Close encounter of the Tiger kind
- LTTE mortar fire shatters security myth in liberated east.
- Envoys run for cover as pilots take prompt action to avert major tragedy.
- Disaster Management Minister's visit caught up in diplomatic disaster.
It was just past 8.30 a.m. last Tuesday when controllers at the air base in Batticaloa cleared the gleaming white Cessna Baron aircraft to touch down there.
The model C55 aircraft, with a maximum speed of 373 kilometres per hour (201 knots), owned by a private company, was on a charter heading from China Bay in Trincomalee. After Captain Muaz Izzadeen brought the five-seater aircraft to a halt at a parking bay, Amin Awad, representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Sri Lanka alighted and walked away. He had almost reached his car that lay parked in the base area to drive to the District Secretariat. A top level conference had been planned there later that morning.
Just then, loud explosions began to render the air. Mortars rained. At least four of them fell near the parking apron. One caused scrapes on a wing of the Beechcraft. Two more mortars fell some distance away. Air Force men braved the firing to hurriedly do damage control. They wanted to ensure the aircraft took off to avoid any further damage. This was after a prompt check on its airworthiness. Unable to wait for his first officer, who had moved away for a while, Captain Izzadeen took off immediately and headed for Amparai. There, the Beechcraft remains parked awaiting minor repairs.
|The Air Force Mi-17 VIP helicopter just after touch down at the Weber Stadium in Batticaloa last Wednesday
Air Force air traffic controllers in Batticaloa had other important chores to cope with that day. An Mi-17 troop transport helicopter configured for VIP flights, followed by a Bell 212, was in the skies above. They had taken off from the one time race course at Colombo's Reid Avenue at 7.30 a.m. Their scheduled departure at 7 a.m. had been delayed due to the late arrival of a UN official.
On board the Russian built Mi-17 were top diplomats, United Nations and Government officials. There was also the Minister for Disaster Management and Human Rights, Mahinda Samarasinghe who had invited them.
There was to be a conference at the District Secretariat in Batticaloa to discuss matters relating to re-settlement of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), human rights and development issues. Thereafter, the entourage was to be flown to the coastal fishing village of Vakarai, liberated by the Army from guerrilla control in January, this year. Mr Samarasinghe believed the visit would give the diplomats and UN officials a better understanding of the ground situation and pave the way for aid programmes. In Vakarai, in particular, electricity supply had been restored. Development of other infrastructure facilities to re-settle the IDPs was now a dire need.
Not many were aware that Air Force air traffic controllers had radioed the Mi-17, doing its finals for landing, to hold. The Bell 212 was also told to follow suit. The two helicopters that had reached the skies over Batticaloa around 8.30 a.m. were thus circling in a loop. Minister Samarasinghe, who occupied a forward seat asked his next passenger, Governor for North and East, Rear Admiral (retired) Mohan Wijewickrema "have we missed the landing area?" He replied, "There appears to be some confusion. Not sure whether someone had taken pot shots at the Air Force down there." The helicopters were in that holding position for almost 25 minutes. Then the air traffic controllers cleared the Mi-17 to touch down at the Weber Stadium, located two kilometers away from the Air Force base in the heart of the town. It adjoins the District Secretariat where the conference was to be held.
It was 8.55 a.m. when Squadron Leader Anuruddha Bandara who had done at least three wide circuits lowered the Mi-17 helicopter on the ground. The first to alight was Mr. Samarasinghe. Others who followed were Rear Admiral (retd.) Wijewickrema, United States Ambassador Robert O. Blake, French Ambassador Jean-Bernard de Vaivre, Japanese Ambassador Kiyoshi Araki, Italian Ambassador Pio Mariani, United Nations Resident Co-ordinator Frederick Lyons, Nishani Jayamaha, UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) Liaison Officer at the Ministry of Disaster Management and two security officers.
The rest were still in the helicopter when a thundering explosion rendered the air. It shook the ground. Minister Samarasinghe was just then shaking hands with local military and police top brass. A Police Special Task Force (STF) commando shouted it was mortar fire. He ran followed by Rear Admiral (retd.) Wijewickrema, and the others who had alighted from the helicopter. At one point, his white sarong did not stretch and Mr. Samarasinghe fell down. A little distance away, he saw a mortar fall throwing sand and dust into the air. Soon he made it to a Buffel, an armoured vehicle. The Minister saw Ambassador Araki rushing and helped him into the Buffel.
Sqn. Ldr. Bandara who had kept the engines of the Mi-17 running saw what was going on. He shouted loud asking passengers who had not disembarked to remain seated and was hurriedly airborne. Air traffic controllers in the meanwhile advised the Bell 212 helicopter hovering above not to touch down. The two helicopters with the remaining diplomats, UN and Government officials flew 40 kilometres away to Valachchenai. They landed in the Army's 52 Brigade Headquarters located in the former Eastern Paper Mills Corporation complex.
Others on the ground at Weber Stadium ran to a row of vehicles that were awaiting their arrival. Thereafter they drove to the office of the Superintendent of Police, Batticaloa, Maxie Proctor. It is then that Mr Samarasinghe noticed two envoys – German Ambassador Juergen Weerth and Italian Ambassador Pio Mariano – were missing. News was to spread that that duo were injured. It later turned out that Mr. Weerth had so kindly accompanied his Italian colleague who had a minor head injury.
In Colombo, Air Chief Marshal Donald Perera conveyed the news of the incident to Basil Rajapaksa, Senior Advisor to the President. He promptly began "trouble shooting measures." His first action was to inform President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was then at a religious ceremony in a temple in Beijing. The latter was not only concerned but was angry that such an incident had been allowed to occur. Basil Rajapaksa later spoke to brother Gotabhaya, Defence Secretary and Lalith Weeratunga, Secretary to the President. Their immediate task was to ensure the entourage returned safely to Colombo.
Within minutes after the Mi-17 had taken off from the Weber Stadium, more mortar shells had begun to fall there. One fell exactly where the helicopter had landed. That proved that the pilot Sqn. Ldr. Bandara had taken a wise decision to move away with the passengers who had not disembarked. Thus, he saved the lives of some who would have been at great risk.
Even before the smoke from the falling mortars had cleared, the incident sent shock waves reeling down the defence and security establishment. It was coming at a time when official accounts had boasted of the east being cleared with the exception of Toppigala and other smaller hideouts of guerrillas. Contrary to these claims, here was the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) directing mortar fire in the heart of the Batticaloa town. That was at a time when diplomats from some of the world's leading countries, and the biggest aid givers to Sri Lanka, were being taken there to show how calm and normal things were for development activity. There were guerrillas only some two to three hundred yards away giving the exact co-ordinates to those firing mortars. Such a thing could be done only if they can clearly watch where the mortars fell.
Within minutes, the incident in Batticaloa was world news. The LTTE was the first to react in a move that showed its promptness with propaganda. A statement issued at 12.36 p.m, some three hours after the incident, from Kilinochchi said:
"Two aircrafts (sic) that landed in two military installations in Batticaloa came under LTTE fire this morning at 9.30 a.m. One aircraft landed in the Batticaloa military airstrip and the other landed inside the Batticaloa military head office premises.
"In recent times the Batticaloa air space has only been used by the Sri Lankan military. Two landing sites, the Batticaloa airstrip and the military head office complex are used for military purposes only. The airstrip was also used to bring military supply. Sri Lankan military also uses these locations as artillery positions. Even this morning there was provocative shelling by the Sri Lankan military in Batticaloa.
"LTTE military spokesman, S. Ilanthiriyan, expressed shock and sadness that Sri Lanka Government has exposed senior diplomats to danger by allowing air crafts (sic) carrying them into an area where they have declared military operations without informing LTTE in advance. He added that this is criminal negligence on the part of the Sri Lankan Government. He said that simple diplomacy could have avoided the unfortunate incident and condemned the childish action of the Sri Lankan military.
"Ilanthiriyan noted that a channel of communication exists between the LTTE and UN agencies and the ICRC for exchanging flight information when flying to the Palaly military airport in Jaffna. This well established and effective channel is operated through the LTTE Secretariat for Liaison with UN and International Agencies in Kilinochchi. No such channel of communication has been opened regarding Batticaloa airspace.
"Indeed, immediately after the event, Marian Din Kajdomcaj, Head of UN Security, contacted M. Pavarasan of the LTTE Liaison office and the shelling was stopped immediately and the air crafts (sic) with foreign diplomats were able to take off safely.
"Kadomcaj thanked Pavarasan of LTTE for the prompt action and acknowledged their failure to warn LTTE about the flight in advance."
The Government's formal response came only at 2.17 p.m. on Tuesday. One would expect its official machinery to be much quicker than the LTTE. The latter is to a large extent beset with communication problems. Yet, the quick response shows their close monitoring of events. But, on critical issues, by reacting late, the Government tends to lose the momentum. And the Batticaloa incident is no exception. This is what the statement said:
"The Government has condemned in the strongest terms today's attack on diplomats by the LTTE and re-iterated its position on the need to eliminate terrorism.
"The attack took place when senior western diplomats, accompanied by the Minister for Human Rights and Disaster Management, Mahinda Samarasinghe visited Batticaloa to assess the re-settlement process of IDPs now in progress there.
"A statement issued by the Minister of Foreign Affairs Rohitha Bogollagama on the mortar and artillery attack carried out by the LTTE in Batticaloa this morning states: The LTTE has once again demonstrated its terrorist nature by launching an attack on the Diplomatic Corps on their visit to Batticaloa, on the east coast of Sri Lanka, on a humanitarian mission."
"The mortar attack was made when a number of senior diplomats comprising the Ambassadors of USA, Italy and Germany were landing at an airfield in Batticaloa. Seven security personnel and the Ambassador of Italy have sustained injuries. The visit was undertaken to assess the resettlement process that is currently in progress in the East of Sri Lanka. These areas have now been substantially cleared of the LTTE and the resettlement of IDPs is currently taking place. The Human Rights and Disaster Management Minister Hon. Mahinda Samarasinghe led the mission.
"The Government of Sri Lanka condemns this attack by the LTTE in the strongest terms and re-iterates its position on the need to eliminate terrorism in all its forms. I take this opportunity to call upon the international community to support the endeavours of the Government of Sri Lanka to address the scourge of terrorism and to pressure the LTTE to give up terrorism and return to the democratic fold. Once again, this is a reminder for the international community to take effective measures to eliminate fund raising and weapons procurement by the LTTE in foreign countries."
The LTTE has taken responsibility for the mortar fire and claims it halted the firing after Head of UN Security in Sri Lanka, Marian Din Kajdomcaj got in touch with them. The UN official was not the only one who made contact with the LTTE. In fact, from the SP's office in Batticaloa, Ambassador Blake telephoned his Norwegian colleague Hans Brattskar. The latter was on a visit to Hambantota where he was inspecting Oslo aided projects. He had also telephoned Kilinochchi to tell LTTE Political Wing leaders about the mortar attacks. He had been assured that "orders" have gone out to military leaders in the East to call an immediate halt. They had apolgised for not being aware that diplomats and UN officials were arriving in Batticaloa.
But in Colombo, senior defence officials and sections of the intelligence community thought otherwise. They were categoric and insistent that the LTTE had "full knowledge" and the attacks were therefore "deliberate".
Without a doubt, the LTTE mortar attack on those engaging in a humanitarian task is both reprehensible and should be condemned outright. But it is highly inconceivable the guerrillas would have been aware. Unlike the use of small arms to fire a warning shot, no such warnings could be given by firing an area weapon like a mortar or artillery. Hence, the LTTE would be conscious that if mortars were to kill one or more diplomats, it would bring them unimaginable consequences. It is sheer luck the Minister, diplomats, UN and Government officials escaped, some with injuries.
This view is endorsed by US Ambassador Blake, head of the Donor Co-chairs. "While I do not believe the LTTE intended to target diplomats and UN officials, the United States strongly condemns all terrorism and calls on the LTTE to renounce terrorism and violence," he told The Sunday Times. SEE BOX STORY FOR ANSWERS AMBASSADOR BLAKE GAVE TO QUESTIONS POSED BY The Sunday Times.
Another Ambassador spoke to me on grounds of anonymity. Asked what he had to say about the mortar attack, he replied " I saw realities."
He was alluding to the headline on this page last week that said MEDIA VICTORIES, MILITARY VICTORIES AND REALITIES.
Security officials have established that 81 mm mortars were fired by the guerrillas. Whilst some believe, the intermittent firing may be because the mortar tube was mounted on a vehicle, others say the firing may have come from either guerrilla dominated Vavunativu or the nearby Buffalo Island.
On security advice, the conference planned for at the District Secretariat was cancelled. Instead, Mr. Samarasinghe chaired a meeting at the office of the Deputy Inspector General of Police, Lasantha de Silva. Diplomats, UN and Government officials who were able to land at the Weber Stadium took part. There were shocks at the meeting when a string of complaints on the conduct of members of the Karuna faction surfaced. The other issue was the numerous problems faced by the refugees.
High ranking defence officials in Colombo were closely monitoring the situation. They were of the view that even if the Mi-17 helicopter took off at 7 am as scheduled, it would still have come under guerrilla attack. The reason – guerrilla scouts were reconnoitering the area. That was how those firing the mortars had learnt of the arrival first of the Beechcraft. Hence, they decided that with the end of the conference, there would be no flights over Batticaloa.
A string of armoured personnel carriers (APCs) were lined up. The Minister, diplomats, UN and Government officials boarded them for a 40 kilometre high speed drive to Valachchenai. This was after the route was cleared and heavily armed troops were placed at regular intervals. At the 522 Brigade Headquarters Minister Samarasinghe requested Brigadier Daya Ratnayake to give the entourage a presentation of the Army's recapture of Vakarai. With that over, they boarded the helicopters for the return to Colombo.
At the Air Force grounds at Sir Chittampalam Gardiner Mawatha, there was an emotional welcome. President's Special Advisor Basil Rajapaksa hugged every envoy and received them. Italian Ambassador Mariani, who was rushed to the General Hospital for a CT scan learnt how close he was between life and death – a piece of shrapnel was very close to his skull. A tiny distance more and it would have fractured the skull leading to serious fatality.
Defence top brass and sections of the Government believe Tuesday's LTTE mortar attacks on diplomats would further anger their Governments towards the guerrillas. That remains to be seen. But there is one fact they will find very bitter to stomach. They may even hate it being told.
The envoys of the leading countries will no doubt tell their respective Governments that all is still not well in the East contrary to all the official claims. Even bitterer, they will also say that they could not be protected by the authorities who took them and thus faced risks to their lives. They will, for sure, not hide the truth to their own officials and political leaders. So by using a few mortar shells, the guerrillas have succeeded in challenging the Government's credibility.
Whether there will be accountability to deal with those responsible for the lapses remains the big question. If not, there will sure be nothing but more embarrassment.
Terrorism cannot be defeated by military means alone: US ambassador
United States Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Robert O. Blake said his Government condemned Tuesday’s mortar attack in Batticaloa on diplomats and UN officials but declared he did not think Tiger guerrillas intended to target them. Here are answers he gave to questions posed by The Sunday Times:
RESPONSE TO WEDNESDAY'S MORTAR ATTACK:
We strongly condemn all terrorist attacks. This particular delegation was led by Minister Samarasinghe and included a number of ambassadors and heads of UN agencies, all of whom were visiting Batticaloa for the sole purpose of learning what more can be done to help resettle the 79,000 internally displaced people in the area and reduce human rights violations by the Karuna group and others.
WHETHER HE IS SATISFIED WITH THE LTTE EXPLANATION THAT THE MORTAR ATTACKS WAS A MISTAKE:
While I do not believe the LTTE intended to target diplomats and UN officials, the United States strongly condemns all terrorism and calls on the LTTE to renounce terrorism and violence.
ON HIS DECLARATION THAT THERE IS NO MILITARY SOLUTION FOR SRI LANKA'S ETHNIC CONFLICT:
It is virtually impossible to defeat a terrorist insurgency by military means alone. There must be a parallel political strategy to address the underlying grievances that give rise to terrorism. That is why the U.S. and other Co-Chairs strongly support a negotiated solution to the conflict. We also believe that the current effort underway in the All Party Representative Committee to develop a power-sharing proposal represents the best opportunity in years to address the root causes of the conflict. While the U.S. government does not support a military solution to the conflict, we do support the Government of Sri Lanka's right to defend itself against terrorism.
ON REPORTS IN SOME SECTIONS THAT TAMIL PEOPLE NOW ENJOY ALL RIGHTS:
The Tamil community must speak for itself on this important issue. The moderate Tamils I have spoken with do not support a military solution. They share our hope that the APRC process will produce a power-sharing proposal that will exceed in scope the proposals put forward by then President Kumaratunga in 2000.
WHETHER WEDNESDAY'S ATTACK WOULD CHANGE THE ATTITUDE OF U.S. TOWARDS LTTE:
Tuesday's attack reinforces our conviction that the LTTE is a terrorist organization. The U.S. designated the LTTE a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 1997. Nothing has happened to change our attitude. The United States has arrested LTTE agents and supporters for providing financial and material support to the Tigers. We have provided expert advice to track terrorist financing. The U.S. has worked with other like-minded nations to cut off LTTE funding and eliminate covert arms shipments. The United States will consider changing its attitude towards the LTTE when they renounce terrorism, cease suicide bombing, stop recruiting children and engage in serious talks towards a negotiated solution.
ON U.S. APPROACH TO IRAQ AND SRI LANKA:
The United States has a consistent approach everywhere, which is to eliminate terrorism and promote democracy.
ON FORMER FOREIGN MINISTER MANAGALA SAMARAWEERA'S ACCUSATIONS ABOUT HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS:
Friends of Sri Lanka in the United States Senate and House of Representatives share the Bush Administration's concern that the human rights situation deteriorated in the last year. The United States welcomes President Rajapaksa's decision to appoint a Commission of Inquiry. The United States and other countries are providing observers and also experts to observe and support the work of the Commission. That is a very important effort, but it is only part of the solution. The government must also take concrete steps to address underlying problems, such as abductions, disappearances and other violations. The U.S. and other members of the international community stand ready to support the government in any way that we can to take such steps.