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The mood of the military over the Thirunelvely July 23rd 1983 ambush

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by An Old Soldier

Black July 1983 -2

With a remarkable increase in subversive activities in the Northern Peninsula, commencing with the killing of the Mayor of Jaffna, Alfred Duraiappa on 14 May 1976, the then government introduced the Prevention of Terrorism Act on 15 July 1979.

With this, the President appointed Gen. T.I. Weeratunga, then Brigadier, as the Commander of the Security Forces deployed in the North. He was assigned to clear Jaffna of terrorism by 31 December 1979. His Operations HQ was established at Gurunagar and Maj. Gen. D.L. Kobbekaduwa, then Lt. Col, was the Director Operations.

Towards the latter part of 1981, there were nine major Tamil terrorist organizations in the country. Ironically, the LTTE wasn’t included in the list. Prior to the July 1983 riots, killing incidents were few and far between.

Killing begins

On 15 October 1981, the day Brig. Weeratunge was promoted to the rank of Major General and became Commander of the Sri Lanka Army; two soldiers, Pioneer Tissera and Pte. Hewawasam of work service were killed in Jaffna.

And on 22 October 1981, Sgt. Wijeweera was killed in the infamous Kilinochchi bank robbery.

13 February 1982, Corp. Abeyrathne Bandara from Armoured Company was killed.

By 1983, the LTTE had gained recognition as the most active separatist terrorist group in the North. The government declared the Local Government elections in the North to be held on 18 May 1983 and the LTTE ordered the political groups to boycott the elections. Three candidates, K.V. Rathnasingham, S.J. Muththaiah, and V.Rajarthnam, who did submit their nomination papers, were murdered by the LTTE on 23 April 1983. This situation compelled the government to provide army protection to the polling booths.

On 1 June 1983, an Air Force jeep was ambushed in Vavuniya, killing five Airmen.

These events led to the decision to deploy a full battalion at a time, on rotation basis in Jaffna for operational duties for a term of six months instead of deploying Rifle Coys (companies) from different units.

Enter SL Light Infantry

On 17 July 1983, the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (1/SLLI) took over Operational duties in the North from 1/SR, SR standing for the well-known Sinha Regiment.

The SLLI deployed Alpha company (A. Coy) in Mannar, with Maj. S.H. Kottegoda, Bravo company (B.Coy) in Palaly with Capt. D. Rathnasabapathy, Charlie company (C. Coy) in Madagal with Maj. R.M.R.B. Rathnayaka and Delta company (D. Coy) at Elephant Pass with Maj. C.L. Wijayarathna.

The Battalion HQ, HQ Coy and the Support Coy were deployed at Palaly. Battalion Commander was Lt. Col. Upali Karunarathne. Narada Wickramathne was the Second-in-Command and I took over duties as the Adjutant of 1/SLLI from Capt. C.K.G. Punchihewa on 22 July 1983, in addition to my appointment as the Intelligence Officer of the Battalion.

On 23 July 1983, the routine patrol was assigned to the Charlie company, based in Madagal. The patrol was sent to Gurunagar to be briefed by the intelligence officer on patrol duties and the route assigned to them for the night. It comprised of 2nd Lt. A.P.N.C. de Vass Gunawardena and 14 soldiers. The route they were to take was Gurunagar to Madagal via Jaffna city, Nallur, Koppay, Urumpirai, Tirunelvely, Kondavil, and back to Madagal.

Call sign of patrol was Four Four Bravo. They were specifically advised by the briefing officer at Gurunagar SF HQ to return to base by 12 midnight because there was intelligence to say that the LTTE was planning for an ambush on an army patrol during this time.

Monitoring patrols

I was monitoring the progress of the patrols sent out by all the companies of the Battalion, from the Palaly Operations Room. It was 11:30 p.m. when I last conversed with patrol commander 2nd Lt. Vass Gunawardena who was near the Kondavil bus depot at the time.

By half-past midnight, the patrol had not returned to company in Madagal. When I informed this to my Commanding Officer, I was instructed to send out a search patrol. I briefed 2nd Lt. Rajiva Weerasinghe and asked him to go in search of the patrol. At the same time, my Commanding Officer ordered me to take out a patrol and search along the same route as Weerasinghe—Palaly-Vasavilan-Kondavil-Tirunelvely-Urumpirai and Gurunagar.

I was planning to return from Jaffna and go to Madagal when I was informed by 2nd Lt. Weerasinghe that Lance Corporal Perera R.A.U. was found with gunshot injuries to both his legs at the Kondavil bus depot.

I immediately proceeded to that place and with 2nd Lt. Weerasinghe, Lance Corporal Perera R.A.U. told us of being ambushed at the Kondavil bus depot.

The power lines at the Tirunelvely junction were cut down and dead bodies were on either side of the road.

Vass Gunewardena’s jeep was found near a by road, and inside the lane I saw a dead body. I flashed the torch light and discovered it was Vass Gunewardena. The truck having caught to a land mine was about 30-40 metres behind the jeep. A leader of the LTTE, Sellakkili, lay killed by a bullet he had received while staying on top of the bus halt.

Of the original patrol, only two survived, Lance Corporals Perera R.A.U. and L/Cpl Sumathipala I.H.

The following day, 24 July, about 63 soldiers from B coy, who were emotionally moved by the incident ran out of camp from Palaly and went berserk and started setting fire to houses in front of the location of the ambush site. However, the army has come a long way since then in military discipline.

My Commanding Officer, Lt. Col. Upali Karunaratne and I immediately went to the location and brought the situation under control. In the mean time, Jaffna Commander Brigadier L. Balthazaar visited the location.

Detained and sacked

Commander of the Sri Lanka Army, General T.I. Weeratunge who was in Diyathalawa at that time, flew to the scene and ordered all the soldiers who ran amok to be taken into custody and be detained at Anuradhapura Prison. I took them in a truck with Sgt. Nugawela of Corps Ceylon Military Police (CCMP). Later, all the soldiers who were involved in this act were sacked.

By the same evening, the bodies of the 13 slain soldiers were flown to Colombo for a discreet burial. Initially, the government had pressured for a mass burial in Palaly, but General Weeratunge insisted that the bodies must be handed over to the next of kin.

The earlier killing incidents were few and nobody was talking about the Tamil Police officers including Inspector Bastianpillai, who had been killed. Thirteen killings however was a big number.

They were to be buried in a mass grave at the Borella Cemetery and their relatives who were informed through respective police stations had arrived in busloads. Had the bodies been sent separately to each village, it would have prevented crowds from gathering at one single location, fuelling their emotions, further. However, in Colombo, the local police couldn’t handle the situation of the instigations of the politically motivated gatherings.

I would say the biggest mistake the government did was to bury the bodies in Colombo. To date we regret the decision and the black mark Sri Lanka earned following the mass burials, the infamous and regrettable July 1983 riots. courtesy: Ceylon Today

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