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Tuesday’s robbery in HSZ exposes security lax in Lanka’s commercial capital
By Chris Kamalendran and Damith Wickremasekara
One of Colombo’s biggest highway robberies in recent times took place in a High Security Zone (HSZ) in broad daylight on Tuesday, underlining that the country’s commercial capital is still not safe despite spy cameras at strategic locations and police presence at virtually every junction.
Vigneshwaran Narendran (not his real name), the owner of a money exchange centre visited the Sampath Bank head office at Sir James Peiris Mawatha shortly before noon. After a while, he left the bank with his driver, carrying Rs. 10 million in a bag.
Mr. Narendran sat on the front seat of his car and directed his driver to proceed towards Wellawatte, but no sooner the vehicle left the bank’s driveway and reached the main road than a lone ‘traffic policeman’ ordered the driver to pull over.
As the driver obeyed and brought the car to a halt, a white Defender jeep came from behind and stopped ahead of it. Two men got off the jeep, walked up to the car and introduced themselves as detectives from the Criminal Investigations Department (CID). They were clad in clothes similar to those worn by VIP security officials.
To piece the story together, the Sunday Times spoke to Mr. Narendran, police officers and several others. This was not the first time that Mr. Narendran had fallen prey to robbers in police clothes. It happened to him in 2007. See the box story. Still recovering from the shock, Mr. Narendran told us how it all happened on Tuesday.
He said: “After ordering my driver to get into the Defender jeep, one of the men sat on the driver’s seat of my car and the other sat behind. They grabbed my mobile phone and the money, saying it was ill-gotten money and they were carrying out an investigation. I told them they could take me to the Kompanna Veediya police, but they said they would take me to the Cinnamon Gardens Police.
“With me in the vehicle, they drove off towards Town Hall. I had lost sight of the jeep. The vehicle proceeded towards Maligawatte and turned towards Dematagoda. They took the side and parked the car under the Baseline Road flyover.
“I saw the white Defender jeep parked a few metres ahead. The two men ordered me to get into the jeep. My driver was inside the jeep which was driven by another robber.
“The jeep proceeded towards Borella, flashing its lights and ignoring traffic signals. There were traffic policemen on duty, but none stopped the jeep. They turned towards Parliament. I saw the Parliament building as well. After a few more rounds in the area, they stopped the vehicle at Pitakotte and first ordered me to get off the vehicle and then my driver.”
Mr. Narendran managed to contact his brother and thereafter lodged a complaint with the Kompanna Veediya police which directed the case to the Colombo Crime Division.
Police spokesman Prishantha Jayakody said the incident showed that robberies could take place even in a high security zone and investigations were on to arrest the suspects. He said the complaint was made three hours after Mr. Narendran was dropped off at Pitakotte. If he had made the complaint immediately, the police could have located the jeep.
Acting on the complaint, the CCD the same day asked the businessman to go to the Kompanna Veediya police where all the traffic policemen who were on duty around noon had been summoned. He was asked whether the traffic policeman involved in the incident was among them. He said no.
Inspector Hemantha Dikowita, the CCD officer-in-charge who is leading the investigations told the Sunday Times that they had collected forensic evidence, including finger prints on the car, and a special team had been appointed to probe the case.
“We have collected some vital information which could not be disclosed immediately. We are expecting an early breakthrough in the case,” he said. The businessman had told police the robbers were armed and he saw they were carrying two pistols while he was being driven around in the jeep.
The robbery has raised questions about security and the vulnerability of a high security zone where Temple Trees, the President’s official residence and several military installations are located.
Former Senior Deputy Inspector General H.M.B. Kotakadeniya said the incident had exposed the security lax in the city and the absence of a mechanism to supervise activities of persons connected with security.“Today the police have no time to carry out their duties as they are either providing security to politicians or carrying out their personal work. I have seen instances where the entire force of a police station is deployed to provide security to politicians when they come for a village sports festival,” he said.
‘Discipline in the police service has deteriorated. Some policemen serving politiicans even do not take orders of the IGP and senior officers seriously,” Mr. Kotakadeniya said.
Former Senior DIG and Special Task Force Chief Nimal Lewke said the crime rate had been rising since the end of the conflict. “Some of the security measures which we introduced have been relaxed leading to the increase in the crime rate in the country. These measures enabled us to receive information from the public and ensure security, but it appears now they are not in operation,” he said.
“Defence authorities should anyalse the situation. To combat the rising crime rate, they should set up an intelligence unit parallel to the State Intelligence Service and it should come under the IGP,” Mr. Lewke said.
Facing the terror all over again
When Vigneshwaran Narendran was robbed of Rs. 10 million on Tuesday, it was a case of going through the terror once again, because in 2007, he lost Rs. 20 million in an armed robbery that was, by a strange twist of fate, carried out by men who posed off as policemen. This was how the Sunday Times in its July 29, 2007 issue reported the incident:
In a sort of comedy of errors and terrors, a police constable saluted an armed robber who was dressed in police uniform — mistakenly thinking he was a senior officer carrying out a search operation in a jewellery-cum-money exchange shop in Wellawatte.
The constable did not know he was allowing this robber and his gang to escape with Rs. 20 million in local and foreign currency – one of the biggest robberies in recent times. According to reports, the gang leader dressed in a police inspector’s uniform and six others had come to the shop near the Galle road and told the staff they wanted to search the premises.
Two gang members remained in the van while the main suspect – the bogus inspector with a pistol in his pouch – summoned the staff and inspected the safes and documents. The bogus inspector then ordered the staff to get back to their seats while he collected the money from the lockers and put them into bags.
A bystander alerted a Wellawatte police constable who was passing by. But as he entered the shop, he saw the person whom he presumed to be an inspector. The horror of errors followed. The constable saluted the gang leader and went away after he was told they were carrying out a search operation.
The gang then came out of the shop and headed for the van when an employee suspected it was a robbery and not a police search. He grabbed one of the suspects, but he was fired upon by the others and was injured in both his legs. The Wellawatte police station was then alerted and a jeep rushed to the shop but it was too late.
Wellawatte Chief Inspector Mangala Dehigama said it was a tragedy of mistaken identity and the police constable believed he was saluting a senior officer. Police have obtained the number of the robbers’ van and a vehicle bearing a similar number has been detected at Embilipiitya. Police are trying to ascertain whether it was the same vehicle or whether the number plates were changed.
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