The then Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama was in New Delhi when he received an urgent telephone call from British Foreign Secretary David Miliband on April 13, 2009 seeking an extension of a two-day suspension of offensive operations in the Mullaitivu district to bring the conflict to a negotiated settlement.
The British move followed President Mahinda Rajapaksa declaring a ceasefire on April 13 and 14, 2009 in view of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year. Alleging that suspension of military action would only help the LTTE to strengthen its position in the ‘no fire zone’ thereby prolonging the misery of those trapped in the battle zone, Minister Bogollagama turned down the British request. Throughout the campaign, Bogollagama had the unenviable task of countering Western diplomatic initiatives aimed at undermining the war effort.
At the behest of the pro-LTTE Tamil Diaspora, Miliband reiterated the UK’s call for the appointment of a Special Envoy to engage the Sri Lankan government. Bogollagama said that the government decision not to recognize a special envoy under any circumstance remained unchanged and an extension of two-day ceasefire, too, was not possible.
The UK called for the appointment of one-time Defence Secretary Des Brown as the Special Envoy in the second week of Feb. 2009 (UK call to extend pause in offensive rejected-The Island April 16, 2009).
The LTTE rejected the government’s two-day pause in military action. LTTE leader Prabhakaran called for a permanent ceasefire under the auspices of the international community. In the run-up to the President’s declaration, the LTTE made four abortive attempts to dislodge the 53 Division from positions it held.
President Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary weren’t in a mood to negotiate with the LTTE directly or through a third party. Defence Secretary Rajapaksa insisted that the government wouldn’t agree to anything except an unconditional surrender of the LTTE remnant. They authorized the army to go ahead with plans to rescue civilians held hostage by the LTTE. The army was ordered to neutralize the LTTE in the ‘no firing zone’ whereas the navy was directed to prevent the Sea Tigers from launching another adventure.
Three days after Miliband’s effort to convince Minister Bogollagama, President Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Rajapaksa visited Kilinochchi where they received a briefing from Brig. Shavendra Silva, the commanding officer of the 58 Division given the responsibility of spearheading the rescue operation. At the time of the President’s visit to Kilinochchi, the first by a head of state, forward elements of the 58 Division had been operating as close as 75 metres to the last ‘no fire zone.’ The President spent almost three hours in Kilinochchi where he toured the LTTE administrative complex situated in the southern part of the town captured by the 58 Division on Jan 1, 2009 (President visits Kilinochchi-The Island April 17, 2009).
President Rajapaksa kept the offensive on track amidst mounting international pressure with Miliband accompanied by his French counterpart Bernard Kouchner rushing to Colombo close on the heels of UNSG Ban Ki moon’s Chief of Staff Vijay Nambiar as well as a high level Indian delegation. They strongly pushed for a negotiated settlement.
Although the Indian Central government wasn’t interested in the wellbeing of the LTTE, domestic political compulsion left it with no alternative but to throw its weight behind Western efforts. The Norwegian government, too, worked overtime to save the LTTE leadership until the very end amidst chaos on the Vanni battlefield.
At one point, the US actively considered deployment of its assets to evacuate the LTTE leaders and their families in consultation with the government. The US Pacific Command sent a team of experts to Sri Lanka at the height of ground operations on the Vanni east front to explore ways and means of carrying out an organized evacuation of the top leadership. In fact, the then US Ambassador Robert O. Blake had alerted Foreign Minister Bogollagama regarding the impending arrival of the US team while a few hours before a special flight from the US Pacific Command was to land at the Bandaranayake International Airport.
Naval blockade off M’tivu
The army felt that the LTTE leadership could make a bid to escape by sea as ground forces intensified operations. Lt. Gen. Fonseka publicly declared the possibility of the LTTE leadership making an attempt as it couldn’t face the army. The Sinha Regiment veteran questioned the competence of the navy to thwart a possible LTTE escape bid during the final phase of the conflict. The army chief was not alone in questioning the navy’s capability. Some other senior army officers, too, expressed fears of the LTTE leadership escaping by sea under the very noses of the navy top brass. In spite of the navy being under the excellent leadership of the then navy Chief Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda meeting the LTTE challenge on all fronts, some sections of the defence establishment were fearful of the competence of those deployed to thwart a possible LTTE attempt.
As ground forces advanced eastwards having secured the Kandy-Jaffna A-9 road, the navy launched a special operation off the Mullaitivu coast to foil a possible LTTE attempt to escape. The navy deployed a substantial force to meet the challenging task. The operation involved Fast Attack Craft (FAC), Special Boat Squadron (SBS), Rapid Acton Boat Squadron (RABS) as well as Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs). This writer had the opportunity to visit the FAC squadron deployed north of Mullaitivu at the height of the ground battles to observe the naval cordon in place. The then Commanding Officer of the Fourth FAC squadron, Capt. D.N.S.C. Kalubowila (currently posted to Sri Lankan High Commission in New Delhi as defence attaché) declared that the navy had the wherewithal to destroy LTTE boats. Capt. Kalubowila said that they were on a 24 hour watch and could swing into action anytime. Capt. D.K.P. Dassanayake, the then navy spokesman, who was on a temporary assignment in the northern theatre of operations said that they had the means to detect and destroy hostile boat movements. Capt. Dassanayake was there to supervise small boat operations, a critical element in the overall strategy to trap the LTTE leadership. It was the most successful blockade during the conflict (Sea escape not a reality says navy-The Island April 30, 2009).
Although a section of the security establishment believed the LTTE exploited the presence of the ICRC, the government allowed the humanitarian agency to continue operations. While the guns boomed, the ICRC chartered vessel, Green Ocean anchored off Puthumathalan, took on board several hundred men, women and children, both wounded in fighting and sick as well as their relatives accompanying them. From there, they were moved to Pulmoddai where Indian personnel manned makeshift health facilities. It was a complex operation conducted under the watchful eyes of the ICRC and India.
Some of the navy craft deployed for the blockade carried missiles and a range of other weapons. The navy radar covered the rapidly shrinking sea frontage under LTTE control. By end of April 2009, the coastline under LTTE control was down to just six kms. FACs provided radar coverage necessary for the effective implementation of the blockade involving land based assets. However, naval units deployed on the mission faced a major dilemma due to civilians fleeing the battle zone in fishing craft. The navy realized the danger in the LTTE launching suicide attacks taking cover behind civilians. In spite of the threat posed by suicide cadres, those deployed on the cordon at the risk of their lives facilitated the transfer of escaping civilians to government-held areas. But their primary task remained killing or capturing Prabhakaran in case of an attempt to escape by sea.
Jets moved to China Bay
Fearing the possibility of the LTTE utilizing a ship capable of launching a helicopter to evacuate Prabhakaran and his family, the navy deployed Offshore Patrol Vessels. The SLAF stationed two jets at the China Bay airfield in support of the navy. The SLAF believed it could respond swiftly by having a pair of jets closer to the eastern seas in case of an emergency. The navy and the SLAF were ready for any eventuality, amidst reports of the LTTE pushing western powers to rescue its leadership.
Katunayake based jet squadrons remained on alert to provide support in case of the LTTE launching an operation to break the naval cordon.
Although Prabhakaran’s successor Kumaran Pathmanathan a.k.a ‘KP’ now in government custody claimed that the LTTE made an effort to launch a rescue operation during the final phase of the conflict, such a plan wouldn’t have been realistic due to the heavy naval presence. The LTTE couldn’t have overwhelmed both the navy and the SLAF to evacuate Prabhakaran and his family. The Sri Lankan military felt that there had never been an LTTE rescue plan involving a big ship, though a section of the LTTE asserted the plan failed due to lack of funds. It was nothing but a lie in the wake of their failure to save Prabhakaran. The LTTE couldn’t have moved a large ship into Sri Lanka’s economic zone without being detected. Had they launched a rescue bid involving a ship, it would have ended up in the bottom of the sea. In fact, their only hope was for international intervention to compel the government to stop the ground offensive to pave the way for tripartite agreement involving the government, the LTTE and the international community. Prabhakaran declined to surrender to government forces. Instead, he pushed for an international military presence in the Vanni east to save him from the embarrassment of surrendering to the army. Had he wanted to save his life, he could have ordered his cadres to cease hostilities and join his parents, who crossed the frontline to seek refuge in a government held area. The vast majority surrendered to the 58 Division. The international community, too, worked over time to work out an arrangement to suit Prabhakaran’s future plans. Had they compelled Prabhakaran to surrender without trying to consolidate his position in post-eelam War IV era, he could have been alive today behind bars.
The heavy naval build up discouraged the LTTE from launching an operation to fight its way through the naval cordon. When President Rajapaksa refused to succumb to international pressure, the LTTE leadership had no option but to go down fighting on the Mullaitivu front.
In a bid to force Western intervention, the LTTE ordered the Tamil Diaspora to launch massive protests to pressure their representatives, particularly in the UK, Canada and France. The LTTE found it difficult explain their failure to defeat the army due to its own propaganda campaign, which always depicted the army as being inferior to the elite LTTE fighting units. It couldn’t explain that thousands of LTTE cadres were surrendering to the advancing army and it could no longer hold a single fixed defence line.