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8th March 1998

Maradana mayhem

Tale of hot pursuit

Colombo reels under Tiger bomb blast

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Maradana mayhem

Written by Imran Vittachi with reporting by M. Ismeth, Shelani De Silva, Arshad M. Hadjirin, Dilrukshi Handunnetti, Christopher Kamalendran, and Chamintha Tillekeratne.

Vellupillai Prabhakaran and his Tamil Tigers have once more played havoc with grand declarations made by an arch foe in war, by again splattering the streets of Colombo with the blood of innocents.

The LTTE on Thursday made a mockery of an earlier promise uttered by their old enemy on the battlefield, Deputy Defence Minister Gen. Anuruddha Ratwatte, who in October 1997 vowed to defend the capital like a citadel.

Their latest infiltration and bombing of Fortress Colombo came only a month after the Tigers foiled the General’s other declaration about taking Route A9 in the North dubbed by foreign correspondents as Sri Lanka’s Highway of Death by Independence Day. In that failed plan, Gen. Ratwatte had vowed to shake hands with the defeated Tiger Supremo at a surrender table in the Wanni jungle come February 4.

The seventh LTTE strike on Colombo since October 1995, in which 37 people were killed and at least 250 wounded, was the first to claim schoolchildren among its high civilian toll.

According to police and eyewitnesses, at least five children under the age of ten, who were travelling home in a school van close to Ground Zero, virtually vanished, as their small bodies were blown to bits in Thursday’s lunchhour explosion along a busy stretch of the Maradana Road. All that was left of them were school books, little shoes, bags and bottles strewn around after the blast.

The explosion, which extensively damaged vehicles and shops in the area, caused reported delays of up to 90 minutes on train services at Maradana. It also led to traffic being backed up for miles across the city, with telephone lines breaking down generally throughout the rest of the day.

The LTTE’s latest terror attack occured while High Commands of security service sectons tasked with guarding Colombo were undergoing changes at the top.

Major-Gen. Jaliya Nammuni, who headed up Operations Command Colombo, relinquished the post on the very day of the attack. He was replaced by Major-Gen. Asoka Jayawardena who, until recently, was the overall Operations Commander. Meanwhile, Sirisena Herath was appointed last week as the new D.I.G. for Colombo.

The attack also came nearly five months after the Deputy Defence Minister was repeatedly quoted in state-owned newspapers as officially guaranteeing about safeguarding the capital from future acts of terror.

Post-disaster security and the security operations conducted after the bomb blast were very good, but I am not satisfied with the pre-disaster security set up, he was cited as saying in The Daily News of October 20, 1997.

Terrorists cannot deter us from carrying out planned operations to defeat them and usher in peace, he added. We will not be discouraged in our sacred task. On the contrary, this incident will spur us to greater action.

Gen. Ratwatte followed up this statement, which he made four days after the Twin Tower bombing, with another assurance about protecting Sri Lanka’s citizens from the violent wrath of the Tamil separatists.

The government wishes to reiterate that it takes full responsibility for the security of all its citizens and the Tamil community in general, the General said in a subsequent declaration carried by The Observer on October 26, after security services conducted a cordon-and-search sweep of the capital in the early morning hours of the previous day. Those words may come back to haunt the Deputy Defence Minister, as Thursday’s bloodshed so gorely illustrated.

According to combined eyewitness and police reports, the drama began at around 12:15pm when a lone suicide bomber driving an empty Nissan mini-bus collided into a jeep at Panchikawatte in Colombo 10.

Wasantha Jayalath, the driver of the jeep belonging to a local motor trading company got out and began to argue with the driver of the Nissan about compensation for damages, as Sub Inspector N.A.R. Perera of the Maligawatte Traffic Police, who had been summoned to the scene, looked on. The latter then produced a 1000-rupee note and drove off, much to the reported dissatisfaction of the jeep driver who began to chase after him.

According to one eyewitness account, the jeep driver, who daringly wove his jeep in and out of the heavy lunch time traffic, overtook the Nissan and stepped on the brakes, suddenly causing a jam along the road going past Maradana Bridge. Jayalath’s full account is published separately in this Special Report.

The suspicions of police were aroused, The Sunday Times learnt, when the Nissan driver, who did not seem to understand Sinhala and disobeyed their orders to get down, then sped off in the explosive-laden mini-bus. S.I. Perera, the officer-in-charge, also began to pursue the Nissan signalling to the driver to pull over.

The driver, continuing to ignore the OIC’s orders, proceeded along the Panchikawatte Road, then turned left towards Punchi Borella, not far from Maradana Police Station, police said. But, as the driver of the Nissan tried to evade his chasers by taking the centre lane, he was forced to stop the bus when a lorry attached to the Health Department blocked its path.

Then that S.I. Perera instructed two other traffic policemen to board the private bus and take its driver into Maradana Police custody, police said. At this point, however, the orders of the OIC were never realised. Without warning them, the elusive driver detonated what were believed to be Claymore landmines strapped to both sides of the bus.

Almost instantaneously there was a loud explosion which damaged 34 vehicles on both sides of the carriageway and caused extensive damage to the shops on both sides of the road, Police Headquarters said in a post-attack report released on Thursday.

The Nissan driver, together with Reserve PCs 32579 Silva and 31529 Ajith, died instantly in the blast, police said. The impact killed scores of passers-by, scattering their limbs and other charred and torn body parts over a wide area. The bombing also destroyed the parapet wall lining Maradana Rail Station, even sending a Toyota sedan hurdling into the Station premises.

Immediately after the blast, Police sealed off the area and evacuated the dead. Hundreds of injured people, some of whom were thrown on top of or buried by others in the explosion, were rushed to the nearby General Hospital.

Mihiri Lawrensuhera, an 18-year old student from Gothami Vidyalaya, briefly described standing in front of the entrance to the Railway Station when the bomb went off.

I’m afraid that some of my other friends who stood beside me would have sustained bad injuries, she said, speaking to Sunday Times from her hospital bed.

Jeevani Wickramaarachchi, 21, from Ragama, was on her way home from a class at Aquinas College when the explosion rocked the station.

I was at the ticket counter at the Maradana railway station when the bomb went off, she said. Lots of temporary shops had collapsed. We rushed to the police and were then removed to the hospital.

Another casualty, Sameetha Umma of Anuradhapura, was travelling to the capital in a personal endeavour to seek employment abroad.

My sister had sent a visa for foreign employment in the Middle East [West Asia], and I was accompanied to Colombo by my husband and brother in law. When we arrived at Maradana, I heard a loud explosion and with this I fainted, she said.

Piecing through the jigsaw of the wreckage, Police on Thursday speculated that the suicide bomber had had another target in mind, and that his mission backfired when he collided with the jeep.

Police said he may have been gunning to trigger off his bomb at the Kotte Parliamentary complex, which is relatively free of security checks.

Police HQ added that the registration plate from the vehicle was traced to its owner, a woman living in Eravur. The private bus, according to a Government forensic expert, was rigged specifically in the manner in which the LTTE targets motorcades.

As for the man who last October promised to build an impregnable security ring around Colombo, Gen. Ratwatte late last week appeared to suffering from amnesia. The General’s forgetfulness, mixed with a mood of resignation, was evident on Thursday afternoon when he rose to address Parliament, only hours after the bombing.

Without condemning the attack, or accepting any responsibility for it, the Deputy Minister commended security services for minimising the impact of the latest blast.

In a war situation these things happen, he was overheard as telling his fellow Parliamentarians in a session boycotted by UNP MPs.

LTTE bombings of Colombo from October 1995

11 October 1995:

Attack on Army Headquarters at Slave Island is averted, but 20 people die.

20 OCTOBER ‘95:

Oil storage tanks at Kolonnawa and Orugodawatte are attacked. 20 are killed, including Air Force personnel. Indian Fire Brigade is called in to put out the blaze.

31 January 1996:

Central Bank, Ceylinco, and other mercantile firms in the Fort are bombed. Eighty-six people die and over 1000 are injured, in the most lethal LTTE strike on Colombo to date since the PA took office. A lorry-bomb and Rocket Propelled Grenades are used in the attack.

24 July ‘96:

Dehiwala train station office blast kills 57 and injures around 300.

15 October 1997:

Close to 15 months after Dehiwala, the World Trade Centre is bombed in the early hours of Poya Day. The truck-bomb explosion kills up to 18 people and injures 113. But this is a massive bombing whose impact devastates adjacent hotels, especially the Galadari, leaving behind a massive crater.

14 November ‘97:

Kelantissa power station and two oil storage tanks are damaged in an LTTE attempt to sabotage them. The attack is the second one to take place in as many months. This time, however, there are no casualties.

6 January 1998:

An LTTE woman bomber, on an apparent suicide mission to assassinate an Air Force commander, blows herself up when she is stopped at a Slave Island checkpoint. At least 9 people, including five security service personnel are killed. Soon after, the government would ban the Press from publishing gory pictures, like the ones in which the severed head and limbs of the Black Tiger, who blew herself up in this attack, were graphically displayed.

Tale of hot pursuit

Jayalath : sole survivor of jeep that chased the lethal bus

The sole survivor of a jeep that chased the lethal bus at Maradana, has described the tense minutes before it blew up, in an interview with The Sunday Times,

Thursday’s drama, according to Wasantha Jayalath, 27, started at around 12.10 p.m. at Panchikawatte:

My friend’s jeep was parked outside his shop, Siri Enterprises, when a white coloured 26-seater Nissan Civilian (ED33) bus knocked off the tail lights of the jeep.

The driver of the bus who looked quite thin, with high cheek bones, was wearing a striped T-shirt and a sarong. He started sweating as the crowd thronged around the bus soon after the accident, seeking an explanation for his deed.

The driver was quite silent as he was not fluent in his Sinhala, but said he was rushing to a funeral house and also that he lived at Jampettah Street, Meegamuwa.

Later, according to Jayalath, the driver of the Nissan also claimed he lived at Kochchikade, thus further arousing the suspicion of those who gathered round.

Jayalath elaborated: When he was asked to produce his license and papers, he said they were with his brother and insisted that the matter be resolved soon, as he had to rush off.

However the owner of the Jeep, G.H. Wijesiri, who stood his ground, suggested that the vehicles be driven into the adjoining Watte and a proper assessment of the damage be done. But the driver insisted he could not get down from the vehicle and offered thousand rupees from a pocket stuffed with many 1000-rupee notes.

Jayalath said that Gerard Melvin Hindle, one of those assembled at the scene, suggested that police be brought immediately, so Maradana Police were contacted. According to Jayalath, the driver, who was asked repeatedly to alight from the bus, was also given assurances that nobody would assault him if he obeyed the police. But the driver of the Nissan was stubborn and remained in his seat, apparently taking his last meal, which consisted of a bun and soft drink, until the police arrived, Jayalath said.

No sooner had the police arrived, he added, when the driver flashed his signal lights, then took off trying to escape. According to Jayalath, Sub Inspector N.R. Perera, displaying cool under pressure, said he would intercept the bus driver at Maradana junction, in front of the Police Station.

At this point, Jayalath then decided to join the chase in the jeep with its owner Wijesiri, and a 19-year old, Rienzi Henricus. They were accompanied by another Traffic Policeman who had arrived on-scene. They gathered speed, said Jayalath, as the green traffic light signal tempted them to accelerate.

“We caught up with the bus near the Maradana overhead bridge only to see that the bus had met up with a second accident, this time with a lorry which was travelling in front,” said Jayalath, adding that his other friends jumped out of the jeep along with the policeman, to manhandle the driver and teach him a lesson.

But it was over in a flash, as Jayalath elaborated:

“With the all other vehicles caught in the bottle-necked road, the bus driver had not many options to escape, and I saw him trying to pull up the door lock of the bus at least three times. I sensed that there was something wrong and took cover behind the lorry, as the explosion took place.

“It was a massive blast and I thought for a moment there were two noises as I first saw our jeep flying over my head and another big piece of solid metal strewn out of the lorry, which landed on the body.”

Jayalath, despite a broken knee-cap, was to remain conscious until he was taken to the hospital. And then he blacked out.

Colombo reels under Tiger bomb blast

Thursday’s bombing brought death and destruction to bustling Maradana junction, but it also had far-reaching — and nasty — side-effects on greater Colombo, as the city faced a complete communications meltdown.

In another development, presidential aides at Temple Trees had to scramble to patch through urgent calls requested by President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. The telephone lines were so congested, according to reports, it took almost 50 minutes for her to contact one official.

Was this breakdown the work of intelligence agencies instructing telecommunications providers to restrict their channels in the wake of the attack? Some government officials believed this to be the case, but others said the clogging of the lines resulted from too many subscribers using telephones simultaneously.

According to a telecom officer, who asked that his name be withheld, the second explanation behind Thursday’s breakdown was:

“The telephone exchange has been designed to handle a particular number of calls within an hour,” he told The Sunday Times. “In this particular instance, we noticed that almost all telephone lines were being used at this time.”

He added that private phone companies and cell phone operators also faced this problem, given that they use the same satellite server.

As a result in the hours that followed the explosion, telephone lines — both land and wireless — were cut and office machines went on the blink as parts of the city suffered power shortages. Elsewhere, road traffic was backed up for miles.

In the ensuing chaos, people panicked. Throughout the afternoon and evening, frantic families desperately tried to contact various places or hotlines to gather information about the whereabouts of relatives, who may have transitted through Maradana or were stationed there at the time of the explosion. There was one report of a family that tried to find out what happened to a loved one, who had gone to Maradana that day to buy spare car parts. When they attempted to call the spare parts supplier, over and over again on the telephone they were compelled to hear a familiar recorded message:

“This number cannot be contacted due to congestion.”

Others, who tried to inquire about youngsters attending schools and colleges in the area, were given the same message, according to similar reports.

To compound matters, due to a reported breakdown in cellphone services newsroom telephones rang off the hook with anguished pleas for help from concerned families.

“Damn it!” shouted a parent when he finally got through to The Sunday Times to find out more about the bombing.

“What’s wrong with the hand phones — even they’re not functioning!” yelled another who was trying to locate his daughter. On the roads, commuters working at Kotahena, Maradana, and other busy pockets of Central Colombo had to wait it out for hours under a brutal sun, as buses inched their way to their respective destinations.

“The good old days will never be there for us, our children or our grandchildren to see anymore,” lamented an old-timer from Maradana who, it turned out, was born there.

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