Situation Report

22nd April 2001

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Deep sea battles reveal LTTE arms build-up

The pilot of the Sri Lanka Air Force Bell 212 helicopter seemed conscious about the lingering missile threats in the area. He carried out a few manoeuvres yesterday before lowering his flying machine at the Dockyard in Trincomalee – home of the Sri Lanka Navy's Eastern Command. He was there to uplift precious cargo – eight of the nine Tiger guerrilla cadres captured in the high seas off Mullaitivu after a four hour long, pre-dawn confrontation. The ninth is now in the Military Hospital in Palaly. 

There were five males and four females in the group. The Navy yesterday handed over the eight, including three females, to intelligence authorities. The SLAF helicopter was airlifting them to a secret location for a detailed debrief. That will give the defence authorities a full picture. 

But, what the nine Tiger guerrillas now in custody, and some of their colleagues were doing in the deep seas at midnight that signalled the dawn of Friday is now known. They were unloading and transporting crates of ammunition from an unidentified vessel that lay in international waters, over a 100 miles off Tiger guerrilla held Mullaitivu. It was one such convoy the Navy had intercepted triggering off a deep sea battle.

Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri, returned to Colombo at dawn yesterday after a five day official visit to Bangladesh. He was elated at the news that his men had pulled off what is easily one of their biggest successes. Besides destroying enemy boats, the capture of nine guerrillas during the battle was a prize catch. 

It came at a time when Vice Admiral Sandagiri was bringing more good news to the Government. During a meeting with Bangladesh Prime Minister, Begum Sheik Hasina Wajid, he had secured more berths for training Navy officers. Premier Wajid had also agreed to waive fee for such training in Bangladesh. However, the only expenditure to the Navy would be to pay for accommodation costs of officers concerned. 

Before Vice Admiral Sandagiri boarded a flight to Dhaka on Monday (April 16), he phoned Defence Secretary Chandrananda de Silva, to give him details of another confrontation. At dawn that day, the Navy had a deep sea confrontation, off the shores of Mullaitivu. Two Navy Fast Attack Craft were damaged. A third had its radar wrecked due to enemy fire. The Navy also destroyed two LTTE boats. That confrontation had also yielded some unexpected results. 

The Navy seized barrels containing what is suspected to be hi-octane fuel. Was it for use by speed boats acquired by Sea Tigers ? Or were they for use in ultra light aircraft the LTTE may have acquired. There were reports circulating in Jaffna, in January this year, that Tiger guerrillas had acquired an unknown number of ultra light aircraft. The Navy also found two 250 gramme cans containing a dust like substance. The label on the cans said "Talilin Diisocya-nate." It was of Japanese origin and bore the company name Takeda. Were they components for cyanide capsules worn by the guerrillas ? Or were they for the manufacture of chemical weapons? Both finds are now being examined by the Government Analyst.

Revelations that came following the two deep sea confrontations in a week undoubtedly confirm that the LTTE was resorting to a major build up of weapons and other material. In other words, under a unilaterally declared ceasefire, now on its fourth month, and talking peace through Norwegian facilitators, the LTTE were busy preparing for war. This time, it is not only the ship load of ammunition that has come as proof. 

There were nine guerrilla cadres to confirm it. In fact, some of them have said so to the Navy during preliminary questioning in Trincomalee. Matching this were radio intercepts from the Wanni which spoke of guerrillas being instructed to secure routes through which heavily loaded lorries and trucks were moving. There was increased traffic indeed. A civilian who returned with his family from guerrilla dominated Wanni told me the talk in the area was about the unloading and moving of material every day. A large number of civilians had been co-opted by the LTTE for this purpose. Civilians leaving the area have been warned not to speak of the activities going on.

If the LTTE is making preparations secretly for a war, the security forces seem to be doing so publicly. In an unprecedented move, the Government announced early last week that the cargo vessel "Asia Vision" arrived in Colombo at 4 p.m. on April 16 with military cargo. According to the announcement, the cargo was made up of 25 T55 Main Battle Tanks, 8 Multi Barrel Rocket Launchers, two Bridge Laying Tanks and 2 Workshop Vehicles. They had all arrived from the Czech Republic. If an impression was created that they had all been given to Sri Lanka free of charge, it was not so. The Government had purchased all the items at a cost of millions of dollars.

Media pundits of the Government and even security forces top brass have argued that a media censorship is in place to ensure the enemy does not have access to "sensitive" information. Now that the enemy is aware that more tanks and MBRLs have arrived in Colombo, would they not have the common sense to realise the cargo would have to be transported to the battle areas? Will they not know they cannot be airlifted or moved by a land route?. Hence, the only way out would be by sea. Cannot the Sea Tigers plan to attack when they are being moved? After all, it is not an unofficial newspaper report that had said it all. It is an official account giving the venue, date and time of arrival. In this modern era of technology, it is not difficult for anyone to ascertain the acquisitions made by a military in any country.

There is a plethora of information in the internet and other sources. But it would be difficult to ascertain when, where and at what time they arrived. The question here is why the Government has volunteered this informati on? And more so, when it accuses the media of publishing only the acquisitions with no references to where and when they were delivered, and continues to maintain a censorship. 

Believe it or not, the situation had been made worse. Soon after the announcement, video footage of the unloading of the military cargo has been released to the media worldwide. Even local TV stations gave wide coverage. Interestingly, if the cargo arrived by the vessel "Asia Vision," the video footage was distributed by Rupavahini's Asia Vision, a grouping of regional State TV broadcasters who regularly share video material. This is not to fault Asia Vision or Rupavahini at all. 

Military cargo is always unloaded under high security conditions. Who then allowed video cameras ? If it was being filmed for record purposes, who then was responsible for the release of the material ? No one appeared to take the responsibility last week. It would not be a bad idea for President Kumaratunga to ascertain how this came about and whether the act was in the best interests of her Government and the country.

Various recent events have shown that some sections of the Government have not been able to get their act together or tell their own story correctly. Recently a Defence Ministry official wrote a letter to the Army Commander that a ban on 24 items has been relaxed when in fact there was no such ban. 

Then there was the Defence Ministry press release on the enforcement of a New Year truce for four days and six hours. It gave the names of six Tamils, two Sinhalese and two Muslims – all of whom the Ministry said were "LTTE cadres presently under arrest." They were being released as a gesture of goodwill. Even if the Ministry's announcement was to suggest the LTTE's membership now included members of all leading communities in the country, the LTTE was to reject it. It said none of those released were their members. 

The fact that all these blunders occur because there is no accountability and no one is taken to task is to say it mildly. As the Avurudu dawned this year, most Sri Lankans observed religious ceremonies and shared the customary delights it offered. But there was also a section who were sad their near and dear ones were not with them to share the Avurudu. 

Among them were those whose kith and kin died exactly an year ago in the fighting at Elephant Pass and its environs. Inquiries have been held but, after the end of an year, no one has been held accountable for these humiliating events. Some who contributed in no small measure to the military blunders have won plum positions and good rewards. The saga goes on. Though bizarre, the morale appears to be the bigger the blunder, the higher the reward. 

Now to the latest deep sea confrontation. It was past 3.30 a.m. on Friday, when two locally built Dvoras from five on patrol in the north eastern seas detected echoes on their radar some 55 nautical miles off Mullaitivu. Initial readings pointed to what was suspected to be four attack boats and three big boats, presumably to carry supplies. They were heading towards the shore led by the attack boats. 

Two Dvoras were tasked to take them on and fighting broke out some 32 nautical miles off the shore of Mullaitivu. When it ended, they had drifted to almost 12 nautical miles. The two Dvoras were joined by the remaining three and the battles continued. Whilst the Sea Tiger attack craft were engaging the Navy, guerrillas arranged for the boats loaded with supplies to escape towards Mullaitivu.

But they were soon caught up with by three Dvoras, rushed from the Navy's Eastern Command Headquarters in Trincomalee. Fierce gun battles went on until four more Dvoras, rushed by the Navy's Northern Command moved in from the direction of Nagar Kovil. More battles ensued. The Navy sank three boats. They were engulfed in a ball of fire as they exploded. A Sri Lanka Air Force MIG 27 bombed another loaded boat.

It became clear there were more than the initially suspected seven boats bringing in supplies. The pilot of the MIG 27 radioed to the SLAF Operations Room that he had spotted a loaded boat berthing on the beach but did not want to bomb it since there was a large civilian concentration around. It was also the case with another boat from which civilians were unloading supplies. 

This is one occasion where the Navy was successful in intercepting a logistics run to ascertain the identity of the cargo. There is no doubt the LTTE would have been successful in the recent past in smuggling in shipments undetected. The deep sea battles on March 23 and April 16 are clear proof. Sea Tiger boats were on logistics runs on these two occasions too. However, what the supplies contained on the first occasion is still unknown.

As dawn broke on Friday, the Navy had seized an attack boat which was partially damaged. It was being towed to Trincomalee when it sank in the waters between the shores of Alampil and Mullaitivu. The area is said to be around 20 miles deep.

Eight Navy personnel sustained injuries. One Dvora had its forward generator damaged, another the starboard engine and a third the port engine. Three guerrillas were killed in the fight. The Navy was due to hand over their bodies to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) yesterday. 

The eight captured guerrillas who were brought to Trincomalee have been identified as: Siddampalam Dushandani (16 – female), Thangiah Vijayalalitha (14 – female), Vijayaratnam Sudharshani (19 – female), Puvaneswaran Malish (21 – Male), Waiharan (19 – Male), Ravi (19 – Male), Kandan (19 – Male) and Kodiswaran (24 – Male). These developments came in the backdrop of two important factors – (i) Norway's facilitatory efforts to bring the Government and the LTTE to the negotiating table (ii) the fate of the LTTE's unilateral ceasefire due to end on April 24. 

Despite an assurance in Parliament by Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, that a date for peace talks would be announced by the Government before the end of the month, there is a great deal of confusion over the matter. Norway's Ambassador in Sri Lanka, Jon Westborg, who held talks in the Wanni with the LTTE's political wing leader, Thamil Chelvam, on April 6 and 7, was unable to obtain dates. 

Hardly had he crossed the LTTE dominated Wanni when the Tamilnet website carried an LTTE statement which declared it has placed new "pre- requisites" to take part in peace talks. They were (i) the Government should lift the proscription on the LTTE, and (ii) reciprocate the LTTE ceasefire. 

The statement quoted Mr. Chelvam as saying they were "absolutely essential" if the LTTE is to participate in the talks. However, Mr. Westborg who met President Kumaratunga and Foreign Minister Kadirgamar on April 10, is learnt to have made it clear the LTTE had made no such demands. He had said that the two issues referred to had been discussed in passing and not as pre-conditions to take part in talks. The Norwegians were to further clarify the matter with the LTTE.

Be that as it may, the London based pro-LTTE newspaper, Tamil Guardian, on April 17 published an interview with Dr. Anton Balasingham, the LTTE's chief negotiator who has been talking to Norwegian Special Envoy, Erik Solheim, in London. The lengthy interview was also posted in the Tamilnet website. 

What Dr. Balasingham has told Tamil Guardian further confuses the assertions made by Mr. Westborg. Asked about the LTTE introducing new pre-conditions, this is what Dr. Balasingham is quoted as saying:

"We have been consistently insisting on de-escalation and de-proscription as practical and necessary steps to create a strong foundation of peace and goodwill conducive for serious political negotiations. The issue of lifting the ban on the LTTE has been raised on several occasions. I have been telling Mr. Solheim that the LTTE will insist on lifting of the ban before the commencement of peace negotiations….. It is therefore crucial that we should enter negotiations as equal partners with due recognition as the preponderant representative organisation of our people…

"Our call that fighting should stop before talking is not a new condition. We have been consistently arguing that both the parties should cease armed hostilities to create a congenial atmosphere of goodwill before the resumption of peace negotiations. It is precisely for this reason that the LTTE had declared a unilateral ceasefire….

Asked whether the LTTE would extend its unilateral ceasefire expiring on April 24, Dr. Balasingham is quoted as saying: 

"Most probably I envisage that Mr. Prabhakaran will

opt for a further extension of the truce if Sri Lankan armed forces maintain peace and abstain from armed operations against our forces and positions. If Sri Lanka government extends the cease-fire as a reciprocal gesture to the LTTE's truce, we will welcome it as a positive step in the de-escalation and peace negotiations."

The Government has made it clear it has no intention of accepting a ceasefire until talks begin and general agreement is reached on modalities. There is strong evidence that the LTTE is making battle preparations not only in the north, but this time, in the east too. 

The next two days will reveal whether they will go into action immediately or wait for a further month.

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