25th March 2001
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before dawn last Wednesday, three Dvora Fast Attack Craft (FACs) of the
Sri Lanka Navy were on their way from the Jaffna peninsula to Trincomalee,
headquarters of the Eastern Naval Command.
An Israeli built Dvora (422) and another Dvora built to the same design by Colombo Dockyard (495) were some eight nautical miles off Mullaitivu coast. Another Dvora (497), also built by the Colombo Dockyard, followed behind. It was sailing between the northern port of Point Pedro and the coastal village of Vettilaikerny, once home for a Naval sub unit together with an Army camp and now in Tiger guerrilla hands, when men on board found blips on their radar screen. The silhouettes of three suspected Sea Tiger boats heading towards the shore were clearly visible. The boats appeared to be heavily laden and it became apparent that it was a Tiger guerrilla logistics run.
Men on board 497, the third Fast Attack Craft, immediately alerted the two that were speeding ahead. Their radios crackled for a while. They had decided to engage the three Sea Tiger boats. The men aboard the Dvoras were totally unaware that at a Sea Tiger base somewhere near Chalai, north of Mullaitivu, Sea Tiger cadres had also become privy to the move to attack. They either spotted the presence of the three Navy FACs on their own ground based radars or were alerted of the Naval presence by one or more of the three boats on the logistics run. Immediately seven Sea Tiger boats with heavily armed cadres set out to sea.
It was shortly after 3 a.m. on Wednesday when the two Colombo Dockyard built FACs (497 and 495) fired the first salvo. Fireworks erupted thereafter. The Navy FACs and Sea Tiger craft were engaged in bitter battles – the first major confrontation since the LTTE's four month long unilateral cease-fire was declared.
The Operations Room at the Eastern Naval Area Headquarters in Trincomalee was a hive of activity. Commander, Eastern Naval Area, Commodore L.D. Dharmapriya, was on hand. The Operations Room at Navy Headquarters in Colombo was alerted. Rushing in was Director of Naval Operations, Rear Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda. Navy Commander, Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri, who was woken up, drove in immediately to the Operations Room. He was on the radio personally monitoring the pre-dawn high sea battle.
Then came the bad news. FAC 495 was badly hit by enemy fire. The engine room control panel was out of commission and the vessel was crippled leaving its officer in command, Lt. Comdr. Senaratne and his crew of 17 in a quandary. As he sent out an SOS message to his other two colleagues Lt. Comdr. Basnayake in FAC 497 and Lt. S.J. Kumara in FAC 422, Sea Tigers were continuing to direct gunfire at them.
Then came the most chilling moment for those at the Operations Rooms in Trincomalee and Colombo. Lt. Comdr. Basnayake (497) ordered his men to go alongside the crippled FAC 495. They picked up the skipper (Lt. Comdr. Senaratne) and eleven crew members though heavy gunfire was being directed at them. A daring act, which indeed saved the lives of the eleven men but top brass at Trincomalee and Colombo had other serious worries. They wondered whether Lt. Comdr. Basnayake's action was rash since he risked his own FAC and the lives of his own crew in carrying out that high-risk rescue. But all heaved a sigh of relief that most of the crew from the crippled FAC were safe. A while later, the Israeli built Dvora (422) picked up two more crew members adding the total of those saved to 13 crew members. Five Navy personnel including a Sub Lieutenant were declared Missing in Action and are feared dead.
With one Dvora now crippled and drifting, the two remaining ones were coming under heavy fire from the flotilla of Sea Tiger boats. They withdrew to a safer distance and awaited the arrival of re-inforcements, both from the Jaffna peninsula and Trincomalee. Five Dvoras were heading from the northern seas and four from Trincomalee to extend support.
Meanwhile, the Navy had turned for help from the Sri Lanka Air Force. Air Chief, Air Marshal Jayalath Weerakkody, ordered his men to move in immediately.
Interestingly, men from the SLAF's elite Number Ten Squadron were just then preparing their Kfir interceptor jets and Mig-27 ground attack aircraft, to carry out a different series of sorties on LTTE targets in the east. Air Marshal Weerakkody told them to abandon that mission and immediately take on the task on the shores of Mullaitivu.
SLAF Kfirs and Mig-27s flew at least four different pre-dawn sorties to attack Sea Tiger bases on the shores north of Mullaitivu. These bases had been identified earlier. The jets avoided attacks on the Sea Tiger flotilla or the crippled Dvora. Identification was difficult due to inadequate light and they were also not sure whether there were any crew members still on board the crippled vessel.
With the re-inforcements arriving in the area, eleven Dvora patrol craft now moved in to take on the Sea Tiger flotilla. It was then that the Naval fleet learnt of a most unexpected thing – Sea Tiger cadres had boarded the crippled FAC 495 and were using the guns on board to fire at the Navy.
Later, coming under heavy fire from the Navy fleet, Sea Tigers abandoned FAC 495 and exploded it. The vessel sank. Before carrying out the explosion, Sea Tigers removed several weapons from the vessel. The clandestine Voice of Tigers radio, heard in the Wanni, claimed they stripped the crippled FAC of a 23 mm cannon, a 20 mm cannon, two 40 mm grenade launchers, two 50 calibre machine guns etc. and sank the vessel. They said they had also seized PK Light Machine Guns, an AK LMG and quantities of explosives. Navy officials were unable to verify the claim since the vessel has now been exploded and sunk.
The Colombo Dockyard built Dvora (495) is estimated to cost around US $ five million or Rs. 430 million. That is both for the vessel and the on board weapons and other systems.
The LTTE's preparations for a rapid response when the Sea Tiger boats were bringing in supplies has prompted the intelligence community to probe the nature of the cargo. Unconfirmed reports spoke of the boats carrying stocks of ground to air missiles that were unloaded from a ship in the high seas. Other reports said it was a logistic run from Tamil Nadu bringing in medical supplies.
Just 24 hours after the incident, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam announced it would extend for a further month the unilateral cease-fire it imposed on Christmas Eve last year. An LTTE statement last Thursday extending the ceasefire till April 24, this year, warned it would terminate the self imposed truce if the Government refuses to "reciprocate positively to the goodwill gesture and continue with hostile armed operations and aerial bombardments."
The statement said "133 LTTE fighters have been killed by the Sri Lankan armed forces in various offensive assaults, ambushes, air strikes, artillery bombardments and Naval attacks."
It added: "Sri Lanka government should accept the fact that the LTTE has not embarked on any offensive military actions in the North-eastern theatre of war, nor has it unleashed any armed operations or violent attacks in Colombo and in the southern provinces. It is because of our strict observance of ceasefire, there is relative peace and stability in the capital and in the Sinhala south. We note with deep dismay that the Kumaratunga Government has not taken our goodwill gesture seriously in a positive sense but rather ridiculed it as a "farce."
Interesting enough, for once the LTTE has officially admitted it had carried out "armed operations or violent attacks in Colombo and in the southern provinces." Nowhere in the past has the LTTE admitted to carrying out such attacks. It has maintained a stoic silence on every such occasion. The latest has been on the killings of TULF Parliamentarian, Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam, Cabinet Minister C.V. Gooneratne or even the bomb explosion at the Sri Dalada Maligawa earlier.
The statement went on to say "With the acquisition of new fleets of supersonic bombers from Russia and Israel, the Sri Lankan airforce has been systematically pounding the coastal villages of Mullaitivu and Mannar and has inflicted heavy casualties among poor Tamil fishermen causing massive scale destruction of their dwellings, boats and nets.
The charge was strongly denied by officials at the Joint Operations Headquarters. The statement went on to say:
"In an incident yesterday, four civilians were killed and eleven were seriously injured when Air Force jets indiscriminately bombarded coastal villages of Chundikulam and Mathalan in the Mullaitivu district. We registered our strongest protest to President Kumaratunga through our Norwegian peace envoy over the intensification of aerial bombardment in the Tamil civilian areas. In this context we wish to warn the Sri Lankan government that we reserve the right to terminate our self-imposed truce if it refuses to de-escalate the war and continue with its armed offensive operations including air strikes."
Since December last year, the Government has repeatedly rejected the LTTE's unilateral offer of a cease-fire. President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, Commander-in-Chief, has told the National Security Council that there was no change in the Government's policy of a military response to Tiger guerrillas. Hence, she made it clear offensive operations should continue.
It is in this backdrop the Government learnt of new LTTE preparations for military offensives in the east. More than one intelligence arm of the Government reported periodically in the past three weeks of a large LTTE build up in the east.
The LTTE's one time Batticaloa leader, Karuna, who has led many a battle in the North during the string of operations titled "Ceaseless Waves," was in Batticaloa. He was reported to be training a large group for a major offensive in the East, likened by senior intelligence sources to be of the magnitude of "Ceaseless Waves" operations. He was reported to be supervising his cadres practicing with a sand model of an unidentified target in the east. Other Tiger guerrilla "top rungers" who have arrived from the North were said to be Karikalan, Vishu (Political Wing), Kaushalya and Thaatha alias Jim Kelly.
After several checks, the Sri Lanka Air Force had planned sorties to attack the training areas, suspected to be near the Beirut Base in Kokkadicholai (Batticaloa district) during pre-dawn raids last Wednesday. This was called off and the jets were diverted to take on Sea Tiger targets north of Mullaitivu that Wednesday.
However, SLAF Kfir and Mig-27 jets carried out two different sorties within an interval of two hours last Thursday. The first was marred by heavy cloud cover. But during the second run, they hit parts of the Beirut Base. Radio intercepts later spoke of eight LTTE cadres being killed and 24 others being wounded. However, confirmation is still awaited on whether the target covered the latest training area.
In Thursday's statement, the LTTE has castigated what it calls the "foreign policy determinations" of United States, Britain, European nations and India, towards the Sri Lankan "ethnic conflict." It says "by supporting Sri Lanka with financial and military assistance and by condemning and criminalising the Tamil struggle as a phenomenon of 'international terrorism' these international Governments are not in any way contributing to the promotion of peace and ethnic re-conciliation in the island but rather encourage the hard line 'militaristic approach of a repressive regime against the aggrieved and oppressed Tamil nation.' "
The LTTE statement claims "it is a tragic paradox that under the cover of eradicating 'international terrorism.' the most powerful nations of the world have turned against the most oppressed sections of humanity who are alienated and helpless yet waging a fair, just and legitimate struggle for their emancipation."
Fair or otherwise, the LTTE certainly is preparing for a bigger war should the latest peace initiatives flounder. Newer acquisitions, fresh recruitment and the stepped up training are just part of a grand plan. This time, the Government is not only aware of most details but is also sharing the knowledge with the appropriate authorities in the West and in the region.
The Government, therefore, continues to wage war. At least until it begins to talk peace. The LTTE seems to be talking peace whilst it is preparing for a stepped up war.
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