The Battle of Mullaitivu (codenamed Operation Unceasing Waves by the Tamil Tigers), was a battle that occurred between 18–25 July 1996 for the control of the town of Mullaitivu in Sri Lanka. The battle was fought between units of the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Following a major defeat in late 1995 when the LTTE lost control of the Jaffna peninsula to the Sri Lankan Army in Operation Riviresa, the LTTE moved to the jungles of the Wanni region. Afterwards the Sri Lankan government and press repeatedly claimed that two-thirds of the LTTE's fighting strength had been destroyed. To counter this - and to increase its image internationally - the LTTE planned and trained a group of 4,000 cadres for an attack on the SLA base at Mullaitivu. LTTE founder and leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was personally involved in the planning and coordination of this operation, codenamed 'Unceasing Waves'. The Sri Lankan army base at Mullaitivu covered a vast area and was bordered by the sea on one side. The camp occupied an area 2900m long by 1500 wide with a perimeter of 8500m. It had initially been set up as a smaller camp in the early Eighties. Over subsequent years, the camp was expanded to cover most of the small town of Mullaitivu, which was the administrative centre of the Mullaitivu district. The isolated base was the 215 Brigade Headquarters which had no road links to any other garrisons situated in the region. Based there were 6th Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment and the 9th battalion of the Sinha Regiment. On the day of the attack the two most senior officers, the officiating brigade commander, Colonel (later Major General) Lawrence Fernando and his deputy, Lt. Colonel Gunaratne, were away in Colombo on duty leave.
The Tigers launched their assault at 1.30am on 18 July 1996. After eight hours of heavy fighting, the Tiger forces reached the centre of the camp, having overrun forward defense lines and clusters of mini-camps. The Tiger units then concentrated on attacking the artillery sites and armories. These were captured later after intense fighting.
The attack was paused short of the very heart of the base, which was the operational headquarters of the 6th Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment. The LTTE commanders leading the attack were ordered to regroup their forces and to await nightfall before storming the central camp.
In response to the attack the Sri Lankan military planned and put into motion operation 'Thrivida Pahara' before dawn. The plan called for a relief force to be transported by ship to the sea off the coast of Mullaitivu from Jaffna and to be landed by smaller boats close to the base. Meanwhile the Sri Lanka Air Force carried out attacks on the LTTE. Due to the delay of the transport of troops by sea, initial landings were carried out on the 19th by an all-volunteer force of 275 elite commandos from the 1st Special Forces Regiment led by their CO Lieutenant Colonel A.F. Lafir, who were heli-dropped under heavy LTTE fire and made radio contact with the besieged troops. Although wounded, Lt. Col. Lafir personally lead the attack under direct enemy fire after landing near Alampil until he was killed. He was awarded the Parama Weera Vibhushanaya, the highest award for combat bravery in Sri Lanka. The commandos were reinforced on the 19th when troops began to make landings by sea under the protection of Sri Lankan Navy's fast attack crafts. That evening LTTEs Sea Tigers attacked the naval force in suicide boats heavily laden with explosives. The large gunboat SLNS Ranaviru was rammed, causing the Ranaviru to sink instantly with its entire crew of 36. Following this landings were halted.
The Tiger units launched a holding attack on the relief force and concentrated on the central camp. In the evening of 19 July, the entire camp fell to the Tigers. However troops at the beachhead had established contact with some of the troops of Mullaitivu who were isolated from the overrun main base.
On 20 July, SLAF Mi-17 helicopters found LTTE resistance too heavy to effect more troops landings in the area where the commandos had landed. They therefore made a landing some distance away. An Mi-17 helicopter was damaged by LTTE fire. On the 21st a beachhead was established by seaborne troops 5 km south of the base, this was done while under heavy mortar attacks by the LTTE. It was not until 23 July troops had reached the base against fierce resistance. By the time the advance troops reached the southern perimeter of the base, they discovered that the military base and town had been razed to the ground. The troops reported that they were greeted by the unbearable stench of decayed and dismembered bodies. 24 and 25 July saw the troops withdraw after the higher command had decided to abandon the relief of the destroyed base. This concluded the battle.
During the battle the Sri Lankan military lost at least 1,200 troops. The Sri Lankan Military alleged that 207 soldiers who had surrendered to the LTTE were executed with hundreds appeared to have been herded together, doused with gasoline, and burned to death. It has also been reported that others were found dead clutching white flags of surrender. Eighty were lost from the relief force. The LTTE claimed 332 cadres killed. During the battle the LTTE captured significant amounts of weapons and equipment from the base, including two 122mm artillery guns and a few 120 mm mortars. Since the base was the only major SLA presence in the Mullaitivu district, LTTE gained control over the area after the troops withdrew on the 25th. Thus it constituted a major victory for the LTTE.