Situation Report
By Iqbal Athas
4th November 2001
The Sunday Times on the Web















Threats of Tiger suicide bombers on polls eve worry PA leaders

With exactly a month to go for Parliamentary general elections on December 5, the biggest worry for the leaders of the People's Alliance appears to be the mounting security threats from Tiger guerrillas.

Major State intelligence agencies are agreed in their warnings this week, particularly after fresh evidence of guerrilla preparations to target senior leaders among other things. Reports spoke of at least 40 guerrilla suicide cadres infiltrating the City to attack VVIP, VIPs, security forces and Police top brass. They were also said to be under orders to take on opportunity targets. So much so, a special meeting of the National Security Council was summoned for last Thursday to review the situation. This was despite the absence from Sri Lanka of President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. She was away in the United Kingdom and returned to Colombo only on Friday.

Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake chaired the meeting and was assisted by Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. Together with Police, Service Chiefs and intelligence top brass among others, the Council reviewed the prevailing security situation. The focal point were some startling findings by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and the commando arm of the Police, the Special Task Force (STF).

During continuing investigations into the July 24 attacks on the Sri Lanka Air Force base at Katunayake and the adjoining Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA), CID detectives have unravelled the working of the Tiger guerrilla network in the Negombo area - the centre from which many a recent attack had been carried out. 

Discovery of explosive laden suicide jackets and subsequent interrogation of suspects have led to some shocking revelations.

DIG (CID) Punya de Silva who is spearheading the investigations is keeping most of the recent findings a closely guarded secret. He told a recent high level conference that utmost secrecy had to be maintained in view of a major breakthrough detectives were expecting in the coming days and weeks. However, raids in the Negombo area following confessions made by a suspect led to a guerrilla hideout where two suicide kits were among items found. It has become clear they were to be used in attacks on PA leaders.

The Sunday Times learnt that ongoing CID investigations had revealed Tiger guerrillas were now using new and insidious methods to plan and execute attacks on leading political personalities. Using forged documents including identity cards, "ready made" families were being put together. In one instance, such a "family" was made up of a purported father, mother and two children.

Living as a "family" and thus warding off suspicion from the neighbourhood where they lived, they were preparing to carry out attacks. It has also turned out that a man who was the driver of Tiger guerrilla cadre Babu, the man who detonated explosives strapped to his chest killing then President Ranasinghe Premadasa, was the same person who had driven the bus that carried Black Tiger guerrillas for the attack on the airbase and the BIA on July 24. The driver is now in custody.

Adding to the findings of the CID investigators were a string of detections following raids on rebel hideouts in the east by the Special Task Force. In view of ongoing investigations, these findings too are being kept a secret.

Both Premier Wickremanayake and Foreign Minister Kadirgamar, during the National Security Council meeting last Thursday, discussed whether or not to issue a public statement setting out the threats posed by Tiger guerrillas. 

It is not immediately clear whether such a statement would now materialise. However, the matters that surfaced at the NSC would mean PA leaders will be forced to curtail their appearances during the election campaign.

Main among them will be President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who escaped a suicide bomber attack on the final day of the Presidential election campaign in December 1999. She, however, lost an eye. Her campaign schedule is being restricted to important events whilst Premier Wickremanayake's own security has been beefed up substantially.

Although Premier Wickremanayake was said to have been the target of a guerrilla suicide bomber, who exploded himself prematurely last Monday at Chitra Lane, Narahenpita, major State intelligence agencies are yet to come by any information to confirm this suspicion. The only reason that has given rise to this suspicion is the fact that Premier Wickremanayake was to attend a foundation stone laying ceremony at the Divisional Secretariat in Narahenpita.

Heightening confusion over the matter is a warning sent out by one State intelligence arm, just two days before the latest suicide bomb explosion, that the guerrillas were targeting a high ranking security official. It warned that an attack was to be carried out when he paid his regular call on his mistress. The identity of the high ranking security official or where his purported mistress lived has not been made clear.

Be that as it may, last Monday's detonation of explosives strapped to his chest by a suicide bomber, ahead of striking the target when Police were trailing him, gave the security authorities a strong message- the guerrillas had broken their silence since the July 24 attacks, on the airbase and the international airport, to continue their violent campaign outside the theatre of conflict in the north and east. Like in the previous poll campaigns, they now have no doubt, the guerrillas would unleash a terror campaign. Adding to these fears is the upcoming "Heroes Week" - a week long period when the guerrillas "honour" their dead "heroes." It ends with a "policy" statement by their leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, on November 27 - a day after his birthday.

During the run up to the Presidential elections in 1994, a female suicide bomber exploded herself on October 24, killing UNP candidate and former Cabinet Minister Gamini Dissanayake and others. On the eve of the general elections last year, suicide attacks were also carried out on October 2, 5 and 19 in Mutur, Medawachchiya and Colombo. Besides these incidents, suicide attacks in October had also included the one on the Kolonnawa oil installations (October 20, 1995) and the World Trade Centre twin towers in Fort (October 15, 1997).

Besides contending with security threats in the wake of the upcoming elections, defence authorities are also worried about the east, where there has been increasing incidents and Sea Tiger activity in the seas off Mullaitivu.

Last Thursday, guerrillas attacked the Police Post at 64th Mile Post, three kilometres south of Mutur (in the Trincomalee district) killing 11 policemen. 

The Special Media Information Centre said some 40 to 60 guerrillas used mortar fire and small arms to carry out the attack. It said that six soldiers, part of re-inforcements rushed to the scene, and nine policemen were seriously injured. Other sources said the guerrillas removed all the weaponry at the Police Post. That included one 60 mm grenade launcher, one 40 mm grenade launcher and 12 T-56 assault rifles. The incident came amidst warnings that the guerrillas were planning major attacks on military installations in the east. The Directorate of Internal Intelligence (DII) had also issued a specific warning last week that the 64th Mile Police Post would be attacked. An ASP responsible for Police counter terrorist operations had in turn passed this message to Mutur Police since the Police Post itself did not have a telephone.

Increased Sea Tiger guerrilla activity in the past weeks off the north eastern coast has also been a cause for serious concern to the security authorities. On October 28 (Sunday), two gunboats noticed a large vessel (resembling a logistics boat) being escorted out to sea from Chalai, where a Sea Tiger base is located. They were being escorted by six Sea Tiger attack craft.

The gunboats, which could not keep pace with the Sea Tiger flotilla in view of low speed, had radioed Eastern Naval Area Headquarters to report the sighting. When they were queried as to whether any ships were sighted in the area, the gunboats had reported sighting one some 50 nautical miles east of Mullaitivu. Suspecting that the seven Sea Tiger boats were heading towards a ship for mid sea transfer of cargo, Eastern Naval Area headquarters ordered Navy Fast Attack Craft in the area to search the ship.

It was only when they came closer to the ship, they found the vessel was "Rossal Current," an Italian owned cargo vessel flying a St. Vincente Island flag. When Navy personnel wanted to conduct a search, the Captain had refused to open hatch doors at mid sea for fears that his cranes would collapse if an inspection is carried out there. The Navy had thereafter escorted it to Trincomalee port where a search was conducted and the vessel released after nothing incriminating was found. It was carrying a consignment of granite from the South Indian port of Chennai.

It has now transpired that "Rossal Current" had undergone repairs at the dry docks in the Colombo Port in September this year. Questions are now being raised on whether the log boat looking vessel escorted by six Sea Tiger attack craft were in fact moving some senior cadres on a mission abroad ? Were they travelling deeper into international waters to be transferred to a waiting ship ? These were questions that are baffling the Naval authorities. They suspect a logistics run would have meant the vessel carrying the cargo would have been in the vicinity.

Just two days after this incident, Tiger guerrillas launched an attack to cut off fuel supplies to the north, both for civilians and the military.

"Dunhinda," a self propelled barge hired by the State owned Ceylon Petroleum Corporation, with a capacity of 800 tons left the Trincomalee Port with equal quantities of kerosene, auto diesel and low sulphur diesel used by the Army. It was escorted by a Petty Officer and 15 Navy personnel during the 28 hour journey at nine knots per hour.

Some ten miles east of Point Pedro, Navy personnel on board "Dunhinda," had noticed six Sea Tiger boats heading in their direction. As they came closer, it became clear that the flotilla was made up of two suicide boats with suicide cadres and four attack craft. Navy personnel opened fire sinking one craft.

By then, there was an explosion in the first boat with suicide cadres. It occurred some 15 yards away from "Dunhinda." Moments later, the second boat with suicide cadres hit the port side and exploded causing extensive damage to the engine room. Two Navy personnel were killed in the first explosion whilst another was killed in the second.

Fortunately the fuel tanks of the "Dunhinda" were intact and did not catch fire. The Navy's Israeli built Fast Missile Vessel (FMV) "Nandimitra" and four FACs were rushed to the area. 

During rescue operations they found that only four civilians from a group of 13 were on board. Others had jumped into the sea. With the help of fire-fighting equipment from "SLNS Nandimitra" the fire on board "Dunhinda" was doused and the barge was towed to Kankesanturai. The engine room superstructure of the self propelled barge is said to have been badly damaged by the Sea Tiger attack. It is to be towed to Colombo for major repairs.

Navy officials said the Sea Tiger attack on "Dunhinda" was designed to deny fuel supplies both to civilians and the military in the Jaffna peninsula. 

Whilst kerosene is for exclusive use by the civilians, auto diesel is both for civilians and the Army. The low sulphur diesel is said to fire Army power generators.

The Sea Tiger attack on "Dunhinda" came despite several warnings to the Navy, particularly by the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) of possible attacks. One warning said Sea Tigers who are engaged in unloading a consignment from a ship located in the mid-sea off eastern coast have been reprimanded by the Tiger leadership for the delay in supplying goods to its bases on the Mullaitivu coast.

The DMI said at present Sea Tigers find it difficult to carry out their entrusted missions successfully due to Navy patrols. 

It said the LTTE had managed to dispatch a part of a military consignment which include fuel barrels and spare parts of vehicles to its bases since the arrival of the ship at a location in the east coast.

Since the calamitous "Operation Agni Khiela" in April, political events have overtaken the government's focus on the war. A government desperately fighting to retain its parliamentary majority left the war to more or less take its own course. Without positive political direction the war situation ground to stalemate with occasional skirmishes to retain the positional status quo.

This lull in government activity has given the LTTE profitable respite to consolidate their position logistically and at the same time to adjust their strategies to meet the outcome of the political turmoil and the war in particular. 

Towards that end the LTTE whilst appearing content to maintain a military stalemate in Jaffna have stepped up military activity in the Eastern Province and maritime activity offshore in the east. There is also government concern that Tiger guerrillas have inducted more suicide cadres into Colombo to disturb the political run up to elections.

Tiger guerrilla operations in the Eastern Province are a logical extension of their war strategy to annex this province to their conceptual Eelam. Considering the near equal tri-communal population in the Eastern Province only coercion of the Sinhalese and Muslims into keeping away from the polls could reflect a Tamil majority vote in this Province to back LTTE territorial claims. Thus, the LTTE operational focus in the Eastern Province is in harmony with their strategic aims.

The international mood against terrorism must inhibit the LTTE in executing land operations, which could result in civilian collateral damage. Any action which could result in such damage, will be counter-productive to the LTTE cause and more particularly to the Tamil diaspora overseas in the Western countries. In the circumstances an aggressive naval policy to interdict governmental shipping to the North along the east coast is again a logical alternative.

Such a strategy, apart from interdicting the government's line of communication to the North could also serve to give the LTTE superiority at sea so that they could engage in smuggling and gun running operations with some measure of freedom. Success here would mean that the LTTE could have a sufficiency of arms and material to be in a position of strength to measure up to whatever the strategies are going to be of a new government that is elected in December.

As said earlier, the LTTE are bound to be cautious that whatever operations they carry out are not going to cause collateral damage outside military targets that would earn them condemnation from the international community. Hence, prudence dictates that they will be cautious and carefully selective of operations that they may conduct in Colombo.

Apart from that, the LTTE must be mindful that any operations they conduct outside the North and the East is going to impact on the rest of the country, and that it will have its effect on the forthcoming elections.

The sympathy that President Kumaratunga gained from the unsuccessful attempt to assassinate her in December 1999, must be fresh in LTTE minds.

Whether the LTTE would like a repeat of that is the question. In that context, the LTTE may prefer a hands off situation in Colombo and other areas outside the North and East. 

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