Standoff in the sea: facts and fallacies

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It was almost 8 am that Wednesday, April 24, when a sailor at a Naval Sub Unit (NSU) near Pulmoddai, on the north eastern coast, picked up his binoculars to scan the seas.

What he saw on the clear, hot day roused suspicions. Boats were speeding past. Was it a movement of a Sea Tiger flotilla from their base in Chalai (north of Mullaitivu) to some location south of the Eastern province ? So he suspected. The NSU radioed a Naval Detachment at Nilaveli. They swung into action.

Just then three Dvora Fast Attack Craft (FACs), were heading from the Eastern Naval Area (ENA) Headquarters in the Dockyard at Trincomalee, to join "Operation Waruna Kirana," a Naval cordon covering the waters off the north eastern coast from Mullaitivu in a southerly direction up to Kokilai. They were alerted and told to investigate.

A tense night for ceasefire
Most Sri Lankans may be unaware the nation was on a high state of security alert last Wednesday night. It came just hours before May Day rallies, both in the City and outstations, wound up.

Security in the City, including key installations like the Bandaranaike International Airport, the Ratmalana Airport, the Colombo Port, power installations and other strategic locations were places where security precautions were enhanced. The move, entirely precautionary, followed an incident in the high seas off Batticaloa on Wednesday evening. It was, however, scaled down on Thursday.

Hard on the heels of a stand off between the Navy and a Sea Tiger flotilla on April 24 (see story on this page), Navy Commander, Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri, had ordered his personnel deployed in the north eastern waters to be vigilant. It was just before sunset when a Navy patrol of three Dvora fast attack craft (FACs) in the seas off Vakarai, north of Batticaloa, observed the movement of two fishing trawlers or multi-day fishing boats. As they began to pursue the suspicious trawlers, one of the FACs broke down but the other two continued. When radio warnings to stop were not heeded, one of the Dvoras went almost five metres close to one of the trawlers. Just then, a loud explosion ripped the air. Damage to the Dvora was avoided since the explosion occurred at the opposite end of the trawler.

It became clear to Naval authorities that under the guise of fishing, using a Sinhala name "Duwa Mekhala" (or Daughter Mekhala), the trawler had in fact engaged in carrying military hardware that had been loaded from a ship in international waters. Proof of what the hardware contained came later. The move was reminiscent of the guerrilla modus operandi when they attacked the Air Force base and adjoining Bandaranaike International Airport on July 24, last year. The attackers came in a private coach which bore the name 'Matara' in Sinhala.

Naval craft began to pursue the second boat, which had by then been speeding towards the shore near Vakarai. Just then, the Naval vessels encountered another heavily laden boat hugging the coast and moving in a northerly direction . Navy officials say, as they got closer, some Sea Tiger boats emerged from among fishing trawlers and opened fire. Unable to move further close to the coast due to the shallow draught, Naval craft had opened fire "in defence" at around 7 p.m. destroying the boat. It blew up in a fireball.

It was nightfall when the security establishment in Colombo was apprised of the situation. Defence Secretary, Austin Fernando, drove from his residence to Town Hall grounds to inform Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Defence Minister, Tilak Marapana, who were taking part in the United National Front (UNF) May Day rallies.
Later in the night, both Mr. Marapana and Mr. Fernando rushed to Navy Headquarters. Chief of Defence Staff, Gen. Rohan de S. Daluwatte, Army Commander Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle, Air Force Commander Air Marshal Jayalath Weerakkody and Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri were on hand. Also present was Interior Minister John Amaratunga, who personally saw to it that security measures to protect the City were in place.

Initially they were at the Operations Room at Navy Headquarters where its Director, Rear Admiral Vasantha Karannagoda, was giving them a minute by minute briefing of developments after making radio contact with the Navy's Eastern Area Headquarters in Trincomalee and Naval craft deployed in the waters off Batticaloa. Feedback was also arriving from Navy Chief of Staff, Rear Admiral Mohan Wijewickrema, who was by then on a visit to Trincomalee to review Navy's preparedness and oversee other matters.

A picture of the events that took place soon began to emerge. The two fishing trawlers, which would be least suspected by the Navy, were used to transfer from a ship in international waters stocks of 120 mm mortars, 82 mm mortars and Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs). After the first vessel exploded killing three Black Tigers and another guerrilla cadre, the second fishing trawler had encountered difficulty in reaching the shores due to rock formations ahead of it. With much delay, they had been able to unload only part of the military hardware. It is not clear whether the fishing trawler, hit by Navy gunfire, was the second one or another to which the guerrillas had transferred part of the cargo.

Defence Secretary Austin Fernando spoke on the telephone from NHQ to Tronde Furuhovde, the head of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM). He had been in Trincomalee that day and had only returned to Batticaloa in the evening. Later that night Naval craft picked up Victoria Lund, a member of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) from Trincomalee and sailed to the area near Vakarai where debris from the destroyed fishing trawler was known to be. The LTTE had been advised earlier about the movement with the SLMM member on board. It was around 1 a.m. when they reached the area. The Defence Ministry said "the same Naval boat carrying the member of the SLMM on board recovered 15 boxes of 120 mm mortars, two boxes of 82 mm mortars and six Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) from the debris of the blown up trawler."

They are now lying in the Navy's central Armoury in Trincomalee. However, the BBC's Sinhala service 'Sandeshaya', quoted a Norwegian member of SLMM on Saturday night as only confirming that some boxes were found. He refused to confirm whether they contained mortar shells and RPGs. The Government has now made representations to the SLMM over this matter.

If there were fears of a retaliatory attack by the guerrillas, if not in the north or east but in the City, there were none. The LTTE has so far made no official comment on the matter. The LTTE is alleged to have inducted at least eleven shipments of military hardware since the cessation of hostilities came into effect on Christmas eve last year. Navy officials say this is the first time there was "very clear proof" it was still engaging in smuggling war like material.

The late night crisis meeting at NHQ ended around 1.30 am on Thursday, just after Vice Admiral Sandagiri entertained the participants to dinner at the Ward Room.

It was 8.20 am when ENA Headquarters received their first report - one large Sea Tiger logistics vessel accompanied by two attack craft, carrying some 200 guerrillas, were speeding southwards hugging the coast. Navy Headquarters in Colombo was soon apprised.

One of the three FACs made radio contact with the flotilla. They were ordered to stop, identify themselves and allow inspection by Navy. Whilst that went on, ENA Headquarters in Trincomalee rushed five more Dvora FACs.

Since the open ended ceasefire agreement between the Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Naval units have been issued new rules of engagement to deal with "vessels engaging in unauthorized activities." They are required to interrogate suspected supply vessels through radio contact. If the vessel does not adhere to instructions, they are empowered to board and search them. If this is denied in what may turn out to be a hostile act, Navy units have been told to fire warning shots and thereafter resort to any other appropriate action, including use of force, if it becomes necessary.

Navy officials say the Sea Tiger flotilla did not heed their signals to stop for inspection. Later, the Naval vessels had trapped them effectively inside a cordon, at Illantattunu Point near Foul Point, the promontory near Koddiyar Bay, eight kilometres south of Trincomalee.
A tense drama began to develop. A guerrilla, who was in one of three Sea Tiger craft, commandeered a fishing boat that lay in the cordon and rode on it to dock alongside an FAC. Navy men helped him get on board. He identified himself as Dikkam, the man in command of that particular flotilla movement (He was wrongly described in a Defence Ministry news release as "Commander of Sea Tigers in eastern areas…. More on that later).

Responding to queries from Navy officials, Dikkam said the movement by the flotilla of three Sea Tiger boats was a normal routine one. He asserted the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) had been apprised days ahead. Disclosing that their destination was Vakarai (north of Batticaloa), he said the boats would re-fuel there and return the next morning (April 25). After instructions arrived from Navy Headquarters in Colombo, approval was granted for them to leave, but not before other significant developments had taken place.
They are better explained in an official incident report of the Sri Lanka Navy. Here are relevant highlights:

"…… was observed that there were approximately 120 persons in the logistics boat and approximately 40 in each attack boat. Personnel onboard the LTTE boats were allowed to disembark and proceed to Illantattunu by paddle boats.

"Interception of LTTE transmission revealed that the LTTE Batticaloa Military Leader Karuna with his family and Paduman were on board in one of the LTTE boats and they were preparing to attack the Naval craft after disembarking the VIPs, if the requirement arises.

"Around 1215 hours Mr. Pontos Westron of the SLMM and Commander, Eastern Naval Area (Rear Admiral Sarath Ratnakeerthi) arrived at the location for discussions with the LTTE cadre. The SLMM member and two Naval officers who boarded the LTTE boats observed the following in addition to the boat's main armament:

Two Attack Craft
Rocket Propelled Grenades, Sub Machine Guns, Sniper Guns covered with polythene, Mortars, ammunition, communication sets, Main Gun ammunition boxes, Grenades, M16 Guns, pouches and magazines.

One Log Craft
Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs), Sub Machine Guns, Ammunition, Sniper Guns covered with polythene, grenades, pouches, magazines and a projector screen……."

If that incident report of the Navy spoke of the encounter with the Sea Tiger flotilla, there was also another important incident to which reference was made. It said:

"At 1325 hours troops at Foul Point observed a red and white coloured sea plane approaching the area from the northern direction, circled at a very low altitude off Brown's Rock Point and proceeded towards south along the coast."

The reference, of course, was to the Maldivian Air Taxis seaplane that had taken off from the Iranamadu tank near Kilinochchi with LTTE Chief Negotiator, Anton Balasingham, to the Maldivian capital of Male. As exclusively reported in the main front page story of The Sunday Times last week, the sea plane had diverted course and flown low over the flotilla of boats the Navy surrounded thus risking attack by the Air Force.

Since the departure of Dr. Balasingham was a top secret, the report said, both the Navy and the Air Force were completely unaware of the presence of any foreign aircraft in the region. Naval craft had radioed the Operations Room of the Air Force Base in China Bay. Whilst making preparations to intercept or attack the sea plane, the Base had made urgent contact with Air Force Headquarters to report the sighting. It was only thereafter that they were advised to stand down.

It has now transpired that the sea plane diverted course, placing the lives of Dr. Balasingham and his entourage at risk, following serious LTTE concerns over thesafety of its top men in the flotilla. There were unconfirmed reports the sea plane radioed an LTTE base in the Wanni that there were no signs of fighting between the guerrillas and the Navy. This was after it flew low over the area. Like his arrival at Iranamadu, his return route to Male too was to fly west from Kilinochchi towards Mannar and then on a straight course to Male.

Whilst that would have lasted three hours, the sea plane journey, after circling over Foul Point area and skirting around the country's south coast, had taken over five hours. Many seats had been removed to accommodate extra fuel tanks. By this time, another development had already taken place in the high sea stand off.

Whilst Dikkam had boarded one of the Navy FACs, another drama was enacted, perhaps without the knowledge of the Naval authorities. Whether this occurred just before the Naval craft fully surrounded the flotilla or immediately thereafter is not clear. But The Sunday Times learnt from highly authoritative sources that LTTE Trincomalee leader, Paduman, had disembarked into a dinghy and returned ashore near Illantattunu. Thereafter, he had dispatched a boat and brought ashore (from one of three Sea Tiger crafts), Pottu Amman, the guerrilla intelligence wing leader and the other "guerrilla VIPs."

Pottu Amman had later been dispatched to a LTTE dominated area in Batticaloa district in another boat. The Sunday Times has seen transcripts of radio intercepts that confirm Pottu Amman's presence in the flotilla on April 24. Similar intercepts also confirm Pottu Amman was in Batticaloa until yesterday. His mission there had been to patch up rivalry that had developed between guerrilla intelligence wing and fighting cadres.

However, the main front page report in The Sunday Times last week, which among other matters made reference to Pottu Amman's presence, drew a denial from the Ministry of Defence. This denial related to a paragraph which said "There was hectic excitement in the intelligence community after radio intercepts between the Sea Tiger flotilla and a base somewhere in the Wanni jungles revealed that among those trapped by the Naval cordon was Pottu Amman, guerrilla intelligence wing leader and a most wanted man worldwide for the murder of former Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi."

This is what the Ministry of Defence said in a news release on Sunday (April 28) afternoon:

"Attention of the Ministry of Defence is drawn to media reports which claimed that LTTE intelligence wing leader Pottu Amman was among one of those who was trapped on 24 April 2002 in a Naval cordon off the seas at Foul Point, Trincomalee.

"Ministry of Defence wishes to state that LTTE intelligence wing leader Pottu Amman was not among those who were trapped by the Naval cordon which was confirmed by Naval authorities.

"Dikkam, LTTE Sea Tiger leader and the commander of Sea Tigers in the Eastern areas was the only person in the LTTE hierarchy who was found inside (sic) LTTE boats."

Even if one is to concede the Defence Ministry's assertion that "Pottu Amman was not among those who were trapped by the Naval cordon," the contention that Dikkam, wrongly described as Sea Tiger leader in Eastern areas being the "only person in the LTTE hierarchy who was found inside (sic) LTTE boats" is proved wrong. Evidently, he was the only person who voluntarily identified himself after boarding the Navy's fast attack craft. There were no identity checks on others.

The Navy's own incident report confirms that "interception of LTTE transmission revealed that the LTTE Batticaloa Military Leader Karuna and his family and Paduman were on board in one of the LTTE boats and they were preparing to attack the Naval craft after disembarking the VIPs, if the requirement arises." And now, in another development, the LTTE has also declared its "senior commanders were on board."

Why then did the Defence Ministry take the unusual step of asserting that Pottu Amman was "not among those trapped" ? Soon after The Sunday Times front page report last week, Indian based journalists in Colombo were apprised that morning of an official response later that day. A report in the Chennai based The Hindu, a newspaper that commands the respect of the Indian establishment, by its veteran Colombo Correspondent Nirupama Subramaniam, provided an answer.

Her report on April 30 said "The Sri Lankan Defence Ministry denial that Pottu Amman, intelligence chief of the LTTE, was trapped by a naval cordon south of the eastern port city of Trincomalee last week, was aimed at avoiding an Indian negative reaction, Officials said.

Pointing out that Pottu Amman, the second accused in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, is wanted by India, she added there is a demand by the Indian Government for his extradition along with that of the LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. There is also an Interpol notice for him.

She said"these reports might rouse Indian ire over a wanted man being let off, close on the heels of anger in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere in India over Mr. Prabhakaran's public appearance, had prompted the swift denial from the defence establishment. Quoting an official source she said "the denial was stating the fact. There was a fairly clear idea of who was on the boat and from what we know, Pottu Amman was not there.

But challenging the denial, Ms. Subramaniam said, local media are asking how the Government could so categorically deny the presence of Pottu Amman in the LTTE flotilla, when in fact, the Navy had not carried out identification checks…."

At most, the Defence Ministry statement appeared to be cautious over reaction. Needless to say an LTTE response, contradicting some of the facts in their news release about actions of the guerrillas has placed matters in further bad light.

It was not the ire of India that the Government faced over these developments. The anger came from President Chandrika Kumaratunga, the Commander-in-Chief. She not only summoned a meeting of the National Security Council for Wednesday afternoon. Her officials took the unusual step of lining up the visual media to cover the event. Video and still cameramen photographed Defence Minister Tilak Marapana, Defence Secretary Austin Fernando, Chief of Defence Staff, Gen. Rohan de S. Daluwatte, the service and Police chiefs arriving or leaving after the meeting. This was in marked contrast to the PA's seven year rule when there was strict secrecy with no pictorial coverage of National Security Council meetings that discussed many a crucial issue concerning the nation's security.

President Kumaratunga is learnt have raised questions on why the Sea Tiger flotilla was allowed to go when weapons were found on board the vessels. She had said this was a violation of the ceasefire agreement. At least one official politely explained they wanted to avoid a serious confrontation situation that would jeopardize the peace process.

But the Government did raise issue with the Monitoring Mission only to be told that the LTTE had given them notice, at least four days ahead, about the flotilla movement. They had, however, inadvertently failed to inform the Government of Sri Lanka. The SLMM said they were sorry about this lapse.

The postscript to the event came in a report in the Tamilnet website which is both prompt and accurate on reports concerning the LTTE. It quoted the LTTE as saying that "senior LTTE commanders and cadres were returning to the Eastern province following crucial meetings with the LTTE leadership in Wanni" when they were intercepted by the Navy. What is correct ? The Ministry of Defence claim that Dikkam, the only "person in the LTTE hierarchy" was present in the Sea Tiger flotilla or the Tamilnet assertion that "senior LTTE commanders" were there ? The answer is clear even to the most dumb witted. Here is what Tamilnet said:

"The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission has informed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leadership that it does not consider the sailing of a Sea Tiger convoy which was intercepted and challenged by Sri Lankan navy gunboats near Trincomalee seas Wednesday as a breach of the indefinite ceasefire agreement.

"The head of the SLMM, General Tronde Furuhovde, in a letter to the LTTE headquarters in Kilinochchi regretted the incident, acknowledging it was a mistake by the SLMM for not communicating in writing to the Sri Lankan naval authorities about the planned movement of the Sea Tiger boats in the eastern waters. General Furuhovde revealed that the matter had been passed orally and there had been confusion in communications.

"The LTTE leadership had expressed its deep displeasure over the incident since a major confrontation could have resulted from the tense situation created when the Sri Lankan naval flotilla challenged the Sea Tiger convoy.

"LTTE sources in Vanni told Tamilnet the LTTE had provided all requisite details about the movement of senior LTTE commanders and cadres who were returning to the Eastern province following crucial meetings in Vanni with the LTTE leadership. A similar procedure had been adopted when they travelled to the Vanni ahead of the meetings, the sources said.

"The LTTE has also requested the Norwegian facilitators to issue an official statement to the media to clarify the matter since Sri Lanka's President Chandrika Kumaratunga had taken the incident seriously, accusing the LTTE of violating the indefinite ceasefire agreement."

Notwithstanding the fact that the SLMM had forgotten, a major confrontation, that would have turned out to be disaster for the peace process, was indeed avoided. The Navy should be commended for its cautious approach. But it seems comical the MoD news release that seemingly defended guerrilla activity is contradicted by the LTTE itself for factual inaccuracies. Would it not be better to let the LTTE speak for itself?
That could at least save unwarranted embarrassment for the MoD. These are days where every action is part of a chapter in history, for good or for worse.

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