In the last week of Sept. 1998, the LTTE dislodged the SLA from Kilinochchi which had been liberated in Sept. 1996. Troops engaged in Operation Sath Jaya had paid a heavy price to bring Kilinochchi under government control.
The Kilinochchi Brigade abandoned its positions leaving bodies, arms, ammunition and equipment. The SLA lost about four and a half kilometres of straight road northwards from Kilinochchi in one of the fiercest LTTE attacks during the conflict on Oct. 27. The LTTE targeted both Kilinochchi and Paranthan Brigades. While the LTTE was attacking Kilinochchi and Paranthan, the SLA threw all it had at its disposal against strong LTTE fortifications at Mankulam (Tigers admit losing 240 cadres in Vanni; Over 300 Tigers, 150 soldiers killed says Defence Ministry––The Island Oct. 31, 1998). The SLA brought Mankulam under its control as troops re-positioned themselves at Paranthan. The SLA vacated Mankulam and Kilinochchi in mid 1990 on President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s watch. The LTTE exaggerated its battlefield gains by declaring that it had regained the entire 15 km Kilinochchi-Elephant Pass stretch, though it actually captured only four and a half kms (LTTE claims of controlling 15 km road denied: Troops withdraw to Paranthan––The Island Oct 2, 1998).
The SLA lost several hundred men during the fighting in Kilinochchi and Mankulam. The then Director of Information revealed that bodies of over 400 SLA personnel killed in the Kilinochchi-Paranthan theatre were received by the ICRC on behalf of the GoSL (400 bodies of soldiers handed over to ICRC––The Island Oct 1, 1998).
With the shocking battlefield defeat at Elephant Pass, the PA was forced to admit that restoring the Main Supply Route (MSR) to Jaffna was no longer feasible (Troops capture Mankulam with strap line Kilinochchi troops vacate positions––The Island Oct 1, 1998). Due to censorship, The Island had no alternative but to be restrained in reporting the crisis on the battlefront. The PA struggled on both the political and military fronts as the LTTE stepped up pressure on the SLA. During the battle for Kilinochchi, the LTTE wiped out some SLA platoons. The censorship prevented the media from reporting what was going on in the Vanni. But, sometimes the Competent Authority approved news items, which highlighted the actual ground situation. The Island published the following front-page report captioned (Another 74 bodies of soldiers handed over––The Island Oct. 3, 1998), approved by the Competent Authority: “The LTTE yesterday handed over another 74 bodies of SLA personnel killed in fighting at Kilinochchi through the ICRC to the SLA at Poovarasankulam, Vavuniya. Altogether 684 bodies have been transferred by the ICRC from Mallavi in the LTTE-held area to the SLA-held area, whereas the SLA returned the bodies of 12 LTTE cadres.”
Having being to New York for the annual UNGA sessions in September, President Chandrika Kumaratunga was in the UK when the LTTE scored its latest battlefield victory. The President returned to Sri Lanka on Oct 5, 1998 (President returns––The Island Oct 6, 1998). UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, too, was overseas during the same period. Having toured San Francisco, Washington, New York and London, Wickremesinghe returned to the country in the wake of a section of the UNP pushing for a no-faith motion against the PA over the Kilinochchi debacle. However, others strongly opposed the move. (Some UNPers propose no-faith motion against government over Kilinochchi debacle––The Island Oct 6, 1998). Subsequently, the decision making UNP Working Committee asked for a Parliamentary Select (PSC) to examine the circumstances under which the SLA had abandoned Kilinochchi.
The then SLA chief, Lt. Gen. Rohan De S. Daluwatte insisted that in spite of the Kilinochchi debacle, the SLA would continue its efforts to restore the Kandy-Jaffna (A-9) MSR. Daluwatte said that the shooting down by the LTTE of a private Lion Air flight from Palaly to Ratmalana on Sept. 29, 1998 had underscored the urgent need to restore the overland MSR. The SLA chief was speaking to this writer after the appointment of a Court of Inquiry to investigate the Kilinochchi debacle (Court of Inquiry appointed on Kilinochchi: We have come a long way says Army Chief––The Island Oct 7, 1998).
Jayasikuru commanders meet CBK
On the morning of Oct 12, 1998, President Kumaratunga summoned senior commanders spearheading the Jayasikuru offensive for a meeting at the Anuradhapura base. The President met the SLA top brass in the wake of a desperate attempt by the PA to round up deserters for re-deployment on the front. The latest hunt for deserters was launched soon after at least 1,000 soldiers were killed in battles in the Kilinochchi-Paranthan sector and Mankulam.
Battlefield debacles in the Vanni triggered a major political dispute between the two major parties, with the PA alleging the UNP was seeking political capital out of the crisis. The then Plan Implementation and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle lashed out at the UNP for making a five-point plan to overcome the crisis on the war front. The UNP proposed an immediate ending of censorship, setting up a joint military command, appointment of a defence procurement committee, a civil affairs committee and a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to investigate the Kilinochchi debacle. The PA dismissed the UNP’s proposals. Instead, it simply changed in strategy on the Vanni front.
SLA calls off Jayasikuru
On Dec 2, 1998, the PA called off Operation Jayasikuru to pave the way for a new offensive Rivi Bala. President Kumaratunga made her move in the wake of repeated calls by political parties here and a section of the international community to resume peace talks with the LTTE. The SLA deployed elite 53 and 55 Divisions and some elements of the 56 Division previously involved in Operation Jayasikuru to capture Oddusuddan, situated north of Nedunkerni, as it shifted focus of offensive action to east of the A9 road. The LTTE didn’t resist as troops secured Oddusuddan, situated 14 km north of Nedunkerni. This writer had the opportunity to visit the new frontlines at Nedunkerni-Oddusuddan on Oct 6, 1998, along with a group of journalists when Deputy Defence Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte visited the area. Having participated at a Hindu religious ceremony at Oddusuddan, Minister Ratwatte in camouflaged battle dress was about to get into a BTR 80 armoured personnel carrier when the LTTE fired four rounds of mortars at the group. At the time of the incident, the visiting group of journalists was about two kilometres south of the scene of the attack. The group was being moved to Oddusuddan in locally built armoured personnel carriers when the LTTE mounted the attack. The convoy stopped in the middle of the road leading to Oddusuddan when the SLA fired artillery in response to the LTTE attack. The group was struck there for more than an hour. Although Minister Ratwatte, Army chief, Lt. Gen. Daluwatte, SLN Commander, Vice Admiral Cecil Tissera, Air Force Commander, Air vice Marshal Jayalath Weerakkody and Wanni Security Forces Commander, Maj. Gen. Lionel Balagalle miraculously escaped, the LTTE attack claimed the lives of four SLA personnel, while 42 received injuries. Three bodyguards of Minister Ratwatte were among the wounded (Anuruddha and service chiefs in narrow escape––The Island Dec 7, 1998).
In March 1999, the SLA brought more territory under its control west of the A9 ahead of provincial council polls. It was the first major operation after Maj. Gen. Sri Lal Weerasooriya succeeded Lt. Gen. Daluwatte. Weerasooriya was promoted to the rank of Lt. Gen. The SLA ignored the danger in troops spread thin on the ground. In spite of the shortage of men and material, the SLA took control of territory both east and west of the A9.
The LTTE fired several rounds of artillery at the Thallady army camp on March 17, 1999 inflicting heavy damage on it. The SLA lost 19 personnel and five civilian employees. Several vehicles parked within the base were also destroyed. Some of the vehicles hit by artillery had been loaded with ammunition, the media was told, during a visit to the base in June, 1999. The SLA hadn’t bothered to remove the wrecked vehicles.
On March 19, 1999, the SLA launched an operation to liberate the Madhu Church area. The 53 and 55 Divisions completed the operation on March 22, 1999. The LTTE retaliated by further artillery strikes. For some reason, the SLA felt that the LTTE didn’t oppose the government’s effort to bring in more territory under its control due to a manpower shortage. Since the conclusion of Operation Jayasikuru on Dec 2, 1998, the SLA brought approximately 960 sq. km without a fight west of A9 in Operation Ranagosa part I, part II and part III. Ranagosa was launched on March 6, 1999. The area brought under government control by Ranagoda troops was in addition to 134 square km area regained by Rivi Bala troops east of the A9 in the first week of Oct. 1998. The LTTE allowed the SLA to expand the area under its control. SLA commanders were in a jubilant mood when the SLAF flew in a group of journalists to Madhu on March 23, 1999, in the wake of the LTTE abandoning the Madhu Church area. Madhu was regained by Operation Ranagosa III.
Within a week after the liberation of the Madhu area, the LTTE triggered a claymore mine blast at Moondumurippu in the newly liberated area killing four SLAF personnel. The blast was followed by crash landing of an unmanned aerial vehicle flying over Pompemadu also in the Vanni area. Although the accident was blamed on a technical fault, it increased pressure on the armed forces.
Controversy over Daluwatte’s post
On May 27, 1999, the government created the all powerful post of the Chief of Defence Staff of the Joint Operations Headquarters. Retired Gen. Daluwatte was appointed to that post on June 3, 1999. Shortly after Daluwatte took over, the 54 Division headquartered at Elephant Pass was ordered to prepare for major offensive operations. The division launched a limited operation west of Paranthan on June 10, 1999. The operation ended disastrously. Operational Headquarters admitted losing 16 personnel, including two junior officers, though the actual losses were higher (Govt. renews operations in K’nochchi––The Island June 11, 1999). It was the first offensive action in the area since the SLA abandoned Kilinochchi in the last week of Sept. 1998.
Interestingly, the SLA went ahead with the operation at Paranthan the day after President Kumaratunga scrapped Daluwatte’s post. The President issued an extraordinary gazette notification dated June 9, 1999, to repeal the extraordinary gazette notifications dated May 27, 1999 and June 3, 1999. The President established the post of General Officer Commanding (GoC) Joint Operations Headquarters, which was answerable to Minister Ratwatte (Daluwatte’s post scrapped, Ratwatte regains lost ground––The Island June 13, 1999). President Kumaratunga alleged that she had been deceived by a section of the bureaucracy to issue the May 27 and June 3 extraordinary gazettes. Amidst turmoil in Colombo, the SLA regained a 358 sq. km area during the fourth phase of Operation Ranagosa also west of A-9. Ranagosa troops faced resistance only during the third phase. Vanni Security Forces Commander Maj. Gen. Balagalle told a visiting group of journalists on June 16, 1999 that Ranagosa had been a critical part of the SLA’s strategy to weaken the LTTE in the Vanni (Troops begin screening thousands in newly captured areas––The Island June 17, 1999).
Operation Ranagosa further weakened the SLA’s presence in the Vanni; in a sense, it spread three Divisions of troops thin on the ground. The LTTE’s decision not to resist the government strategy was seen as a weakness.
In June 1999, the LTTE stepped up activity targeting Weli Oya. At Mirusuvil, Jaffna, the LTTE blasted an eighty KVA diesel operated generator at the rural hospital. The LTTE flexed its muscles in various parts of SLA-held areas as part of a major destabilisation effort. The LTTE was preparing for a massive attack on the SLA in the Vanni. In the last week of June, 1999, Ranagosa troops launched a fresh offensive north of Mannar, to bring about 70 sq. km. under their control. The SLA forced the LTTE to abandon some of its fortifications. During the battle, the SLAF destroyed a 122 mm artillery piece while the LTTE knocked down a Russian built BTR 80 armoured personnel carrier (Artillery piece seized from army destroyed during battle for Vidithalthivu, says army chief––The Island July 1, 1999).
In the second week of Sept 1999, Ranagosa troops ran into stiff resistance when they pushed ahead of their positions. The SLA withdrew in the face of heavy attacks. Within two hours, the SLA realised that it could not achieve its objectives. Under fire, troops fled leaving behind bodies of their colleagues. The SLA top brass downplayed the debacle, though senior officers privately admitted that the LTTE was poised for a massive onslaught on the SLA (LTTE hands over bodies of 15 soldiers to ICRC––The Island Sept 15, 1999).
On July 6, 1999, exactly at 2.05 p.m, an artillery round landed inside the Weli Oya Brigade headquarters. It was the beginning of a sustained artillery attack on that military facility. A 122 mm artillery and 85 mm weapon were used to target the base from two locations. For about two hours, Minister Ratwatte, Vice Admiral Cecil Tissera, Air vice Marshal Weerakkody, Lt. Gen. Weerassoriya, IGP Lucky Kodituwakku, Maj. Gen. Sarath Fonseka and DIG Lionel Karunasena were trapped in the Weli Oya bunkers. About 10 rounds of artillery landed about 100 to 150 metres away from the bunkers where the defence topbrass was taking refuge. They escaped in an Mi 17 and a Bell 212 when LTTE gunners paused for about three minutes (Pause in artillery strike on Weli Oya Brigade HQ allows defence topbrass to escape––The Island July 10, 1996). Minister Ratwatte arrived in Weli Oya from Mannar to discuss the security situation in the context of an LTTE build-up in the area. He survived an LTTE mortar attack at oddusuddan on Oct. 6, 1998 afternoon.