The humanitarian approach adopted by the Sri Lankan military in the battle to end the 30-year terrorism was extensively explained by the three Service Commanders who testified before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) last week.
They said the military had to face immense difficulties and suffered many losses as their hands were tied due to the zero civilian casualty policy, which prevented them using their maximum fire power.
Testifying before the eight-member Commission appointed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa to look into the failure of the Norwegian-brokered Ceasefire Agreement, the root causes of the conflict and measures to prevent future conflicts, they said the Government ordered the military to maintain a zero casualty policy and took measures to provide humanitarian assistance for the Northern civilians kept hostage by the LTTE.
The Commission headed by C.R. de Silva comprises C. Chanmugam, Manohari Ramanathan, H.M.G.S. Palihakkara, Rohan Perera, Karu Hangawatte, M.T.M. Jiffry and M.P.P. Paranagama.
Army Commander, Lieutenant General Jagath Jayasuriya, explaining the contribution made by the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) to the humanitarian operation, said the SLA had always followed humanitarian norms and maintained a zero casualty policy during battles.
He said that though the ICRC was present in the North during the final stages of the humanitarian operation, no complaint was received from them against the military.
Lt. Gen. Jayasuriya said the SLA resorted to a strategy of approaching the LTTE terrorists, who were confined to a small pocket of land, from two fronts, which resulted in the LTTE firing towards the military, while the civilians who were under the grip of the LTTE were escaping amidst the LTTE shooting fleeing civilians.
Spelling out the steps taken by the SLA in the reconciliation process, the Army Chief said the SLA was helping the Northern civilians, to win their hearts and minds.
He said the Sri Lanka Army is fully involved in the reconstruction activities in the North.
"We are fully involved in the reconstruction of tanks and bridges in the North," he said.
According to the Army Commander, the SLA has built more than 760 houses in the Jaffna district. The SLA presence in the North would be reduced soon as they would be handing over most of their activities to the Police.
Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) Commander, Air Chief Marshal Roshan Goonetileke, strongly refuting the allegations that the SLAF indiscriminately bombed civilian habitats, said that as the SLAF Chief, he could deny all these allegations as he had documented proof, to the contrary.
"We never took such targets. Some accuse the SLAF of bombing places where there were children. But as the Commander of the SLAF, I would like to tell this Commission that we never took a wrong target where civilians were present," he said.
The SLAF Chief, submitting a video of the SLAF planning an air attack on an enemy target, explained to the Commission about how much care was given in its pre-planning process to make the target accurate.
Air Chief Marshal Goonetileke said the Sri Lankan military fought an organisation which was classified as ruthless not just by Sri Lanka, but by many foreign agencies.
"Being terrorists, their general modus operandi was to hide behind civilians and fight. In various instances, we came across this method. So, our task was that much difficult because we encountered the civilian issue quite often which brought immense difficulties for the ground troops as the terrorists were hiding behind the civilians", he said.
Explaining to the Commission, the orders given by the Government to thoroughly adhere to the zero casualty policy, Air Chief Marshal Goonetileke said President Rajapaksa had firmly ordered them not to harm civilians during the military operation.
"We were given freedom to carry out our military exercise, but ordered strongly to maintain a zero casualty rate. The other two Service Commanders will also attest to this. With the directive of the leadership of the country and the correct guidance of the Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, we were given a tough framework to work on", he said.
He said due to the Government's humane approach to liberate the Tamil civilians used as hostages by the LTTE, the Government declared two No Fire Zones (NFZ) while the LTTE attacked the military, mingling with the civilians.
"When the Government declared the first NFZ and with the Army moving in, the LTTE subsequently took the civilians to a different location. The government did not ask them to return to the original location, but declared that location as the second NFZ. I want to mention this to show how much consideration was given to the safety of our people who were held hostage by the LTTE", he said.
The Air Force Chief said as fighting progressed in the humanitarian operation, at the very last stages, President Rajapaksa ordered him to stop air operations as they were causing damage to the civilians.
The three Forces were ordered to use only small arms and tactical methods during the final stages of the battle", he said.
Explaining further, the precautions taken to make the air targets accurate, he said Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) were used before planning an enemy target. "Initially, we got intelligence and information from our surveillance team as well as from the Directorate of Military Intelligence, which has a vast knowledge of terrorist activities. Apart from UAV support, we got the assistance of the Long Range Patrol Groups to check the accuracy, to get a clear picture of the location. In this endeavour, the SLAF tried to find out the schools, hospitals, civilian habitations, places of worship and so on in that area before setting the target. When we were completely satisfied with these requirements, we sent the pictures to the attack squadrons to study the location. Once we decided to take the target, we matched the weapons according to the target. Then we sent our UAVs to give a live picture for the attacking squadrons while monitoring the target from the Air Force Headquarters. Once the Director Operations prepared the targets, I personally checked the targets to see whether any damage could be caused to civilians. At some targets, we knew there were terrorist leaders and training camps, but we had to drop the idea because civilian habitations were located closeby. We observed some targets for weeks before taking them", he said.
Air Chief Marshal Goonetileke said the SLAF pilots were very efficient and 100 percent accurate.
"The SLAF has all these images and we can answer any allegation levelled at us", he stressed.
He said that UAVs were used extensively to get a clear picture of the enemy targets and gave the three Forces valuable information to plan their operations. The UAV was airborne for 24-hours. They helped us to show the entire world how the LTTE treated the fleeing civilians", he said.
The Navy's role
Navy Commander Vice Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe described the role of the Navy in eradicating terrorism, giving evidence before the LLRC.
Navy Commander Vice Admiral Samarasinghe said the international community was not bothered to take any action against the LTTE, which used merchant vessels with registration numbers of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) for their operations.
"All merchant vessels used by the LTTE still have the IMO registration", he said.
The Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) destroyed some of these floating warehouses carrying lethal cargo - 10 ships of 4,500 tonnes. But until today, no international organisation has gone into the details of registration of these vessels and search for the parties who registered them, he said.
The Navy Commander explained the measures adopted by the Sri Lanka Navy to maintain zero civilian casualty rates during the humanitarian operation last year.
He said that despite being aware that LTTE terrorists who came ashores dressed as fishermen after smuggling weapons and explosives had vanished into fishing villages, the SLN's hands were tied due to strict orders given by the Government not to attack with heavy weapons.
"We were not permitted to carry out aerial bombing as the terrorists had vanished into the fishing villages. Taking advantage of this policy, the terrorists used these villages as safe havens and continued to do so to prevent us attacking them", he said.
Vice Admiral Samarasinghe, explaining the SLN's task from the initial stages of the humanitarian operation, said the SLN had to assist the civilians to keep their livelihoods intact while chasing the LTTE terrorists.
He said the SLN was tasked with the protection of the country's harbours, which were prime targets of the terrorists, for commercial activities, so that the country's economy was not disrupted during the military exercise.
"Then the SLN was saddled with the task of helping maintain the livelihood activities of the civilian population. Our fishermen in the North and the East were restricted from fishing because fishing was banned in certain areas. But in spite of that, the Government directed the Navy to permit these fishermen to venture out to sea so that they have at least some degree of income for them to survive. Many fishermen, especially in the North, were deprived of a basic livelihood and in this context, in helping them the Navy played a critical role", he said.
The SLN Commander explained to the Commission the SLN's task of transporting essential items to the North. He said that over 300 cargo vessels, organised through the Commissioner General of Essential Services, were sent to cater to the needs of the Northern people.
"Over 100 vessels were used to carry fuel, food items and other essential items to the North. At a time the road link was closed and the Northern population of over 300,000 did not have the opportunity to be in touch with the South, the Government wanted to keep the link going. We didn't isolate the North from the South and maintained the link through the sea lines of communication", he said.
He said that despite LTTE terrorists disrupting the movements at sea, the SLN kept the South of Dondra, the international shipping lane which caters for over 150 ships a day, free of any untoward activities.
"There were critical measures that the Government ensured the Navy perform to maintain the lifeline of civilians. I can remember an incident when the North was without electricity. The then Senior Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapaksa who came to the North assured Jaffna students that they would receive 24-hour power supply before their O/L examinations. To keep that promise, the small harbour in Kankesanturai (KKS) had to transport 100 tonne generators from abroad by ship. The pier was not capable of bearing such weight, but the SLN took all measures to see that those massive generations were brought to KKS. They were offloaded under threat and sent to Chunnakam for power generation", he said.
According to the SLN Chief, the LTTE had destroyed or damaged over 13 civilian vessels that brought cargo and equipment to the North.
Fara II was the best example. All these vessels were registered under the IMO and still have those registration numbers, but the international community kept mum on this. As we could not tolerate their silence any more, the SLN ventured out 2,000 miles away to their warehouses and found that all these vessels had IMO registration numbers. The fleet of LTTE vessels plying in the high seas were from foreign countries", he said.
Transporting and unloading
He explained the difficulties faced by the SLN in transporting and unloading while the terrorist elements were trying to destroy the vessels. He said there was a tough network with the coordination of the three Forces and the Police and each bag of cement, food or rice carried the approval of the Commissioner General of Essential Services.
"There were precautions that the Government had taken in Colombo at the point of loading, that the goods were escorted safely until they reached KKS. We employed very careful unloading methods to prevent attacks. The SLN had to ensure that the essentials reached their destinations without any interference", he said.
The Navy Chief said that the SLN suffered massive losses during the last stages of the humanitarian operation, having fought the terrorists at sea. "The SLN lost seven fast attack craft which were worth USD 7 million each. On January 19, 2009 they destroyed another fast attack craft in Mullaitivu. This was the time people were trying to flee from the sea. When the Army was moving forward, capturing LTTE-held territories, over 700 dingy boats full of civilians moved out during the period from December 2008 to April 2009. Over 14,000 people got through to Army-controlled areas, bribing the LTTE and arrived safely in Pulmudai, Nilaweli and Trincomalee. Though we used hi-tech electronic devices to identify the terrorists, it was difficult task for the Navy as the terrorists were mingling with civilians. The LTTE fired at the fleeing civilians indiscriminately, but the SLN never reacted adversely", he said. Vice Admiral Samarasinghe said that as their real fire power was severely restricted, the SLN had to use tactical methods and introduce the concept of small boats instead of fast attack craft. He said the small boats were given the task of identifying LTTE suicide boats which were disguised as fishing boats.
Emphasising the constraints the SLN faced, the Navy Chief said they had to take many precautions and face many difficulties not only on the Eastern coast, but also on the Western coast and in the Palk Straits.
"Without exaggeration, more than 500 Indian trawlers daily entered the Lankan waters before the humanitarian operation. There were no Lankan fishermen in the sea. Among the Indian boats, there were LTTE boats smuggling fuel and the SLN had the tough task of finding the LTTE boats among this fleet", he said.
The former Commander of the Northern Naval areas, Vice Admiral Samarasinghe said that the SLN had facilitated the fishermen to continue their livelihood, while fighting the LTTE. "The fishermen were allowed to go to sea after security checks and provided with security to return to their homes. Marshalling points were set up to help and safeguard the fishermen. There were instances where the LTTE, disguised as fishermen, ventured out to sea and came back with lethal items smuggled from the Indian fisher boats. Some returned with people who had never gone with them", he pointed out.
Explaining the process of handling vessels to transport food and medicine to the NFZ during the final stages of the battle, he said the SLN started transporting the stocks from January 31 through the ICRC, as the Army had stopped transporting essential items by road due to the military operation. "The task was given to the SLN through the Commissioner General of Essential Services to transport the essentials to the NFZ. On our return, we brought back the civilian casualties and patients with the help of the ICRC. There were LTTE supporters among the patients, but we treated them all at the field hospitals which were opened for the task", he said, adding that the SLN vessels came under heavy artillery fire when unloading, "but we maintained silence due to restricted fire power and did not react since we didn't want to disrupt the process. The LTTE wanted us to react. The interesting thing was we even sent them the fuel. Under these difficult circumstances the SLN transported tonnes of rice, flour, dhal and medicine to the NFZ. The Government was committed to a steady flow of humanitarian assistance for the displaced civilians", he said.
Navy Chief Samarasinghe said the SLN was now fully committed to the Government's reconciliation process.
"The Government had defeated the enemy and is now heading for reconciliation among the communities. In this process, the SLN helped resettle over 10,000 displaced people to the North Western Command and another 5,000 to the North Central Command. We are building houses for them at our expense. The SLN had a great job to do as the Army had done their job on land to ensure that such a conflict will not happen again".
The General Officer Commanding of the 58 Division, Major General Shavendra Silva also testified before the LLRC last week to give a better insight into the humanitarian angle of the military exercise to annihilate the LTTE last year.
Explaining the 58 Division's military strategy to capture the land area which was dominated by the LTTE, Maj. Gen. Silva said that the troops had to sacrifice many lives to achieve the victory of liberating civilians without any harm being caused to them. The 58 Division, which was the Task Force I, commenced its military assault from the Mannar Rice Bowl, captured most of the LTTE areas and was primarily responsible for carrying out one of the most successful humanitarian operations to rescue nearly 200,000 civilians who had been trampled under the LTTE.
He said the 58 Division was entrusted with the task of carrying out the world's largest humanitarian operation at a very decisive moment when the international community was criticising the military operation. "We were asked to conduct the operation without harming the civilians. The troops had infiltrated LTTE areas along a kilometre stretch of road and then fought their way out to clear a path for civilians to escape. There was a road 150 metres away, but the civilians were not allowed to crossover. Then we went to their side and attacked from the rear to prevent a single shot landing among the civilians. Not a single civilian was harmed during the mission", he stressed.
Last inch of land
He said his troops went to Vellimullivaikkal to capture the last inch of land and took measures to feed and look after the fleeing civilians.
Maj. Gen. Silva, who has been appointed the Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, said that from the initial stages of the battle, the Secretary Defence stressed the maintenance of zero casualties and his troops could speed up the military push.
"We had to modify the military strategy and delay the operation and it went on slow due to the order not to harm a single civilian. Throughout the operation, we heeded to the policy and though the troops suffered losses, we achieved the given target", he said.
He said that there were doubts among certain parties whether the military had killed the LTTEers surrending.
"All surrendees were given maximum protection. The first injured female cadre during this military operation were captured alive from the Rice Bowl by the 58 Division. Then there was another girl captured in uniform and I made special arrangements to airlift her to the Anuradhapura Hospital for medical treatment. Then three more female cadre including a teacher surrendered to the 58 Division and were given medical treatment", he said.
A 10-minute video film on how the three female cadre in uniform talk to the soldiers and how they explain their lives under Army custody were screened to the Commission.
"They were in fear that we would kill them, but I told them that from the moment they dropped their weapons, we consider them as one of our own sisters. Their fears gradually subsided with the soldiers treating them nicely. During the final days of the battle, hundreds of young girls surrendered to the military. They were given food and handed over to the authorities. These would be classic examples to show how humanely the Sri Lanka Army treated LTTE captives", he said.
Maj. Gen. Silva said that the decision of the Secretary Defence to facilitate the military with UAVs helped them to pre-plan the military operations to avoid civilian casualties.
"The UAV images facilitated me to see the location where the troops, the terrorists and the civilians were. This helped me to plan the operation to minimise civilian casualties. There were occasions when we had UAV evidence that the terrorists were mingling with civilians, then we were compelled to delay the military push", he said.
Showing video footage of an LTTE female suicide cadre throwing herself at civilians fleeing LTTE control and seeking the help of troops at Vishuwamadu, he said over 19 soldiers including female soldiers, who were helping the fleeing civilians, were killed by the blast.
"I had to set up about 40 checkpoints to continue to get the civilians in, despite the LTTE's threat of deploying suicide bombers to stop civilians fleeing LTTE control and soldiers giving relief to them. Though the soldiers were demoralised after several suicide attacks, we asked them to treat and accept all those coming in as civilians. We could not delay checking the civilians as the LTTE was shooting from the other side. The soldiers including female soldiers had a tough time checking civilians which took at least 10 minutes for each person. We took many risks to continue the humanitarian operation", he said.
Courtesy: Ministry of Defence