Standoff in the
sea: facts and fallacies
image for a
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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
. More on that later).
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.
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.
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:
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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:
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.
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
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
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.
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."
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.