Sri Lanka's three month old 'open secret', one deftly denied by politicians and overlooked by officials, became an embarrassing revelation world-wide early this week.
Zimbabwe admitted for the first time that a consignment of 32,400 rounds of 81 mm mortar bombs they despatched to Sri Lanka in July, this year, has gone missing.
An Israeli arms dealer whom Zimbabwe accuses of being a part charterer of the ship that brought the consignment has admitted that the military cargo is now in the hands of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
One of Zimbabwe's national newspapers, the Harare based Financial Gazette, bared the shocking details this week.
Colonel Tshinga Dube, Chief Executive of the state owned Zimbabwe Defence Industries (ZDI), who officially confirmed the cargo of mortar bombs was missing admitted it was possible his firm was conned into loading and transporting the mortar bombs into a wrong vessel. The full story in the Financial Gazette of September 25 appears on this page.
The International Police Organisation (Interpol) which is now conducting investigations, authoritative sources in Colombo said, have confirmed Col. Dube's doubts. The LTTE did inveigle the ZDI into parting with the mortar bombs. That is no longer in doubt or a mystery. Interpol is now trying to ascertain how this was done and the international links the LTTE utilised to achieve it.
It can now be revealed that the man who executed it was none other than Kumaran Pathmanathan or more well known in Colombo's intelligence community by his initials, KP or his title Chief Logistics Officer. The globe trotting guerrilla who reports direct to LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, heads one of the movement's important divisions - The KP Department. He is singularly responsible for procuring arms, ammunition, explosives, chemicals, uniforms and other related requirements to the LTTE.
KP also directs and controls LTTE's international shipping operations, recently re-constituted to include three separate companies - Delta (Marine) Ltd., Plymouth Marine Ltd. and Marine Shipping and Trading Ltd. Together they are said to own at least six ships flying different flags of convenience. Among them Sweeny (Malta), Nifly (Panama), and Showa Maru - a tanker - (Liberia). The legitimate side of the operation is that they carry cargo to various destinations and conduct business through a network of branches in world capitals. This cover is used to smuggle military hardware to Sri Lanka via the international shipping lanes in the east coast.
KP is said to have executed the Zimbabwe operation from South Africa, which he had used as a base for many months planning. Government has learnt that the LTTE had made inroads into arms markets in the Southern African region. KP had during planning stages sent out some of his hand picked LTTE men both to Zimbabwe and Mozambique for preparations.
According to one unconfirmed report, the LTTE put together a French crew to man the fictitious vessel 'Stillus Victoria', which collected the cargo from the Mozambican port of Beiria. They are said to have flown to an unknown city from a South African airport to board one of LTTE's own ships whose registered name had been altered. It is known that a vessel named 'MV Victoria' was in LTTE possession two years ago.
Douglas Mrewa, Deputy Chief Executive of ZDI, who met Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Rohan de S. Daluwatte, in Colombo in early August (SITUATION REPORT August 10) assured the latter that the consignment of 32,400 rounds of 81 mm mortar bombs had in fact been shipped. He told the Army Chief that the mortar bombs were in 12 containers and was on the vessel 'MV Stillus Limmasul' (now known to be fictitious) which had been part chartered with an Israeli ordnance company. He gave the name as LBG based in Tel Aviv.
Ben Tsoi is the Chief Executive of LBG. He emphatically denies a claim made by Col. Dube that he collaborated in the joint charter of the vessel. It is cargo from his company that is said to have been carried to the Namibian port of Windhoek before the ship returned to Madagascar en route to Colombo. Mr. Tsoi told Financial Gazette he had not handled the transportation of arms, although he knew that the whole consignment was now in the hands of the LTTE.
Mr.Tsoi, however, admits that his firm only supplied some parts used in the manufacture of the missing mortar bombs - one fact which confirms that ZDI had difficulties in executing the Sri Lankan order on time. Although the Sri Lanka Army placed the order for the mortar bombs in February, this year, during May and June, ZDI sought extension of delivery dates. During this period ZDI tried hard to obtain mortar bombs from Bulgaria and China to fulfil Sri Lanka's order without delay. They were, however, unsuccessful.
Whose version is correct, Col. Dube's or Mr. Tsoi's? According to sources in Colombo, Interpol believes the Israeli arms dealer has the answers to a number of puzzling questions. These sources believe it was Mr. Tsoi who had brokered the joint charter arrangement with a company that the LTTE fronted with one of its own vessels. They suspect he back tracked after the scandal broke out. The same sources said the LTTE handsomely paid the crew for moving the ship with the cargo of mortar bombs from Madagascar to an Asian port. It is from here that the LTTE had begun smuggling mortar bombs in small quantities into Sri Lanka.
I tried to reach Mr. Tsoi by telephone in Tel Aviv yesterday. His office phones rang but there was no answer.
Col. Dube has told Financial Gazette that the cargo (32,400 mortar bombs 81 mm) will not be replaced until the whereabouts of the missing bombs were established. His remarks are in marked contrast to a statement made by Deputy Defence Minister, General Anuruddha Ratwatte. He claimed, "we have been having dealings with Zimbabwe for arms and all what we have ordered have reached here."
He added, "However, since it was possible that the LTTE may try to get some arms, the government has taken action to check that. The forces are on alert."
The order for the 32,400 rounds of 81 mm mortar bombs did not result in a financial loss to the Government. However, the fact it fell into LTTE hands had a devastating effect. It not only enriched the LTTE arsenal but became the single weapon that caused the vast number of injuries in the ongoing 'Operation Jaya Sikurui' , which is 138 days old today. That seemed to come as an injury to the military establishment which had suffered previous insults. The injuries, of course, were the LTTE use of artillery and other military equipment captured from the security forces, particularly during the attack on the Mullaitivu Military Base in July, last year. They not only strengthened the guerrilla capability of the LTTE but also led to a sizeable volume of casualties to troops. I spoke on the telephone to an official of the Zimbabwe Defence Industries. He confirmed that the only outstanding order from Sri Lanka which the ZDI had to execute was the one for 32,400 rounds of 81 mm mortar bombs. "We have supplied all your other requirements. After the ship was reported missing, we airlifted 20 tons of ammunition," he said speaking on grounds of anonymity. The official confirmed that the outstanding order for mortar bombs would not be executed until Interpol inquiries are over and further contacts are made with the Government of Sri Lanka. The remarks put paid to claims that ZDI had replaced the mortar bombs cargo that went missing.
Western diplomats in Colombo say that by trying to play down the missing ship episode, the Government lost a 'golden opportunity'. They say the Government should have admitted the incident had occurred for no fault of theirs and canvassed international opinion to condemn the LTTE for sea piracy. "That would have helped other Governments to take a more tougher stance against the LTTE," one of them said.
Noted another, "This is not the only opportunity Sri Lanka has missed. Take for example the LTTE attack on MV Cordialite in Pulmoddai. The vessel belonged to a Chinese company and the cargo to a United States firm. Two super powers were involved. No effort was made to publicise and call for collective action. That too at a time when the US wants to list the LTTE as a terrorist organisation."
One of the saddest lapses in the so called Eelam War Three has been the management of news relating to the separatist war and the ban on media access to the battle areas. Any report that is perceived to be either embarrassing or damaging is countered with statements, which over a period of time, do not hold. The missing ship mystery adds to the long list of examples. Even if colossal sums are spent on the war effort (not to mention the commissions and cut backs that have spawned a new generation of rich men), lives are lost, soldiers are maimed, whatever gains made at great sacrifices in the battlefield are being lost on the propaganda front. Ironically the only propaganda that now remains is the political mileage that is being skimmed off the heroism of the troops at the battlefront whose brave acts are not seen and heard.
KP's Zimbabwe operation is being described as his second biggest. The first, according to sources in Colombo, was how he successfully directed the shipment of a vast quantity of TNT and plastic explosives from a Chemical Plant in Ukraine (part of former Soviet Union) in August 1994. The LTTE vessel 'MV Sweeny' had carried the cargo in from the port of Nikolai. Although Government entertained doubts about this earlier, intelligence channels later confirmed its correctness.
The Gulf War and fears fuelled by reports that Indian Navy would intercept them in Indian Ocean waters had prompted LTTE ships to use the Cape of Good Hope. It is this factor that had prompted the LTTE to foster very close links in South Africa. At least four separate groups - Tamil Eelam Support Movement, People Against Sri Lanka Oppression, South African Tamil Federation and National Tamil Federation - are said to be openly supporting LTTE activity there.
Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, who was on a visit to South Africa, last year, was shocked at briefings he received on LTTE activities there. So much so he has given top priority for the opening of a Sri Lanka diplomatic mission there. It is likely such a mission will begin functioning in the next three or four months.
How strong a base the LTTE has established in South Africa is underscored by a report that President Nelson Mandela himself had met a group of 14 LTTE cadres (including three women) in Pretoria. They had been present in the Tiger guerrilla camouflage and the meeting had come off after the LTTErs met South African diplomats in Ooty in India earlier. Foreign Ministry officials, however, refuse to confirm the story.
Foreign Ministry has had reports from intelligence channels and other sources about LTTE's strong influence in South Africa. Recently, when the Government of Sri Lanka wanted to obtain spare parts for the South African built Buffel armoured vehicles (used both by the Army and the Special Task Force of the Police), the LTTE lobby had successfully campaigned against it.
One of the documents available with the Foreign Ministry in this regard is from a Sri Lankan, a journalist turned author and now Chevening Scholar in International Relations at the University of St Andrew, Scotland, Dr. Rohan Gunaratne.
A document 9LABELled 'RESTRICTED' and described as based on intelligence provided by western intelligence and security community monitoring terrorist groups states under the heading 'OPPORTUNITIES AND OPERATIONS' that the LTTE had developed a capability to operate in the South African region, primarily because of the close co-operation it received from the hard-liners in the African National Congress. It quotes western agencies as projecting that the LTTE will use its own expertise in the arms trade in the South African region to strengthen this capability and capacity.
The mystery of the missing ship with the cargo of mortar bombs was exclusively revealed in these columns beginning July 20.
ZIMBABWEAN authorities this week broke a self- imposed security code of silence to officially confirm that a shipload of locally made mortar bombs worth millions of dollars had disappeared at high seas on its way to the Sri Lanka Army in Colombo.
And the bombs are now believed to have been hijacked by the rebel Tamil Tigers, who for the past 15 years have been battling the Colombo government to set up a separate homeland in northern Sri Lanka, known as the Jaffna peninsula.
Colonel Tshinga Dube, head of the state owned Zimbabwe Defence Industries (ZDI) which manufactured the missing bombs and other arms of war, said that the International Police Organisation (Interpol) was hunting for both the captain of the missing ship and an Israeli national, Ben Tsoi, who he said the ZDI had contracted to transport the bombs to Colombo.
But Tsoi, speaking by telephone from Tel Aviv, told the Financial Gazette he had not handled the transportation of the arms, although he knew that the whole consignment was now in the hands of the rebel Tamil Tigers (LTTE).
"I know the merchandise (mortar bombs) was of good quality" said Tsoi, Chief Executive of an Israeli military firm known as LBG. "The problem is in Sri Lanka. They (Sri Lankan authorities) know that the ship was hijacked by the LTTE. I don't know why they want to blame me.
He said his firm had only supplied ZDI with some parts used in the manufacture of the missing mortar bombs.
Dube told the Financial Gazette in Harare that he had since reported the matter to Interpol for further investigations.
"Yes, we definitely have a ship that carried mortar bombs to Sri Lanka, but it is missing and we donít know the circumstance," he said.
"We took this matter to Interpol and we await the results of their investigations. Whether it is true that it was hijacked or those people cheated us and sold the arms elsewhere is what we donít know at the moment. But it is definite the stuff was loaded onto a ship," he said.
Dube said it was possible his firm could have been conned into loading and transporting 32,400 rounds of 81 mm mortar bombs into a wrong vessel, which went missing in the Indian Ocean in July between Madagascar and Sri Lanka.
He said the cargo was valued at about $ 18 million, although Sri Lankan authorities say it was worth over $ 30 million .
The mystery ship has been missing for almost three months now after having last docked at a port in Madagascar en route to Colombo, a journey run by ships in less than a week.
Interpol sources both in Harare and Colombo strongly suspect that the vessel could have been hijacked by the Tiger rebels. The missing mortars were urgently required by Colombo to repel Tamil Tigers, our sources said. The Sri Lankan authorities placed the order for the supply of bombs in February, this year, after Dube had visited Colombo.
It was highly possible, our military sources said, that the ZDI could have been conned into loading the ammunition on to a ship owned by the Tigers.
The Tigers are known to operate three shipping firms whose vessels also ply international waters doing both legitimate and illegitimate business.
Tsoi said that the missing ship was chartered by ZDI and not himself to move the cargo from the Mozambican port of Beira to Colombo. He said the Sri Lankan Army had told him that the Tamil Tigers had between July 4 and 31 hijacked three ships, one of them carrying Zimbabwean bombs.
According to this weekís military reports reaching Harare from Colombo, the vast number of casualties suffered by Sri Lankan troops were probably from the 81 mm mortars and artillery fire.
The Tigers, who until recently had no mortars, are said to be firing an average of 3,000 to 3,500 rounds of mortar bombs a day.
Sources in Sri Lanka strongly suspect that the Tigers were firing the mortars which were part of the contraband from ZDI. Captured Tamil Tigers had apparently also corroborated this assertion, the sources said.
Dube said the consignment stuffed in 12 containers was first moved by road from Harare to Beira, where it was loaded on to a vessel which, he alleged, had been hired by LBG en route to Colombo via South Africa, Namibia and Madagascar.
Dube said Interpol investigators were currently trekking Tsoi in Tel Aviv, Israel. However, this newspaper had no problems this week in locating Tsoi at his company's headquarters in Tel Aviv. "I have been doing business deals with ZDI but I was not involved in the transportation of the cargo to Sri Lanka. I don't even know the owner of this ship and I don't know who will lose out,"he said.
Tsoi said he could not reveal any further information because the deal was confidential. He said Zimbabwe's secret service working jointly with its counterparts in Colombo and assisted by Interpol, was investigating the events that led the ship to go missing or intercepted by the rebels.
"I don't know what is happening, but I think the only people who are in a position to know are LBG of Israel whom we contracted to transport the consignment to Sri Lanka."
He said what complicated the investigation was that even the captain of the ship, known as 'Stillus Limmasul' or 'Stillus Victoria', although believed to be alive, was nowhere to be found now. "One thing we want to establish is the story from the captain of the ship," he said.
Dube also confirmed that the whole consignment of the bombs was locally-manufactured. The cargo, he said, would not be replaced until the whereabouts of the missing bombs were established.
"We have never had such an experience before. This is the first time that our cargo has gone missing," the ZDI Chief said.
Dube said because Zimbabwe Police Commissioner, Augustine Chihuri, was a member of the Interpol executive, he was hopeful the world police body would be able to track down the culprits.
Dube's deputy, Douglas Mrewa, was in Colombo last month for talks with Sri Lanka Army Commander, Lieutenant General Rohan de S. Daluwatte to assure him that the ZDI had met its contractual obligation.
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