|Part of the Sri Lankan civil war, Eelam War I|
|Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam|
|Commanders and leaders|
G. H. De Silva,
|Casualties and losses|
|33 killed, 182 wounded||631 killed|
Operation Liberation also known as the Vadamarachchi Operation was the military offensive carried out by the Sri Lankan Armed Forces in May and June 1987 to recapture the territory of Vadamarachchi in the Jaffna peninsula from the LTTE (Tamil Tigers). At the time it was the largest combined services operation undertaken by the armed forces deploying multiple brigade size formation, becoming the first conventional warfare engagement on Sri Lankan soil after the end of British colonial rule. The operation involved nearly 8,000 troops, supported by ground-attack aircraft, helicopter gunships and naval gun boats. The offensive achieved its primary objective, however operations were suspended when the Indian government dropped food supplies over Jaffna in Operation Poomalai on June 4, 1987, which prompted the Sri Lankan government to accept the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord.
Following the on set of the Sri Lankan Civil War formally marked by the ambush of the Sri Lanka Army patrol Four Four Bravo on 23 July 1983, the conflict escalated in the northern and eastern parts of the island. By 1987, the Army found itself restricted to its fortified bases in the Palaly, Point Pedro and the old Dutch fort of Jaffna. The LTTE which had become the dominate Tamil militant group, had established road blocks and pill boxes around these bases preventing any movements out of the bases. This enabled the LTTE a free hand in much of the Jaffna peninsula, reducing the Sri Lankan government's control over this area. In February 1987 the military launched Operation Giant Step with the objective expanding and clearing area around major encampments in Jaffna, Mannar, Kilinochchi, Trincomalee and Batticaloa districts as had been the case with the previous operations Short Shift 1 and 2.
In early 1987, the Sri Lankan military formulated a plan to restore government control over the area dominated by the LTTE. This planned called for the use of a large number of troops using conventional warfare tactics to breakout from the encircled military bases, destroying the LTTE and capturing the land control by them in the Jaffna peninsula, with the aim of bringing the war to a military conclusion. The plan was approved by Sri Lankan President J. R. Jayewardene and detailed operational planning started by the Joint Operations Command headed by General Cyril Ranatunga, which handled coordination with the armed services, police and the military intelligence headed by Colonel Lionel Balagalle. Build up of men and martial in the operational bases go underway and diversionary operations took up inform of air traffic and troop movements to confuse the LTTE carders observing the army bases closely. The Minister of National Security, Lalith Athulathmudali was notified of the planned operation shortly before it started.
The army planned to deploy three brigades. The 1st Brigade under the command of Colonel Vijaya Wimalaratne, consisted of the 1st Gemunu Watch (commanded by Lieutenant Colonels V.S. Boteju and Wasantha Perera) and the 1st Gajaba Battalion (commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Sathis Jayasundara and Major Gotabaya Rajapaksa); and the 3rd Brigade under the command of Brigadier Denzil Kobbekaduwa, consisted of the 3rd Sri Lanka Light Infantry (commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Naradha Wickramarathne and Major Sarath Fonseka) and the 3rd Gajaba Battalion was tasked with the main push into the Vadamarachchi with elements of engineering units attached. Each brigade had 1500-2000 troops. The 1st Brigade was to move east along the coast from Thondamanaru, while 3rd Brigade moved 8 miles south parallel to the 1st Brigade protecting its flank. A group of commandos were to be landed by helicopter in the south, south-west and the east coast of Vadamarachchi to prevent militants from escaping. The 2nd Brigade under the command of Brigadier G. H. De Silva, who was also the overall commander; was tasked with diversionary action with forays from the besieged bases in Valikamam and the Jaffna fort, along with another column advancing from the south from Elephant Pass. Supporting the infantry, the army deployed the full strengths of its armored corp which included Ferret, Alvis Saladin armoured cars and Alvis Saracen APCs, along with 76 mm mountain guns, 85 mm Type 60 and 25 pounder field guns of the Sri Lanka Artillery along with 120mm heavy mortars. The Sri Lanka Air Force mustered six SIAI-Marchetti in ground attack role, two Bell 212 helicopters in gunship role and one Hawker Siddeley HS 748, two Harbin Y-12s, one de Havilland Heron as improvised bombers. Two Hawker Siddeley HS 748, two Harbin Y-12s and one de Havilland DH.104 Dove was deployed as transports along with eight helicopters of Bell 212 and Bell 412 type. One Harbin Y-12 was dedicated for casualty evacuation as medical evacuation received high priority. This was the largest assembling of aircraft for any operation so far. The Sri Lanka Navy deployed its Shanghai class fast gun boats for naval bombardment and an array of smaller boats for coastal operations enforcing an exclusion zone around the coast of Vadamarachchi.
On Good Friday, 17 April 1987, the LTTE carried out the Aluth Oya massacre, killing 127 civilians, including children and women. This was followed four days later by blasted a massive car bomb near the central bus stand in Pettah, Colombo which resulted in 113 deaths of civilians.
The army began probing attacks days prior to the main operation, while air attacks targeted militants in Valikamam following the Pettah bomb blast. On 18 May the army made several forays from its camps in Palai, Thondamanaru, Kurumbasiddy, Kattuvan and Navatkiuli. In one of these forays the army killed the LTTE Jaffna District leader Anthony Kaththiar (alias Radha) who had carried out the Anuradhapura massacre.
The offensive started in the morning of 26 May 1987, with air force helicopters dropping sticks of special forces across the lagoon to block exit points from Vadamarachchi which the militants may try to take. The dug-in awaiting the progress of the main operation. Another batch of commandos were dropped on the beach around Manalkadu to prevent any escape to the sea where the navy had deployed its gun boards. At first light air force plans dropping leaflets advising the civilian population to take shelter in designated safe zones and a dusk to dawn curfew was enforced across the peninsula. An hour later, the air force began attacks with its ground attack air crafts and bombers.
At 8:30 am 1st Brigade and 3rd Brigade began its move to the designated objectives against heavy opposition, with the cover of artillery, mortar and naval fire support. At the same time diversionary action was undertaken by the 2nd Brigade Group. It was difficult for the troops to break out from the Thondamanaru area because LTTE forces blew up the Thondamanaru bridge months ago to delay the government forces from reaching Valvettithurai, the birthplace of LTTE leader V. Prabhakaran. The infantry waded across the lagoon while the engineers prepared an alternative crossing for the armor. The eastern side of Thondamanaru was heavily mined by the LTTE, the advance company under Captain Bahar Morseth took the brunt with the lead platoon losing 90% of its men in the first half hour. The command vehicle of the 1st Gajaba Battalion was blown up by a land mine, but the battalion commander was on foot. Clearing of the mines and booby traps were left to a 2nd Field Engineer Squadron of the Sri Lanka Engineers commanded by Major Lucky Rajasinghe. The first day of the battle depended mainly on the field engineer squadron, as sappers neutralized and removed mines and booby traps left by LTTE carders under constant fire. They lost 42 men in four hours and its commanding officer Major Rajasinghe was wounded. The militants had set up clusters of mines connected to each other, tripping one set off a series, with one killing eight sappers. The sappers cleared a path across the minefield under fire from LTTE bunkers allowing the 1 Gajaba Regiment to move forward by afternoon.
2nd Brigade had by now become active with forays from the camps in Valikamam and Jaffna fort with two groups of commandos were landed from the sea. To the south a force advanced from Elephant Pass up to Iyakachchi and then to Sornampattu with the objective of reaching Chempionpattu to seal off the southern part of Vadamarachchi which it archived. The foray from the Jaffna fort was turned back after heavy resistance from the militants lead by the LTTE Jaffna commander Kittu.
Following Thondamanaru the army progress gathered pace, the LTTE withdrew but the army units faced threats from landmines and many booby traps setup by the militants in anticipation of an attack by the army. Many houses were rigged to blow when attempting to enter. One such rigged house explosion nearly killed Brigadier Kobbekaduwa. Reaching the coast, troops from the 1st Brigade defeating the defensive line commanded by the LTTE leader Soosai made a 90 degree turn undertaking a pincer movement to capture Valvettithurai. This resulted in a friendly fire incident that claimed the life of Captain Shantha Wijesinghe, who had gained fame two years prior in successfully defending the Kokilai army camp in the first militant attack on an army encampment. The navy attempted a landing in the coast of Valvettithurai with limited successes. A bridge head was established but could not be expanded due to heavy resistance with the use of technicals mounting .50 caliber machine guns and 40mm grenade launchers. On 28 May managed to capture Udupiddy and Valvettithurai. The troops found bunkers in the town with strong concrete walls that withstood 37mm shells of the gunboats as well as a militant training camp and a workshop that manufactured mortars called "baba". Another column (commandos, under the command of Major Sarath Handapangoda) captured Nelliady and advanced towards Point Pedro without giving LTTE units time to regroup, with troops from Point Pedro breaking out to linkup with the advancing formations. Following capture of Valvettithurai, militant resistance melted. By the first week of June the government forces managed to gain control over the entire zone and captured large amounts of arms left behind by retreating LTTE forces. Military intelligence discovered that LTTE leader Prabakaran, along with then Vadamarachchi leader Soosai, narrowly escaped from advancing troops. By 31 May, the government declared that the Vadamarachchi region had been recaptured and several army camps were established.
Phase two and Indian intervention
With the success of objective of the phase one achieved, the second stage of this operation was launched on June 3, 1987, with trust towards Achchuveli with the goal of capturing the city of Jaffna, less than 20 km away. Iddaikadu was captured and the militants fell back to Achchuveli Maha Vidyalayam making a stand. The advance was halted here, Captain Navaratne was hit by a rifle grenade. Mortar fire from Thondamanaru broke the resistance and the troops captured Achchuveli. The pressure from the Indian government mounted.
The Indian government cracked down on the LTTE operations in India in November 1986, but had instructed the Sri Lankan government not to carryout any major offensives against the LTTE. At the start of the second phase, Sri Lankan signals listening posts intercepted LTTE communications urgently requesting their carders in Tamil Nadu to take matter of saving them form complete destruction to the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. On pressure from the state government of Tamil Nadu, the Indian government demanded the halt of the offensive claiming to end the suffering of the civilian population. President Jayewardene and Minister Athulathmudali were furious as they saw this as an direct intervention by India in the internal matters of Sri Lanka and a strong protest was lodged to the Indian High Commissioner in Colombo. The Indian government supported a flotilla of boats that sailed from Tamil Nadu, claiming to bring relief supplies. The Sri Lankan Navy intercepted the flotilla within Sri Lankan territorial waters. After the navy threatened to open fire if the boats crossed into Sri Lankan territorial waters, the flotilla turned back. The Indian government responded by sending five An-32s of the Paratroop Training School escorted by Mirage 2000s of the No. 7 Squadron armed with Matra Magic II AAMs with the threat of "would be met by force" if opposed by the Sri Lanka Air Force; dropped 22 tons of humanitarian relief supplies in the Jaffna area on June 4 in Operation Poomalai, in what was claimed as an violation of territorial sovereignty by Sri Lanka.
With the prospect of Indian intervention made clear by Operation Poomalai, President Jayewardene ordered a halt to the offensive and the second phase of the operation was abandoned. Indian forces landed in Sri Lanka on July 29 with the signing of the Indo-Sri-Lankan accord.
Moral of troops was at is peak with the success of the first phase and capture of the Vadamarachchi region. The abrupt halt to the second phase of the operation, drastically effected moral of the troops involved, as the military and many in Sri Lanka believed victory was certain with the capture of Jaffna and the LTTE leadership that was trapped. Which was prevented by India with its intervention and show of force. Following the Indo-Sri-Lankan accord, the Indian Peace Keeping Force arrived in the island to keep the peace and the Sri Lankan Army withdrawn to its camps in Jaffna. This initiated the 1987–1989 JVP insurrection in the south inform of a low intensity conflict with many targeted assassinations, resulting in the redeployment of army units to the south of the country.
The military had sustained the heaviest number of casualties suffered so far in a single operation undertaken by it with 33 killed and 182 wounded. The government issued the Vadamarachchi Operation Medal for all those who participated in the offensive. Gerry De Silva and Lionel Balagalle went on to serve as the Commander of the Sri Lankan Army. Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Vijaya Wimalaratne who gained fame in the offensive as its field commanders, went on to lead several more successful offensives until both were killed on August 8, 1992, while making preparations for an operation to re-capture the Jaffna Peninsula. Some of the senior officers participated in the offensive remained in the army while, others left the army disillusioned by the Indo-Sri-Lankan accord. Two officers who served as field officers in the operation, Sarath Fonseka and Gotabaya Rajapaksa would play a major role as the Commander of the Sri Lankan Army and Defence Secretary in the later stages of the civil war in which the LTTE was completely defeated militarily. The Jaffna peninsula itself was completely captured in the successful Operation Riviresa in 1996.
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- Official websites
- The role of the air force during Operation Liberation
- Ministry of Defence, Sri Lanka
- Government of Sri Lanka Peace Secretariat
- LTTE Peace Secretariat
- Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission
- Independent reports and texts
- Texts of key agreements in the peace process and an analysis of the process by Conciliation Resources
- Report on the Sri Lankan peace process by Asiafoundation
- hWeb - Sri Lanka’s recent history of ethnic conflict and political crisis originates from its colonial legacy