STF’s 27th anniversary on Sept 27
The elevation of Senior DIG N. K. Illangakoon as the Inspector General of Police couldn’t have come at a better time for a department struggling to meet post-war challenges.
That appointment may not have materialized if the police had quelled an unruly mob comprising workers at the Katunayake Export Processing Zone (KEPZ) in early June without opening fire causing the death of a young worker. The bungling of that particular police operation prompted the government to replace the then IGP, Mahinda Balasuriya, with Illangakoon, formerly of the elite Special Task Force (STF).
With an ex-STF officer, who had held the post of Deputy Commandant at the time he received injuries in action at the outset of eelam war II, the STF is likely to receive the required support to keep the momentum in ongoing operations.
Since last April, the STF under the leadership given by Commandant DIG R.W.M.C. Ranawana is engaged in a stepped-up anti-crime drive. Addressing the media at his headquarters down Baudhaloka Mawatha recently, STF veteran Ranawana asserted that police commandos could play a pivotal role in the post-war scenario. Ranawana emphasized that the STF was a law enforcement agency, with expertise to handle difficult situations. Flanked by STF spokesman ASP P. J. Sylvester Wijesinghe, one of those officers who had spearheaded offensive action, Ranawana vowed to maintain the highest standards.
It would be pertinent to discuss the formation and gradual expansion of the STF as the police elites celebrate their 27th anniversary on September 1 with a series of religious ceremonies and meritorious acts to invoke blessings on those who paid the supreme sacrifice for the motherland.
The STF lost four personnel on September 1, 1984 at Tikkam on the Point Pedro –Valvettiturai road due to a landmine explosion. Those were the first casualties. At the conclusion of the war, the STF reported 461 killed and 792 wounded during the war.
The number of dead and wounded suffered by the STF, when compared with the SLA seems insignificant, though the contribution made by the unit was DEFINITELY NOT. The SLA lost 6,000 officers and men during eelam war IV alone, while some 27,000 received injuries.
The STF played a significant role in the overall military strategy, which brought the LTTE to its knees-first in the East by June 2007 and then in the North. The LTTE collapsed on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon on May 19, 2009.
The STF was set up in the early 80s on the recommendations of a committee, which studied the growing threat posed by Indian trained terrorist groups. One of key recommendations was the establishment of a Special Strike Force (SSF) to strengthen the police. The initial group comprised 60 policemen released by the department to receive training at Katukurunda and SLA Combat Training School at Ampara under the guidance of the then Majors, Ananda Weerasekera (now retired) and S. Manawadu. The SSF operated under the command of the then ASP Bodhi Liyanage. SSF personnel received 303 rifles, though they gradually acquired a range of new weapons to meet the threat. Among the weapons were US manufactured M 16 and German Heckler and Koch.
The SSF’s initial deployment was in the Jaffna peninsula, with the focus on Point Pedro, Valvettiturai and Kankesanthurai. As terrorists stepped up threat on the government, the SSF was directed to support the Presidential Security Division (PSD), at the expense of other security commitments.
The unit was brought under the Defence Ministry and the then SP, Zerny Wijesuriya was placed in charge. It was named the Special Task Force on May 5, 1984.
Wijesuriya was replaced by the then SSP, Lionel Karunasena.
Thanks to Ravi Jayawardene, the then Security Advisor to President JRJ, the STF had an opportunity to obtain the services of ‘Kini Mini Service’ (KMS) comprising former members of the British Special Air Services (SAS). The British personnel imparted their knowledge and expertise on a range of subjects, including tactics adopted by anti-riot squads, weapon training, firing practices, counter terrorism search, handling explosives, mapping, use of compass and first aid.
As the security situation rapidly deteriorated in the North, the government pulled out the SLA from Batticaloa in February 1985 for re-deployment elsewhere. The STF was given the challenging task of combating terrorists. The STF had its first base at Kallady, while the then ASP N.K. Illangakoon commanded the police commandos deployed in the Batticaloa theatre.
The STF received the appreciation of the government and the security community for saving the Eravur police station from the LTTE on April 3, 1985. Subsequently, the STF took over security in the Ampara district as it expanded its network of bases to Kiran, Karadiyanaru, Kalawanchikudi and Akkaraipattu.
In August 1985, the STF began direct recruitment to meet manpower requirements. As part of its overall deployment, the STF set up a new command structure to cover Batticaloa North and South with the then ASPs, N. K. Illangakoon and Jayantha Gamage, respectively in command of the two sectors. The STF had to deploy troops in support of the SLAF in the Ampara-Batticaloa sector. Additional camps had to be established to thwart attacks on Sinhala and Muslim farmers.
The end of eelam war I with the signing of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord on July 29, 1987 paved the way for the second JVP-led insurrection. The beleaguered UNP regime ordered the military, police, including the STF to counter the insurgency. The STF closed down some bases and moved troops to Moneragala, Walasmulla, Morayaya, Tangalle, Matara, Wellawaya, Yalabowa and Thanamalwila.
The STF was accused of excesses on several occasions during counter-insurgency operations. The STF had faced similar allegations during eelam war I, though the government strongly backed the elite unit. However, ‘Bolgoda killings’ caused irreparable damage to their reputation in the mid 90s when some officers and men were found guilty of extra-judicial actions in the city and its suburbs. During eelam war IV, an ‘STF operation’ in Trincomalee, too, brought disrepute to the force, though overall it has been a well disciplined unit.
The then President R. Premadasa had confidence in the STF and felt police commandos could be entrusted with any task. At the behest of Premadasa, the STF protected top LTTE delegates involved in talks with his government (April 1989 to June 1990) in spite of a section of the officers strongly opposing the move. Among those who had STF protection was the London-based Anton Balasingham, a former employee of the British High Commission in Colombo subsequently appointed the chief LTTE negotiator. When eelam war II erupted in the second week of June, 1990, the STF had to escort a small group of LTTE personnel from the Colombo Hilton to the Ratmalana air base. They were airlifted to Palaly and allowed to leave the base safely as Premadasa and his chief negotiator made a desperate bid to bring the LTTE back to the negotiating table.
The LTTE was confident of a victory. Prabhakaran spurned fresh talks and went all out in the East. The STF was given the task of regaining the Ampara-Batticaloa sector. The STF launched operations on two fronts, with one column advancing from Lahugala (Moneragala) and the other moving via the Yala sanctuary.
In spite of fierce resistance, the multi-pronged STF advanced gradually forced the LTTE to retreat. Had the STF failed to move in on time, the LTTE could have overrun the isolated SLA base at Arugambay. The STF restored its influence in the Ampara-Batticaloa area. The then STF Commandant, Lionel Karunasena, provided exemplary leadership under difficult conditions. Under his command, the STF conducted several major operations to weaken the LTTE in the Batticaloa-Ampara sector.
The government brought military trained police platoons under the command of the STF in 1991 to facilitate the restoration of civil administration.
In spite of its experience in VIP security, the STF failed to save President Premadasa from an LTTE suicide cadre, who used his relationship with a personal aide to the Sri Lankan leader to take the target.
The Sri Lankan military received a respite from January 1994 to April 1995 when President Chandrika Kumaratunga initiated talks. CBK’s peace initiative was even shorter than that of Premadasa. The LTTE launched eelam war III in April 1995 with devastating surface-to-air missile attacks on the SLAF and underwater attacks, targeting two gunboats anchored at the Trincomalee harbour.
The LTTE realized the need to weaken the STF presence in the East. The LTTE threw some of its best cadres at STF bases at Tikkodi, Porativu, Ambalanturai and Pulukunawa, though it never succeeded in overrunning those bases, except Pulukunawa. In November, 1996, the STF had to call for the SLA’s assistance to save its base at Pulukunawa. It was the heaviest attack on an STF base in the entire war. The STF regained the camp following a bloody battle. Ironically, Karuna Amman, who led the LTTE against the STF in the East today, received protection from the STF. The STF never allowed Karuna to take the initiative, though the experienced LTTE battlefield commander fought hard.
The LTTE assassinated SSP Upali Sahabandu on November 19, 1996 at Kalmunakudi in the Kalmunai police area. The STF veteran Sahabandu was on his way from Batticaloa to Ampara when a suicide cadre on a motor cycle collided with the top policeman’s jeep.
The STF expanded its deployment in 1998 with troops moving to Vavuniya. The deployment in Vavuniya was made during DIG Nimal Gunatilleke’s tenure as the Commandant of the force. The STF took over security in Vavuniya and Murunkkan divisions. Then SSP K.M.L. Sarathchandra (later received appointment as Commandant) was in overall command of the two divisions.
In fact, a desperate government moved a contingent of STF personnel to the north during SLA operations conducted by the then Major General Janaka Perera. Although, the STF wasn’t geared for conventional high intensity battles on the northern theatre, the government felt the STF could assist the SLA.
The LTTE couldn’t sustain the momentum of its offensive action in spite of the collapse of the SLA’s 54 Division headquartered at Elephant Pass in early 2000 due to valiant efforts by those who fought under the command of the then Majors General, Janaka Perera and Sarath Fonseka. The then CBK government sent the two Majors General after repeated attempts to halt the LTTE offensive on the northern front failed.
The Norwegian-arranged CFA came into operation in February 2002, thereby giving the STF an opportunity to rest and prepare for the next battle. Although the then UNP-led UNF administration felt the LTTE was serious about the Norwegian initiative, the armed forces and the police were suspicious. They knew it was just a matter of time before the LTTE launched eelam war IV. The LTTE did everything possible to provoke the military and police, including the STF. One such violent protest at an STF base led to the deaths of several persons, fuelling fears of an immediate outbreak of large scale hospitalities. But major ground battles didn’t erupt until mid 2006 at Mavil-aru. The government launched an offensive of its own in August/September 2006 and didn’t stop until the SLA killed LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon on May 19, 2009.
The STF had a critical role to play in eelam war IV. STF veteran DIG Nimal Lewke was at the helm of overall operations as the Commandant of the elite fighting force. Lewke made a tremendous contribution in Sri Lanka’s war against terrorism and was an immense source of strength to successive governments.
The then SSP R.W.M.C. Ranawana was in charge of operations in the Batticaloa-Ampara theatre. Among the senior officers deployed on the Batticaloa-Ampara theatre were SSP Ranjith Perera, SP Wimalasena, SP Ayasa Karumarathna, ASP Hadjee, ASP Patrick Silva, ASP Sylvester Wijesinghe, ASP Kalum Gunathunga, ASP Padiwita, ASP Vidura Dissanayake, ASP Gunarathne, ASP Ratthepitita and ASP Senadeera. Although the STF focused on the East, it had a sizeable presence in the Vanni theatre, under SSP Jayaweera in support of the SLA.
After several limited operations in Oct and December 2006 the STF launched ‘Niyathai Jaya’ operation on January 4, 2007 to clear strategically located LTTE bases in the Kanchikudichchi-aru jungles. Experienced LTTE cadres operated from these bases targeting Sinhala villages in Siyambalanduwa, Lahugala, Hulannuge, Bakmitiyawa, Pannalgama and Manthottama. The LTTE also destabilized Akkaraipattu and Pottuvil causing fear among local communities.
There is no doubt that an unprecedented split caused by Karuna weakened the LTTE, particularly in the East. Along with Karuna, several hundred experienced cadres quit the organization and some of them threw their weight behind the SLA, thereby causing debilitating setback. The LTTE never recovered from the split caused by Karuna.
The STF had 13 bases at Akkaraipattu, Tirukkovil, Sagama, Kanchankuda, Sangamankanda, Urani, 10th mile post, Sengamuweva, Arugambay, Lahugala, Sasthraweli and Panama to meet the threat emanating from Kanchikudichchiaru. The STF threw everything it had to meet the daunting task of conquering the LTTE stronghold. Unlike previous forays, ‘Niyathai Jaya’ wasn’t an isolated operation, but an important element in the overall military strategy. The STF had to secure Kanchikudichchiaru and hold it whatever the consequences, while the army conducted large scale offensive actions on the Eastern theatre.
The STF engaged in ‘Niyathai Jaya’ on the third day of action reached Kanchi tank and located the LTTE ‘Mahaweera’ cemetery comprising 588 tombs and 63 graves. On the following day, troops secured the LTTE political office, Col. Thileepan medical centre, about 450 houses belonging to LTTE ‘Mahaweera’ families and ‘Ponweera’ families in Thangawelayudapuram. Troops also came across a large ganja plantation among other crops. They also found two booby trapped motorcycles, one Isuzu Canter lorry and a massive food store. The LTTE retreated believing it could come back once the STF withdrew. But that was never to be. At the end of two-week long operation, the STF set up new bases at Rufus Kulam, Kotte vihara, Kanchikudichchi and Thangawelayudapuram.
The STF also joined the SLA in a major clearing operation to regain the A5 highway (Chenkaladi to Maha Oya), which further weakened the LTTE’s position.
Once the combined security forces secured the East in mid 2007, the STF facilitated the resettlement process. Some international agencies expressed surprise at the speed the STF carried out the resettlement process. Lewke left the STF on March 23, though he continued to serve the department in a different capacity. He was succeeded by K. M. L. Sarathchandra, another experienced officer, who oversaw STF operations during the Vanni offensive.
As part of the overall plan to improve and enhance effectiveness, the STF set up several specialized units, including VIP Division, Bomb Disposal Unit, Jungle Warfare Unit and ‘Cheetah’
Those picked for ‘Cheetah’ unit received training in special weapons, naval training in coastal defence, life saving, jungle warfare and a special training on the lines of the SLA Special Forces. The present STF spokesperson ASP, Sylvester Wijesinghe commanded ‘Cheetah’, which carried out several raids, targeting the LTTE.
The STF also set up a special motor cycle unit in 1996. The STF had a para troopers unit as well as SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) to provide visiting foreign dignitaries and sports teams with security
Let me end this piece by recalling the valuable services rendered by the Communication specialists, who intercepted LTTE communications, thereby providing STF bases advance intelligence regarding impending LTTE assaults. They provided advance intelligence regarding LTTE attacks on Tikkodai and Ambalanturai during a critical stage of the conflict. They weren’t the only personnel who worked behind the scenes, for Sri Lanka’s triumph over the LTTE. There were many and they’ll never be known.