was a courageous move by Major Janaka Ritigahapola, Commanding Officer of the 2nd Battalion of the Commando Regiment, who boldly turned his Land Rover (which was ahead in the withdrawing convoy) and moved to retrieve Brigadier Fernando’s body. One of eight commandos who was with him died in the incident.
Withdrawing troops faced Tiger guerrilla attacks. Some were killed and others were wounded.
A Chinese built 152 mm artillery gun was seized with its tow vehicle. This came in as bonus to the LTTE which had during attacks in Wanni defences seized over 4,000 rounds of 152 mm artillery shells from Kanakarayankulam. High ranking Military officials say over 200 were killed in action on the day of the pull out. Of this, the LTTE handed over the bodies of 126. Some sources say an estimated 400 have been declared Missing in Action. Among the dead were those who suffered acute dehydration.
Exhausted by the previous night’s tasks, those who walked in the heat with their heavy body armour fell dead by the wayside. Water had become scarce after the wells at Iyakatchchi, the only source of supply, were seized by Tiger guerrillas. If the LTTE had amassed its cadres to launch a battle to capture Elephant Pass, that too after seizing other areas, then Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Weerasooria’s recommendation to abandon the complex, virtually ceded the area to Tiger guerrillas.
Over 10,000 left the area. Some had to pay the supreme sacrifice. Equipment worth millions was lost.
President Kumaratunga who returned to Sri Lanka said in an address to the nation on April 28 that the withdrawal of troops from Elephant Pass was a setback. But five days earlier, Lt. Gen. Weerasooria had told a news conference at Army Headquarters he did not think it to be a debacle or a setback.
He said “it was purely military” and added “there was a possibility of the area being surrounded.”
(The Sunday Times – Special Assignment)