Battle of Mullaitivu (1996)

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Battle of Mullaitivu
Operation Unceasing Waves
Part of the Sri Lankan civil war
Date July 18 – 25, 1996
Location Mullaitivu, Sri Lanka
Result Tamil Tiger victory
Belligerents
Sri Lanka Military of Sri Lanka LiberationTigersofTamilEelamFlag.jpg Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
Commanders and leaders
Sri Lanka Gen. Anuruddha Ratwatte,
Gen. Rohan Daluwatte,
Col. A.F. Lafir (DOW),
Maj. T.R.A Aliba (MIA),
Maj. Janaka Kasthuriarachchi (MIA),
Lt.Com. Parakrama Samaraweera  
Velupillai Prabhakaran,
Balraj,
Soosai
Strength
1,407 4,000
Casualties and losses
Gunboat(SLNS Ranaviru) Sunk
1,242
(207 captured and executed) killed[1]
332 killed

The Battle of Mullaitivu (codenamed Operation Unceasing Waves by the Tamil Tigers),[2] was a battle that occurred between 18–25 July 1996 for the control of the town of Mullaitivu in Sri Lanka. The battle was fought between units of the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Background[edit]

Following its major defeat in late 1995 when the LTTE lost control of the Jaffna peninsula to the Sri Lankan Army in Operation Riviresa, the LTTE moved to the jungles of the Wanni region. Afterwards the Sri Lankan government and press repeatedly claimed that two-thirds of the LTTE's fighting strength had been destroyed. To counter this—and to increase its image internationally—the LTTE planned and trained a group of 4,000 cadres for an attack on the SLA base at Mullaitivu. LTTE founder and leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was personally involved in the planning and coordination of this operation, code-named "Unceasing Waves".

The Sri Lankan army base at Mullaitivu covered a vast area and was bordered by the sea on one side, the camp occupied an area 2900m long by 1500 wide with a perimeter of 8500m. It had initially been set up as a smaller camp in the early 1980s, over the following years the camp was expanded to cover most of the small town of Mullaitivu, which was the administrative centre of the Mullaitivu district. The isolated base was the 215 Brigade Headquarters and had no road links to any other garrisons situated in the region. Based there were the 6th Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment and the 9th battalion of the Sinha Regiment, on the day of the attack the two most senior officers, the officiating brigade commander, Colonel Lawrence Fernando, and his deputy, Major Gunaratne, were away in Colombo on duty leave.[1] On the day of the attack 9th battalion of Sinha Regiment was commanded by Major H. Dabarera, 6th Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment by Major T.R.A. Aliba and Brigade Headquarters was under Captain Janaka Kasturiarachchi, the camp had a detachment from the 4th Field Regiment of the Sri Lanka Artillery equipped with two Type 60 122 mm field guns and two Type 86 (W86) 120 mm mortars under the command of Captain Suresh Raj. In addition to the army, the base housed 9 naval personal manning a ground based naval radar station and 50 policemen attached to the Mullaitivu police station. 81 civilian staff of the camp were also present.

The Army had wanted to remove the isolated base as it had gained intelligence that the LTTE was planning to attack isolated bases, the Sri Lanka Navy which had a radar station at the base objected as a withdrawal would remove its radar coverage of the Mullaitivu coast. Therefore, plans were drawn to reinforce the base from air and sea in the event of an attack, this plan which required coordinated effort by air, sea and land was never rehearsed. Defenses of camp were enhanced with two lines of defence and over 100,000 mines deployed. Several critical weakness remained which included only a single line of defence to the seaward side and a gap in the second line of defence to the north of the base. Military intelligence had reported several days prior that an attack was imminent, but these warnings were not heeded.

Assault on Mullaitivu[edit]

The Tigers launched their assault at 1.30 am on 18 July 1996. The initial attack was focused on the northern perimeter, which was breached after about 20 minutes of fighting, since forward patrols by the army were not present, the LTTE gained the element of surprise. Black Tiger units lead the attack with their suicide bombers infiltrating and blowing up bunkers in the first defence line. The attack was commanded by LTTE leader Balraj. Soon after Sea Tigers landed at two points on the beach of the seaward side of the base, the first unit linked up with the LTTE carders who had penetrated the defense line from the north and exploited the breach in the second defense line entering the center of the base. They spread out on a predetermined plan with units flanking the northern second defense line and attacking it from the rear. Others moved to the center of the base attacking and capturing the 25 Brigade headquarters. Located in the headquarters building was the main communication room that linked the Mullaitivu base with Army Headquarters in Colombo via radio, with the loss of the 25 Brigade headquarters the army lost contact with the Mullaitivu base an hour into the attack. 25 Brigade was able to inform inform Army headquarters that it was facing a major attack and losing ground fast before communication was lost. Soon the LTTE carders had over run the operational headquarters of the 9th battalion, Sinha Regiment, the second unit of LTTE carders that had landed on the beach south of the first unit had simultaneously penetrated the seaward defense line and overran the site of the artillery detachment knocking it out of action. All the time other LTTE units had been attacking all along the first defense line holding down troops in it, after four hours of heavy fighting, the Tiger forces reached the centre of the camp, having overrun forward defense lines and clusters of mini-camps. Apart from the two headquarters they had captured the base armory which had recently been restocked. Apart from the two 122mm artillery guns and a two 120 mm mortars, they had captured 600 122mm shells and 300 120mm mortar rounds, the attack stopped short of the very heart of the base, as troops had regrouped and formed a new defensive line around the operational headquarters of the 6th Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment. The LTTE commanders leading the attack were ordered to regroup their forces and await nightfall before storming the remaining defenders.

Massacre of prisoners[edit]

The military alleged that 207 officers and soldiers who had surrendered to the LTTE by dawn were being marched off, when an young officer hurled an grenade at a group of LTTE leaders, killing a senior leader. Infuriated the LTTE executed all the captured person. Many of them appeared to have been herded together, doused with gasoline and set on fire, burning to death,[1] it has also been reported that others were found dead clutching white flags of surrender.[3]

Operation Thrivida Pahara[edit]

Soon after the initial messages from Mullaitivu reporting the attack and deteriorating situation, Army headquarters had become a hive of activity with all officials been informed. President Chandrika Kumaratunga who was also the Minister of Defence was out of the country on a state visit. General Anuruddha Ratwatte, who was the Deputy Minister of Defence and at the time acting Minister of Defence was at the Palali with the three service commanders Lieutenant General Rohan Daluwatte, Vice Admiral D. A. M. R. Samarasekara and Air Marshal Oliver Ranasinghe; having come to Jaffna on an inspection tour. They convened and emergency meeting to formulate a response.

In response to the attack the they planned and put into motion Operation Thrivida Pahara before dawn, the plan called for a relief force to be transported by sea off the coast of Mullaitivu from Jaffna by an commandeered merchant vessel and to land by landing craft close to the base. Meanwhile, the Sri Lanka Air Force carried out attacks on the LTTE. Due to the delay of the transport of troops by sea, initial landings were carried out on the 19th by an all-volunteer force of 275 elite commandos from the 1st Special Forces Regiment led by Lieutenant Colonel A.F. Lafir; they were heli-dropped under heavy LTTE fire south of Mullaitivu and made radio contact with the besieged troops. Although wounded, Lt. Col. Lafir personally led the attack under direct enemy fire after landing near Alampil until he was killed.

By evening of the 19th troops from the merchant vessel had been transferred three Landing Craft Mechanized and began moving towards Mullaitivu protected by an escort made up of the Shanghai class fast gun boat SLNS Ranaviru and six Dvoras of the 4th Fast Attack Flotilla under the command of Lieutenant Commander Parakrama Samaraweera on board Ranaviru. As the flotilla reached the Mullaitivu coast it was swarmed by over 200 small boats including suicide boats heavily laden with explosives of the LTTE Sea Tigers which where targeting the landing craft. Ranaviru and the Dvora maneuvered to protect the landing craft and intercept the LTTE crafts, around 5:30 pm a suicide boat rammed Ranaviru. The large explosion knocked out the engines of the ship and she began a list, although without power and dead in the water, Ranaviru continued engaging the Sea Tigers crafts with its guns until a few minutes later a second suicide boat rammed her resulting in another massive explosion causing her to sink instantly with her entire crew of 36 including Lieutenant Commander Samaraweera. With the loss of Ranaviru the landings were called off and only re-executed on the 21 July when the landing craft reached the shores of Mullaitivu.

The Tiger units launched a holding attack on the relief force and concentrated on the central camp, on the evening of 19 July the entire camp fell to the Tigers. However, troops at the beachhead had established contact with some of the troops of Mullaitivu who were isolated from the overrun main base, on 20 July SLAF Mi-17 helicopters found LTTE resistance too heavy to effect more troops landings in the area where the commandos had landed. They therefore made a landing some distance away. An Mi-17 helicopter was damaged by LTTE fire.

On the 21st 6th Battalion of Sri Lanka Light Infantry,7th Battalion of Gemunu Watch and 2nd Battalion of Commando Regiment landed within the secured perimeter established by Special Forces Regiment, thereafter a beachhead was established by seaborne troops 5 km south of the base; this was done while under heavy mortar attack by the LTTE. It was not until 23 July that troops reached the base, against fierce resistance. By the time the advance troops reached the southern perimeter of the base they discovered that the base and town had been razed to the ground, the troops reported that they were greeted by the unbearable stench of decayed and dismembered bodies. They were withdrawn on 24 and 25 July after higher command had decided to abandon the relief of the destroyed base, this concluded the battle.

Aftermath[edit]

During the battle the Sri Lankan military lost at least 1,300 troops most missing in action. Eighty were lost from the relief force. Few managed to escape and survived the battle, the LTTE claimed 332 of its fighters were killed. Since the base was the only major SLA presence in the Mullaitivu district, LTTE gained control over the area after the troops withdrew on the 25th, this constituted a major victory for the LTTE.

President Kumaratunga cut short her state visit and returned to the island immediately, on 26 July the Sri Lanka Army launched Operation Sath Jaya from its base in Elephant Pass and captured the rebel held town of Kilinochchi offsetting the loss of Mullaitivu. The Commander of the Army Lieutenant General Daluwatte appointed a military court of inquiry headed by a Major General into the loss of Mullaitivu. Much of the findings and the scope of the lose at Mullaitivu was suppressed by government censorship at the time, it was later reviled that the army has lost several billions of rupees worth of military equipment from the base. The inquiry found that a lack of aggressive forward operations from the base up to 1 KM resulted in the LTTE gaining complete surprise compounded by a general lack of preparedness, it found that the military lacked prior preparation to deal with such a situation and joint operational practice or rehearsal. There were no major punishments or reprimands made.[4]

Lieutenant Colonel A.F. Lafir was posthumously awarded the Parama Weera Vibhushanaya, the highest award for combat bravery in Sri Lanka for his brevery in leading the landings. He was also posthumously promoted to the rank of Colonel. Major T.R.A Aliba who was the senior most officer at the time of the attack was posthumously promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, although officially listed as missing in action and thought to have died on the 19 July. Captain Janaka Kasturiarachchi was posthumously promoted to the rank Major.[5] Colonel Lawrence Fernando, and his deputy, Major Gunaratne landed with the special forces troops who tried to re-link with the base but were wounded and were evacuated. Lawrence Fernando retired from the army as a Major General having served as Chief of Staff of the Army and Gunaratne retired a Lieutenant Colonel, the decimated 6th Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment and 9th battalion, Sinha Regiment were reformed from survivors, officers and men who were on leave.

In 1998, military intelligence reported that Captain (posthumously Major) Suresh Raj, a 27 year old Tamil officer who commanded the artillery detachment had passed detailed plans to the LTTE on the layout of the camp and facilitated the capture of the artillery and mortars.[6]

In January 2009, Mullaitivu was recaptured by elements of the 59 Division with the 7 Gemunu Watch entering Mullaitivu town with the 9th battalion, Sinha Regiment protecting its flank.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Rivira 1 : [1] Rivira 2 :[2] Rivira 3 :[3] Rivira 4 :[4]