08 September 2010
Major General Kamal Guneratne, Commander 53rd Division, Wanni
Commander Guneratne: I am the Security Force Commander, Wanni, and I am the Competent Authority for the IDPs in northern province and during this humanitarian operation I performed my duties as the Commander 53 Division and initially 53 Division was deployed in Muhamali where the heavy fighting took place round the clock and with my Division there was another Division that was 55 Division commanded by General Prasanna Silva, who is here, and even General Shavendra Silva who was with us in 53 Division as the Commander of the Brigade.
So with regard to Muhamali fighting there is nothing much to say because there was no presence of civilians. So it was only the Army and the LTTE. Heavy fighting took place round the clock and no civilian casualties in those areas since there were no civilians.
So in latter stages, actually during the Wanni humanitarian operation the task given to the 53 Division and 55 Division was to fix the LTTE in Muhamali and defend Jaffna Peninsula so that the forces operated through Wanni jungles could make a big progress since the LTTE was somewhat fixed in Muhamali by these two Divisions. So in latter stages the Army Hqrs. wanted 53 Division and 55 Division to break out from Muhamali and come down to Elephant Pass which we managed to do very successfully. So both 53 and 55 Divisions broke out from Muhamali even with heavy casualties we came down to Elephant Pass and linked up with 58 Division that came from Wanni.So Jaffna forces and Wanni forces linked up with each other at Elephant Pass.
Then 53 Division was shifted from Jaffna theatre and we came to Wanni theatre and kept as the Army Commander’s reserve for Wanni operations being the reserve strike force of the Sri Lanka Army. Then we were launched south of Puthukuduiruppu for the main operation after some set back that took place in Puthukuduiruppu. Then with other Divisions 53 Division also took part in these operations under Wanni Command. So for the final stage, that is to take on Puthukuruiruppu and also the fighting that took place in no fire zone area, that is Puthumathalan, Vellimullivaikkal, Karimullivaikkal and Mullaitivu areas, with other Divisions, 53 Division also took part and we performed very well until the last day that was 19th May 2009 where the ruthless terrorist leader Velupillai Prabakharan was killed with his leaders.
So when it comes to the operation as a whole sir, there were certain challenges that we had to face. The biggest and the mammoth challenge that we had to face was the zero tolerance of civilian casualties. It was a war and the civilians were there in the no fire zone area so it was a huge task. So the rules of engagement were laid out and that was practiced by the officers and men of all fighting formations and we were given with strict instructions to adhere to the rules of engagement laid down by the authorities.
So when it comes to the challenges of zero civilian casualties the biggest asset that we had was the luxury of having the real time information systems from the Sri Lanka Air Force. Each and every operational room of each and every Division Commander who commanded a Division in this operation was given with the luxury – I should underline the word luxury – of having the real time information assets – those are the UAV support with the down link right inside the operations room and supported by very experienced pilots that were detached from the Air Force to support us and also to coordinate us. This was mainly to coordinate with regard to the UAV support and the other air support that came in. So UAV gave us a tremendous support to minimize civilian casualties because with that we knew exactly where our troops were; we knew exactly where the LTTE was; we knew exactly where the LTTE reserves were; we knew exactly how the LTTE was concentrating their forces; and we knew exactly where the civilian concentrations were. Therefore we managed to take on the LTTE without any difficulties to the civilians since it was like you are looking at something with your own eyes. So I should appreciate the Air Force and Ministry of Defense for giving us that much of support so that we managed to avoid the civilian casualties among the innocent civilians of Wanni.
Then in addition to that we had the ground information. After learning so many lessons from the Eelam War I, II and III, we rectified all our mistakes and we improved upon all our plus points. So as a part of that we improved upon the ground information systems with the intelligence agencies and also we enhanced the capabilities of our intelligence operatives within our formations, and we gave them solid training experience and so on so that they were very effective to give us real time information from the ground level.
Then coming on to the use of Special Forces people – you must be knowing about long range patrols – which were tremendously…they were performing extremely well in their role, and one major point that I want to highlight here is the correct employment of troops by all Commanders – all Field Commanders, because the Special Forces people who were employed on long range patrol they were specially skilled people and they were given with specific task to find out the locations; to confirm or reconfirm the LTTE targets that were given by the Directorate of Military Intelligence or the Air Force Intelligence or any other intelligence agencies. So they as small teams they penetrated through the enemy defenses and they went right into the areas – may be at times about 40, 50, 60 or 70 kms they are in the enemy area – enemy line – and they gave us solid information with the help of GPS systems and other technical assistance and by doing that also we managed to identify the real enemy targets and use on the other assets.
Then coming on to the rules of engagement. Of course we were well aware that all these people whom we went in to rescue are our own people – Sri Lankans. So we had the sympathy for these people; we knew that they were under the threat from the LTTE and by keeping that in mind we educated all our people as to how we should handle civilians; how we should tackle various situations that can come up during the operations; and they were very well educated about the rules of engagement and how to handle civilians.
Then use of high tech equipment like radars. …
C.R. de Silva: General there is one thing that concerns us. We are fully possessed of what you are saying but there is one thing that concerns us because this was a report by the international press regarding the surrender procedures and also the fact that the persons who were surrendering were assassinated. Now there was an allegation like that. Now we would like to have your views on that because that is very relevant to our…to the final recommendations that we propose to make.
Commander Guneratne: Yes, I don’t agree with that allegation sir, because I told you that we went into action of this humanitarian operation with a clear mind set and whoever who surrendered was handed over to the authorities and nobody was assassinated as surrendees.
C.R. de Silva: As a matter of fact some of the people who surrendered were questioned by us and they said that the Forces were assisting them and there was no question of them being in any way humiliated or in any way subject to any type of force by the Forces. So that is why I asked you this question because there were some of the LTTE cadres who had surrendered who informed us that while surrendering that the Army was very helpful and in other words the Army went to the extent of guiding them to avoid the land mines and other obstacles. That was what they said. So in view of this allegation that was leveled against the Forces, that is why I asked this question from you so that you deny any type of force used by the Armed Forces on the persons who were surrendering.
Commander Guneratne: Correct sir. I can strongly deny this allegation and in addition to that we being professionals in the military field we consider a surrendered LTTE cadre as a very valuable source of information. So unless otherwise you treat him properly he will not come out with his heart out.
C.R. de Silva: And when the LTTE and other persons were surrendering there were the INGOs and other independent organizations on the spot who would have seen what was happening?
Commander Guneratne: No, there were no INGO organizations in the vicinity because it was a lethal fighting and high intensity fighting so in those areas nobody could operate. Yes sir, only at entry point Omanthai otherwise not in these high intensity areas it is not possible.
Palihakkara: In terms of rules of engagement the surrender procedure is well outlined to the military command. could you describe that?
Commander Guneratne: Actually anybody who is…now there are certain things that we had to keep in mind because a terrorist is a terrorist. So whether he is going to surrender or whether he is going to give us a severe blow we can’t identify just because somebody is coming with raised hands. So we have to take him in very carefully and once he is taken in we have to keep him at a distance and we have to send one or two guys from our party to go and search him for any unwanted materials. Even a suicide bomber can come just by raising his hands as a surrendee. So that was the procedure. We halt them at a distance; then we send our people forward to search them and once a thorough search is done he is taken over and he is given back to the authorities.
Palihakkara: How many surrendees were there? I think I read in the newspaper reports …
Commander Guneratne: Actually sir, during the operation the number surrendered I don’t have the details right now, but when there was a huge influx of IDPs coming in there were so many…I mean hundreds of LTTE combatants who surrendered, and we separated them from the other IDPs because when you are handling an IDP situation you have to separate the dangerous IDPs from other IDPs. But we considered everybody as IDPs so we separated the dangerous IDPs from other IDPs and we sent them for rehabilitation centres. There were hundreds and every – each and every surrendee – was recorded and … may I proceed sir.
Then sir, the awareness for the troops was given on daily basis about minimizing casualties and everybody was thoroughly briefed as to how and what they should do to avoid civilian casualties.
Then coming on to the receiving of IDPs sir. Now I can speak a little bit about how we tackled this situation since I am the Competent Authority for IDPs. Initially we could not do much screening then and there because the influx was huge and what we wanted was since we were subjected to indirect fire that came from the LTTE in those forward areas we wanted to evacuate these IDPs as soon as possible to an area where there is security. So what we did was we got busses and other transport assistance from the Government and we loaded them into busses without proper screening process and we sent them to Omanthai and in Omanthai only the screening process was done properly. And then the IDP centres and relief villages were set up with the help of the Government and in latter stages with the help of some NGO and INGO organizations, and total number we received was more than 290,000. So it is not an easy task to handle 290,000 or close upon 300,000 IDPs in an IDP situation. So the feeding was a problem; water, shelter, sanitary, then health; these are the challenges that we had to face but I am very proud to say that even though the relief villages were highly congested there were no outbreak of epidemics. Now if you take Zone 2 which had more than 72,000 people inside – highly congested – but still there were no epidemics because that is the health care facilities provided by the Government. At one time – at any given time – in Menik Farm there were 108 doctors given by the Health Ministry. And it was a huge logistic nightmare; we had to give them shelter; we had to give them water; food and everything.
I can give one solid example about the logistic nightmare. We had to maintain more than 8100 temporary toilets which required attention every third day. So just imagine every third day cleaning 8100 toilets by using gulley suckers and other equipment – it was a huge task. And also to run more than 350 community kitchens. But we were very successful in that and also during this time we had to impose certain restrictions about the movement of IDPs because among the IDP population there were dangerous IDPs. Everybody was pointing fingers at us – at the Government and the Security Forces – saying that we are not giving any freedom of movement for these people; we are keeping these people gated and this and that. Sir we had to keep them under certain movement restrictions for about 2-3 months because we knew that there was a huge amount of combatants who were hiding behind this population, and we had to employ all our intelligence agencies to identify them so intelligence agencies went into action. Then the information came from the IDPs because they were battered by these cadres. So as a result of that we identified more than 2500 ex-combatants who were hiding behind the IDP population. So we identified those dangerous people also and took them out and put for rehabilitation under the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation.
And during this time even though everybody was pointing their fingers at us saying that no freedom of movement for these people the Government officials also did their homework They went into the extent of checking all the electoral lists and other relevant documents available with them to prove that okay so and so is from this village from this Grama Niladhari Division. So they did their homework within a period of 2 months or 2-1/2 months and when we gave them the green light; okay the screening process is over now we can resettle. The de-mining over up to a certain extent so the resettlement process can go on. Then they were really really ready with all their work so that it was just a matter of coming in to Menik Farm with the list of names and take them for resettlement.
And during that time Army played a major role in de-mining field because most of the areas are heavily mined especially the civilian areas and their paddy fields and so on. So Army employed more than 1000 manual de-miners; and there are about another 6 de-mining agencies who are working with us. So de-mining is a huge task. And we don’t resettle the people just because some area is de-mined we don’t resettle. We always consult the UNDP and get the land release certificate from the UNDP. So UNDP go to the villages – to the areas where de-mining has already taken place and they issue us the land release certificate. Then only we inform respective GAs to come to Menik Farm and take the people out. And in this whole episode sir the Army has become the facilitators for the resettlement.
Now as the primary role we have done our part with regard to security – being the security forces of this country. Now we are on the secondary role that is to assist nation building – assistance to the Government for nation building. So the resettlement we are doing it as assistance to the nation building, and we being the officers and men who really took part in this operation we saw the sufferings of these people; how difficult it was for these people; so we have the feeling and we have the feeling that they are our own people.
So very religiously we are being embarked on this mission with the guidance that is coming from the Commander of the Army and Secretary-Defense. We are doing lot of things for these people.
Then coming on to the de-mining sir. Okay about the IDP situation now.
C.R. de Silva: Due to constraints of time, can you sum it up?
Commander Guneratne: Okay sir. With regard to the resettlement we had to start with more than 290,000 people and I am very happy to announce that as at today in Menik Farm we have only 28,000 people and in Jaffna another about 2000 people; so altogether total has come down from 290,000 people has come down to 30,000 people.
Then coming on to the rehabilitation. Even though the rehabilitation centres are mostly located in my area Commissioner General Rehabilitation is here so he will be able to give you a better overview about how the rehabilitation process is going on. But there is one point I want to stress upon sir that is about the security. Even though the war is over we don’t want to see the germs of terrorism or the remnants of the LTTE to go back to their villages. Therefore we are very careful and we can’t have any lapses with regard to security.
So by doing everything that is possible to uplift the living standards of these people; helping them to get their lives back; we are really looking after the security because we have to see how this 11,200 odd ex combatants who are under rehabilitation how they will behave when their being reintegrated into the society. So each and every rehabilitee will have to be observed; therefore we have to do certain things but these things are taking place without any harassment to the civilians in the areas.
So that is all that I have sir. Thank you very much for giving me this opportunity.