policeman stands guard near the Colombo city centre yesterday close to where
Tamil Tiger rebels exploded a truck loaded with explosives and fought a gun
battle with government soldiers, killing 18 people and wounding more than 100
The clock atop the Lake House building was to strike seven last Wednesday morning when the Indian built Tata 1210 truck, with a yellow chassis and aluminium body, drove past the roundabout in front, heading in the direction of Fort.
It was Vap Full Moon Poya. The signs of a busy city, with traffic choking the four main roads that link up at this junction or crowds waiting impatiently for a gap to dart across the roads, were absent that day. The streets were virtually empty.
With what appeared to be a full load of rice, stacked in bags that bore the 8LABEL Samba, the truck turned left at Lotus Road. Driving past the white domed Sambuddha Viharaya, and crossing the overhead bridge that links Hotel Hilton with their sports complex on the banks of the Beira Lake, it turned right to enter the Car Park at Hotel Galadari.
The galvanised pipe barrier in front of the hotel security booth was down. The three security men looked in awe at the driver. They were in no mood to let the truck in. Just then, one of those who alighted from the truck wanted the barrier lifted. He had come on a mission and not to kill people, he declared in flawless Sinhala. Some other armed persons who had been in the vicinity moved in.
Four of them clutching T 56 rifles came upto the booth and opened fire. Three security guards - a soldier, a sailor and a policemen who was attached to the NIB, all retired personnel, fell dead.
Some of the armed men were in dark clothes resembling Army uniforms but wore no caps. Some wore turbans, T-shirts and trousers. According to eye witnesses, yet others had worn multiple sets of clothing, one over another. The civilian clothes were hiding the military type of uniform worn underneath. Beneath them, had been more civilian attire for a quick getaway. All these concealed the deadly explosive lined suicide jackets made of fine denim.
Whilst some of the armed men took up position in and around the parking lot entrance and opened fire, one of them raised the barrier and allowed the truck in. The driver headed straight towards the wall that separated the Galadari Hotel complex from the World Trade Centre (WTC).
Three sides of the WTC, Sri Lanka's tallest building were secured on the west by the Hotel Intercontinental, on the east by Hotel Hilton and on the north by Fort Police Station. Whilst they were buffeted by very high security including barricades, the southern part (or the rear) was virtually open. A few unarmed security men at Hotel Galadari who manned a car park booth were the only security cover.
And that was the area the driver of the truck headed. Whilst moving towards a part of the wall between the two high rise towers, a small car obstructed the path. The driver literally bulldozed the car out of the way by going into high gear and thrusting his bonnet against it. He positioned the truck right in front of the wall, alighted and walked to join his colleagues near the security booth. They were still firing in different directions.
Some eight to ten minutes had elapsed. Then a mighty explosion rocked the area. The deafening noise was heard several miles away, in Katunayake, Yakkala, Biyagama, Delgoda and even Padukka.
Twenty months after the Central Bank bomb explosion (On January 31, 1996), another powerful bomb had ripped through Colombo. Window panes and ceilings came down at the Hotel Galadari causing the heaviest damage. Though to a lesser extent, Hotel Hilton faced the same fate. At the Hotel Intercontinental, some of the windows replaced only after the Central Bank bomb explosion, were shattered. There was splintered glass in most surrounding buildings including the Presidential Secretariat.
Guests at the Galadari and Hilton from many countries were injured. They include Japan, United Kingdom, France, Singapore, Jordan, Australia, Canada, Cuba, Lebanon, Egypt, Malaysia, Pakistan, India, United States, Sweden, Holland, Saudi Arabia and Korea. Some had to be hospitalised whilst others received outdoor treatment.
Taking cover as the bomb exploded, the attackers ran along Lotus Road, in the same direction the truck had come earlier.
They fired at the Sambuddhaloka Viharaya. The Chief Incumbent, Ven. Vitharadeniye Chandrajothi Nayake Thera, who had walked to the entrance to see what was going on was hit on the leg by gunfire. Later the fleeing guerrillas hurled a grenade killing him on the spot. They had gone past the temple and descended a line of steps towards the rail track.
By then, the Army's QRT (Quick Reaction Team) - a specialised group trained for emergency deployment using trailer motor cycles - rushed to the scene. A soldier sitting on the pillion back to back with the rider opened fire. One of the fleeing guerrillas fell dead on the rail track close to the Secretariat Train Halt. The shot had caused a secondary explosion when bullets hit a suicide jacket he was wearing. QRT men say they saw another guerrilla being hit by gun fire but were not sure about his whereabouts.
Police later found a national identity card and a clearance certificate purportedly given by the Pettah Police. It bore the name Ponnambalam Kirubakaran and gave Punnalaikattuvan South, Chunnakam, as his address. Also found in his possession was a permit for the lorry to enter the City.
Four guerrillas crossed the rail line and entered Lake House through the rear production area. A fourth tried to mingle with the crowd and escape. By then Army personnel had cordoned off Lake House.
A soldier who spotted the guerrilla pulled him by his shirt collar and realised he was wearing an explosive lined suicide jacket. He immediately opened fire killing the guerrilla. His body lay on the road, outside Lake House. By then, the three others had gained entrance to the building.
They seized the ground floor area and held some 20 employees hostage. At one point, the guerrillas wanted water and asked one of the hostages. He pointed to a nearby toilet. As they went for water, one of the hostages escaped. He gave a description of what was going on inside and how the others were being kept hostage.
Army officials at the scene immediately brought the matter to the attention of the Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Rohan de S. Daluwatte. Shortly after the news of the explosion, he had moved to his office and was keeping a close tab on the situation.
Lt. Gen. Daluwatte decided to launch a rescue operation. The Army's crack anti hijack commando team positioned at the Bandaranaike International Airport were promptly alerted. The men who go through tough rescue and assault drills every week to keep themselves in combat readiness were ready within minutes and awaited a Sri Lanka Air Force helicopter to airlift them.
While they were being awaited, the Commanding Officer of the Colombo based 112 Brigade, Brigadier Gamini Gunasekera, was outside Lake House taking stock of the situation. On hand were two officers from the Army Headquarters staff - Colonel Vikum Siriwardena and Lt. Col. Deepal Subasinghe.
Lt. Col. Subasinghe who had overseen the protective cordon around Lake House moved towards the rear entrance with a group of soldiers. When a soldier stepped into the building, a guerrilla who was atop the low ceiling stretched out his hands and bodily lifted him up. The soldier who was holding his weapon pulled the trigger. As they struggled, the shot strayed.
In the ensuing melee, the guerrillas withdrew into the building. Lt. Col. Subasinghe asked the 20 hostages to immediately walk out. The soldiers also withdrew. Lt. Gen. Daluwatte said the hostages were not harmed.
By then 20 commandos led by Captain Chinthaka Dissanayake drove in to the area. They had arrived minutes earlier by chopper at the Army grounds. They looked for building plans. They were not immediately available. The commandos spoke to Lake House security guards and obtained an idea of the entrances and exits to the building.
They were by then not sure whether any more hostages were being held inside or whether it was only the Tiger guerrillas.
Commandos put together a rescue plan and received Lt. Gen. Daluwatte's approval. They swung into action thereafter. Captain Dissanayake deployed a four man team to make the entry. Behind them were a group of soldiers from the 17th battalion of the Sri Lanka National Guard.
They entered a room with no windows which was stacked with newspapers. As they stepped into the adjoining room, a guerrilla jumped towards the commandos. He detonated an explosive laden suicide jacket. Captain Dissanayake who had followed the four man team was flung away and was slightly wounded. Two soldiers fell down in the dark room.
Col. Siriwardena who followed behind the commando team wanted the two men pulled out immediately. When this was done, it turned out that one of them, Private Nishantha, had died on the spot. The body of the guerrilla was in pieces.
The commandos came out of the building . By then two more officers of the Commando Regiment, Lt. Col. Samantha Suriyabandara and Major Rohitha Wijepala, had arrived. They conferred with Col. Siriwardena. Another assault was planned and the commandos went into action.
This time they stormed the building after exploding grenades. A Tiger guerrilla who saw the commandos advance detonated his suicide jacket. The explosion scattered his body into pieces. An alert commando spotted the remaining guerrilla trying to detonate explosives in his suicide jacket and shot him dead.
That ended the drama of the hostages that followed the bomb explosion. Ironically the guerrillas were able to seize the Lake House building, although it lay between the Air Force Headquarters on the one side and on the other, some distance away, by the Navy Headquarters.
Whilst the commandos took a lunch break after clearing the main Lake House building, a bomb disposal team headed by Major Dhammika Pananwela, began a search for booby traps. Later, the commandos cleared the adjoining building. Lake House was secured shortly after 5.30 p.m.
Like during the bomb explosion at the Central Bank nearly two years ago, the LTTE denied involvement in Wednesday's explosion. President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga told a news conference on Friday that the Government had evidence to show an LTTE involvement.
The evidence seemed convincing. Government's intelligence agencies intercepted an LTTE high frequency transmission. LTTE's Batticaloa leader, Karuna, who is leading Tiger cadres in the Wanni in the battle against security forces in the five month long "Operation Jaya Sikurui," was speaking to senior cadres.
I heard a tape recording of Karuna's transmission made from Alpha November 28 Base hardly two hours after the bomb explosion. This is the LTTE's main "headquarters" base in the Wanni to counter the ongoing "Operation Jaya Sikurui." He spoke in Tamil reportedly to LTTE leaders in other bases. He struck a discordant note. He makes a reference to the bomb explosion and queries "why it was carried out on a Poya Day." Intelligence sources say the inference was that it should have been carried out on a working day when there are crowds. Karuna observed that LTTE cadres in the Wanni were very tired after protracted battles.
Karuna also refers in his transmission to an LTTE attack on the TELO office at Kattankudy (in which three TELO cadres were killed) and queries why a neighbouring building was not attacked. The attack on the TELO office took place after midnight Tuesday and not on Wednesday afternoon as official reports claimed.
Intelligence sources say the WTC bomb explosion was one of four key targets planned by LTTE's intelligence boss, Pottu Amman, the man who plotted the murder of late Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi. They say he detailed four groups and established four different arms caches. Police discovered one arms cache in the ceiling of a house in Ratmalana after the arrest of a Tiger guerrilla at an Air Force check point. Interrogation of the suspect and subsequent arrests revealed that the particular group had been tasked to attack the Ratmalana airport.
Subsequent interrogations of the suspects have revealed that three other groups with three separate arms caches were at large. With the WTC bomb explosion, that leaves two more groups on the prowl. Army and Police officials say that the weapons seized last Wednesday - T 56 rifles, 40 mm grenade launchers, grenades, suicide jackets, walkie talkies were all similar to the haul made at Ratmalana.
Quite clearly the target for last Wednesdy's bomb explosion was the World Trade Centre. Since the launch of "Operation Jaya Sikurui", the LTTE has stepped up its attacks on economic targets. To name a few - the bomb explosion on Athena bringing wheat to the Prima Flour Milling Complex in Trincomalee on May 29, the attack on the Chinese vessel "Cordiality" carrying ilmenite cargo for a US firm on September 9 and the attack on the fleet of buses at Kataragama on October 10.
The World Trade Centre (WTC), as its name implied, was symbolic. It housed the stock exchange and was surrounded by commercial establishments including banks, the Treasury, airline offices and hotels which were overnight transit points for most tourists. More importantly, the economic nerve centre was in the country's highest security zone with key establishments like the Presidential Secretariat.
Unlike the bomb explosion at the Central Bank in 1996 where some 200 kilogrammes of explosives were used, military officials say, the truck bomb aimed for the WTC had anything between 300 to 350 kilogrammes of explosives.
An Army-Police team headed by Major General Jaliya Nammuni (Commandant, Sri Lanka Army Volunteer Force) and Operations Commander, Colombo (OCC) , has been appointed to identify security lapses that led to the bomb explosion.
Investigators are yet to ascertain conclusively whether the truck bomb was exploded by a timing or remote controlled device. They are also yet to ascertain whether the truck came through D.R. Wijewardena Mawatha or Sir Chittampalam Gardiner Mawatha. Some other vital information that link the LTTE to the incident are also in the hands of the investigators. They say it is premature to reveal them.
Last Wednesday's incident in Colombo was headline news. Both print and electronic media around the world focused their entire attention on Colombo. Ironically, like in the past, the PA Government missed another excellent opportunity that very day to tell the world their part of the story. Not a single PA leader or an official took the opportunity to speak out.
And this is when the PA Government had a strong story to tell the whole world. It was only a week ago that the US Government had listed the LTTE as a terrorist organisation. On Wednesday the bomb explosion had injured the nationals of several other countries. Could not the opportunity the world media afforded that Wednesday have been exploited by the Government's media pundits? One more great opportunity has been lost. Besides reports of the incident, the only other matter that got publicity around the world was LTTE's denial that they were involved.
Military officials say there was less panic after last Wednesday's explosion since security and other staff in hotels and other buildings had been taking part in awareness programmes arranged by the Police. These have been carried out by Lucky Kodituwakku, Senior DIG Ranges. Months before the explosion saw a string of seminars on how to react to a crisis situation.
Last Wednesday's bomb attack in the City should not have surprised those concerned with national security. Quite apart from the intelligence gathered in the aftermath of the detection of an attempt to attack the Ratmalana airport, the pattern of the LTTE strategies in the past six months clearly indicated they are resorting to widespread tactical options.
The attack on Yala bungalows, then on Kataragama clearly indicates the LTTE targeting of the southern area not only to detract the security forces from their northern deployment but also to subvert the political stability of the south.
The attack on the Army post at Murunkan (on the Vavuniya - Mannar road) and the continuing operations in the eastern province are part of their ongoing strategies to maintain pressure on the security forces in as wider areas as possible in the theatre of operations.
The aim of terrorism is to debilitate and destroy its enemy militarily, politically and economically. Whilst the operational strategies of the LTTE is to achieve the former aim, that of military domination, the more effective weapon in their armoury are the options to cripple the government economically, which in turn surely must lead to grave political consequences. Hence, the bomb attack on Colombo is a logical extension to their strategy.
The economy of the country showed signs of recovery. The tourism season showed the promise of success. The horror of the Central Bank bomb explosion had receded and foreign investors were beginning to show an interest. Enhancing that and the infra structural benefits Sri Lanka provided for investments was the new post Hong Kong era, the pressure on the economy in Malaysia and the environmental problems in South East Asian region.
In that sense, the LTTE timing is perhaps perfect. The calculation of the LTTE was also not to further tarnish their human rights record. Hence, their selection of the time and day of attack, on the non peak hours of a slack Poya Day, is significant.
However much the Government may claim that this bomb attack is of little consequence to foreign investments, investor interest and national growth, there is little doubt in the public mind that this attack is a considerable political and economic setback.
That there are two more undetected terror squads working in the City of Colombo does not assure the public mind of their politico-economic future.
In all aspects of the political, economic and security spheres, the country is at cross-roads. Only a united national effort seems to be the salvation. Unfortunately, for this country history repeats itself and denies the achievement of a national consensus.
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