Situation Report

9th November 1997

Oliver-gate interview takes new twists and turns

Glorious act clouded by antics

By Iqbal Athas

Early last week, Navy Headquarters in Co lombo sent out an urgent intelligence warning to the Eastern Naval Command at the Dockyard in Trincomalee.

It gave details of an LTTE ship carrying arms and ammunition heading towards the north eastern coast. The name of the ship, the country from which it was coming, its dimensions, the country of registration and the flag it flew were all there. For obvious reasons, the contents of this intelligence warning should remain a secret.

The acting Commander of the Eastern Naval Area, Commodore Sarath Weerasekera, went into action. Patrols in the east coast were stepped up. There was increased Naval presence, something unusual for a Sunday. Even routine flights of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) do not operate on Sundays.

Senior officials seized the opportunity of the increased Naval presence to move an unscheduled troop convoy to the north. Escort vessels were tasked and the convoy left the Dockyard that Sunday around 5 a.m. The dark hour was chosen for the movement to avoid detection by LTTE observation points along the Trincomalee coast. They ventured over seven nautical miles into the deep sea and veered towards Jaffna.

On board an Israeli built Dvora fast attack craft, Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Commander P.R.B. Dassanayake, and his men began to feel uneasy over what they saw on their radar screen. The Dvora was on the left (shore) side of the convoy. The appearance of coastal objects confused the radar reading.

Lt. Cmdr. Dassanayake ordered his men to divert course and move closer to the coast. The Dvora came some 2.5 nautical miles from the coast, when Lt. Cmdr. Dassanayake observed a clear reading through a piece of highly sophisticated equipment. A ship lay anchored ahead, some 450 metres off the coast of Mullaitivu. Lt. Cmdr. Dassanayake immediately radioed Navy's Operations Room at the Dockyard.

Officers and men there went into action. One of them switched on to Channel 16, the international shipping frequency, and called upon vessels in the area to respond. There was no answer. Men at the Operations Room kept trying. The only response came from the cargo vessel "Silk Route Supplier." It was on its way to Point Pedro and was cruising along 40 nautical miles north east from there. It became clear that the suspect ship was not responding.

The troop convoy was asked to temporarily stay put to assist in communications. Acting Commander, Eastern Naval Area, Commodore Sarath Weerasekera promptly ordered Lt. Cmdr. Dassanayake to keep a close watch on the unidentified vessel and move two more Dvoras into the area. All three Fast Attack Craft were under orders not to get close to the ship. This was due to a suspicion that they may draw LTTE fire from the shore, particularly from the guns of a captured Main Battle Tank.

It was exactly 8.05 am when Commodore Weerasekera informed Air Commodore Donald Perera, Zonal Commander (East) and Commanding officer of the SLAF Base at China Bay in Trincomalee. The latter in turn got in touch with SLAF headquarters in Colombo. Soon the SLAF's Ten Squadron at Katunayake was a hive of activity. The Israeli built Kfir ground attack craft were being prepared for a sortie.

Whilst this went on, on the Mullaitivu coast, LTTE observation points had observed on their radar the presence of three Dvoras. They began firing long range artillery and the gun in the Main Battle Tank. This went on for nearly two hours whilst the three fast attack crafts engaged in manoeuvres to avoid being hit. During this time, an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) left its take off pad at Anuradhapura to observe the mystery ship and its surroundings.

At precisely 10.09 a.m. Squadron Leader Priyantha Gunasinghe, Commanding Officer of the No 10 Squadron rolled out in a Kfir from the SLAF Base at Katunayake that Sunday morning. He answered the call sign Foxtrot Alpha. He was followed ten seconds later by Squadron Leader Sudharshan Pathirana who was assigned the call sign "Foxtrot Bravo." The two Kfirs were flying in formation under the call sign "Wolf Pack."

At 10.27 a.m., Sqn. Ldr. Gunasinghe carried out a pin point bombing exercise. It was dead accurate and the ship burst into flames. He was followed by Sqn. Ldr. Pathirana unleashing another lethal bomb. Foxtrot Alpha (Sqn. Ldr. Gunasinghe) radioed his Mobile Commander, Squadron Leader Sajiva Hendavitharana to say that "Operation Wolf Pack" has been accomplished.

Three young men in the security forces had done their country proud. Lt. Cmdr. Dassanayake of the Navy identified the target and initiated the action that followed. Otherwise the attack would not have been possible. The SLAF crew - Sqn. Ldr. Gunasinghe and Sqn. Ldr. Pathirana deserve great credit for their precision operation. So do other senior SLAF officers who planned the attack and saw to its successful execution. This is a good example of a joint service operation which was successful because of the good understanding and inter service co-operation. Later the same evening, SLAF flew a second sortie.

It came at the request of the Navy which felt another air strike was necessary to sink the ship completely. There were fears that otherwise it may be possible for the LTTE to retrieve any cargo remaining. By that time only some two feet of the ship's super structure was above water. It was sinking. The first SLAF strike had been devastating. Even after the air attacks were over, Tiger guerrillas were directing artillery and MBT fire towards Naval craft.

It turned out that the ship in question was not the one that had been referred to in the intelligence warning. It was much smaller. Navy officials estimated the vessel to have a dead weight of 3500 tons. That meant the original intelligence was still valid and it was another ship that had arrived.

What cargo did it bring ? When did it arrive and how much of the cargo was unloaded ? Why did it remain close to the shore in broad daylight that Sunday morning ?

These and other questions continue to baffle the defence establishment. But one thing was quite clear - the ship did bring in military hardware for the LTTE. It was also clear that this was the reason why the LTTE had commandeered over 40 fishing boats from the Upparu area in Trincomalee early last week. All of them were installed with outboard motors. What type cargo was on the ship remains a matter of conjecture and the Government's intelligence agencies were still attempting to unravel the details. There were, however, claims in some sections of the defence establishment that the cargo included arms, ammunition, missiles mortars and explosives.

LTTE radio intercepts last Sunday spoke of the death of 17 cadres. All transmissions that followed were in code. On Friday the LTTE's "International Secretariat in London" said in a news release that "Off the coast of Mullaitivu last Sunday, 14 LTTE Sea Tigers died when a Sri Lankan Kfir bomber plane bombed a Sea Tiger vessel. The attack happened between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m." Intelligence sources say the unusual news release was intended to highlight that it was a "Sea Tiger" vessel that had been attacked and thus obviate accusations against the the LTTE of sea piracy.

On that quiet Sunday, as the hierarchy of the defence establishment relaxed, the news reached world wide that security forces had hit an LTTE arms ship. It was the main story in the next day's (Monday) newspapers. "NAVY DESTROYS TIGER ARMS SHIP" said the Daily News in which it reported that "the Navy and the Air Force destroyed a foreign ship with a consignment ....."

But on Monday there was feverish activity in the defence establishment. Air Force Commander, Air Marshal Oliver Ranasinghe, chaired a conference of his senior officers where the attack on the ship figured prominently. It is not clear whether he was invited or not, but the Chief of Staff, Air Vice Marshal Anselm Peiris, has been conspicuous by his absence.

Air Marshal Ranasinghe planned on holding a press conference to break the news of the SLAF achievement. He wanted it held at his headquarters at Sir Chittampalam Gardiner Mawatha. But the Ministry of Defence had decided otherwise. The conference would be held at the Ministry's conference room and would be presided over by Brigadier Sarath Munasinghe, official Military Spokesman and Director Media at the Operational Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence. The SLAF was asked to send in their officials.

Earlier that day, on the instructions of the Ministry of Defence, the SLAF had laid out a special flight for Commodore Weerasekera to fly from Trincomalee to Colombo to take part in the news conference. He arrived with a video cassette containing footage of the attack on the ship filmed from a Naval craft.

The SLAF sent in a high powered team - Air Vice Marshal Jayalath Weerakkody, Director, Operations, Air Commodore G.Y. de Silva, Director, General Engineering, Air Commodore, Lal Perera, Director, Aeronautical Engineering and Air Commodore Vijitha Tennekoon, Chief Provost Marshal. Also in attendance was the Director of Information, Ariya Rubasinghe.

Before the commencement of the conference at 2 p.m. last Monday, Brigadier Munasinghe, sounded a note of caution to the media. He said he would only entertain questions relating to the attack on the mystery ship and no others. Quite clearly, the Ministry of Defence, which arranged the news conference did not want that occasion to be a forum for refuting the findings of the Presidential Committee that probed the Air Force or other related matters. Video footage of the incident, both the SLAF and the SLN, were shown to the media and Brigadier Munasinghe answered questions put to him on the incident. What he said figured prominently in the electronic media on Monday night and the print media on Tuesday.

Not to be outdone by the Ministry of Defence ruling that the press conference should focus only on the mystery ship incident, Air Marshal Ranasinghe chose to have his own say. Tuesday's Daily News headlined it "AIR FORCE ACTION SAVED HUNDREDS OF LIVES." He gave a graphic and "virtual eye witness" account of the aerial attack on the ship by Kfir bombers.

There is no denying that the action of the combat crew was highly commendable. There is no retraction from the fact that the men of all services fighting the enemy are committed and dedicated to their task. If not for that fact, the LTTE could have been much more successful. The reversals they are now facing are due to the courage of our forces, and they richly deserve the nation's gratitude for this.

In his own account Air Marshal Ranasinghe went on to great lengths to criticise "arm chair analysts" and "derelicts" for interfering in procurements which prevented purchase of maritime aircraft. He claimed due to unfair protests by the critics, the SLAF and the Government were forced to abandon the project (of purchasing maritime patrol aircraft). The validity of this claim is questionable as should the requirement for the aircraft been a properly evaluated decision, then there is no reason by the Government to have cancelled it because of the criticism of some unnamed "arm chair analysts" and "derelicts."

Surely for the Government to have done so against the teeth of an evaluated recommendation by the services itself shows lack of confidence in the service decision making process. Should that be so, any such opinion is fortified by the findings of the Committee appointed by none other than President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. Whose fault is this ? Is it the Government's ? Is it that of the SLAF ? Is it that of the joint services ? Is it that of the "arm chair analysts" or "derelicts" ?

The question of procurements, as questioned by some political leaders has not been pointed out by The Sunday Times but also endorsed by the Presidential Committee

The fact that the incident of the mystery ship had been utilised, much against the wishes of the Ministry of Defence itself, to go out of the way to counter the Committee's recommendations makes the matter curioser and curioser.

That is barely 72 hours after SLAF officials handed out to sections of the media a set of ready made questions and answers. As I reported in these columns, one set of questions and answers ran into five pages. They contained 26 questions and answers. The other set which was four pages had 16 questions and answers. As I said, some of the ready made questions were answers to reports in The Sunday Times. Others rebutted or ridiculed the findings of the Committee appointed by President and Commander-in-Chief, Mrs. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. Yet other questions were so worded that they formed answers by themselves.

Most newspapers chose not to use the ready made question and answers. Besides the propaganda overtones, it was clear to them that the questions and answers have been so constructed not only to rebut the damaging conclusions of the Presidential Committee and to attempt answers to exclusive revelations made in The Sunday Times but also to highlight other matters like the purported failure of military intelligence.

Many wrote their own stories. The Weekend Express said in its main headline "TRAITOR IN AIR FORCE - Commander." In response to a question raised by this newspaper, Air Marshal Ranasinghe replied "there could be a traitor in the Air Force who leaks out very sensitive information..." The Sunday Observer also raised questions before Air Marshal Ranasinghe and wrote their own story. Even if the Air Force Commander (in his ready made question and answers denied knowledge of the findings of the Committee of Inquiry, he was quoted by The Sunday Observer last week as saying "A highly confidential report submitted to President Chandrika Kumaratunga published in a newspaper without her approval is absurd when it should have been known only by the Committee."

The reference in these columns last week to the mock interview where ready made questions and answers were handed out by the SLAF drew the attention of the Sandeshaya, the BBC's world-wide Sinhala news programme. This programme is simultaneously broadcast by the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation every night.

News presenter Chandana Keerthi Bandara who reported on the contents of The Sunday Times Situation Report last week said that the Air Force Commander had given ready made questions and answers to the media. He declared that last week's The Sunday Leader and the Sinhala weekly Silumina carried these "interviews." The Sunday Leader 8LABELled the interview "Exclusive" and had the by line of reporter, Roy Dinesh.

Mr. Bandara had Mr Lasantha Wickrematunga, the Editor-in- Chief of The Sunday Leader on tape. He said "Our Reporter Roy Dinesh informed me there is an interview with the Air Force Commander. I understand he gave the questions in advance. Thereafter he met him and got the answers. I understand that the Commander also had given the answers in writing".

BBC: "Iqbal Athas in yesterday's The Sunday Times had published that the Air Force Commander had something supposed to be a news conference and distributed a set of prepared questions and answers. Have you published these questions and answers ?

Mr. Wickrematunga: "What has been published in our newspaper are not those. I think what happened to Mr. Iqbal Athas is that the Air Force Commander had responded to certain things he had written earlier. We are not sure our questions to the Commander and answers had been leaked by a typist or so from the Air Force or otherwise. Our first edition is published about 16 to 17 hours ahead of The Sunday Times first edition. I am not sure whether he saw the first edition and since he wanted to respond to some of the answers, he made use of this."

BBC: "In that case, how did the same questions and answers get published in the Silumina ?"

Mr. Wickrematunga: "I am not sure since the Air Force Commander wanted more publicity, he had given these to the Silumina. In any case I did not see the Silumina."

BBC: " If that is the case, do you think it is correct for the Air Force Commander to give them to Silumina ?

Mr. Wickrematunga: "If that has happened, the Commander should answer as to how it happened. I don't think it is correct for him to give what is meant for one newspaper to another."

BBC: The Sunday Observer also carried a front page report. We asked Ramani Kangaraarachchi, reporter in The Sunday Observer.

Ramani: " They did not give it to me at that moment. But there was a question and answer interview prepared. I too received a copy thereafter."

BBC: Is there a similarity in what you were given and what Mr. Iqbal Athas exposed last Sunday ?

Ramani: "There is a similarity."

BBC: In that case can we accept the position that a prepared question and answer interview was circulated as mentioned by Mr. Athas ?

Ramani: "Yes, we can accept that."

BBC: Were the questions reproduced in The Sunday Leader and your sister newspaper Silumina in the same manner ?

Ramani: "Journalists did not like to carry the interview as it was given to them. Since the Air Force Commander also explained the background, questions were asked from him."

BBC: We asked Mr. Iqbal Athas about the allegation made by The Sunday Leader Editor, Mr. Lasantha Wickrematunga that their first edition story was used by Mr. Athas.

Athas: "That is totally false. Whole of Sri Lanka knows that our first edition reaches various parts of the country. It goes to the South, Wanni region, Uva and Sabaragamuwa. Any reader can see that from the first edition onwards we have carried this item. This itself proves that we do not have anything taken from their first edition and reproduced."

BBC: "When we contacted the Sunday Observer" reporter what she told us was that as you maintained, a prepared question and answer interview was handed over to them. But that was not published in the same manner.

Athas: "That is correct. If you see what I have reported, I have said two sets of questions and answers were handed over. One was five pages and the other four pages. In the same report I have said that in addition some questions also had been answered. In some papers, particularly the Observer, on page one they carried answers to the questions they raised but did not mention about the questions."

It was not only to the Sunday Observer that the two sets of ready made questions and answers were handed over. It was also given to Weekend Express, Virakesari and Silumina among others.

Mr. Sugeeswara Senadheera, Consultant Editor of Weekend Express told The Sunday Times: "We too were invited for a press conference by the Air Force Commander. Our reporter had been handed over a prepared question and answer interview. Our reporter, Mr. Quintus Perera, asked his own questions and we published our own story. We did not want to carry the prepared questions and answers."

A ready made question and answers has also been given to the Virakesari.

The Silumina of November 2 published the ready made questions and answers and also their own account on Page 5.

An Air Force official also invited MTV (Maharaja Television) to send a camera crew to have Air Marshal Oliver Ranasinghe on camera answering the questions and answers. But, their News Director, senior journalist, Tyronne Devotta said he would do so only if he were allowed to ask questions and to later record the responses of those to whom references have been made. Devotta, until recently Associate Editor of The Sunday Leader, was going by the accepted journalistic norm of giving both sides of a story. Though SLAF officials promised to get in touch with him, there was no response.

As mentioned earlier, The Sunday Times Situation Report last week was carried from its first edition onwards. "I have read the report headlined "Mock Interview and Oliver's Air Farce", in all editions of The Sunday Times, Mr. Siripala Damulla, Secretary of the Sri Lanka Press Council told The Sunday Times. It is a statutory requirement for newspapers published in Sri Lanka to make available to SLPC copies of all editions.

The mystery ship incident clearly brings home the fact that there is enormous gap in the security cordon in the east coast. Since this is as a result of inadequacies in Maritime surveillance, the remedy would be to improve both the reconnaissance and interception capabilities of the Air Force and the Navy.

Considering that this would mean re-inforcing the existing inventories with capital equipment, the lead time to procure new requirements would take considerable time. Until then some ad hoc measures would have to be implemented if the LTTE are to be restrained from the freedom of trafficking their military requirements through the east coast.

Unitil some controls are put in place, it would make the role of the Army that much more difficult if the LTTE were to have unfettered access to replenish their military hardware.

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