The Sunday Times on the web

The Situation Report

16th May 1999

Wanni battle as country watches World Cup

By Iqbal Athas

Front Page |
News/Comment |
Business | Plus | Sports |
Mirror Magazine

Front Page
Mirror Magazine

It came when an entire nation was pre-occupied with the World Cup cricket series. If Sri Lankan cricketers fought a tough battle at the Lords in London, a different battle was under way last Friday in the elephant infested jungles of Wanni.

After a lull of five months, Tiger guerrillas moved in to offer stiff resistance to a security forces advance. By last morning, the encounters left 18 soldiers killed and 12 seriously wounded. A further 156 soldiers, who sustained injuries were moved either to the Anuradhapura Base Hospital or flown to Colombo. Most of them were classed as 'walking wounded' by senior military officials.

They said at least 33 Tiger guerrillas were killed and more than 200 wounded. Independent verification of casualty figures was not possible since the media remains debarred from operational areas.

Fighting broke out when security forces launched 'Operation Ranagosa III,' the third in a string of military offensives to expand areas under their control west of A-9, the Kandy-Jaffna highway that connects the peninsula with mainland Sri Lanka.

Operation 'Ranagosa III' was launched last Sunday, a day later than scheduled. Troops broke out from their defences from two different flanks to encircle nearly 100 square kilometres of thick, elephant infested jungle. One flank advanced westwards from Moonrumurippu whilst another, northwards from Palampiddy.

The advance of troops was temporarily stalled three days after a launch which saw even Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Srilal Weerasooriya, observing activity from Omanthai. Security forces discovered that Tiger guerrillas had fortified themselves with a bunker line and felt a stronger assault became necessary.

Rising up to that task were troops from the first battalion of the Special Forces and the Air Mobile Brigade. Whilst Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) Kfir jets bombed Tiger guerrilla positions, crack troops from these two units smashed through the fortified bunker lines.

That triggered off guerrilla resistance. Both 81 mm and 120 mm mortars began to rain on the advancing troops. The liberal use of mortars further confirmed the LTTE had replenished their stocks through new shipments. Security forces also retaliated with artillery and mortar fire.

By yesterday, troops had re-captured over 100 square kilometres and were consolidating their positions. Visiting the newly re-captured areas yesterday was Security Forces Commander, Wanni, Major General Lionel Balagalle. He conferred with senior military officials including Major General Sisira Wijesuriya and Brigadier Kumbhan Bohran who led troops from the two flanks.

The two earlier phases of Operation Rangosa brought a large area in the western sector of Wanni under security forces control. 'Operation Ranagosa I' led to the re-capture of more than 500 square kilometres of territory. It began on March 4 and troops seized the line Mankulam, Vannivilankulam, Moonru Murippu, Iranai Iluppaikulam and Poovarasankulam. That covered 24 villages.

'Operation Ranagosa II' led to the re-capture of 325 square kilometres of territory which encompassed the sacred Madhu Church. It was launched on March 19 when troops broke out from Moonrumurippu and Madhu junction to converge at Palampiddy.

And now the security forces are likely to establish a "demilitarised" zone within a kilometre radius from the Madhu Church. The move follows talks last week between Church leaders and senior military officials. The matter is now awaiting final approval from the Ministry Defence.

Since the Government abandoned 'Operation Jaya Sikurui' (Victory Assured) and launched 'Operation Rivi Bala' on December 4, last year, Tiger guerrillas did not offer any resistance to troop advances until last Friday when 'Operation Ranagosa III' got under way. Senior military officials admitted the guerrillas attached significance to the areas they were moving in and wanted to resist it. They refused to elaborate but added they will push ahead with their plans.

The latest encounters between troops and guerrillas, after a six month lull, comes in the backdrop of reports that the LTTE had successfully smuggled in military hardware through the north eastern coast in the recent months. As reported in these columns on May 2, they had unloaded an arms shipment in the high seas off the Mullaitivu coast on April 17. Intelligence sources say the cargo is said to have contained a large haul of arms, ammunition and medical supplies. A flotilla of Sea Tiger boats had brought the cargo to the Mullaitivu coast from a vessel lying in the international waters. Highly placed intelligence sources confirm several shiploads of military cargo have been unloaded by the LTTE in the past two to three months. They base this assessment on reports received from their sources in the Wanni. What caught the attention of the security forces, they point out, is only the fate of 'MV Mariamma' and, now, the 'Showa Maru.' A two man Navy delegation now in New Delhi for talks with their Indian counterparts are to raise issue over these two vessels.(Situation report May 2)

These development come at a time when the Government wants to divert substantial funds to develop the Sri Lanka Navy. A string of new procurements are now being studied and there is a hive of activity in the trading community, particularly agents of principals abroad. As is the practice, copies of official documents and comments alleging serious malpractices and irregularties are doing the rounds. Though most may be the handiwork of unsuccessful bidders, all of them should not be dismissed as unworthy of attention. This is an area which requires not only the careful attention of the Ministry of Defence but also underscores the need for permanent official machinery there to monitor these developments.

On the subject of procurements, another important matter that is receiving the attention of the Government is the now forgotten episode of missing mortars from Zimbabwe. More details of this mystery will soon begin to emerge.

After several requests, Prime Minister Robert Mugabe's Government in Zimbabwe has agreed to permit a top level Sri Lanka team to conduct inquiries in that country. The approval came after the Government made a request late last year and sent in repeated reminders thereafter.

Yesterday, a top level team left Colombo for the Zimbabwean capital of Harare. It comprised C.R. de Silva, Additional Solicitor General, Punya de Silva, DIG (CID) and Sisira Mendis, SSP (CID). The latter not only handled the investigation but is also head of the Sri Lanka branch of the Interpol. The team will also visit the Mozambican capital of Maputo and the Port City of Beira.

This is the first time the probe into missing mortars is being conducted outside the shores of Sri Lanka. The Sri Lanka Army ordered 32,400 rounds of 81mm mortars from the State owned Zimbabwe Defence Industries (ZDI) in 1997. In a string of developments that followed, the mortars ended up in the hands of Tiger guerrillas. They were later to cause the largest number of deaths and injuries to soldiers during the now abandoned 'Operation Jaya Sikurui (Victory Assured)'.

Since President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga ordered investigations into how the mortar shipment went missing, the Sri Lanka branch of Interpol made several efforts, through the Interpol Headquarters in Lyons (Paris), to seek the assistance of Interpol, Harare. Delays later prompted the Government to take up the issue through diplomatic channels.

Since July 20, 1997, The Sunday Times has been exclusively revealing details of the mystery behind the 32,400 rounds of 81 mm mortars, ordered by the Sri Lanka Army from the State owned Zimbabwe Defence Industries (ZDI) and later seized by the LTTE.

It all began after the United States Embassy in Colombo received a fax message in early July, 1997 purportedly from the LTTE.

Periodic exposures in The Sunday Times Situation Report prompted Government denial and later a news blackout. Deputy Defence Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte declared 'We have been having dealings with Zimbabwe for arms and all we have ordered have reached here.

Similarly, LTTE's Anton Raja declared his organisation 'knew nothing of it'.

When more exposures appeared, the LTTE's 'International Secretariat' in London issued a formal statement on October 4, 1997. It said 'The LTTE categorically denies any involvement whatsoever in the acquisition of a shipload of mortar bombs bound for the Sri Lankan military, which is alleged to have gone missing between the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar and Sri Lanka.'

If both sides, the government and the LTTE, were attempting to cover up, there was more. Sections of the media gave prominence to claims that the missing shipment had in fact arrived. Others claimed the lost cargo had been made good by the Zimbabwe Defence Industries. Were these reports based on leaks by interested parties who wanted to hush up the scandal ?

The Sunday Times continued to investigate the mystery and exposed the facts, then unknown, about the mortar deal, how the consignment went missing and the wheeler dealing that has been going on. So much so, President Kumaratunga decided in January, 1998, to order the CID to conduct a full inquiry.

On January 3, 1998, Superintendent of Police, A.N. Sisira Mendis, invoked provisions - Section 6 (i) - of the Prevention of Terrorism Act to constitute a probe team. But a day earlier, even before the team was formed, SSP Mendis and SI Indrajith Fernando recorded the statement of 36-year-old arms dealer, Nissanka Samaratunga, Managing Director of General Trading Company (GTC). Among other things, the firm had supplied MI 17 helicopters, combat boots, ballistic helmets and communications equipment spares.

Mr. Samaratunga had been assisted in his business activities by his school mate Rajkumar Mylvaganam. Since Grade III days at St. Joseph's College, they have been close friends. According to Mr. Samaratunga, Mr. Mylvaganam joined his company (GTC) in 1992, firstly as Export Manager and later became General Manager of Projects Division that handled all supplies to the armed forces and the Police.

On January 3, last year, CID detectives arrested Raj Mylvaganam. He was held under a detention order under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and later released on bail.

Hard on the heels of Mr. Mylvaganam's arrest and detention, CID detectives took in for questioning Janaka Edirisinghe, a businessman and a member of a leading social club.

As investigations got into full swing locally, the former Deputy Inspector General of Police in charge of the CID, T.V. Sumanasekera, (now Additional Director General of the Directorate of Internal Intelligence- DII) shot off faxes to Interpol offices in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe and Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, on January 29, 1998. He wrote in his capacity as head of the National Central Bureau (NCB) of the Interpol. During correspondence with Interpol Harare, Mr. Sumanasekera, said on April 29, 1998: To: INTERPOL/HARARE Our Ref: C 06/98/CM Yr. Ref: IP/37(634-98) 29th April, 1998. Disappearance of a Vessel with a Consignment of Mortar Bombs from the Zimbabwe Defence Industries to the Sri Lanka Army

This refers to my previous faxes to you dates 29.01.98 and 19.03.98 and your reply faxes dates 26.03.98 and 15.04.98 on the above noted subject. In respect of the above inquiry, it is necessary to show the documents you have requested for in your fax dated 26.03.98 and interview D. Mrewa, Company Secretary and Col. T.J. Dube, General Manager of the Zimbabwe Defence Industries to obtain more details about the above mentioned shipment.

'It is therefore intended to send two officers from the CID Sri Lanka to Zimbabwe for the above purpose around early part of June as it has become necessary to expeditiously finalise matters relating to this investigation at this end.

'I shall be grateful, if you could inform me, whether you could render assistance to the two Sri Lankan CID officers during their stay in your country to attend to matters at para 2 above. Your kind co-operation in this regard is greatly appreciated. Head of N.C.B. Sri Lanka T.V. Sumanasekera Deputy Inspector General of Police

Interpol Harare, was tardy in their response. Mr. Sumanasekera's successor DIG, CID Punya de Silva, who took over the task was facing difficulties in probing the overseas links. This was when repeated reminders for assistance and co-operation of the Zimbabwean Government was sought.

Whilst response was awaited, SSP Sisira Mendis, had a meeting last year with Additional Solicitor General C.R. de Silva, a highly respected official in the Attorney General's Department. Also associated with the discussions was S. Samaranayake, State Counsel.

On May 4, 1998 Mr. de Silva wrote to DIG (CID). The full text of the letter appeared in the Sunday Times of August 23,last year Mr. de Silva made some strong observations. Among them:

'This was a transaction between two governments and the primary responsibility for its proper conduct lay with the relevant officers of the Sri Lanka Army. Rajkumar Mylvaganam was merely an agent of the General Trading Company which had done the initial spade work before the contract was made by the two governments. Mylvaganam had no status in the affair and he appears to have been motivated by the prospect of financial gain by way of a commission if the deal was successfully concluded. 'As a matter of fact, however, Mylvaganam appears to have been the only Sri Lankan who took any interest in the matter when it became increasingly apparent, by June and July, 1997, that the shipment had been sabotaged. A perusal of the scanty correspondence by the SLA during this period reveals the degree of apathy and inaction shown by the SLA which ought to have been more concerned with the fate of the shipment than individuals driven by private gain.'

'It also appears that Col. Dube and the Company Secretary Mrewa had used ZDI, the concern which they represented, as a convenient cover for a secret transaction, which involved the Israeli firm LBG Military Supplies. Important details with regard to the manner in which the shipment was to be effected as well as the part that LBG Military Supplies was to play in it were kept hidden from the SLA until the cargo disappeared without a trace. It is a difficult to believe that ZDI would have entrusted the valuable cargo to LBG Militay Supplies simply as a matter of 'trust' as Col. Dube has subsequently stated.

'While Mrewa states by a fax dated 15.07.1997 addressed to the SLA that he has been in touch with the vessel owners in order to locate the position of the vessel, Col. Dube feigns in a telephone interview given to Mr. Iqbal Athas (Sunday Times Defence Correspondent) that ZDI knows nothing about the ship or its crew. These positions are contradictory.

'The misrepresentation and suppression of material facts by persons who acted on behalf of the ZDI in this transaction is something which should be taken serious note of. It is my view that the Government of Sri Lanka should agitate this matter at governmental level as it involves a fraudulent breach of contract in a transaction which was entered into at governmental level. The government of Zimbabwe should at least guarantee its full co-operation for an investigation to be carried out by Sri Lankan Officers'.

Among those the investigation team will interview, The Sunday Times learns, are Col. Dube and Mr. Mrewa. Visits to other capitals linked to the investigation are also on the cards, according to CID sources.

Conclusive investigations into the Zimbabwe mortar mystery will be important for the Government to tighten up procurement procedures. It will also enable the Government to punish any errant official or officials involved in the deal.

But a more worrying factor for the Government now undoubtedly is the fact that the Tiger guerrillas had succeeded in unloading shipments of military hardware. Details of the cargo, intelligence sources insist, contained some 'stand off' weaponry which Tiger guerrillas planned to use. This was to make up for the acute shortage of cadres and difficulties in recruiting new hands. Despite the very highly publicised successes of the Navy, this is a matter that requires a greater degree of Defence Ministry attention. After all, the life line of the Tiger guerrillas remains intact despite the interception of Tiger shipments every now and then.

The Fifth Column

Editorial/Opinion Contents

Presented on the World Wide Web by Infomation Laboratories (Pvt.) Ltd.

Hosted By LAcNet

Situation Report Archive

Please send your comments and suggestions on this web site to

The Sunday Times or to Information Laboratories (Pvt.) Ltd.