One-time United Nations Under Secretary General for Disarmament Affairs (1998-2003) Jayantha Dhanapala paid a glowing tribute to the army for eradicating LTTE terrorism in May 2009 by saving as many as 300,000 Tamil speaking people held hostage by the LTTE. Among the rescued were several thousands of LTTE cadres, both men and women, who swiftly took advantage of the rescue operation to drop their weapons and cross the Nanthikadal lagoon.
Dhanapala, a former ambassador to the US (1995-1997 during CBK’s tenure as the President) was making submissions before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) on Aug. 25, 2010, at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations and Strategic Studies.
Unfortunately, the government failed to realise the importance of Dhanapala’s declaration, which could have been used to highlight extremely difficult circumstances, under which the army conducted the operation.
Dhanapala succeeded Ambassador Bernard Goonetilike as the head of the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP) during the Norwegian peace initiative.
Currently, Dhanapala is the 11th President of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs; a member of the Governing Board of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and several other advisory boards of international bodies.
Dhanapala speaks out
This is what Dhanapala had to say about the two important issues, namely the Puthumathalan civilian rescue mission and the concept of responsibility to protect: “We were very fortunate that in the end game of our conflict in May of 2009, we were able through the bravery of our own Army to save ourselves the possible holocaust of 300,000 civilians dying in the final stage. The earth bund behind which they were held as human shields was breached at great sacrifice by our Army and we were able therefore to minimise civilian losses. I do not think we have an accurate estimate as to what the civilian losses were in the crossfire, but there were civilian losses. The tragedy would have been much greater if not for the bravery of our soldiers. But what if there was a tragedy greater than what happened? We would have been then denigrated in the eyes of the international community for no other reason but the fact that these civilians were being held as human shields. We have to I think engage first of all the ICRC and then the rest of the international community in order to perhaps convene a diplomatic conference to discuss the formulation of a new protocol with regard to combat with non state actors. This is a phenomenon that is taking place all over the world and I think the marshalling of international opinion on this issue will be one of the contributions that we can make in the codification of international humanitarian law.”
Commenting on the responsibility to protect concept, Ambassador Dhanapala said: “Now I think it is important for us to expand that concept to bring in the culpability of those members of the international community who have subscribed to the situation that has caused injury to the civilians of a nation. I talk about the way in which terrorist groups are given sanctuary; are harboured; are supplied with arms and training by some countries with regard to neighbours or with regard to other countries. We know that in our case this has happened, and I don’t want to name countries, but even countries who have allowed their financial procedures and systems to be abused in such a way that money can flow from their countries in order to buy the arms and ammunition that causes death, the maiming and the destruction of property in Sri Lanka are to blame and there is therefore a responsibility to protect our civilians and the civilians of other nation states from that kind of behaviour on the part of members of the international community, and I think this is something that will echo with many countries in the Non Aligned Movement where Sri Lanka enjoys a very respected position and where I hope we will be able to raise this issue.”
Although Dhanapala made no specific reference to the individual fighting formations, the civilian rescue mission was carried out by the 58 Division, commanded by Gajaba Regiment veteran, Brig. Shavendra Silva. The formation launched operations on the western flank as Task Force I (TF I) in Sept 2007. Having cleared the coastal road up to Sangupiddy by mid Nov. 2008, TF I turned eastwards secured Paranthan, the southern part of Kilinochchi town and Elephant Pass in quick succession before being named 58 Division. On the instructions of the then army chief, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s directives, the 58 Division advanced along the Paranthan –Mullaitivu road gradually evicting LTTE fighting forces from major strongholds, including Dharmapuram, Iranapalai, Vishvamadu and Puthukudirippu. By the third week of April 2009, Brig. Silva was entrusted with the task of executing the civilian rescue mission. Lt. Gen. Fonseka assigned the elite Army Special Forces and Commandos for the operation.
By the time President Mahinda Rajapaksa visited Kilinochchi on April 16, 2009, preparations were underway to liberate civilians held by the LTTE. The SLAF’s Israeli built Unmanned Aerial Vehicles operated day and night over the targeted zone providing real time intelligence to ground commanders. Those leading the assault knew what was going on the ground. The LTTE-held area was under constant surveillance throughout this period. While the 58 Division prepared to go in, other formations remained on the alert to face a possible attempt by the LTTE to launch a diversionary attack. Nothing short of foreign military intervention could have saved Prabhakaran. The LTTE felt that the international community would be compelled to intervene if an army operation inside the no fire zone went awry. The LTTE expected a bloodbath. Prabhakaran was going to make a case for the international community at the expense of civilians. Had Prabhakaran let civilians flee, he would have been also vulnerable to devastating air and artillery assaults. The navy, too, could have provided support. Therefore, the LTTE needed civilian cover to discourage President Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa from authorising the assault on Puthumathan. Instead of being discouraged, the LTTE action prompted the Rajapaksa brothers to go ahead with the offensive. They believed there was no alternative but to liberate the civilians and then encircled the LTTE.
Special Forces, Commandos join 58 Div
The LTTE always tried to retain a civilian human shield throughout the Vanni campaign. In fact, Prabhakaran went to the extent of detaining UN employees for helping civilians to flee the battle zone. Initially, they forced the civilians to take refuge in the Mulangavil area, and then move towards Kilinochchi before they were forced to take refuge in Dharmapuram and Vishvamadu. Finally, the LTTE compelled the civilians to move to Puthumathalan, a narrow strip of land between Nanthikadal lagoon and the sea.
The 58 Division was compelled to restrict the use of even small arms as the enemy was positioned among the civilians. The 58 Division was to cross the lagoon regardless of the consequences. Those risking their lives were ordered only to carry small arms.
In spite of time constraints, the 58 Division rehearsed during the night with the emphasis on crossing the lagoon. The 58.1 Brigade was tasked to cross the lagoon on foot. 2 CR (Commando Regiment), l SF (Special Forces) and 9 GW (Gemunu Watch) were tasked to capture a three-kilometre-long earth bund on the banks of Nanthikadal. They were to launch operations from three different locations and link up. In the absence of required craft, the 58 Division used local resources to build rafts.
After detailed planning and rehearsals, troops crossed the lagoon at midnight on the night of April 20, 2009. Although troops suffered casualties due to mines on the banks of the lagoon, they crossed the lagoon. The initial exchange of small arms fire caused major commotion among those trapped in the no fire zone. The LTTE command and control structure collapsed quickly as hundreds of LTTE cadres simply dropped their weapons and joined the large crowds fleeing across the Nanthikadal lagoon. By early morning on April 21, 2009, about 80,000 people, including many LTTE cadres, were in the government held area.
The LTTE defence failed primarily due to the absence of any of its senior battlefield commanders in the wake of Anandapuram debacle in April 2009. The success of the Puthumathalan operation depend on the 58 Division’s success at Anandapuram, where over 600 LTTE cadres, including almost all remaining ground commanders died. The 53 Division made the Anandapuram success a reality. Prabhakaran, Pottu Amman and Soosai couldn’t have handled the situation at Puthumathalan as they didn’t have the experience fighting a large scale assault. The LTTE carried out suicide attacks targeting fleeing civilians and shot at them from behind. Many escapees bore gunshot injuries on their back.
From west to east coast
Having cleared the area, 9 GW, 12 GR (Gajaba Regiment), 2 CR and I SF pushed towards the eastern sea. They had 7 SR (Sinha Regiment) on their northern flank, while 11 SLLI (Sri Lanka Light Infantry) on the southern flank. Troops faced fierce resistance. But, they couldn’t call for air, artillery or armour support due to the presence of civilians. Having crossed the narrow strip of land, they captured the coastal area between Puthumathalan and Ampalavanpokkanai, thereby dividing the no fire zone into two. The troops of 7 SLSR under the 58.1 Brigade of the 58 Division and 7 VIR troops under the 55.3 Brigade of the 55 Division linked up on the morning of April 23, 2009.
A raid like no other
The raid on Puthumathalan was likened to hitting a meevadaya or beehive by Capt. Wasantha Jayaweera, who provided all images on this page. Jayaweera, formerly of the Special Forces, accompanied the 58 Division from Mannar to the Mullaitivu coast. Commandos attacked on one flank and the Special Forces moved in from another direction. 11 SLLI and 9 GW infiltrated between the Commandos and Special Forces. It was meant to cause confusion among those defending Puthumathalan to enable civilians to cross then lagoon. Those tasked with the operation rehearsed as many as 30 times. Brig. Shavendra Silva used a sand model to explain his strategy to those going in to save trapped civilians. The infantry dug trenches in the no fire zone and the day before the operation, they crawled in those trenches and waited for the order to go. Commandos and Special Forces carried out several deception drills and targeted the weakest section of the LTTE defence from the north and south of the selected area of the LTTE earth bund. The gun battle lasted several hours and many lost limbs due to anti-personnel mines. On the morning of April 21, troops rescued over 80,000 civilians, including parents of Prabhakaran and Daya Master. By the following morning, the 58 Division rescued 1,74,564 civilians. The army lost 12 personnel including one officer, while the LTTE lost nearly 400 cadres. The credit for the Puthumathalan operation should go to 11 SLLI, 9 GW, 8 GR battalions, 2 Commando and 1 SF regiments.