Overview : Indian Peace Keepers in Sri Lanka

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With the deteriorating situation in Sri Lanka’s Jaffna Peninsula the Indian government launched a massive effort to re-establish peace and normality through a two-pronged operation, flying in huge quantities of humanitarian assistance and a massive Peace Keeping Force. The Indian Air Force played a major role, as described here by Shri Pushpindar Singh.

The deafening crescendo of 57-mm rockets fired in a shallow dive brings home the reality of the situation. The rockets strike through the dense jungle but, apart from creating a great deal of matchwood, their effect on the `Tigers’ is unknown. The Indian Air Force Mi-8 helicopter from which the firing takes place is not hunting that magnificent species `Leo tigris’, but rather the militants of the LTTE – Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam – in the tropical jungles of Nittikaikulam on the north-eastern shores of Sri’ Lanka, the famed pearl of the Indian Ocean, formerly known as Ceylon and now racked by internecine warfare.

The evening before, on 2 March 1989, a company-sized patrol of the 6/8 GR (6th Battalion, 8th Gurkha Rifles) were ambushed in the thick swampy jungles by Tamil militants, and heavy casualties were sustained by both the Gurkhas and Tigers in fierce hand-to-hand combat. While additional troops are being inducted to reinforce the embattled Gurkhas and seal offescape routes, Indian Air Force Mi-8 helicopters fly in Para Commandos to hunt the Tigers in their lair and also provide suppression fire against suspected bunkers and hideouts. A lone army Cheetah (HAL-built SA Lama) provides an AOP (airborne observation post) for the IAF’s lethal Mi-25 helicopter gunships as they unleash 23-mm cannon fire, 57-mm rockets and 500 kg HE bombs against the Tigers,

It is already late afternoon when our Mi-8 is directed to land at the Coastal Company position, on the beach at the fringes of the jungle. The Indian Ocean is a brilliant blue, the sand powder soft and the palm trees provide restful shade. An absolute tourist’s paradise in normal circumstances, but one is jolted out of such wistful thoughts by the sounds of automatic fire and thump of mortars just across the lagoon. Less than a kilometer away, men are fighting and dying. The Gurkhas in their foxholes squint as we race past to the command post where the GOC and the Brigade Commander are charting out tactical moves. Reinforcements are required to be flown in before dusk. Back to the Mi-8 for a quick lift-off, flying low over the jungle battlefield to pick up jawans (soldiers) of the 19th Mahar from their camp and fly them back into the battle zone, 20 fully-armed soldiers on each sortie, with the Mi-8s setting up a virtual air bridge. The last sorties bring in the tough men of the 9th Para Commandos, and on the return leg casualties are airlifted back to Vavuniya, HQ of the 4th Infantry Division (the famed `Red Eagle’ Division of World War II), by Chetak (HAL Alouette III), Cheetah and Mi-8. Soon it is dark, but the sounds of fighting go on late into the night,

For almost three years, from 29 July 1987 to 24 March 1990, a period of 32 months, the Indian Air Force was engaged in continuous support of the largest expeditionary armed force in the country’s history. At its peak the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in northern and eastern Sri Lanka numbered nearly 100,000 men and comprised four Infantry Divisions (4th, 36th, 54th, 57th) plus supporting arms and services, as well as paramilitary forces. A number of Indian Air Force tactical transport and helicopter squadrons were used in support of the land and naval forces in the four divisional sectors while the recently established Army Aviation Corps `cut its teeth’ in central Sri Lanka, and the Naval Air Arm committed aircraft on maritime patrol and logistics.

During the 32 months of operations some 70,000 aircraft sorties were carried out with the loss of not a single aircraft to enemy action or accident, a matter of great professional satisfaction. The main aircraft types and squadrons involved in Sri Lanka were Antonov An-32s of No. 19 Squadron, Mi-8s of Nos 109 and 119 Helicopter Units and Mi-25s of No. 125 HU. Also taking an active part in the operation were the Indian Army’s No. 664 AOP Squadron, with Nos 10, 26 and 31 Flights flying Chetaks and Cheetahs and the Indian Navy’s No. 321 Squadron with Chetaks and No. 310 Squadron with Alizes,

Prelude to intervention

With the situation fast deteriorating in the Jaffna Peninsula during May 1987, there were grievous casualties among the civilian population, and the Indian government tried to pressurise the Sri Lankan government into halting their military offensive against the rebels (mainly comprising the so-called `Tamil Tigers’, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). India attempted to send food and medical supplies by fishing boats under the Red Cross flag, but Sri Lanka refused to allow the vessels to enter their waters. As a result of this, Operation Poomalai (Garland) was instigated. A statement by the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi concluded that “in keeping with its commitment to provide humanitarian assistance to the longsuffering and beleaguered people of Jaffna, the government of India was despatching consignments of urgently-needed relief supplies by air which would be para-dropped over Jaffna by transport aircraft. These IAF transport aircraft would be duly escorted to ensure their defence in case they are attacked while in flight.”

The first `air action’ took place on 4 June 1987 when five Antonov An-32 transport aircraft of the IAF, escorted by four Mirage 2000 fighters, air-dropped some 24 tonnes of relief supplies over selected zones in the Jaffna Peninsula. The An-32s took off from Bangalore airport and were joined by the Mirages before they entered Sri Lankan air space.

This action may have jolted Colombo into realising that India meant business, and the historic Indo-Sri Lanka agreement, designed “to establish peace and normalcy in Sri Lanka”, was reached on 29 July 1987. The agreement was to be upheld by an Indian Peace Keeping Force: this was enjoined to protect the agreement in its entirety, the first phase being to supervise surrender of arms by the militants and to halt the internecine conflicts that had ravaged -the island. Within hours of the signing of the agreement, some 24 Antonov An-12 and An-32 tactical transport aircraft of the IAF flew into Palaly airfield near Jaffna town in the north of the island. These, with the bulk of two Indian Army battalions, constituted the `peacekeeping force’,

Into position

Lieutenant General Depinder Singh, the Indian Army’s GOC-in-C Southern Command, flew into Jaffna on 30 July to discuss arrangements with the commander of Sri Lanka’s security forces while Indian troops moved into positions hitherto held by the Sri Lankan army in order to ensure the cessation of hostilities and surrender of arms by the Tamil militants in the Jaffna peninsula. By 31 July, the bulk of an Indian infantry brigade (comprising troops of the Sikh Light Infantry, Maratha Light Infantry and the Mahar Regiment plus supporting elements) had been landed in northern Sri Lanka, while heavy equipment and stores were transported by sea,

As a result of the agreement Sri Lankan forces were, ironically, needed to meet the threat of turmoil in the southern areas; India airlifted troops to other parts of the island. Meanwhile, the induction of Indian troops in Jaffna to enforce the cessation of hostilities gave a new dimension to the sensitive political situation,

By mid-August, the bulk of an Indian infantry division (the 54th) plus an independent brigade (the 340th) had been transported to northern and eastern Sri Lanka. Although there was some ceremonial surrendering of arms at Palaly airfield, the main militant group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), was unwilling to agree to anything but predominance in the Interim Administrative Council, and the militant forces continued to engineer massacres of political rivals and Sinhalese,

The situation reached a flashpoint in the first week of October and the Indian government took a political decision to disarm the militants from Jaffna by force, in Operation Pawan. The LTTE carried out mortar and automatic weapon attacks on IPKF patrols on 8 October and, following high-level meetings of the Indian Defence Ministry on 10 October, the IPKF began its operations on the night of 11/12 October. The rules of engagement were strict: use of artillery, heavy weaponry and offensive air support was forbidden, to ensure minimum civilian casualties and damage to property,

Casualties among the IPKF and LTTE, however, were high: the Indian troops had to take the highly fortified, mined and booby-trapped urban environs of Jaffna town from fanatical LTTE cadres who were extremely well equipped and had years of experience fighting the Sri Lankan army. The initial offensive by a single Indian brigade followed five different axes leading into Jaffna town. A bold attempt was made to capture the LTTE leadership by inducting para-commandos into the university area by Mi-8 helicopters, but this was an abortive and costly operation with heavy casualties amongst the troops and a number of helicopters damaged, although all were recovered to base. Prime operational base for the overstretched IPKF was Palaly airfield, where it had to battle against a very well entrenched LTTE front and constantly secure its line of command against guerrilla attacks from the rear. Based at Palaly were dozens of Mi-8 and Chetak helicopters and Antonov An-32 and HAL HS 748 transports, all of which had to be protected against LTTE raiders.

On 15/16 October the IPKF halted its advance to stabilize its front while a massive airlift brought in another three brigades and heavy equipment, including T-72 tanks and BMP-1 infantry combat vehicles. With air traffic controllers working round the clock with improvised facilities at Palaly, troops from various cantonments in India as well as from Trincomalee and Batticaloa in Sri Lanka were flown in. Indian Air Force Ilyushin II-76s and Antonov An-12s transported the armored fighting vehicles, and An-32s, HS 748s and a Boeing 737 of Indian Air Lines carried troops and their personal arms. Additional Mi-8 helicopter units arrived from air bases in India, plus Cheetah helicopters for recce and casevac and the most formidable additions, Mi-25 helicopter gunships,

It is estimated that during the 20 days from 11 to 31 October some 2,200 tactical transport and 800 assault helicopter sorties were carried out to fly in troops, weapons, vehicles, stores and various other equipment, primarily to Palaly and China Bay airfields in northern and eastern Sri Lanka from bases in southern India, and to fly out the mounting casualties to military hospitals of the Southern Command. In addition, Boeing 737s were employed for troop transport, throwing commercial schedules out of gear for many days,

It took two weeks of bitter fighting for the IPKF to wrest control of Jaffna and other towns from the military control of the LTTE. During the second half of October 1987 the Indian Air Force carried out more transport and helicopter sorties in support of the ground forces than at any similar period of time in the history of the country’s armed forces. The Mi-25 gunships were employed to interdict the movement of militants from the Jaffna Peninsula to the neighbouring islands and mainland of Sri Lanka. The LTTE had attempted to bring in reinforcements of personnel and logistics and had later on exfiltrated its cadres from Jafna, and the Mi-25s were used in the lagoon areas to destroy militant boats and vehicles,

In the words of Lieutenant General Depinder Singh, “We used helicopters for carrying troops but when they came under sniper fire we had to bring down suppressive fire in turn.” The first use of Mi-25s for close air support was on 29 October when Mi-25s attacked LTTE entrenchments in the Chavakacheri area, 32 km east of Jaffna, with rocket and cannon fire, enabling the 11th and 12th Madras battalions to overwhelm the last resistance and effect a link-up. In another action, Mi-8 helicopters flew in para commandoes to areas on the western part of the peninsula and on to islands to engage LTTE strongholds. Mi-25s patrolling the Point PedroVadamarachchi and the Moolai-Telliapalli roads destroyed a number of LTTE vehicles, from Manner to Mullaitivu and Elephant Pass to Vavuniya. As the operations progressed, it became clear that the LTTE was concentrating itself in the Nittikaikulam area since it was proximate to the eastern seaboard, whose lagoons and rivulets the LTTE knew thoroughly and from where it received supplies. These included the latest weaponry, as well as communications equipment to control its far-flung cadres,

As a run-up to the Provincial Council elections, the IPKF launched Operation `Checkmate’ in several phases to root out the Tigers. In the actions, the LTTE suffered grievously and, in one instance, the IPKF almost caught the top LTTE leadership. The LTTE’s carefully sited positions were destroyed, and it was again on the run. The main purpose of the exercise was to ensure that the LTTE would not have the capability to disrupt the elections,

Therefore, following Operation `Checkmate’, the IPKF called a halt to `jungle bashing’ and redeployed itself to carry out an important and even critical function, to provide security for the Provincial Council elections. This was a task that would really test the mettle of the IPKF’s unique role: that of bringing peace to Sri Lanka by disarming the LTTE on the one hand, and on the other of providing the conditions that would give the island’s minority Tamils a just and honourable role in the political and social life of Sri Lanka.

In October-November 1987, the LTTE was battered in its Jaffna bastion and compelled to flee southwards to escape the IPKF It is almost certain that the LTTE’s hard-core fighters who had survived moved to the safety of the jungles by skirting the coast of Jaffna from Point Pedro to Elephant Pass and then moving south along the coast sheltered by impenetrable jungle and intricate lagoons into the Nittikaikulam jungles,

The first phase of the IPKF operations in the area, codenamed `Trisul’ and `Viraat,’ took place between April and June 1988. The operations were spread out across the Northern Province their country. The threat of the LTTE’s armed cadres had to be met in the battlefield, but the average Tamil had to be persuaded to vote, in the first major political test of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord,

The outcome of the elections was a resounding success for the IPKF and the Accord. However, this was only the first phase. Following the installation of the elected Government came the presidential elections and, following that, the parliamentary elections in early 1990. The success of the IPKF in providing the security that enabled a generally free exercise of the franchise is even more remarkable since the major disturbance took place in the non-Tamil southern parts of the islands,

After a lull of five months following the end of Operation `Checkmate’ in September 1988 the jungles of Nittikaikulam (a broad term to describe the area north-east of Vavuniya) witnessed intense and even hand-to-hand fighting between 2-6 March 1989, with the IPKF inflicting heavy casualties on the LTTE,

The scene of the action was on the shores of the Nayaru lagoon, south of Alampil. The lagoon’s western shores are covered by dense tropical forests that continue inland towards Vavuniya,

As the Gurkhas moved through the jungle, they came under fire. The fighting intensified. In the first flush of fighting, five IPKF personnel were killed, while the number of LTTE casualties was not clear. The IPKF figured out that it had stumbled on to the screen defences of the main camp that could be a good 10 to 12 km behind the positions. Normally the LTTE would have melted into the jungles, but the fact that it stood and fought indicated that this was the defence bastion of an important inner position,

As night fell, the fighting became confused but intense. Meanwhile Colonel V K. Bakshi, the intrepid commander of the Gurkhas who was leading the reconnaissance party, managed to send back some men to obtain reinforcements. Through the night, as the Gurkhas ran out of ammunition they drew their favorite weapon, the kukri, and waded into the LTTE positions, to be confronted by Tigers,

By dawn, reinforcements were sent in and helicopter sorties to assist the Gurkhas mounted. The battle continued, with the LTTE confronting the advancing Gurkhas along a four-kilometre front. Sometime in the night, Colonel Bakshi was fatally wounded,

At the same time, another infantry company from a position south of the lagoon was sent in to relieve the Gurkhas, but it ran into densely booby-trapped trails,

By now about five battalions of the IPKF had ringed the area and were moving into the lagoon’s shores. By 7 March, when the area was secured, it was estimated that some 70 LTTE personnel had been killed. The main group, which may have included their leader Prabakeran, had melted away. In three phases of Operation `Checkmate’, 44 LTTE personnel were killed and 57 wounded in the Nittikaikulam area. The IPKF lost 15 lives, and 30 were wounded,

As the IPKF command realized that it had stumbled on a major LTTE concentration, reinforcements were flown in by IAF Mi-8 helicopters. After a two day lull, the IPKF resumed its operations, which were further intensified on 9 March. By the middle of March, almost one full infantry division of the IPKF was conducting search operations in the biggest action since Operations ‘Checkmate’. The Indian Air Force helicopter force played a vital role in the action. Mi-8 assault helicopters of No. 109 HU from Vavuniya and Palalay ferried in troops, ammunition, equipment food and supplies, while Mi-25 gunship helicopters operating from China Bay (Trincomalee) and Vavuniya flew a large number of attack sorties in support of the infantry columns. Chetak helicopters of the Army were also employed for AOP tasks and casevacs, while the bulk of casualties were flown to base hospitals by the Mi-8s,

The Nayeru lagoon battle served the LTTE with yet another warning that the IPKF meant business, and was not content to sit by in its camps. It had the will and the ability to seek out the Tigers in the jungles, even though that meant booby-traps, mines, ambushes and casualties,

Perhaps it was this mounting military pressure that, by 25 April 1989, forced the LTTE to hold direct talks with the Sri Lankan government. As an ironic twist to this development, the new President of Sri Lanka soon called up on India to withdraw the IPKF from the Island, but the Indian government responded with counterproposals. After some brinkmanship and with the IPKF ready for any eventuality, the issue was finally resolved on 28 July 1989 with an agreement for a phased withdrawal. Six hundred IPKF soldiers left for India the very next day, but the major de-induction process began in October 1989. Thirty-two months after the IPKF’s arrival in Sri Lanka, the last batch of soldiers returned to Madras harbour aboard INS Magar on 25 March 1990.

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