The days that followed the supply drop saw the cessation of the blockade on Jaffna , the visit by the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to Sri Lanka. The various negotiations and the signing of the Indo Sri Lankan Accord by the Indian Prime Minister and the Sri Lankan President JR Jayawardane on 29th July 1987. As per the accord, India was to send a body of Indian army troops to the Northern and eastern areas as the ‘Indian Peace Keeping Force’. The Tamil militants would lay down all arms and peace was to be restored after the initiation of democratic process in the affected areas. However this meant that the chief of the LTTE Vellupilai Prabhakaran had to be ‘sold’ on the idea too. It was known at that time that Prabhakaran was very hesitant about the accord and the clauses on laying down of the arms. When it looked like that he may not be convinced, The GoI wanted Prabhakaran to come to Delhi.
Hindon Air Force Station was located some 10 km out on the Delhi Meerut Highway and was home to a MiG-27 Squadron and a Helicopter Unit. The Station saw the raising of a new Helicopter unit on 20th July 87, “The Nubra Warriors” — 129 Helicopter Unit on the newly inducted Mi-17 ‘Rana’. Gp Capt HS Ahluwalia was the first Commanding Officer. Within days of raising the HU, came a surprise order to Ahluwalia — He has to send six of his helicopters on a confidential mission to ‘down south’.
On 21 July 1987, at about 1600 hrs, as the Commanding Officer of 129 Helicopter Unit, a newly raised Mi 17 helicopter unit at Air Force Station, Hindon – I was told to take six helicopters to Sulur the next morning for likely operations into Sri Lanka.
I cannot be blamed for thinking that there was some mistake in the message being conveyed to me. The unit had yet to start operations of any sort and it’s newly posted personnel had not yet reported to the unit. Barring a few airmen, I had not met any of the officers and SNCO aircrew. While the newly received helicopters from the erstwhile Soviet Union had been ferried to Hindon from the Helicopter Erection Unit in Bombay by pilots of other units, the unit itself had just been allotted office accommodation in Hindon. Offices had yet to be set up and even telephones remained to be installed.
To compound things further, I was told that his new helicopters had to be modified for the SHBO role overnight before the ferry out to Sulur. As to how the helicopters were made ready overnight and the crew ‘press-ganged’ into ferrying the helicopters to Sulur and then on to Thanjavur; the manner in which refueling was arranged at Khujharao beyond the watch hours of the airfield and some other interesting happenings on the hastily carried out ferry, calls for a separate article. At 0700 hrs on 24 July 1987 at Thanjavur I was given his instructions personally by the AOC-in-C Southern Air Command1.
The mission was to fly out the LTTE leader Prabhakaran along with his wife, children and close advisors to Trichy from a point North of Jaffna. The two helicopters that undertook this somewhat surreptitious task were the first aircraft to land in Sri Lanka and in a manner of speaking could be called the first of the IPKF although the Accord had still not been signed. Surreptitious – because we were to avoid contact with any Sri Lankan authority. Further, they were required to fly low and then land at a temple which was an LTTE strong hold.
The helicopters were flown at very low level across the Palk Straits and inland Sri Lanka so as to avoid being identified from a distance. The sortie was a success. The LTTE strongman was very courteous to the helicopter crew when he landed in India and also agreed to be photographed with us. It remains a mystery to this day as to how the roll of film was overexposed while being developed, resulting in the loss of all the photographs.
Subsequent to the signing of the Accord the six Mi 17s were the first helicopters to operate from Jaffna. They remained in Sri Lanka till 08 Aug 87 and were replaced by elements of 109 and 119 Helicopter Units flying Mi 8 helicopters. In the initial days the Mi 17s assisted in the induction of elements of the IPKF, beginning with 1 Maratha LI, into North, East, and South Sri Lanka2.
As Ahluwalia recollected, his aircraft were the first Indian Air Force aircraft to touch down in the field on Sri Lankan soil. Fro Trichy, Prabhakaran boarded a flight to Delhi.
Apparently Prabhakaran was briefed by the Indian PM as well as the RAW and he was convinced to be part of the Accord. Prabhakaran later claimed that this was done under duress. Whatever maybe the story — On 29th July 1987, the historic Indo Sri Lanka Accord was signed in Colombo by Rajiv Gandhi and JR Jayawardane with the approval of the Tamil Militants. The ceremony was marred by the assault on the Indian PM by a Sri Lankan Naval rating with his rifle during the Guard of Honor. Though it did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm surrounding the occasion, it was ominous of the events to come.
At that time , most of the transport airlift component was provided by Central Air Command, the IAF’s Southern Air Command based in Trivandrum and Training Command based in Bangalore were tasked with providing the Helilift component for the induction. Southern Air Command [SAC] was a very young organisation with hardly any air assets. Its only active airfield was Sulur from where 43 Wing operated. Just before the Jaffna Supplies drop, there was one Ajeet Squadron based at Sulur (No.18) . It was joined by an Mi-8 unit, No. 109 HU under the command of Wg Cdr VKN Sapre which moved in from Hindon.
Another unit that received that was sounded out about the impending operations was 112 HU, ‘The Throughbreds’ operating at Yelahanka. 112 HU was a Helicopter conversion unit operating directly under Training Command, and commanded by Wg Cdr SK Sharma. Its task for many years was the operational conversion of pilots who join the unit on completion of initial training at HTS in Hakimpet. Its secondary role was to operate a small subflight of VIP configured Mi-8 Helicopters for any VIP tasks.
Soon a third Heli Unit, 119HU under Wg Cdr DN Sahae moved to the south. The presence of so many HUs proved to be a god send, for when the order came to commence operations , There were enough Helicopters to carry out the troop movements.
Activation of Tanjavur.
The first inkling of an impending move came when Tanjavur airfield was activated by the IAF. Tanjavur was an abandoned WW2 airfield with a cross runway and nothing else. Soon a force of IAF airmen and officers descended on the airfield to make it operational. The dilapidated ATC Building was renovated to carry out operations. Tents were set up to provide accommodation to the airmen. The whole airfield was cleaned up and the fence reconstructed. The officers were accommodated in the small TamilNadu hotel outside the airfield.
A group of 4-5 Mi-8 helicopters arrived soon after. They were deputed from different units in the area. Wg Cdr Sapre was one of the first to take two Mi-8s from his unit (109) to Tanjavur. Another couple of helicopters came to the airfield from 112 HU under Sqn Ldr TK Vinay Raj. Vinay Raj was a senior Flight Commander at 112HU at Yelahanka. A batchmate of Sapre, He was also a veteran of the 1971 War , had flown Mi-4s and Mi-8s across the multivaried terrain and environments of India.
About the same time the Navy activated Tiruchirapally for its operations. Sea Kings and Allouettes soon operated from the airfield in support of the Navy’s operations in the Palk straits.
Within a day of signing the accord, the first Indian Troops landed on Sri Lankan soil. A total of 34 transport sorties were flown by IAF aircraft into Palaly in one single day on 30th July, that saw the induction of troops of 54th Infantry Division.
54 Inf Div, otherwise also known as ‘Bison’ Division was at its permanent home in Secunderabad under the command of Maj Gen Harikirat Singh. It was part of the Indian Army’s strategic reserve and was once even designated as the ‘Air Assault’ division. However lack of air assets to fulfill that role saw that its role was strictly of an Infantry division. It had three brigades 47,76 and 91.
On the first day’s airlift, elements of the Divisional HQ, 47 and 91 Brigade HQs, 8 Mahar and an Engineer company were flown in. Two Il-76 sorties were done by No.44 Squadron. The second day 12 An-32 sorties from Madras to Palaly were flown inducting troops of the 17 Para Fd Regt. Simultaneously Indian Navy ships started plying between Madras and Vizag to the Sri Lankan ports of Kankesanthurai and Trincomalee. Further troops were inducted. Some of the troops, the moves were out of the blue and sudden. Hav Uttam Singh Dogra of 18 Mech Inf who was posted at Secunderabad narrates his flight in an Il-76.
“I was in Secunderabad during that time, servicing our BMP-2s when one day we heard that the accord was signed. We were told to transport our BMPs to the Railway station the next day where we saw a ‘Tank Train’ had come in. I was told that this was a Tank train test and asked to load the BMP on it. We loaded approximately a dozen of them and the train proceeded out of the station with us on board. It was no ‘test’. The train went to Madras where I was told there would be an ‘Aircraft test’. We had to transport the BMP to the Air port where we loaded it on the huge Il-76 Gajraj. By that time I was sure that it was no test. Sure enough, when I drove the BMP out of the Il-76, it was to be on the Sri Lankan Soil. I had the privilege of driving the first BMP onto the the Sri Lankan soil that day”
The whole complement of 18 Mech Inf were shipped over the next few days. Il-76s of No.44 also flew in T-72 tanks of the 65th Armoured Regiment over the coming days. Each Illyushin could carry one T-72 or two BMPs in one sortie. Loading up the T-72s into the Illyushin is a tricky process. The tank has to be driven up the ramp and from there, it had to be winched into the hold slowly, an inch at a time. The clearance between the tank sides and the fuselage inner side was only about four to six inches! and any small mistake in winching or unloading would put a severe dent in the innards of the aircraft. Once landed the tank has to be driven out slowly. The loading and unloading was a labour intensive process. Loading of a T-72 would take anything upto three hours and unloading it would take upto an hour!. Slowly but steadily about two troops of tanks were flown into the Jaffna peninsula and stationed at Jaffna and at Trincomalee.
On the second evening of transporting the tanks, Wg Cdr RV Singh of No.44 Squadron with Wg Cdr Palta as his Co-Pilot flew into Jaffna with a T-72 in the cargo hold. The Tank could not be unloaded immediately due to a thunderstorm on the airfield. And it became dark by the time the T-72 was moved out of the aircraft. Even as the tank was being moved out of the aircraft, a Thunerclap sounded and the whole airfield was plunged into darkness as the power supply failed. Ascerbating the situation was the sound of gunfire at a distance away. Jaffna ATC then came online and informed on the R/T and ordered them to immediately take off. The ATC felt that the Gunfire at a distance might turn up into an attack on the airfield. It left no choice for RV Singh but to take off in the dark.
Now while taking off from a foreign airfield in pitch dark was something of a first for both RV and Palta. But they did not hesitate. They taxied upto the begining of the runway and lined up with the alignment of the Palali R/W. Switching on the powerful aircraft lights, with full power, the Il-76 thundered down the runway in pitch dark and pulled into a steep climb into the clouds.
Supporting this airlift were the helicopters in Tanjavur. The units that have contributed the choppers to Tanjavur now were told to depute two helicopters to Jaffna. One of the first Mi-8 sorties was flown to Palaly by Sqn Ldr Vinay Raj. Vinay Raj was to fly in and out of Jaffna and Tanjavur in days to come. Soon more choppers flew sorties to other locations like Trincomalee, Vavyuniya etc. Crews were rotated every 2-3 weeks, and helicopters which were nearing their maintenance schedule flown out, several pilots and crew members got the opportunity to fly to Sri Lanka and back over the next few days.
Air Force Station Jaffna
The Indian presence in Sri Lanka was first established at Jaffna’s Palaly airfield. Palaly was the Hub of activities of the Sri Lankan Army, with its Northern Command Head Quarters being based there under Brigadier Jayaratna of the Sri Lankan Army. The Army troops were supported by a small force of Bell 212s operated by the SLAF operating in troop movement and gunship roles. Daily supply missions were flown in by a Sri Lankan Avro as well as Yak (?) Transport aircraft. The SLAF also maintained presence at the airfield at Vavuniya, but no aircraft were based there in fear of Guerilla attacks. Trincomalee had some training component of the SLAF ,
|A Tactical Pilotage chart of the Jaffna Peninsula shows the position of Palaly airfield and runway.|
|The Flagpole base constructed by IAF detachment at Jaffna seen in the later days of the IPKF Presence.|
As Indian troops landed in Sri Lanka, Palaly became the center of Operations for the Indian Army as well. The HQ of 54 Div was established there. The Old Terminal building of Palaly was taken over by the IAF, with the top floor being taken over as the IAF mess. Tents were set up to accommodate incoming Indian troops, but with the massive influx of troops being offloaded by An-32s and Il-76s, There was a dearth of even that. In a bid to ease this problem, the SLAF vacated some of the cottages in the airfield perimeter and handed them over to the IPKF. More tents were set up as time went by and these lined up either side of the solitary runway at Palaly. Armoured Vehicles which included T-72 tanks and BMP-II Armoured Personnel Carriers were shipped by sea to Kankesanturai Jetty. From where the offloaded vehicles were transported to the Divisional HQ at Palaly.
In this whole operation, incoming troops were often airlifted to outlying posts and towns by both the IAF Mi-8s as well as the SLAF Bell 212s. There was a shortage of Maps for the Indian pilots. However a good map was procured and copies were given to all the pilots operating from Palaly. For the Indian Pilots who were flying over Sri Lankan territory, it was a surreal sight. The war ravaged landscape resembled WW2 bombed out ruins. Not too many houses still had an intact roof left. More often than not, the view that would greet them would be miles and miles of houses with no roofs and just the walls standing. Years of intense fighting between the SLA and the Tamil Guerillas, bombing by the SLAF and shelling by both sides had taken care of this.
While the IPKF were received as liberators by the Tamil population, the hostility among the Sinhalese and Sri Lankan Armed Forces was too obvious to miss. “When we came in, we could see the hatred in the eyes of the Sri Lankan Army and Air Force personnel. They were very hostile and viewed our presence as a humiliation” recalled an IAF Officer stationed in Jaffna.
For some of the young pilots of 112HU, it was a god sent opportunity to experience operational flying before being declared operational themselves. They had to fly as co-pilots on troop movement, casualty evacuations, night operations, and flying in adverse conditions. An experience that pilots posted to operational units take years to accumulate.
For many of the Indian Officers, they got their first glimpses of the LTTE leadership. Some of the observations range from being humorous to candid. Prabhakaran was ‘a typical south Indian tamil film hero. with a rotund personality and thick moustache, the loyalty he commanded was undisputable’, Kittu gets a ‘normal Indian looking gentleman – with a balding forehead’, Mahendrarajah, the LTTE’s Jaffna Commander aka Mahatiya gets a more respectable ‘deadly looking character – He looked like a hardened criminal, and his command over his men was complete and total‘.
However the high hopes and expectations of the IPKF soon started dissipating. There was a continuous growing rift between the LTTE , the Sri Lankan Government and the IPKF. Each party felt that the other was scheming and conspiring to destabilize the Accord. In this environment of mistrust, certain events like the death of an LTTE leader in a fast and the subsequent suicide of a group of LTTE men detained by the Sri Lankans sparked off full fledged fighting between the IPKF and the LTTE, which was at that time in occupation of the Jaffna Peninsula (See Map).
Capture of the LTTE Leaders
The spark that ignited the flames of conflict between the Indian Forces and the LTTE was the Suicide of senior leaders at Palaly. The incident started with the interception of an LTTE speedboat coming from Rameshwaram and going to Jaffna on 3rd Oct 87. The Boat was carrying some important members and leaders of the LTTE from Jaffna. Even though there was a general amnesty announced in Jaffna, The Sri Lankan Navy alleged that the amnesty could not be applied to the passengers as they were involved in transportation of arms. For the Sri Lankan government it was a prize catch. The passengers included Pulendran, the LTTE ‘s local commander of Trincomalee and Kumaran, the LTTE commander for Jaffna. Pulendran was wanted for several murders and massacre of Sinhalese and was on the SL Government’s most wanted list. It became obvious that the Sri Lankans are not going to be letting him or the others go free. Even as the SL Navy boat was transporting the prisoners to Jaffna, Orders flowed from Colombo to Palaly that the LTTE Detainees were to be transported to Colombo by air at the earliest. In the meantime, the IPKF was also informed of the arrest of the LTTE members and requests were made to prevent the detainees from being flown to Colombo.
At that time, the GOC of 54 Division, Maj Gen Harikirat Singh was not available. His deputy GOC, Brig EW Fernandez, a flamboyant and well liked officer immediately took stock of the situation. Fernandez took charge of the LTTE Detainees as soon as they arrived at the KKS Jetty and transported them to Palaly by BMPs.
There was much recrimination with the SL Army forces and finally a compromise was worked out where the detainees were lodged in the passenger area of the terminal building, directly below the IAF Officer’s makeshift mess. The detainees were surrounded by an inner ring of Sri Lankan Army troops armed with Kalashnikovs and the Sri Lankan troops were in turn cordoned by Para Commandos of the Indian Army. For two days this unofficial detente continued. It was a very volatile situation. One slip of the trigger by soldiers of either side would have resulted in a blood bath. But peace prevailed. During this time, the detainees were even visited by Prabhakaran himself.
Attempt to evacuation.
On the morning of 5th Oct 87, Brig Fernandez received report or a briefing that left him very disturbed. The report mentioned that the Sri Lankan Army would evacuate the detainees by air to Colombo that day. Since the only scheduled flight that morning was a Sri Lankan Air Force HS-748, Fernandez briefed the commander of the Mech Infantry unit about the course of action.
If it was meant to be a show of force, Fernandez could not have picked a better way to do it. The daily morning supply flight came in as usual. Flt Lt O D’Silva of the Sri Lankan Air Force expected nothing out of the ordinary during this trip. As soon as he completed his landing run on the main Palaly runway, he noticed that there were several BMPs parked on either side of the runway. The BMPs moved as soon as he turned the aircraft on the taxi track. They flanked both sides of the aircraft even as it was taxiing and escorted it all the way to the terminal. Another BMP followed up in the rear and parked itself in the back of the Avro. D’Silva was furious as he strolled into the Officers lounge. Even though the hostility was there between Sri Lankan and Indian forces, it was relatively missing among the SLAF and IAF Officers. Perhaps because of the camaraderie between ‘fliers’. D Silva strolled over to where Wg Cdr Sapre and Sqn Ldr Vinay Raj were standing and let off steam about the BMPs being too close to the aircraft and about possible damage to this Avro. When asked about the intent to evacuate the detainees, D’Silva denied any knowledge of such a plan. The Indian pilots then told him that he has nothing to worry in such a case.
|The solitary runway and taxitrack of Palaly airfield in Northern Jaffna, as viewed from an IPKF Helicopter|
As it turned out, D’Silva’s flight was a routine supply drop. As soon as unloading of the essentials was completed he was cleared for take off, and the BMPs moved out of the way. D’Silva then taxied the Avro and took off. Whether he had come with such a plan in mind or if it was just a rumour was not established. But given the voilatality of the situation, the Indians were not prepared to take chances.
However things have not exactly worked out well with Brig Fernandez. By afternoon he had received his orders – to let the Sri Lankans take the LTTE detainees to Colombo. We will not delve into the political skullduggery that went behind the decision, suffice it to say that the Indian Officers very well knew what the ramifications of such a move would be. However it was not in their brief to dispute such an order. The Para Commando cordon was lifted off and a very distraught Fernandez walked into the terminal and told the detainees about the reason. Fernandez expressed his apologies and told them it was out of his hands.
Even as the IAF Officers nearby kept watching, As soon as Brig Fernandez walked out of the terminal building, pandemonium broke out. Armed Sri Lankan soldiers stormed into the building even as the LTTE detainees started biting on the Cyanide Capsules that were slung around their necks. But it was too late. Almost all the members have taken the capsules and the Sri Lankan soldiers in a vain attempt started bodily lifting the detainees and forcibly knocking their heads on the ground in an attempt to make the detainees spit out the capsules. 15 of the detainees died , while only two could be moved to a hospital by the IPKF where their condition was critical.
As soon as news of the deaths spread, the tension in the air was palpable. By evening the LTTE members have come and collected the bodies of the detainees. The LTTE came in thier ‘whites’ – Volkswagon Vans and Toyota Pickup trucks which were inevitably white in color. After the collection of the bodies, there were some protests and Anti-India slogans over the loud speakers. Then as suddenly as it started, the whole column dispersed – including the civilians who had gathered at the convoy. It seemed too organised, and too surreal.
The lull before the storm
Towards evening, Sqn Ldr Vinay Raj decided to meet up with Sapre. Both Vinay Raj and Sapre were from the batchmates and were friends. The discussions they had during the walk along the tarmac veered from the sudden turn of events to what the future would hold for the Indian contingent in Sri Lanka. As they reached one end of the runway, they heard heavy Machine gun fire followed by Mortar explosions from the Kankesanturai area. It seems that fighting had broken out.
Unknown to them, an LTTE party decided to create some confusion between too neighboring posts held respectively by Indian and Sri Lankan troops. This party sneaked in unnoticed in between and started a firing match that left the Indian and SL Army troops fighting each other.
As suddenly as it started, the firing ceased leaving the pilots at the faraway airfield confused. What was going to happen? Will things take a turn for the worse, will Prabhakaran see reason and sort things out? They could only wonder. It did not take long for them to find out.
Fighting Last minute parleys
The next day on 6 October, a ‘white’ van approached the IPKF post at Jaffna and stopped short. In full view of the IPKF soldiers, eight bodies were dumped out of the van before it sped off. They were the bodies of eight Sinhalese Police men who were held captive with the LTTE from some time. They were supposed to be released shortly and the sudden retaliatory execution took everyone by surprise.
Almost simultaneously, attacks on Sinhalese dwellings took place and more than 200 civilians were believed killed in the LTTE’s retaliatory attacks.
Gen K Sundarji, the Indian Army Chief, flew into Palaly on that day. He held talks with both Lt Gen Depinder Singh GOC-in-C Southern Army Command and OFC IPKF and Maj Gen Harkirat Singh, GOC 54 Div. He cleared orders for armed action against the LTTE if they did not heed the warnings to lay down arms. Lt Gen Depinder Singh and Harkirat made one last ditch attempt to talk to Prabhakaran and make him see reason.
Accordingly the next day they flew into Jaffna University in an Army Chetak. Prabhakaran was no where to be seen, but they were met by Mahataya. They couldnot help but notice that the whole Jaffna University Campus was bristling with arms and battlements. Mahataya did not acknowledge the pleas of either Depinder or Harkirat and it was quite certain that battle was not going to be averted.
The first raids by the IPKF was carried out on the LTTE’s TV and Radio stations on October 9th. These raids resulted in nearly 190+ militants being captured by the IPKF. The LTTE responded by carrying out an ambush on an Indian Army patrol, followed by an attack on a CRPF post.
The much anticipated storm was now a hard reality.
1. Air Marshal R S Naidu was the C-in-C of Southern Air Command.
2. Air Vice Marshal HS Ahluwalia (Retd) YSM, VM Helicopter Operations in the Indian Air Force