An angry Defence Secretary Chandrananda de Silva has accused the LTTE of carrying out a dirty act of cowardice in apparent retaliation for the recent US ban on the terrorist groups.
In an exclusive interview with The Sunday Times, Mr. de Silva said the LTTE was also desperate in the aftermath of the battering it was getting from the security forces during the ongoing Jaya Sikurui operations. Citing evidence to back his claim that the LTTE's morale was running low, the Defence Secretary said the group was now recruiting schoolboys and girls.
Last Monday the security forces recovered the bodies of 20 teenage girls and 16 boys after a battle in Kanakarayankulam.
The Defence Secretary said LTTE youth, facing a no-win situation were not any longer prepared to lay down their lives. Many of those nabbed recently had freely given up their cyanide capsules or suicide kits.
Excerpts from the interview:
de Silva: an angry man
Q: Wouldn't you say that our forces were unprepared on Wednesday.
A: Are you saying that the army must and should guard every building and have to stand near each and every building in Colombo? It is a queer assumption. An army has to fight and that is what it is doing now.
Q: You don't therefore think it was due to unpreparedness and lapse by the army that led the LTTE to this act?
A: It was absolutely a cowardly act. What is worse, they chose a Poya day sacred to the Buddhists of this country and killing a harmless venerated priest as well.
What people here don't know is that we keep the security of Colombo constantly under review. Twice a week the police and the armed services study strategies. They are at it most of the time. And may I say that we have contingency plans too, to meet with this sort of incident. So it is wrong to say we were not prepared as such. The forces are alert, and even have practices. I cannot give you the details for obvious security reasons. We also take into consideration what has to be done at vital points and this is predetermined.
Q: There is a feeling in the country that there have been lapses in respect of security in the aftermath of this bomb blast. Also did you not get any intelligence reports as to how this lorry with LTTE cadres came into the midst of the city.
A: I think it is not correct to use the word lapses until inquiries are over. Are you all advocating a 100 percent check of all vehicles entering the city.
Haven't such occurrences taken place in countries more militarily advanced than ours? We are not complacent about it, don't get that idea.
Until we know from what source the lorry emerged and made its way here we cannot most definitely say that the road blocks we have installed have not succeeded in stopping the LTTE lorry.
As I said we are not by any means complacent. Just two hours after the blast we appointed a special high powered committee to check back records and other evidence to ascertain from which point the lorry started towards the city.
Q: Were the LTTE wearing the uniforms of our forces?
A: In this instance most certainly not.
Q: Won't you say that there are some police stations that are corrupt, and do not do proper searching of vehicles entering the city?
A: I cannot say that the police are deliberately corrupt. But when corruption does surface or we get reliable information I can assure you we do take action.
Q: Don't you think this bomb blast at a hotel which injured around 38 tourists and those who had also come for business would be wary to come here in the future?
A: Luckily most foreigners or tourists or whatever had minor injuries and left hospital in a day.The Minister for Tourism has chekced and we are glad to find that all those scheduled to arrive around 470 or so, have all arrived yesterday (Thursday) despite the bomb blast.
Also upto now that is around sixty hours after the bomb blast no one has cancelled bookings, in fact some have reconfirmed their bookings.
Q: Can you give us an account of how many of our forces were killed in what was considered a hand to hand fighting, and how many LTTE.
A: I am sad to state that one of our army officers inside Lake House got shot and also two police officers. Of them, sad to relate, A.S.P. Dharmaratne in bush shirt and shorts was taking an early morning walk and when he heard shots fired, being a duty conscious officer came running towards the Twin Towers and he also called an armed police constable from the other side.
For quite awhile we were not aware of their wherabouts. Later sadly their bodies were found in the rubble.
"As regards the LTTE, the group that had come to the Galadari service barrier opened fire on the three security guards so as to get the lorry through. But when the armed police on normal duty at the Treasury fired in that direction the LTTE ran to take shelter at Lake House.
In the meantime someone at Lake House had rung the army which arrived pronto and the LTTE within Lake House were trying to hide. So much for their bravado.
When the army closed in, two LTTE men committed suicide a third died of gun shots. Another LTTE running along the railway line also got shot. And another too got shot while running along D. R. Wijewardene Mawatha.
Q: What about the LTTE holding around 22 Lake House employees as hostages?
A: When they ran to Lake House for shelter they found these employees at work and surrounded them. But they were released by the army within about an hour and a half.
Q: The state owned papers said that the President referred to forces against the peace plan and certain other elements against the development of the nation who were behind this brutal attack. Your comments?
A: I cannot comment on what the President said. That is not correct for me to do so. But I can say that what has been evident upto now, say from August 1994 to April 1995, is that the President did commence in good faith to communicate with the LTTE leader to bring about peace. But the LTTE unilaterally broke the peace, so obviously the LTTE is a group that stood against peace. As I said I cannot comment any further.
The suicide bombers who infiltrated Lake House on Oct. 15 were not aiming to hijack the state-run Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd., an ANCL manager said on Friday.
"They did not take over Lake House," he told The Sunday Times on request of anonymity. "They were only trying to escape from this incident (the bombing at Colombo's financial district on Wednesday)."
The ANCL department head was off-duty on the morning of the attack widely suspected to be the work of the LTTE's notorious Black Tigers but staffers who were then at Lake House later gave him their own versions. At press time, his staffers and 20 other witnesses were unavailable for comment they were said to be recovering from shock while ANCL management declined requests from The Sunday Times for interviews.
The manager dismissed as "absolutely false" reports that at least three infiltrators possibly had prior intelligence such as blueprints on the building's maze-like design. They had ducked into Lake House, through the rear entrance to the North, in a bid to flee from security personnel who were closing in within minutes of Wednesday's attack, he said.
"They were going down the railway and jumped into our service road, when they saw that they were surrounded by the security forces," he said. "They entered the building through the Transport section in the basement."
Once inside, they discovered that they had company. Twenty Lake House employees had gathered in the basement, and were startled to see these weapon-toting strangers. Apparently, they refrained from identifying themselves, and spoke only in Tamil. But, in the opinion of the department head, these men showed no signs of wanting to menace those civilians.
"They [the infiltrators] didn't attempt to harm them," he said. "They didn't say if they were LTTE."
All they wanted, according to the department head, were directions for how to leave the building, from the opposite side, onto D.R. Wijewardena Mawatha. They asked to be shown to the toilets and be given water while they plotted their getaway, he added.
"They just couldn't get out and asked how they could get out of the building," the manager said. "According to the guys who were present then, they say that the [infiltrators] were clueless."
When the infiltrators were on their way, the civilians who were left behind did not dare to budge for fear of being shot, he said. They were stuck there for nearly two hours until soldiers finally freed them.
"They were not threatening our colleagues, but our fellows got scared because they were carrying guns," the manager added.
But their unexpected visitors were determined to stay there a lot longer. In fact, the lethal game of cat-and-mouse that unfolded at Lake House on Oct. 15, between the bombers and their pursuers in the Armed Forces, lasted over nine hours.
According to a Colonel, who asked not to be named, the storming of the building took part in two stages.
(Between 9:30am and 10:00am, the civilians were liberated by the Colombo Brigade, without casualties being inflicted on either side.
"While the troops were going in, one of the terrorists (from above) tried to grab and lift one of our soldiers," he told the Times, soon after Lake House was taken by commandos in the second stage. "And when the soldier fired up into the ceiling, the civilians then took this time to run out."
When all the civilians were out, two commandos platoons, numbering 30 to 40 men, went in. They entered from the basement and sealed all entrances, searching and clearing each section of the intricate building.
"They started from the bottom and went up," he said.
At 1.30pm, from around 200 metres east of Lake House, where a contingent of journalists were confined throughout much of the day's shoot-out, commandos could be seen scaling the roof of the building. They broke up and removed tiles, before disappearing into the top floor.
The fighting began in earnest about 20 minutes later. From then till the end of the day, with the exception of an hour-long lull in mid-afternoon, sporadic but intense shooting and explosions could be heard from inside the building. At each burst, the hovering crows scattered in the skies over Lake House.
It took so long to clear the building, according to the Colonel, because, in the midst of the fighting, the Lake House lights went out. The commandos had to then hunt the suspected LTTEers with flashlights:
"The building is massive. There is a lot of machinery and cupboards. In fact, one of them was hiding inside a cupboard. There were also a lot of gaps in the ceilings . "
When the fighting was over, one soldier was dead, while the remains of three bombers were displayed in the Lake House basement.
One had been shot dead, while the two others had blown themselves to bits with strapped-on suicide kits.
According to a bomb squad officer, who showed off a suicide kit, the LTTE are now arming their kits with charges that are harder to spot.
"These are not like the ones the LTTE used in earlier days," he said. "The charges are very small and therefore are hard to detect."
This kit had been taken off the body of a fourth dead bomber who lay outside Lake House. Barely five feet tall, he seemed no more than 20 years old.
There was also a fifth man. Shot too in the morning, he lay on the railway tracks next to the Buddhist temple where the bombers had killed a monk during their hit-and-run mission. At around 6.30pm, the bomber's torn-up corpse was thrown in the back of a lorry along with what was left of the four others, while nearby commandos continued to defuse live grenades.
The lorry would take them past the place that had brought them to Colombo in the last morning of their lives. As night and rain fell on the capital, the site of that day's bombing vaguely resembled images from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
photographing the destruction of Wednesday
The wreckage and the ruins at the main site of Wednesday's bomb explosion appeared to have become a tourist attraction.
In the aftermath of the devastation, scores of foreign tourists from other hotels in Colombo were seen around the Galadari and Hilton hotels, taking photographs and filming the scenes on video.
It was paradoxical that while foreign guests in the two affected hotels were packing their bags to leave as fast as possible, whole tourist families, including children, from other hotels, were flocking to the scene of the ruins.
While security was tight, a slip was also showing. Sri Lankans including accredited journalists were closely checked and many were prevented from entering the blast area. But foreign tourists were allowed to move freely in and out.
It was also noted that family members of security forces personnel were also allowed free access largely for sight-seeing purposes.
After the previous night's heavy downpour, October 15 dawned with bright sunshine. It looked like a peaceful Poya holiday. But by 7.00 a.m. all hell broke lose from around the Galadari hotel and for more than two hours a virtual war raged in the city. Based on eyewitness accounts from those who worked in the Galadari hotel The Sunday Times recaptures the scene at the hotel.
6.45 am: Employees clock in for the day's work.
6.50 am: They hear gunshots. Looking out from the hotel they see two men running towards the hotel. One is masked with an RPG in his hand and the other has a rifle. They start firing and security guards from the Presidential Secretariat opposite the hotel return the fire.
All the hotel guests in the lobby and coffee shop and the hotel staff run out to see what is happening. On seeing the gunbattle they run back inside.
Some see terrorist's with the RPGs firing at the hotel Inter-Continental on the other side. The time ticks by and no one knows what is really happening except for the firing.
The Tata 1210 lorry laden with explosives gains entry into the Galadari car park after killing three security guards. The terrorist lorry screeches towards the World Trade Centre on the other side of the wall.
7.11 am: A security guard inside the Galadari hears on his walkie talkie a conversation in Tamil, about an impending bomb explosion. Fearing the worst he shouts out to the guests to run out.
Most of them scramble out of the hotel.Then an explosion rocks the area. The staff and guests at the hotel ran towards the beach. Some jump from the road onto the beach. Then they all ran towards the Navy Headquarters.
The devastation and the impact shattered the glass windows of the Galadari and Hilton, the twin towers of the WTC and the Bank of Ceylon tower. The row of shops and airline offices in the Galadari complex are all damaged.
The lifts at the Galadari break down, guests from all the floors come down through the service stairs. Some were sleeping, but are woken up by the sound of the explosion.
Among those lying dead at the Galadari are a bellboy, a security guard at the entrance to the hotel, a waiter at the Coffee shop, and a steward at the Banquet hall. After working the night he had got up early to go home. He went out and came back running on hearing the firing and the explosion and told his colleagues who worked the night at the hotel to get out fast. While the others got out luck was not on his side a part of the ceiling fell on him and he died.
12.30 pm: Those who escaped to Navy Headquarters trudge back to the hotel. The management moves the guests to Hotel Lanka Oberoi.
General Manager Chandra Mohotti who had put Galadari back on its feet after the 1996 blast was away in India. Mr. Mohotti speaking from there promised to do the same once again or even better. Front Office Manager Fowzie Mohideen was at hand to direct operations.
Some 250 of the 430 rooms at the Galadari were occupied at the time of the blast hotel officials said.
Luxury hotels were anticipating a full flow of tourists during the next few months and this devastation had put the clock back, a travel agent added. All hotels would definitely have had 100 percent occupancy in the next two months with tourists coming from all parts of the globe for the winter season he said.
Galadari officials said the devastation was extensive but they hoped to start rebuilding immediately. Extensive government assistance is likely to be given.
somthing told me I should go to the scene
Of all the acts of bravery by the security forces at the scene of last Wednesday's Fort bomb blast, the gallantry of ASP Nissanka Dharmaratne who rushed to the scene, on hearing the first shots, though unarmed and in civvies, will rank high among heroic feats.
On Wednesday morning the 53 year old ASP had left home for his usual run on Galle Face Green.
By about 7.00 a.m as he was finishing his last lap and was heading towards his car he heard the gunshots. He immediately told some friends he felt he should go towards the Galadari Hotel. They discouraged him since he was unarmed, and proceeded towards their destination believing that Mr. Dharmaratne too would be heading home. Instead the daring officer in his jogging kit had gone towards the hotel.
his act will rank high among heroic feats
Nearing the scene he had seen a few Police Constables firing frantically at the LTTE cadres who were inside the lorry.
The ASP immediately thought of a strategy and directed some constables to go along the hotel kitchen so that they could fire at the lorry from the rear side. Unarmed the ASP had grabbed a weapon from the PC ordering him to get more ammunition from the camp. Along with the constables he reached the back of the lorry firing. All at once the vehicle blew up, a colleague said.
About one mile away the ear splitting noise of the explosion had alerted Yamuna Dharmaratne wife of the ASP who was at their Kompanna- veediya home preparing breakfast. Even though he had not come home by 7.00 a.m. as he usually did she was not worried till she heard the explosion.
She inquired from the officers of her husbands where-abouts. They told her they had seen him heading towards his vehicle and thought he was coming home. At that point Yamuna began to fear the worst.
"I rushed to the National hospital, and with the help of an officer visited each ward in search of my husband. But it was in vain. Then I got in touch with a doctor and requested him to check the theatre. This too drew a blank," Yamuna told The Sunday Times.
When she was about to leave hospital with dwindling hopes of finding her husband, news reached her that the LTTE gunmen were holding hostages inside Lake House.
''Something told me that my husband may be among the hostages and it was a relief. Back home we were trying to confirm this, but by evening there was nothing concrete to go by. Time was running out. Then something told me I should visit the scene," Yamuna said.
Mrs. Dharmaratne along with several police officers went to the scene. It was dark and deserted with a cloud of destruction hovering over them. "I had a strong feeling I had come to the correct place to find my husband. Seeing the ruins I could not imagine he would be alive among this. I wondered what would have happened to my husband. It was not only me but also the other officers knew what was in store, but they just could not tell me,'' she said.
By 11.00 pm ASP Dharmaratne's body was found buried under the debris. His head and left foot were severely injured. As he was not carrying his National or Police Identity cards, the family identified him by his running shorts.
ASP Dharmaratne the fifth in a family of eleven had joined the Sri Lanka police as a constable and in a short time rose fast to the rank of ASP.
Watawala Dharmaratne the ASP's eldest brother told The Sunday Times the family was proud of this act of bravery as much as they were mourning the loss.
ASP Dharmaratne is the father of two daughters and one son.
"My brother was a brave officer who put duty first. As much as he was a loving father and a devoted husband his dedication to his duty was immense," he said.
According to the ASP's brother the IGP has informed the family that ASP Dharmaratne's full salary, vehicle and official residence would be given to the family as a tribute and a mark of gratitude.
The last extra lap that ASP Dharmaratne ran after his morning exercise will rank among the most heroic deeds in police history and put him high in our halls of fame.
Four highly-paid British lawyers, retained by the Ports Authority to finalise the deal with P&O for the Queen Elizabeth Quay, were injured in Wednesday's bomb blast and flew out of the country immediately, leaving Port officials high and dry.
An official of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority said the lawyers from British firm Lovell White Durrant Company had come last Monday and were put up at the Hilton while P&O officials were staying at the Trans Asia Hotel.
The Lawyers had been been paid £ 2,000 a day to finalise legal matters regarding the P&O deal, he said expressing concern over the situation now.
He said one option would be to hire lawyers from another firm to finalise the deal.
It was business as usual in the commercial heart of the city on Friday, with most enterprises rebounding from Wednesday's bomb explosion with a resilience that speaks well for business.
Offices in the World Trade Centre, the Bank of Ceylon and nearby buildings shattered by the explosion, resumed work from Friday though they were asked to move to different locations for security reasons.
Lanka Internet officials said they resumed work 12 noon on Friday while the Colombo Stock Exchange was also back in operation at a back-up site. The Bank of Ceylon and the Central Bank continued their services at branch offices by opening special counters for essential work.
Singapore Airlines and other airline offices, which were heavily damaged in the explosion were operating from Friday and officials said the turnout of employees was near normal.
An SIA official said all work was normal except for ticketing but they hoped that too would be fully restored by tomorrow.
When we visited Galadari Hotel, centre of Wednesday's devastation, workers there were seen clearing up while Lake House, where a hostage drama took place, was also back to normal.
Though external damage to the buildings were extensive, many offices reported that there computers and other internal systems were intact.
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