9th January 2000
The declaration of a 14 hour curfew on Thursday night came only after heavily armed Police and security forces had taken up positions to seal off entry and exit points to the City.
But hours earlier, the story was doing the rounds in Colombo's grapevine that a clamp down was due. In fact, a Tamil newspaper had said it all on Thursday. The National Security Council had decided to clamp down a snap curfew and conduct searches for Tiger guerrillas in view of mounting incidents in the past three weeks, the report said.
Yet, the vast number of City residents were unaware when the State run radio and television broke the news at 11 p.m. on Thursday. It said that a curfew would come into effect from 11.55 pm that night within the limits of the Municipal Councils of Colombo and Dehiwala- Mount Lavinia.
By then, truck loads of Army, Navy and Air Force personnel who were assigned to the Police had taken up position in the City sectors . Their orders were to assist the Police in a house to house search operation for guerrilla suspects and their hide-outs. The search and rounding up of persons were to be the task of the Police and the troops were only there to give them additional support, they were told.
By midnight, entry and exit points into the City were sealed off. Traffic coming into the City were ordered to stop in the outskirts. City Police Stations were ordered to be restrictive in the issue of curfew permits. It was some five hours later that Police teams backed by armed troops went into action in the City and the southern suburbs. On the basis of intelligence assessments, the search parties had been briefed which sectors to concentrate on. During the search, they were under orders to round up persons who could not provide a satisfactory explanation for their presence in the City and assemble them in Police stations in their respective sectors.
Most residents woke up to learn of a curfew only after they heard pre-dawn knocks on their doors. Police began rounding up suspicious persons on to Jeeps and trucks and moving them to City Police stations. Large numbers were trooping in at Mount Lavinia, Dehiwala, Wellawatte, Bambalapitiya, Kirillapone, Maradana, Kotahena, Foreshore and other City Police stations.
As hours went by, Colombo was a deserted City. Government offices, private sector establishments, schools and banks were closed. Passengers arriving in the night mail train from Vavuniya were all put through checks and some were taken in for further screening. Barring the terse announcement of a curfew, City residents who remained indoors glued to their televisions had little or no news of what was going on. Though it is difficult to establish a public relations drive to this type of surprise operation, a limited effort could still have been worked out. Combined with the surprise nature of this operation, its timing and the limited public announcement of its implementation gave rise to much confusion.
As is the case under such circumstances, the rumour mill took over. An enraged Muslim Cabinet minister telephoned top officials in the defence establishment after one story doing the rounds said the curfew would be extended until 2 p.m. Saturday. Friday turned out to be the last day in the holy month of Ramazan and Muslims were preparing to celebrate Eid-ul-Fitr on Saturday. The curfew on Friday had already prevented them from attending Jumma prayers and doing last minute shopping. Some mosques, however, had re-scheduled Jumma prayers to be held soon after the curfew ended at 2 p.m.
Telephones hummed with senior defence officials speaking to high ranking security forces and intelligence officials. They denied any move to extend the curfew, though the Police were given the option of prolonging it until 4 p.m. if an urgent necessity arose. Now, the Police said they would try to finish up by noon or shortly thereafter.
That was not the only rumour. There was another to say the curfew has been declared to enable President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga to drive to the airport and fly to United States for medical treatment. Another spoke about a group of LTTE suspects breaking loose from the Kalutara prison and entering the City. There were several more.
By noon, Police reported that their task had been completed. The Ministry of Defence then declared that the curfew was being lifted from 12.30 p.m., one and half hours ahead of the scheduled hour. Within minutes hours, commercial establishments and banks set out to make up what they have lost during the curfew hours. They made public appeals for their employees to report to work on Friday afternoon and remained open for business. As a further measure, they were also open for business yesterday.
Whilst normalcy was returning to the City by Friday afternoon, a different drama was being enacted in several Police Stations in the City. A total of 1563 Tamils were being put through a course of interrogation by representatives of several state agencies. They averaged from 14 years to 60 years and included a few students too. They included the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), Counter Subversion Unit (CSU), Terrorism Investigation Division (TID), Crime Detective Bureau (CDB), Directorate of Internal Intelligence (DII) and the Directorate of Military Intelligence. They were being videoed and photographed.
At the Maradana Police Station another identification process was under way. Those rounded were paraded before masked men, either informants or guerrillas now in custody. They did not nod their head, a usual form of confirming one is a suspect. Instead they waved their hands and almost all of them passed through.
When the screening process in the various Police stations ended, one young girl was identified as a guerrilla suspect. She has been detained by the Terrorism Investigation Unit (TID) for further investigations. Another youth, who claimed he had quit the LTTE and came down to Colombo to travel abroad for employment, has also been detained by the CID. They will verify whether his claims are correct. From the 1563 persons, only some 87 persons are now being detained further. This is until the reasons they gave for their presence in the City are established. The twelve and half hour search did not lead to the discovery of any Tiger guerrilla hideout, weapons, suicide kits or other material.
Most of the persons rounded up from the early hours of Friday had remained without any meals. R. Yogarajan, Ceylon Workers Congress MP for Colombo district raised issue with the Police Chief, Lucky Kodituwakku. Later, they were issued with buns by the Police.
The National Security Council which will meet in the coming week will examine why there was no armaments, explosives or any other subversive material or devices found. Did Tiger guerrillas holed up in the City receive intelligence of the impending search in advance and move out ? Or, are they operating from areas, particularly the northern suburbs of the City, which was not covered by the search operation ? These and other questions will undoubtedly come up for review.
It was the National Security Council, chaired by President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, meeting in emergency session, which decided on Wednesday to declare a curfew and conduct a house to house search operation. The decision came hours after a female suicide bomber exploded herself outside the Prime Minister's office at Flower Road killing 14 persons and wounding 22 others.
Though she has been loitering outside the PM's office for more than hour, it was only after she caught the attention of two policemen outside the gates did the drama trigger off. She spoke in Tamil and the two PCs found it difficult to understand. They sought the help of a translator from the PM's office. He queried the girl and she replied that she had come to the Saudi Arabian Embassy, located opposite the PM's office, to obtain a visa. Just then, she had detonated the explosives which were strapped to her body.
It has become clear that the target was a VIP or a senior security forces official. From the point at which she stood, investigations have revealed, she was awaiting for her target to travel in the direction of Fort. Investigators have still not been able to identify the exact target though it is said to centre around several possibilities. Among them: _ the likelihood of a Cabinet Minister directly involved with security responsibilities travelling to a newly located office somewhere in the vicinity. Cabinet Ministers driving to Temple Trees that Wednesday morning for their weekly meeting. Senior security forces and Police officials returning after the annual convocation of the Army Staff College at Batalanda. The convocation was held at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute. Apart from these possibilities, it is known that several senior Army top brass took this route when they travelled from their residence to their respective offices.
If the fact that the latest suicide bomb explosion came within three weeks after a similar incident worried the security establishment, there were other factors that raised their concern. The dawn of the New Millennium saw security forces and Tiger guerrillas locked in bitter gun battles. And now, the first week in the first month of the New Millennium, signs of an intensification of the Tiger guerrilla campaign was becoming increasingly clear.
The repercussions of such a development was already being felt. Hoteliers were complaining that there was large scale cancellations from tour operators overseas. Even individual reservations of airline seats for travel to Colombo had registered a decline.
A significant cancellation was the visit to Sri Lanka by a top Thai dignitary. He was General Suraayud Chulanout, Commander- in-Chief of the Royal Thai Army. He was to be Chief Guest at a passing out parade at the Sri Lanka Army's Military Academy at Diyatalawa yesterday. Most of the Army top brass and senior officials of the defence establishment were in Diyatalawa yesterday for the ceremonial event.
It was on December 18 that a female suicide bomber exploded herself at the People's Alliance rally at Town Hall. President Kumaratunga escaped death miraculously. A team of experts from the United States arrived in Sri Lanka on Monday to help the local team of investigators.
They were briefed both by the Additional Director General of the Directorate of Internal Intelligence (DII), T.V. Sumanasekera and DIG (CID) Punya de Silva. The team also visited the Town Hall site of the explosion where local officials re-enacted to them how the incident occurred. The expertise of the US team will also be sought now in the probe into the suicide bomb explosion outside the PM's office.
A disturbing development which came barely two hours after the incident outside the PM's office was the murder of leading lawyer and Tamil Congress politician, Kumar Ponnambalam. An unknown gunman held a pistol on his head and fired two rounds killing him on the spot. Mr. Ponnambalam, who was driving into Ramakrishna Road (at Wellawatte) had been stopped when he had travelled only a little distance along that road.
A hitherto unknown, self styled "Koti Virodi Jathika Peramuna" (Anti Tiger National Front) claimed responsibility for this murder in a printed note which was circulated widely. It was faxed to media offices, security establishments, Police offices and others.
The note signed by a Vijaya Ranabahu as "Co-ordinating Officer" said (sic) "We are happy to inform the Sinhala and Muslims in this country that racist, tiger spokesman and traitor Kumar Ponnambalam was assassinated at Wellawatta at 11.30 a.m on January 5.
"We assassinated Kumar Ponnambalam. The interview given by Kumar Ponnambalam to the Ravaya newspaper of January 2, 2000 and the comments made to the internet about the President who had gone for treatment after the December 18, blast. "Creating an ideology war by representing the LTTE directly as one of their spokesman and working against the interest of the nation. Discreditng the armed forces who are acting against the Tigers.
"Planning to hand over the up country to the Tigers by trying to form a Tamil front involving the north, east and the upcountry.
"This is also a warning to those who directly or indirectly support the Tigers."
Mr Ponnambalam who counted many friends in other communities in Sri Lanka was known for the strong backing he gave for the LTTE. His killing angered the LTTE. In a statement issued from London, the LTTE said:
"The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) wishes to express its deep shock and profound grief over the brutal killing of Mr. Kumar Ponnambalam, a courageous Tamil leader who fearlessly exposed the hypocrisy of the Sinhala state and audaciously championed the cause of the Tamil nation.
"We accuse the Sri Lanka Government and the Tamil quisling groups of masterminding and executing this heinous crime to silence a brave, daring voice of reason that defended the rights of the Tamils. Mr Ponnambalam's sudden death is a great and irreparable loss to the Tamils, a monumental tragedy that has befallen the Tamil nation at a critical historical time.
"Faced with constant threat to his life and property, Mr. Ponnambalam lived in the heart of the Sri Lankan capital and boldly challenged his racist adversaries. His speeches and writings, which touched on extremely controversial issues, expressed its truthfullness, genuiness, uprightness and indomitable spirit for justice. He pleaded for the rights and liberties of thousands of innocent Tamils in Colombo who were subjected to constant persecution at the hands of the tyrannical Sinhala state. He also voiced for the Tamils rights at international forums (sic).
"Mr. Ponnambalam was the only Tamil leader who openly and fearlessly supported the armed freedom struggle of the Liberation Tigers. He endorsed the policy of the LTTE as the authentic political project based on the right to self determination of the Tamil people. By his gallant and heroic life in advancing the legitimate cause of the Tamils amidst all dangers. Mr. Ponnambalam has earned the respect and admiration of his people as a true Tamil patriot."
It is ironical that the Presidential election campaign of the major political parties were fought on the basis of ending the ongoing separatist war and ushering in peace. Instead of the voiced pledged, what has turned out now is an intensified campaign of murder and terror. Whilst that goes on, the major parties are also at war with each other.
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