The commanders of “Operation Liberation” commonly known as “Vadamarachchi Operation”. From left to right: Lt Col. Vipul Boteju, Lt Col. Sarath Jayawardane, Col. Wijaya Wimalaratne, Brig. Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Maj Gotabaya Rajapakse [1987, Jaffna] Image courtesy

Twenty five years ago, on May 26th 1987, the Sri Lankan military forces launched ‘Operation Liberation’, which, at the time, was the biggest military operation in Sri Lanka since independence. At least 5,000 troops broke out of their bases in Jaffna in a bid to take the battle to the rebel Tamil Tigers who had kept the soldiers confined to the barracks for more than a year. The operation met with significant success. Within a week the Vadamarachchi sector of the peninsula was brought under government’s control, and scores of rebels killed or captured and some of their munitions factories destroyed. However, any ambitions the Sri Lankan government had about widening the operation to cover the entire Jaffna peninsula had to come to an abrupt end when India stepped in, Indian aircraft invading Sri Lankan air space to drop ‘relief supplies’ and the Indian government signalling the likelihood of tougher action if the operations continued.

Indian intervention during Operation Liberation also came in more direct ways, which many people who castigate Indian perfidy are unaware of. According to Robert MacDonald, perhaps the only westerner to be present in Jaffna during the operation noticed an influx of brand new G3 rifles and .30 calibre machine guns along with at least two new .50 machine guns towards the end of June.[1] The Tigers also reportedly received a large supply of explosives – about 20 tonnes – from RAW in June.[2]

The Indian intervention outraged many Sinhalese. Their anger was naturally focused on the very public humiliation by the Indian Air Force rather than on the clandestine – and therefore little known – induction of arms and explosives. The armed forces had cornered the Tiger and were about to deliver the death blow when the rebels’ Godfather intervened. In their eyes, India had spoiled a perfectly good opportunity for the Sri Lankan security forces to annihilate the Tigers, and save the nation much blood and tears. It is a view that has stood the test of time, especially given the escalation of the conflict in the 1990s with horrendous consequences. When Lalith Weeratunge, the current permanent Secretary to the President of Sri Lanka, articulated this at the launch of C.A.Chandraprema’s Gota’s War only days ago he was only thinking aloud for a people still smarting from that insult a quarter of a century ago.

It is irrefutable that the Indian intervention was decisive. It stopped the Sri Lankan military operation. Less certain is the potential Indian weapons and explosives had for preventing a Sri Lankan military victory. But what is often forgotten – or overlooked – is that even without these Indian interventions there were many factors that militated against the certainty of a Sri Lankan military triumph. Operation Liberation did deal a telling blow to the Tigers but ground realities at the time suggest that the prospects of converting it into a death blow were remote. At a time when some of us celebrate (or mourn) the events that led up to the end of the war in May 2009, it is instructive to revisit these realities of a campaign which is still believed to have had the potential to end the war long before it reached the bloody shores of Nanthikadal.


The context

Frustration with India’s perceived role in saving the Tigers was not new. Ever since the Tamil militants had escalated their violence in late 1984 there has been a growing urgency to strike back forcefully. The general opinion in the South was that it was India that prevented this from happening. There was some truth in this; Not only was India vociferous in her disapproval of any high handed methods to cow the rebels but the giant neighbour also provided sanctuary to the ‘terrorists’. However, the Sri Lankan government’s failure to squash the rebellion was not solely due to Indian pressure or intervention. Before the militants confined the army to barracks in 1985/86 the army had often tried to hit back hard, mainly by terrorising the population. This was largely due to the inexperience the army had in dealing with a war of that kind. Apart from the brief encounter with the JVP in 1971 the Sri Lankan security forces had not seen much blood until the Tamil rebellion broke out and faced with a much more potent threat from 1983 onwards, a threat in which the source of danger  was often indistinguishable from the population, the security forces reacted with little restrain. The exact number of civilian deaths at the hands of marauding bands of soldiers will never be known but one can safely assume that they were in the hundreds if not thousands.[3] The confinement of troops to Barracks after 1985 was not so much due to restraint in retaliating but rather, due to the failure to squash the rebellion through the brutalisation of the population.

If anything, it only served to increase the support for the militants. What was lacking was a genuine counter-insurgency approach that did little to alienate the population.[4] But in the South the prevailing view was that the army was too soft on the terrorists. The atrocities of the army in the north were largely shielded from the south. On the other hand, the violence committed by the militants received wide coverage. This, along with the constant reminding of India’s big brotherly attitude fuelled the frustration in the Sinhalese south. It increased after the failure of Thimpu talks in 1985.

Yet, despite India’s opposition the Sri Lankan government had been preparing for a big push into Jaffna. After the escalation of violence in late 1984 the government had been beefing up its security forces. Undaunted by the refusal of many countries to provide military assistance to the Sri Lankan government, Lalith Athulathmudali had sought help from sources that were willing to supply what Sri Lanka wanted – and could afford – discretely. By the second half of 1985 his efforts were bearing fruit and arms and equipment began to arrive in large quantities. These included 25 pounder artillery, light aircraft, helicopters, recoilless rifles and large quantities of ammunition. More Bell 212s and Bell 412 helicopters had arrived by late 1985 along with several Siai Marchetti SF 260 aircrafts. The army too was becoming bigger, better armed and organised. By 1987 the numbers had risen to nearly 40,000, a result of the continuing intensive recruiting campaign carried out after the escalation of the fighting in late 1984.[5] The army’s firepower had been markedly enhanced by the addition of the 25 pounders to the aging collection of 76mm and 85mm field guns.[6] Buffel APCs had arrived from South Africa and the Sri Lankan military had demonstrated their ingenuity by producing ‘Unicorn’ APCs modelled on the Buffel.[7] The infantry was also getting more streamlined with increased firepower. Each battalion was split into several companies each comprising four platoons of 30 men. The platoons were further broken in to 10-man sections.  Nine men in each section were armed with rifles while the remaining soldier carried a light machine gun. One of the riflemen also carried a rocket launcher, usually a Chinese copy of the RPG-7. In some units this was replaced by the West German Heckler and Koch Grenatenpistole 40mm grenade launcher or the South African made Amscor six shot grenade launcher. Sometimes a 60mm mortar was included fro added support. Thus armed, the Sri Lankan army now was a much formidable force than it was in the early 1980s.[8]

The military improvements made the urge to use them in a decisive campaign stronger. The Siai Marchettis had begun  ‘air strikes’ in the Peninsula in February 1986. Then after days of military build up in May 1986 the security forces launched two substantial operations to ease the pressure on some of the military bases on the Jaffna Peninsula, dubbed “Short Shrift” 1 and 2. The army, supported by air and naval cover, made a multi-pronged advance into rebel held territory on May 18. The troops advanced from  VVT, Kayts, Elephant Pass and  Palaly camps while the troops in Jaffna broke out of the fort in a column covered by several armoured vehicles. The operation met with stiff resistance, none of the columns being able to move more than a few kilometres.[9]

On May 22nd the army launched the second phase of Short Shrift, aimed at capturing the Mandathivu island to the west of the Jaffna fort. This was important as Air Force flights landing supplies for the Jaffna garrison came under fire from militants based on the island. The island also functioned as a base from which the militants could lob mortars and rockets in to the fort. The operation was successfully completed, relieving pressure on the garrison[10].

The military claimed that the operations were aimed at securing the perimeters of the bases from attacks rather than an attempt to capture territory. [11] However it is very likely that they were also used as probing thrusts against the enemy defences to gauge their effectiveness. Whatever the objective was it changed very little for the army. Within days of completing the operation the army was still struggling to send out foot patrols and defend their bases against mortar fire. Heavily fortified strong points had reappeared within site of the camps. One such strongpoint in VVT was located in a house barely 500 meters from the military camp and was defended by numerous pill boxes and trenches[12].

In February 1987 came another major operation to probe guerrilla defences. Code named “Giant Step”, it was launched simultaneously in the districts of Jaffna, Mannar, Killinochchi, Trincomalee and Batticaloa in early February. The objective was similar to Short Shrift 1 and 2: to clear areas around major military encampments and establish new outposts. Another major objective was to dominate areas on the north western and north eastern casts and deny these areas to the guerrillas who were using them to insert men and material into the Wanni. It was the first time the military had launched an operation on such a scale across the north and East and it was to continue intermittently until the end of March.

Again, the security forces reported the operation as a success, claiming to have cleared large areas around their camps. In Mannar troops moved south east towards Uyilankulam and northwards towards Adampan and then towards Illuppukadavai further north. In Trincomalee areas around Kurumbupiddy up to Pulmoddai and Yan Oya was reported completely cleared. A massive base camp was captured at Periyakarachchi to the north of Illupukadavai. In Kilinochchi two military columns from Kilinochchi and Elephant Pass converged on Paranthan, securing the town and setting up road blocks. Troops occupied government buildings in town, including the post office and the chemicals factory. In Batticaloa troops ventures out of camps in Kokkadicholai and Vavunativu and destroyed several militant hideouts. In Jaffna troops , moved out from Palaly and established control over the Thondamannaru bridge while a large minefield of over 400 yards was reported cleared outside the Vasavilan camp. They also ventured out of the fort and captured the Jaffna telecommunications exchange and the buildings in the vicinity. These buildings were taken to deny the Tigers vantage points from which to harass the soldiers in the fort[13]. Another aim of the operation was to cut off land communications between Jaffna town and the countryside but this was far from successful. The fact that the advance of the troops was measured in meters rather than miles gave a good indication of the challenge faced by the troops[14].

The failure of these operations to make significant gains only increased the frustration in the South, making the government more and more keen to appear to be taking firm action to end the ‘Terrorist menace’. For their part the Tigers too provided plenty of reasons for the southern public to clamour for a big military push. In May 1986, the month of Short Shrift 1 and 2, saw a series of deadly bombings in Colombo. On May 3rd the Tigers exploded a bomb aboard Air Lanka flight UL512, killing 21 people including 13 foreigners. On May 7th 1986 a parcel bomb ripped through the Central Telegraph Office in the Fort area in Colombo killing 11 and injuring more than a hundred. The colonial era building suffered severe damage, its wooden upper floor collapsing.[15] A few weeks later on May 29th another bomb blew up a lorry parked inside Ceylon Cold stores warehouse at Slave Island in Colombo killing nine and injuring several more. The number of casualties would have been much higher had there not been a delayed lunch break[16]. Giant Step was countered with a series of massacres in the East. On 7th February, the day the Operation got under way, they struck in Aranthalawa in Amparai killing 28 men, women and children, almost all of them hacked to death.[17] On March 24th, another village in the East, this time Serunuwara in Horowapotana, suffered the Tigers’ wrath losing 26 villagers.[18] They received wide publicity in the south, fuelling the public’s anger.

The launch of Operation Liberation took place in this context of increasing sophistication in the armed forces without significant gains, and the Tigers’ continuing depredations in the East and the South, all of which created mounting pressure in the South for firmer action notwithstanding India’s opposition. When scores of off duty soldiers were massacred on Good Friday and a massive bomb exploded in the Pettah the government snapped. In Colombo President Jayawardena fumed. ‘We have had enough of their ceasing to use arms”, he thundered. “These people have to be defeated militarily”. He asked for money, arms and sympathy from the rest of the world. “Why don’t you help us?” he pleaded.[19]

The enraged Sri Lankan government believed that it had everything it needed to go on the offensive. The Tigers had outraged everybody. Western countries had signalled that they were willing to turn a blind eye and if India’s reaction to the initial retaliatory air strikes immediately after the Pettah bomb blast was any guide the ‘big brother’ was also fed up with the Tigers’ deadly antics.[20] The iron seemed hot.

Jayawardena finally unleashed his troops on Jaffna in the last week of May. “Everybody told us, the government, you are doing nothing”, explained minister for National Security Lalith Athulathmudali later, giving reasons for the decision. “So we had to launch a crackdown on the terrorists”.[21] The ‘crackdown’ came on May 26th  with the launching of “Operation Liberation” the biggest military operation launched by Sri Lanka since Independence.


The Operation

The objective of Operation Liberation was to seal off and capture Vadamarachchi, the thin strip of land that extends northwest from Elephant Pass. Athulathmudali explained the focus on Vadamarachchi as driven by several strategic considerations. The area, he claimed, housed many of the ordnance factories of the Tigers and was also one of the main arms supply points[22]. It was also hoped that the military would be able to capture the rebel leader Prabhakaran. Military intelligence had noted that the Tiger chief was in Velvetithurai[23]. If they could net him, it would be a prize catch indeed and a promise of a swift end to the war.

Probing attacks by the army had begun days earlier. Air attacks on targets in the peninsula begun immediately after the bomb blast in Pettah. From May 18th the army also made several forays from their bases in Palaly, Thondamanaru, Kurumbasiddy, Kadduvan and Navatkuli.[24] The operation proper began on May 26th.  The military imposed a dawn curfew on the entire Jaffna peninsula and followed it by dropping leaflets warning the civilians to take shelter in designated safe havens: government buildings and temples. Two hours later aircraft swooped on Tiger targets in Vadamarachchi and around Jaffna town.

Sri Lanka deployed an impressive force for the operation. On the ground, a formidable assembly of men and machines stood poised to take the fight to the enemy. Sri Lanka was making its largest military effort since independence, deploying in excess of 5,000 troops for the operation, organised in three brigades. Scores of armoured personnel carriers, armoured cars and jeeps mounted with recoilless rifles were pressed into service along with 105mm artillery and 120mm mortars.

In the air the marshalling of forces was no less remarkable. Six Siai Marchettis functioned as ground attack aircrafts while two helicopters were deployed as gunships. One BAC-748 (AVRO), 2 Y12s, 1 De Haviland Heron were used as improvised bombers. Two BAC-748s, 2 Y12s and one De Haviland Doves were employed as transports ferrying goods and men. Eight helicopters also figured as troops carriers. Casualty evacuation also received high priority; 1 Y12 devoted to that purpose.[25] This was the biggest array of aircraft ever assembled by the Air Force for a single operation until then.

In the sea, the navy deployed its vessels, patrolling and shelling enemy targets on the coast.

While the air craft and naval vessels battered suspected guerrilla targets, the First Brigade moved out of Thondamanaru and moved eastwards along the coast while the Second Brigade moved parallel to it about 8 miles southward to protect its flank. Another column  moved northward from Elephant Pass. In the meantime a group of commandos was dropped by helicopter in the south and south west parts of Vadamarachchi while another group was landed by sea on the east coast of Vadamarachchi. Their role was to seal off the southern and western parts of Vadamarachchi to prevent any militants from escaping. They immediately set up road blocks in anticipation of a Tiger exodus while the group landed by sea sealed off the eastern coast of Vadamarachchi. The two main columns were the hammer that was to throw the militants on the commando anvil. A few other diversionary attacks were also made including one from the Jaffna fort and another from Navatkuli. The Jaffna foray was joined by two groups of commandos numbering about 300 landed by sea.[26]

The column from Elephant Pass moved up to Iyakachchi and moved on towards Sornampattu with their final goal being Chempionpattu on the Vada strip[27]. They were hoping to seal off the southern end of Vadamarachchi.

The column from Elephant Pass overcame initial resistance to achieve its objective. But the forays from the Jaffna Fort ran into difficulties within moments. They were beaten back by Tigers led by the Jaffna commander Kittu. The rebels admitted to losing 8 men and claimed to have inflicted heavy casualties on the army. They also claimed to have foiled another foray towards Keerimalai from KKS army camp and another attempt by troops to come out of their outpost in the cement corporation. Clearly, that the army made little headway in Jaffna and returned to their bases.[28] The Tigers hailed this as a success but troops had achieved their objective: to keep the enemy guessing.

The real threat to the Tigers was the two main columns moving west-east in Vadamarachchi. Their initial response to this advance was to blast the bridge at Thondamanaru to delay the troops of the 1st Brigade. The troops negotiated this obstacle with the help of the engineering regiment only to run into a thickly laid minefield. Here the army got bogged down and for a while the advance seemed to hang in the balance as the Tigers fought back fiercely. The army suffered heavy casualties here, almost all of them by land mines and booby traps. The advance was so hard that on the first day the brigade managed to move only half a kilometre. However, the army managed to overcome this challenge again thanks to the army engineers and the support from artillery. When it was evident that the army had broken through the mine barrier the Tigers fell back telling the civilians to run for cover. [29]

After Thondamanaru the advance picked up, supported by naval gunfire and air and artillery support. The Tigers were evidently in a quandary. Not only were they facing a massive onslaught from ground, sea and air, they also had to divert their manpower to many places. It was a challenge they had not been used to and they were wilting under the pressure.

Their resistance however, stiffened as the troops came closer to VVT. Here the army had to capture the LTTE’s notorious “Canada Bunker” a two storied building with a wall and extensive bunker lines around it. Again, mines and booby traps hindered the advance along with fierce Tiger resistance and artillery had to be called in to batter the stronghold in to rubble and submission. It was finally taken on May 28th. [30] Thereafter the Tigers resistance petered out as they concentrated on preserving their forces without further confrontation. To the south, the Second Brigade had seen lesser action, often moving ahead of the northern column. Uduppidy had fallen to them on the  28th and Nelliady soon after, the army establishing small camps at Uduppidy Girls School and Nelliady Madhya Maha Vidyala before moving on towards their next big prize – Point Pedro.. On June 1st the army approached Point Pedro, moving cross country in three lines, breaking through fences, cutting barbed wire and scaling garden walls[31]. As they did the troops cooped up in the Point Pedro Army camp broke their shackles and ventured out to join up with their comrades.

By May 31st Vadamarachchi was declared under government control. New camps and bases were established in the captured area. Four camps were set up in Mulli, Puloly, Karaveddi and Nelliady[32]. Nearly 5000 youths between the ages of 15-35 had been rounded up and awaited transportation to the detention camp at Boosa in Galle where they were to be processed. The government claimed to have killed 156 guerrillas and wounding or capturing 437 others. Its own losses were placed at 32 killed and 204 wounded.[33]

On June 4 a limited operation was launched to capture Atchuveli. But the army withdrew from the town a few days later. Brigadier Gerry De Silva who headed the operation gave the reason for the withdrawal as the concern for civilian casualties.[34]

With the Atchuveli Operation ended the much awaited ‘offensive’. The government explained the reason for the cessation of offensive operations as due to the completion of the first phase of the operation. But the truth was that further military activity was becoming increasingly difficult due to Indian pressure. The Indian government had not been happy with the launching of the offensive which it saw as an attempt to crush the militants for good. And as news of widespread destruction in Vadamarachchi and civilian casualties began to pour in, India issued protests. When they failed to stem the military advance the Indian government sent a flotilla of fuel, food and medicines to Jaffna as a “humanitarian gesture”. The Sri Lankan navy turned the flotilla back on June 3 but the following day India retaliated by sending five Antonio transport planes with relief supplies escorted by four Mirage fighters. [35]The planes entered Sri Lankan airspace for a few minutes, dropping 25 tonnes of relief supplies. [36]The message to the Sri Lankan government was clear. The military offensive would continue only at the risk of inviting further, more direct Indian interventions.

The Indian intervention ended Operation Liberation and also the first phase of the war between the Tamil militants and the Sri Lankan security forces. It also led to the signing of the Indo Lanka accord which brought the IPKF to Sri Lanka. Under the Accord the Sri Lankan government agreed to establish provincial councils as the unit of devolution. This was the result of discussions and negotiations the government has been having with India since at least late 1985. After many frustrations the Indians had withdrawn from mediating in February 1987 9but not from cautioning Sri Lanka about the use of force in the north). The government’s offensive in Jaffna allowed them to re-enter the process and persuade the Sri Lanka government to accept their proposals based on the provincial councils model that had been discussed before. The Tigers also agreed, albeit reluctantly.

Although the Sri Lankan government never really admitted it, Operation Liberation was most likely a precursor to a wider campaign to take back control of Jaffna. The bitterness towards India’s intervention certainly arises from that understanding. However it is very doubtful whether such a wider campaign to crush the Tigers – even if one was launched – would have had a high chance of success. The failures of the campaign in Vadamarachchi suggest so.


Operation Liberation – Successes, failures and challenges

It is undeniable that, the operation placed the LTTE under immense pressure. They were forced to fight on several fronts and particularly in Vadamarachchi they were forced to take on the Sri Lankan military in open confrontation. These challenges stretched the Tigers. Despite all their bragging about being able to take the fight to the army, the Tigers did not have the resources to fight simultaneously on several fronts and they were hopelessly outgunned when the Sri Lankan military chose to unleash its firepower freely. True, the Tigers had the bulk of their heavy weapons in and around Jaffna town in anticipation of the major military thrust taking place there but the Vadamarachchi operation showed what happened when they were clearly outgunned.

As a result the Sri Lankan forces, made rapid gains against the LTTE in the Vadamarachchi sector, clearing the area in a matter of days. The LTTE’s resistance was crushed and the Tigers pushed out to other parts of Jaffna. The rebels were in disarray, bracing for the next military onslaught.

However, the security forces’ success was a hollow one to some extent. True, they had gained control over territory, killed a number of rebels and destroyed some of their material resources. However, the hard core of the guerrilla force was not in Vadamarachchi but in Valikamam with Kittu, anticipating the main thrust of the armed forces in that sector. The army did well to deceive the Tigers on this account but it also meant that the greater part of the rebel forces were left intact. Even in Vadamarachchi, the army failed to net the prize catch. Prabhakaran had slipped away through their fingers. It was later revealed that he had slipped out of the net when the troops approaching the area he was holed out in were delayed by booby traps.[37] But Prabhakaran was not the only one to escape. An army officer confided in a journalist that not only the Tiger chief but also 300 – 350 top cadres of the LTTE had made their escape largely due to the inability to seal off the coast completely, especially the long stretch of coast in Eastern Vadamarachchi.[38]

Furthermore, capture of Vadamarachchi had been achieved with considerable destruction of life and property. The civilians had been asked to take shelter in places of worship prior to the assault but this had not done much to avoid heavy casualties and damage. A Western journalist, one of the few independent observers to visit Jaffna at the time, found no evidence of “carpet bombing” as claimed by some sources close to the rebels but witnessed ”line after line of buildings beyond repair” in Velvetithurai which had borne the brunt of the government’s assault.[39] Point Pedro was in no better shape. ‘Between the army camp and the inhabited area there lies a swathe of utter destruction” observed another journalist. “The main square is littered with rubble and whole buildings have collapsed.”[40]

Residents spoke of indiscriminate bombing and strafing by aircraft. “There was no warning at all” one government servant taking refuge in a temple said. “The planes came in at 5 am and they bombed and bombed till 6 pm”[41]Another man described how several helicopters came and shot along the streets. “Three Avro transport planes dropped incendiary bombs on houses and there were five other bombers as well.”[42] According to a foreign journalist present in Jaffna at the time heavy mortars fired from the Jaffna Fort and naval gunfire caused civilian deaths and spread terror without warning. “Within hours (of the leaflet drop) the downtown area was hit by heavy mortar fire and shells from a naval gunboat. The result was panic and confusion among the civilian population – one mortar that landed near the hospital killed a 12-year-old boy. A single small piece of shrapnel had hit him in the right side of his head”.[43]

The places of worship which were designated places of refuge did not escape the shelling and bombing either. One shell landing on Mariamman temple in Alvai killed 35 people and another bomb hitting the Sivan Kovil on KKS Road claimed 17 victims.[44] Eight people including women and children were reported killed by a shell at St. James School while 7 more were reportedly killed by a bomb at the Amman Kovil at Suthumalai.[45] Reports also claimed up to 75 people being killed by shellfire at were burnt to death at Mathumari Aman temple at Alvai on May 29th.[46]

These failures of the security forces were hard to avoid. The forces simply did not have adequate resources for that. The Sri Lankan military forces had improved in terms of equipment and training since 1983 but it was still an impoverished military. In the sea the handful of vessels possessed by the navy could do little to patrol the coastline effectively and prevent rebels from escaping. On land the heavy firepower of the armoured cars, heavy artillery and RCLs were potent weapons against structures and enemy concentrations but given that the Tigers had few of these they could only pulverise indiscriminately. In the air a similar story prevailed. The Air Force had mustered an impressive array of aircraft but their potential for engaging the enemy effectively was very limited. Once again the Tigers provided very few identifiable targets and even if such targets could be identified, the  helicopter gunships, ground attack aircraft and the improvised ‘bombers’ had no means of engaging them with any precision. The helicopters were cumbersome machines that were hard to manoeuvre and the ammunition was often unreliable as to accuracy. ‘When fired at a target 200 meters away the rounds were hitting the grounds anywhere from 80 to 300 metres away and 20 meters to the left or right,” observed a British mercenary pilot with contempt[47]. Such ammunition had an equal chance of hitting the target as well as bystanders, especially in built up areas where the militants were often encountered. The rockets fired and bombs dropped by the Siai Marchettis were no more accurate. It is said that the SLAF had tried to destroy  a guerrilla camp in a crowded market area four times during April and May 1987 and had failed to hit the target each time, instead killing and wounding dozens of civilians.[48] Lalith Athulathmudali himself had admitted that the Siai Marchettis were inaccurate[49]. The ‘bombs’  dropped by the Avros included large metal 45 gallon drums filled with gelignite or sometimes flammable gas or rubber tubes. Sometimes they were also filled with explosives. Upon exploding, the flaming pieces of rubber burst out sticking to the skins of anybody unfortunate to be in the vicinity.[50] The aircraft had no means of delivering them accurately. They were simply pushed – or kicked – out of the aircraft.

This situation was further complicated by the Tigers’ possession of .50 calibre machine guns which forced the aircraft to fly at a great height.  The barrel bombs were particularly inaccurate than the rockets and the machine guns of the Siai Marchettis and helicopters. They were dropped or pushed from a height of over 3000 metres to stay out of the 2600 meter range of the Tiger five zeros and having no ballistic stability whatsoever they could hit anything within a wide radius of the target.[51] The Sivan temple was it by one of them killing a number of civilians and destroying the historic building. It was a danger not only to the foe but to friend as well. ‘If you look up you can see them twisting and turning as they fall’, said one army colonel to a journalist. ‘Sometimes we ourselves are mortally afraid of where they’re going to land’[52].

As a consequence the barrels, bullets and rockets went in all directions hitting rebel and civilian alike. Given these primitive means of carrying out air raids it would have been a miracle if civilians had not been hurt. However, what is disturbing is that many bombs and rockets seem to have fallen on the very places that were designated as safe, leading to speculation that the attacks  were deliberate. The Tigers propensity to take position near civilian centres cannot be discounted either. Throughout the siege of the Jaffna Fort they had not hesitated to attack the camp from locations surrounded by civilians. It would have come as no surprise if they had done so during the offensive. At the same time the Air Force also has had a record of indiscriminate and even wilful targeting of civilians. All this formed a deadly combination which only served to terrorise and harm the civilians.

All these factors made a thrust into Valikamam and Thenmarachchi a far more daunting prospect than overrunning Vadamarachchi. The challenges were many. In Thenmarachchi and Valikamam the main forces of the Tigers waited. They had lost part of their munitions manufacturing potential due to the loss of Vadamaracchi but they still had enough teeth to bite hard. This would have been the case even without the influx of new Indian weapons and explosives, as Kittu and his cadres had demonstrated against the feints made by the army in Jaffna during the Vadamarachchi campaign. Furthermore there was little chance of preventing Tiger cadres from slipping into the Wanni to fight another day as happened during the overrunning of Vadamarachchi.

There was also a possibility that future operations may not have the full support of the Air Force. J.R.Jayawardena revealed in 1990 that the security chiefs had informed the cabinet that an aircraft had been lost to rebel fire and if one more aircraft is lost the Air Force would refuse to fly any further missions.[53] The disappearance of the Air Force from the campaign would have had a tremendous impact on the morale of the two sides more than anything else, boosting the confidence of the Tigers and undermining that of the army which would have then had to advance without air cover.

Valikamam and Thenmarachchi were far more densely populated than Vadamarachchi and this meant brutal urban fighting where booby traps and landmines – the biggest contributor to casualties in Vadamarachchi – could pose a very serious threat. On the other hand in the heavily built up parts of Valikamam and Thenmarachchi the shells, rockets and bombs of the army and air force could cause more havoc than they did in Vadamarachchi. That could only mean one thing. Massive civilian casualties.

The army would have been prepared to absorb heavy casualties if it was in exchange for mastery over the peninsula.[54] If there was no threat of external intervention, which would have been the case if, as we assume, India had remained aloof, the government could have also ignored the civilian suffering. However, the destruction of civilian life and property posed another potential threat: the alienation of the population that could only serve to swell the ranks of the rebels. This threatened to aggravate another problem the army had to take into account – the overstretching of their resources.

At least 5,000 troops have been required to take Vadamarachchi and many more would have been required to take Valikamam and Thenmarachchi while holding Vadamarachchi. The army had in excess of 40,000 troops at the time but these numbers would have been fully stretched in the event of the occupation of the entire peninsula in the face of a population outraged by the destruction caused by the campaign and therefore, even more supportive of the rebels than they had been before the Operation. Such a situation would have been ideal for a protracted guerrilla war.  Even providing for an increase in recruitment on the back of the military success this would have been a daunting task. Athulathmudali himself later admitted that it was questionable whether they had adequate forces to dominate Jaffna town.[55]

Indeed, a guerrilla campaign was already underway even before the ink on the Indo Lanka Accord was dry. After they had recovered from the initial military onslaught, the Tigers had begun to hit back. Soon after Operation Liberation ended a landmine blew up a truck bringing released detainees back to their homes, killing ten of the detainees and 3 soldiers.[56] An officer confided in a foreign journalist that “some terrorists” had infiltrated the area.[57] The first major counter attack however, came in Jaffna town. In the small hours of June 3, an improvised armoured truck laden with explosives approached the military post at the telecommunications building adjoining the Jaffna fort. The truck was the spearhead of a devastating attack by the Tigers who are said to have numbered more than fifty. The explosion brought down much of the building killing three soldiers and wounding more than forty. The Tigers also took three prisoners, their second such haul in just over a year. Among the booty captured were one GPMG, seven Belgian made FNGs, one AK grenade launcher and over a 1000 rounds of ammunition[58].  Tigers claimed to have killed 22 soldiers, including a second lieutenant[59]. On 6th June, the Saturday review published a picture of three captives, barely out of their teens[60].

An even bigger assault was launched nearly a month later at Nelliady, in Vadamarachchi itself. The army had captured Nelliady during the first few days of Operation Libreration and had set up a camp in the Nelliady Central College. The troops were relaxed, considering the town to be cleared of Militants. That night however, the Tigers proved them wrong. Shortly after 8 pm the soldiers in the school found mortars and rockets raining on them. A massive attack spearheaded by an explosive laden truck, destroyed much of the school building, trapping many of the soldiers in the rubble. The army admitted to losing 17 killed and 30 injured although the final toll has always been suspected to be much higher. At least one Saladin armoured car was also destroyed by an RPG. The following Thursday (9th) Tigers fired mortars at Nelliady again, wounding ten more soldiers. The day after the army’s forward base at Pollykandy also came under attack, costing the life of one soldier and wounding another[61].

The situation in Vadamarachchi was so bad that on the 11th of July the army was compelled to launch an operation to flush out infiltrated militants from the Vadamarachchi area. Dubbed “Operation clean Sweep” it cost them 3 dead and 23 wounded while claiming the lives of 18 Tigers[62].  Soon after the Kurumbasiddy mini camp near Palaly airbase came under mortar attack.[63]

But perhaps the most galling response from the guerrillas came in the East. On June 2nd they stopped a vehicle transporting young Buddhist monks at Aranthalawa and killed 31 of them.[64] It was a stark reminder that if the Tigers were to be crushed, they had to be crushed in the East as well.

These factors, no doubt, involve many ‘if’s However, the point is that crushing the Tigers decisively was not as easy or straightforward as some people imagine. The military balance was in favour of the Sri Lankan military forces but not decisively so. The proponents of the thesis, “Sri Lanka could have ended the terrorist menace in 1987 if only India had not intervened’ is either ignorant of these realities or simply ignores them. The Sri Lanka military’s ‘victory’ in Vadamarachchi was incomplete and its potential for delivering a crushing blow to the Tigers was very limited. On the contrary it ran the risk of sucking the Sri Lankan security forces into a war that it was ill equipped to handle. The Indian army had been much vilified for its role in Sri Lanka, and often with good reason, but it may not be too unfair to suggest that the Jawans may have saved Sri Lankan armed forces from some serious embarrassment.

[1] Robert McDonald, “Eyewitness in Jaffna”, Pacific Defense Reporter, August, 1987, p.29. McDonald was heavily depended on by Jane’s Information Group for their assessment of the Tigers’ military capabilities in 1987.

[2] Manoj Joshi, “A Base for all Seasons: how LTTE used Tamil Nadu”, Frontline, 3-16.8.91, p.22 (21-23)

[3] According to the citizens’ Committees of the north and  that kept meticulous records of civilian deaths, 2215 civilians were killed in 1985. “Bleeding Statistics”, Saturday Review, 4.1.86. An unnamed government official was quoted saying  that the maximum number of people killed in a single attack since 1981when the first soldier was killed by the militants was around 75 or 100. ‘Don Mithuna’, “It will only be a war of attrition if they seek a Military Way Out”, Weekend, 17.11.85, p.6.

[4] For a discussion and analysis of the government’s approach to the Tamil insurgency, see Tom Marks, ‘People’s War in Sri Lanka: Insurgency and Counterinsurgency’, Issues and Studies [Taipei]22, no.8, pp.63-102, esp, pp.89-92.

[5] Brian Blodgett, Sri Lanka’s military: the search for a mission, 1949-2004, Aventine Press, Sandiego , California, 2004,  p.93.

[6] Edgar O’ballance, Cyanide War:Tamil Insurrection in Sri Lanka 1973-88, Brassey’s (UK)(London 1989), pp.52-3.

[7] Sri Lanka Army, 50 Years On, Sri Lanka Army, 1999, P.393.

[8] Tom Marks, Counter Insurgency in Sri Lanka, Asia’s Dirty Little War, Soldier of Fortune, Feb. 1987, p.42, Blodgett, Sri Lanka’s Military, pp.92-3. Marks spent several days with the Sri Lanka Light Infantry in Muttur in 1986.

[9] Dilip Robb, ‘The Siege Within’, India Today, 15.6.86, pp.121-2, Sri Lanka Situation Report, published by the Tamil Information and Research Unit (TIRU), Besant Nagar, Madras, India, issue no. 14 1. 7. 86,pp. 4-5, Mervyn de Silva, “Operation Turnaround or Turnabout?”, Lanka Guardian p. 3 (3 & 6), O’Ballance, Cyanide War, p. 16.

[10] Mendis, Assignment Peace, pp. 50-52.

[11] Satruday Review, 24. 05. 86, p. 8.

[12] Tim Smith, Reluctant Mercenary: reflections of a British Ex-Army Helicopter Pilot in the Anti-Terrorist War in Sri Lanka, The Book Guild Ltd., Sussex, 202,  pp. 146-7.

[13] “Security Forces secure large Areas”, Sunday Observer, 15. 02. 87, p.1, Mendis, Assignment Peace, pp.57-8.

[14] O’Ballance, Cyanide War, p.73-5, Iqbal Athas,  “Operation Giant Step”, Weekend, 22.2.87, p.7.

[15] William de Alwis and Srimal Abeywardene, “Eleven Killed by Bomb in CTO”, Ceylon Daily News,

[16]Amal Jayasinghe and Sarath Malalasekera, “Terrorist Blast kills nine at Cold Stores”, Ceylon Daily News, 30. 5. 86,

[17] H.W.Abeypala, ‘Black Saturday’s Slaughter House’, Weekend, 15.02.87, p.6 and 11.

[18] Elmo Perera, ‘Bloodlust of the brutal Tigers’, Weekend, 20.03 1987, P.8 and 21.

[19] “They must be defeated! Jayawardena lambasts Tamil rebels and India”, Time, 11.5.87

[20] ‘The Generals lay a trap’, Asiaweek, 14.6.87, p.22

[21] “The Army will stay on”, (Lalith’s interview with India Today’s Dilip Bob and  S.V.Venkatramani), Lanka Guardian, 1.7.87, p. 9.

[22] “The Army will stay on”, (Lalith’s interview with India Today’s Dilip Bob and  S.V.Venkatramani), Lanka Guardian, 1.7.87, p. 9 (9-10).

[23] Rajan Hoole et al (eds),  Broken Palmyrah, Sri Lanka Studies Institute, Claremont, California 1988, p.125.

[24] ‘Killed in Action’, Saturday Review, 23.5.87, p.1.

[25] Jagath P. Senaratne, Sri Lanka Airforce: a Historical Retrospect 1985-1997t, Sri Lanka Air Force, 1998, P.79.

[26] Iqbal Athas, Athas, “The Vadamarachchi Landing”, Weekend, May31, 1987. P. 6, O’Ballance, Cyanide War, p.82.

[27] Athas, “The Vadamarachchi Landing”, Weekend, May31, 1987. P. 6.

[28] ‘R.C’., “Al Quiet on the Northern Front”, Saturday Review,30.5.87, p.4.

[29] ‘Vadamarachchi Operation: The Missing Generation”, Saturday Review, 20. 6. 87, p. 3 (3,4, & 9).

[30] L.M.H. Mendis, Assignment Peace in the Name of the Motherland, Self-Published, Colombo 2009, p.67.

[31] “The Missing Generation”, p.4.

[32] Iqbal Athas, ‘The Plot that Failed at the Airbase”, Weekend, 21. 06. 87.

[33] ‘The Generals lay a trap’, Asiaweek, 14.6.87, p.21.

[34] Derek Brown, “Jaffna Reality – Two Strange Forms”, The Guardian, 15.6.87, reproduced in the Saturday Review, 11.7.87., p.4.

[35] In an interview with Asiaweek, only days after the Indian intervention Lalith Athulathmudlai had denied that there was even a major offensive. What took place in Vadamarachchi was, in his opinion, merely a signal to the Tigers that they have no military options’. ‘Showdown in Jaffna’, Asiaweek, 14.6.87, p.16.

[36] ‘Showdown in Jaffna’, Asiaweek, 14.6.87, p.16.

[37] Broken Palmyrah, p.125.

[38] Qadri Ismail, “Military Option and its Aftermath, “Sunday Times, 7.6.87, p.5.

[39] John Elliott, Battle for Tamil Hearts, Minds and Stomachs”, Financial Times, 6.6.87, reproduced in Lanka Guardian, 15.6.87, p.8 (8 and 11)

[40] Derek Brown, “Jaffna Reality – Two Strange Forms”, The Guardian, 15.6.87, reproduced in the Saturday Review, 11.7.87., p.4. Despite witnessing any scenes of civilian carnage in and around Jaffna, Robert McDonald also thought the claims of massive civilian casualties somewhat exaggerated. He placed the probable number of civilian deaths at around  400. However, McDonald was in Valikamam, not in Vadamarachchi where the main action took place. McDonald, ‘Eye Witness in Jaffna’, p.28.

[41] John Elliott, Battle for Tamil Hearts, Minds and Stomachs”, Financial Times, 6.6.87, reproduced in Lanka Guardian, 15.6.87, p.8 (8 and 11)

John Elliott, Battle for Tamil Hearts, Minds and Stomachs”, Financial Times, 6.6.87, reproduced in Lanka Guardian, 15.6.87, p.8 (8 and 11)

[42] John Elliott, Battle for Tamil Hearts, Minds and Stomachs”, Financial Times, 6.6.87, reproduced in Lanka Guardian, 15.6.87, p.8 (8 and 11)

[43]  McDonald, “Eye Witness in Jaffna”,  p.27.

[44] Broken Palmyrah, pp.127-8.

[45] “Operation Blue Star”, Saturday Review, 30.5.87,p.1.

[46] “The Day of the lions (Jackals?)”, Saturday Review, 6.6.87, p.2., Vadamarachchi Operation, The Missing Generation”, Saturday Review, 20.6.87, p.3.

[47] Smith, Reluctant Mercenary, p.68.

[48] Broken Palmyrah, p.106

[49] Michael Hamlyn, ‘Tamils step up attacks on Sinhalese Villagers: the Communal Conflict in Sri Lanka’, The Times, 11.3.86.

[50] Thomas Abraham, ‘Pounding Jaffna’, Frontline, 2-15.3.91, p.56 (56-57)

[51]  McDonald, “Eyewitness in Jaffna”, 1987, p.26.

[52] Julian West, “Passage to Jaffna”, Asiaweek, 8. 3. 1991, reproduced in Even though West was writing in 1991 during Ealam War II, the above observations are valid for Ealam War I as well, considering that the same technology was being used.

[53] ‘J.R.breaks his Silence: I feared a Military Coup in’87’, interview with Vijitha Yapa in Sunday Times, 11.2.90, pp.14-15. Jayawardena says the threat was made after an air craft had been shot down but to the best of my knowledge this is not confirmed. As generally accepted the first air craft lost in the war was Siai Marchetti that crashed into the Jaffna lagoon during the operation to break the Tigers’ siege on Jaffna in August-September 1990.

[54] According to General Cyril Ranatunge, Lalith Athulathmudali had asked him to raze Velvetithurai and the surrounding area to the ground. He had even offered bulldozers for the job. ‘Operation Liberation One’, Sunday Times,  28.6.09, , Rohan Guneratna claims President Jayawardena wished for something even more sinister: ‘I told the Generals to raze Jaffna to the ground, to burn the town and then rebuild it’, quoted in Rohan Guneratna, Indian Intervention  in Sri Lanka, South Asian Network on Conflict Research, Colombo, 193, p. 176. All this was before the Indian intervention, at a time when the government believed it could get away with a major offensive.

[55] Rohan Guneratna, Indian Intervention, p.178.

[56] Iqbal Athas, “The Post Vadamarachchi Crisis”, Weekend, 14.6.87,.

[57] Derek Brown, “Jaffna Reality – Two Strange Forms”, The Guardian, 15.6.87, reproduced in the Saturday Review, 11.7.87., p.4.

[58] Iqbal Athas, “How Operation Jellyfish Stung India’s Flotilla at the Kutch”, Weekend, 7. 6. 87, p.23)

[59] “Telecom soldiers charred”, Saturday Review, 6.6.87, p.8.

[60] Saturday Review, 6.6.87, p.1. Pictures appeared under the caption: ‘Cannon Fodder’.

[61] Iqbal Athas, “Tigers Explode Peace a Nelliady”, Weekend, 12. 07. 87, p.6 (6 &11).

[62] Iqbal Athas, “The ‘Day After’ Mood Plagues Jaffna”, Weekend, 19. 07. 87, p. 6 (6 & 19)

[63] Iqbal Athas, “Island Pride and Prejudice”, Weekend, 24.7.87, p.6.

[64] O’Ballance, Cyanide War, P.84.


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