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Home > Tamils - a Nation without a State > Struggle for Tamil Eelam > Tamil Armed Resistance > Reports of Armed Conflict > LTTE attacks major Sri Lankan Army & Naval Base at Pooneryn
Reports on Armed Conflict in Tamil Eelam
LTTE attacks major Sri Lankan Army & Naval Base at Pooneryn
11 November 1999
The Liberation Tigers launched a surprise pre emptive attack on the large Sri Lankan Army and naval base at Pooneryn in the North, on 11 November. The camp controlled the southern shore of the Jaffna lagoon and was intended to prevent the Liberation Tigers from using the lagoon to supply the peninsula.
John Rettie reporting in the London based Guardian on 12 November said that the ‘‘onslaught took the armed forces completely by surprise’’ and that ‘‘possibly as many as 500 Sinhalese soldiers and sailors have died.’’ The report added: ‘‘The attack began before daybreak on 11 November when heavily armed Tigers fell upon the base, raking the skies with anti aircraft fire to prevent the use of helicopter gunships. When dawn broke, they had overrun large parts of the base. Some army units held out in bunkers along the sandy shore. Several hundred men were reported to have been evacuated. The Tigers captured several naval gunboats, heavy mortars and two tanks though one was later destroyed in an air attack - and large quantities of other arms and ammunition. General Denzil Kobbekaduwa, the (Sri Lanka) army’s most popular and efficient commander for years was killed in a Tiger bomb attack last year. Since then morale has been low...
The present commander, General Cecil Waidyaratne, earned his medals during the suppression of the JVP.. But the JVP never had the weaponry, discipline or training of the Tamil Tigers and it was crushed more by a reign of terror than a military operation. The military has recently moved large numbers of troops to the east of the island, denuding the north. ’’
Informed sources say that the decision to move troops to the East was connected with the intention of the Government to demonstrate that elections could be held in the East in January next year. The LTTE attack on Pooneryn follows upon its attack on Sri Lanka’s large Janakupura Camp in the East on 23 July when the Sri Lanka Army lost more than Rs.70 million worth of ammunition and arms to the Liberation Tigers. In each instance, the Liberation Tigers withdrew after the successful completion of the attack. The LTTE attack on Pooneryn came a month after Sri Lanka Army’s Kilali misadventure in early October when Sri Lanka lost around 120 dead and 200 wounded in an abortive offensive grandiosely codenamed ‘Operation Yal Devi’.
Sinhala Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe told the Sri Lanka Parliament in late November that the Army Commander had appointed a Court of Inquiry comprising four army officers into the LTTE attack on the Pooneryn Army and Naval Base on November 11.Around 1000 Sinhala troops died in the surprise pre emptive strike by the Liberation Tigers.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe’s announcement came in the wake of Defence Secretary, General Hamilton Wanasinghe’s statement that the ‘army had adequate warning that the LTTE was about to attack Pooneryn’. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe said that the Court of Inquiry was expected to report on the circumstances leading to the attack and the losses suffered by the security forces. He said that the Court of Inquiry would reveal whether the LTTE succeeded in infiltrating the defences several hours before the main attack commenced which, if so, would mean that there were several large gaps in the defences not covered by the sentries.
He said: ‘‘On November 11, around 0200 hours, the LTTE launched a massive attack from land and the lagoon simultaneously engaging the Nagathevanthurai naval base and the army defence lines in Pooneryn. It is now believed that prior to the attack, the LTTE had managed to infiltrate a group through the Forward Defence Lines (FDLs), who had overrun the gun positions and the armour positions. As a result of the attack, the Nagathevanthurai naval base was overrun and all craft were destroyed or taken over by the LTTE.’’
‘‘The (LTTE) attack continued during the day hours of November 11 and the airforce carried out continuous sorties to detect and destroy the enemy. Several attempts made to land helicopters to rescue casualties had to be abandoned due to (LTTE) fire. On the same day, the service commanders proceeded to Palaly, assessed the ground situation and decided to send in reinforcements by sea as the situation did not permit any air landings. The objective was to rescue the casualties and reinforce the defences of Pooneryn. On November 12, attempts made to induct two infantry companies to secure a beachhead on the Western coast near Kalmunai Point were unsuccessful due to heavy (LTTE) resistance.’’
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe said that when Sri Lankan Army eventually airlifted troops on November 13 and November 14, ‘‘the LTTE did not offer any major resistance to the advancing troops.’’
The announcement of a Court of Inquiry follows upon criticisms in the Sinhala owned press in Colombo. Sharminda Ferdinando reporting in the Sinhala owned Sri Lanka Sunday Island on 21 November on interviews with the survivors of the Pooneryn attack said:
‘‘Some survivors, including officers said that the Pooneryn defenders were without enough ammunition... A large number of new recruits had been stationed at Pooneryn and that resulted in the quick crumbling of the defences.. They said that both political and defence chiefs must know what they are doing. ‘‘This is not a game’’ one said.. They said that they were not prepared to fight anymore without the necessary leadership and political will. Most of the wounded claimed that they miss war veterans like Brigadier Wijaya Wimalaratne and Major General Kobbekaduwa. Survivors also said that some responsible authority must inquire into the set backs suffered by the security forces and immediately punish those responsible. They said that no one responsible for the Janakapura debacle in July this year had faced any tough disciplinary action.’’
Meanwhile, it is reported that Sri Lanka’s Defence Chiefs are ‘currently discussing how best they could intercept and destroy LTTE boat convoys operating across the Jaffna lagoon after the Nagathevanthurai base, mainly responsible for lagoon operations, was destroyed in the recent Pooneryn attack. During the attack, the Sea Tigers also removed two 30 feet long inshore patrol craft based at Nagathevanthurai. Three other patrol vessels (same type) were destroyed. (Network, December 1993)
The Report of the Court of Inquiry into the Pooneryn debacle has served to expose the rifts within the hierarchy of the Sri Lankan Armed forces as well as its low morale and lack of training.
The Court of Inquiry was appointed by the previous Commander of the Army, General Cecil Waidyaratne whose command ended on 31 December 1993. The Inquiry Report which was made on January 5 was not handed over to the new Commander Lt.General Gerry de Silva but to General Waidyaratne who had retired by that time. What is more, the contents of the Report were leaked to the Press even before the new Commander had accepted the findings in the Report.
The Sinhala owned Sri Lanka Sunday Times commented on 16 January: ‘‘Reportedly Lt.Gen. Gerry de Silva kept his cool in spite of the inexplicable conduct of the Court of Inquiry, all members of which are serving officers of the Army. Not only was the new Army Commander unaware about this episode but the Ministry of Defence was also equally in the dark until both establishments read the Sunday Times of January 9 which exclusively reported the matter... Reports that some officers were responsible for the Pooneryn disaster... caused other repercussions. One of the wives of an officer (referred to in the Report) was abused and threatened with bodily harm by the families and kith and kin of soldiers who had lost their lives at Pooneryn.’’
In Pooneryn, in the dark, Sri Lanka troops did not know who was friend or foe
The Report named the following officers as responsible for the defeat at Pooneryn: Maj Gen Rohan Daluwatte, Brig Jaliya Mamuni, Brig.L.P.Balagule, Brig.G.P.Kulatunga, Col.T.T.R. de Silva, Brig. Shantha Kottegoda, Lt.Col.S.W.L. Daulagala. The Sinhala owned Sri Lanka Sunday Island reported on 16 January 1994: ‘‘The report states that the (Pooneryn) attack had begun at 1.30 a.m. on the 11th of November and within around 15 minutes the whole command structure had broken down and there were no platoons, companies or battalions. There were only men and officers running around in confusion. The troops did not know who was friend or foe. There was no way of identifying anyone in the dark as no pass word system had been put in place. The LTTE had used white arm bands to identify themselves and they also used green torchlights and yellow flags during daytime. By 6 a.m. on the 11th, the forward defence lines had fallen... ’’
Sri Lanka troops fought only for their survival - and in fear
‘‘The Court was of the view that around 400 LTTE infiltrators would have entered the camp through undefended lines before the attack. The report notes that Tamil villagers who were living as refugees within the defence lines also had provided a base for infiltrators... the T55 battle tanks were the first to fall into the hands of the enemy.. The tanks had been abandoned without offering any resistance. The tank troops had lost even their personal weapons in the melee with a tank troop leader losing even his radio set. The Court of Inquiry found that with the first assault, the troops had dispersed in confusion, small informal groups were formed. These broke up into even smaller groups as the attack continued and ultimately it had been every man for himself.
The troops had fought only for survival and a distinct lack of motivation... and a fear of the enemy was detected. According to the Court of Inquiry, troops which had got detached from command.. had been firing into the night more out of fear than at any target. Thereby ammunition had been exhausted... The day immediately after the attack the LTTE went about the defences of Pooneryn camp attending to their casualties.... In his statement to the Court of Inquiry, Maj. General Daluwatte had charged that fire battalion had been withdrawn from Pooneryn and sent to the East to boost the Eastern Commander. According to sources this decision was made by the Secretary, Defence in the preparation made for holding elections in the East...Radio contact broke down during the attack due to lack of serviceable batteries.’’ (Network January 1994)