Monday, October 08, 2007

The Special Forces Brigade

On 25th August 2007, a group of solemn faces entered the 1st Regiment Headquarters of the Sri Lanka Army’s Special Forces at Naula, situated in beautiful Matale District in the Central Province. They included the Army Commander Lt. Gen Sarath Fonseka and the Colonel Commandant of the Special Forces and the Security Forced Commander Jaffna Maj. Gen. G.A. Chandrasiri. The occasion was the annual commemoration of the fallen heroes of the Special Forces. The Special Forces, which began as a Combat Tracker Team of just two officers and 38 men, has grown into three regiments since its first Training School was established fifteen years ago. Since then the Special Forces have contributed to the Security Forces more than any other unit imaginable.

Amongst the most notable of fallen heroes of this fighting formation was Col A.F. Lafir PWV RWP RSP (posthumous), who was the commanding officer of a unit of Special Forces that infiltrated Alampil in the Mulaithivu District in July 1996. Colonel Lafir and his Special Forces unit that landed at Alampil had all volunteered for the mission. Little did they know that the LTTE had overrun almost the entire Mulaithivu base and were ready in unusually large numbers. Colonel Lafir and his men fought their way in but were surrounded, ambushed, shelled and bogged-down by LTTE automatic fire. Colonel Lafir, in true Special Forces style was determined, dared (SF Motto: Determined, Dared and Done) and took every effort to complete his mission to the very end. Unfortunately, this was not the best day for the Army’s Special Forces and the unit lost many men and their CO, Colonel Lafir. But by the time of Colonel Lafir’s untimely death, the Special Forces had progressed from a Combat Tracker Team to an elite unit with three separate regiments specializing in Rapid Deployment operations (RDF-1SF) counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism warfare, reconnaissance and battle space preparation in the medium and deep battle-space and Jungle warfare.

The 2nd Regiment of the Special Forces was raised in 1994 with a focus on amphibious assault, Under-water Demolition (UDT) and sea-borne infiltration (water to land/air or land to water/air) reconnaissance missions. In 1996, the 3rd Regiment of the Special Forces was raised. This unit performs some of the Army’s most secretive of missions in medium and deep battle-space environments. The Alpha Squad of the 3SF is dreaded by the LTTE. Coupled with Military Intelligence, these units infiltrate LTTE areas and carry-out ambushes, offensive raids and sabotage missions.

The kill-ratio for the Alpha Unit is 1-400 (400 LTTE Killed for one SF soldier killed). Only on a very rare occasion have these troops been sighted and ambushed. Even when ambushed many troopers often return to base safely after spending as many as ten days inside the deep jungle, either on their own or as small teams. These extraordinary missions are conducted despite the deployment of the LTTE’s elite troops along the border. The LTTE has also deployed large numbers of its civilian forces, sometimes numbering in their hundreds to hunt a single team. Thanks to hide-and-conceal tactics and superior survival skills imparted to them in their specialized training, these soldiers operating in the deep battle-space have remained an effective and reusable force for the Army. DefenceWire has discussed other details of this unit in this same site. More details will be provided without jeopardizing the safety of these men and national security in months to come.

The Special Forces are also renowned for their ability to generate military break-throughs. In the fight to capture Vakarai a 40-man amphibious assault-team was used to break the LTTE’s determined forces that had dug-in for a conventional war with the Army. Prior to this exercise the Special Forces carried-out several ambushes and offensive raids inside Vakarai. One such operation resulted in the death of ‘Lt. Col’ Arivu, the Military-in-charge for the LTTE in Vakarai. The LTTE became demoralized and were outmaneuvered and outwitted when the Army switched to unconventional warfare using the Special Forces. Similar ‘softening-up’ operations are now continuing in the Vanni region.

The greatest possible threat to this unit has come from Sri Lankan politicians who have attempted in the past to engage in conventional warfare against the LTTE based on a political agenda. The results have been devastating for the Special Forces, with the two-thousand-man Brigade depleting to a few hundred during conventional operations against the LTTE’s Ceaseless-Waves in the Vanni. A similar blunder may have been averted when Colonel Prasanna Silva, the former Commander of the Special Forces refused to send his men into the Northern theatre of operation to meet a political deadline soon after the Vakarai and Thoppigala battles. He argued for precious time for planning an operation and for his men to recuperate from the battle-fatigue they had faced due to continued deployment in the Northern and Eastern theatres of war. Colonel Silva almost resigned from the Army after the dispute became an open conflict in the Army and the media gave wide publicity to the issue. Subsequently the Defence Secretary and also President Mahinda Rajapakse intervene directly to resolve the issue.

Another invisible threat is looming in the horizon for the Special Forces. This comes in the wake of government plans to expand the Home Guard force. On 27th August 2007, the first batch of Home Guards with specialized infantry training passed-out from the Galkiriyagama Combat Training School. The youth enlisting in the Home-Guards are from the North, North Central, North Western or North Eastern Provinces. This has traditionally been the base for Special Forces recruitment. The difficult terrain in these areas has conditioned many a man, and these men, in turn, have enriched the ranks of the Special Forces. It is doubtful whether this trend would continue as men get diverted from joining the Special Forces and instead get enlisted in the Home Guard Force. Although the services of the Home Guards needs to be upgraded, it should not be at the expense of the Army.


A Win in Vilattikulam

The Sri Lanka Army made several attacks inside LTTE controlled areas in Vavuniya and Mannar on the 3rd, 4th and 6th of October (this month). Independent sources claim that around 40 LTTE may have been killed in the attacks. The first strike was launched by around 400 troops, backed by Special Forces in the general area Vilattikulam.

In a move unexpected by the LTTE, the Army moved around 400 troops in a covert operation into Vilattikulam in Vavunia. The usual artillery and mortar barrages that signal the coming of such troops was avoided. Strict radio silence was also maintained. Troops engaged in the offensive on the 3rd bypassed LTTE bunker-lines and came upon 2 double cabs and 1 tractor. The three vehicles were transporting over thirty LTTE cadres which were attacked successfully killing the majority of them. On the 4th, another tractor full of LTTE cadres was ambushed. By this time, around six LTTE bunkers were also surrounded by troops. The army managed to completely neutralize the enemy manning the bunkers.

Special Forces units hiding along roads in Vilattikulam successfully attacked reinforcements. By 3rd afternoon, monitored radio communications indicated that 19 LTTE were killed. By 4th evening, the figure had risen to around twice that amount. 5 valiant soldiers sacrificed their lives in the offensive. On 6th morning, troops again infiltrated the general area Uylankulam successfully neutralizing advancing LTTE units. Exact number of LTTE casualties is still unavailable.


Army eyes Vedithalthivu

It was a military-religious affair. Yesterday, ranks and files of the Sri Lanka Army converged at the sacred Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi to receive blessings. The Commander of the Army, Security Forces commanders and other Senior officers, each representing their respective units placed the flags of the Army Headquarters, Volunteer Force Headquarters, Security Forces Headquarters Divisions, Brigades, Regiments, Battalions and Army training schools before the sacred Bodhi tree, paying obeisance to the religion.

The Maha Sangha chanted Seth pirith and spread jasmine flowers over the flags. The Sri Lanka Army was observing an age-old ritual of the armed forces of Sri Lanka, seeking customary and symbolic blessings of the historic Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi.
The SLA was paying obeisance at a critical time, when the fighting has taken a turn for the worse.

Hundred km northwards from the sacred town of Anuradapura, troops are fighting bitter battles with the Tigers in the jungles west of Omanthai and East of Madhu.
They have muffled the Tigers roar and forced the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to fight a defensive war on all fronts of the Wanni.


The Sri Lankan forces have proved their mettle. Their valour is distinguished and their sacrifice unparalleled, yet the Northward push is not going to be a cake walk. Tiger cadres are known to resist any military attempt to push into the Wanni through out their secessionist campaign. The LTTE fought tooth and nail, when the troops launched Operation Jayasikuru to open a land link between the Jaffna peninsula and the South.

Yet, the troops have proved successful in their recent operations. Most important, is that specialized small team operations have cut down casualty figures. However, bitter battles lie ahead. Right now, the security forces and the Tigers are spiking ahead of the monsoon.

Their immediate objective is to inflict maximum casualties on the Tigers, thereby draining the enemy’s manpower. Troops have forced the Tigers to defend themselves on all fronts. In the Wanni, soldiers are moving towards Vedithalthivu, an area dubbed as the “green bowl”. Vedithalthivu resembles a “green bowl in the map, due to the surrounding greenery and water ponds, which is in sharp contrast to the Wanni. Tigers have camped in the area and resisting the security forces advance. But, suffice it is to say that the Special Forces and Commando teams have cracked the Tiger defences in certain areas of Vedithalthivu.

Infantry troops operate in small troops, breaking away from their defence localities on the Omanthai- Mannar borders and conduct swift and overwhelming attacks on the Tiger positions.

Defence line on fire

Draw a straight line from Omanthai to Mannar. Fighting is concentrated in and around the line. One military official quipped that the Tiger defence line was literally on fire. He was referring to the use of overwhelming force against the LTTE.
In certain areas, troops operate deep in the Tiger territory, pushing the Tigers further into the Wanni. One military source said “troops operated well ahead of Pokkaravanni” Bitter battles are being waged in Thampanai and Periathampanai, Mullikulam and Vilathikulam.

The worst fighting since the LTTE counter- offensive in the first week of June took place on Wednesday and Thursday, last week in Vilathikulam.
Troops of the Six Vijayaba Infantry Regiment (VIR) advancing to capture a strategically important junction in Vilatikulam came under stiff resistance.
An officer, a captain who commanded a company and his buddy went missing amidst a heavy barrage of mortar fire.

Three soldiers were killed in the fighting and 25 were wounded. Of them 22 have been classified as P3 or minor injuries dubbed walking wounds. One soldier suffered P 1 injuries and two others suffering injuries have been classified as P 2 injuries. Troops, who advanced from several directions, surrounded the Tigers, killing sixteen cadres on Thursday.

Nine Tiger cadres were killed in the West of Omanthai in two separate incidents. Referring to intercepted Tiger communication, the Army said, the Tigers have named twelve of the cadres who had been killed on Wednesday.
Troops ambushed a tractor transporting LTTE cadres, killing five in Vilathikulam. Two other cadres were killed in a subsequent gun battle.
However, these figures cannot be independently verified.
The Tigers are forced to defend themselves on all fronts, which is a nightmarish scenario for the LTTE in the context of its depleting man power. Last week, we quoted intelligence reports which revealed a massive shift of the guerrillas from the Northern front to the Wanni in order to wade off the security force’s Wanni push.
According to intelligence sources, the Northern front is now manned by only 1800 cadres.

As the guns turned on the Wanni front, troops continued with limited operations ahead of their northern defence lines.
On Sunday night, under the cover of darkness, a small group of troops belonging to 1 Gemunu Watch (GW) sneaked into Tiger territory, ahead of security forces defence line in Nagar Kovil. Armed to the teeth, they tiptoed through a gap between two Tiger bunkers. Their target: a bunker line identified as a strong point of the enemy. Well versed with special infantry operations, they crept through the darkness and took the Tigers by total surprise, attacking them from the rear. Overwhelming fire power, over powered the Tiger cadres in their well fortified bunkers. It was a swift and lightening blow.


In a matter of minutes, troops had destroyed several bunkers; a military official said eight bunkers were destroyed. The Army said at least 10 LTTE cadres were killed and twenty injured. These figures of LTTE casualties could not be verified independently. Having taken the Tigers by surprise, troops rushed back to their positions. By then the Tigers were aware of the presence of the soldiers. As they were crossing ‘No Man’s land’, a barrage of mortar fire rained on them.
In the absence of a cover, troops were easily visible. Two soldiers were killed in the mortar attack and seven others were injured.
In another incident, a small team of infantry troops broke away from their forward defence positions in Kilali and sneaked to the guerrilla territory in the early hours of Wednesday.

They exploded a Bangalore torpedo, killing two Tiger cadres. The explosion, however, alerted the guerrillas of their presence in the enemy territory. Troops retreated returning fire as the alert Tiger cadres reacted, supported by a heavy barrage of mortars.
Two soldiers succumbed later to injures on admission to the Palali military hospital. LTTE infiltration into the Jaffna peninsula continues despite heavy security measures to deter LTTE activities in the peninsula.

Major haul of explosives

On Thursday afternoon, troops recovered a suicide jacket, T 56 assault rifle and a communication set buried in an abandoned land in Thirunaweli, Jaffna.
Earlier on Wednesday, troops unearthed a major haul of explosives and ammunition in West of Walikamam, Jaffna.

Troops recovered four suicide jackets, two claymore mines four remote control devices, two T 56 assault rifles, eight magazines, five hundred rounds of ammunition, ten hand grenades, one area map, three radio sets, twenty four detonators, thirty claymore mine batteries and two army uniforms.
According to intelligence reports, about twenty under cover Tiger cadres are operating in the Jaffna peninsula.

Meanwhile, on the Eastern front, the Navy has confirmed the death of sea Tiger leader Nishanthan, who led the sea Tigers to the sea battle off Pulmudai on September 27It was believed that Nishanthan perished in the sea clash in which the Navy said it killed at least 18 Tiger cadres. His death was confirmed after SBS commandoes recovered the body of the slain guerrilla floating in the sea. Immediately after, the top Tiger leader went missing; the Navy has noticed a larger number of fishing boats from Sali Sambalthivu area dominating the sea. A naval officer said the sea Tigers could have assigned the local fishermen to comb the sea to find clues about the fate of Nishanthan.

On September 30, the sailors were alerted by local fishermen of the presence of the body of a Tiger cadre. The body was later handed over to Police.