LTTE's "MV Koimar" was loaded with ammunition and fuel
The Sri Lanka Navy received information about a suspicious ship bringing warlike items into Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lanka Navy took prompt action to immediately stop the unloading of such items. As a result, it was confirmed no warlike items were unloaded in Sri Lanka.

However, the ship in question did not enter Sri Lankan territorial waters."

That statement came in a Ministry of Defence news release last Wednesday, just three days after The Sunday Times (Situation Report) revealed exclusively details of "The mystery weapons ship in the high seas."

The four sentences, though seemingly sketchy, revealed much more than it sought to conceal.

It was indeed creditable for the United Front Government to boldly admit that there was information about a suspicious ship bringing in war like items into Sri Lanka. In the wake of the ripples caused by the revelations, The Sunday Times learnt, Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremasinghe, directed that an official statement be issued setting out the position.

Even if the news release did not say to whom this "suspicious ship or the lethal cargo belonged," there is hardly any dispute over the matter. Not because there is only one group or organisation that is well known to have smuggled warlike items during the near twenty year long separatist war between Security Forces and Tiger guerrillas.

There is incontrovertible evidence that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was responsible. They used a large tanker to bring in not only assorted ammunition and other warlike items into Sri Lanka but also large quantities of fuel. This has been further confirmed by the Indian Navy that had trailed the suspicious vessel since it was spotted in the Bay of Bengal waters, far east of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu or some 110 nautical miles north east of Mullaitivu.

That is not all. Besides confirming that the suspicious vessel in question was the 75 metres long "MV Koimar," the Indian Navy, The Sunday Times learnt, has made available to their Sri Lankan counterparts colour photographs of the vessel moving in the high seas. Earlier, responding to radio calls, those on board the vessel had identified themselves as members of the LTTE.

It has now come to light that five heavily armed Sea Tiger attack craft had positioned themselves in the high seas off Mullaitivu that Friday night (December 13) when the suspicious vessel was spotted. Were they awaiting the arrival of smaller boats loaded with cargo at mid-sea to be escorted ashore? Suspicions have arisen following the location of at least four boats (fitted with outboard motors), ahead of the Sea Tiger attack craft and in close proximity to the tanker.

The MoD news release went on to say the Sri Lanka Navy took prompt action to "immediately stop the unloading of such items" and added "it was confirmed no warlike items were unloaded." Leave alone being sighted, in the absence of any contact with the tanker by any Naval craft deployed to track it down, how the MoD could conclude "they (the Navy) took prompt action to stop the unloading" is not clear. That raises many questions.

As reported in these columns last week, upon receipt of information on Thursday night (December 12), the Navy sought help from the Sri Lanka Air Force. The SLAF deployed their radar equipped US built Beechcraft surveillance aircraft to carry out reconnaissance in the southern and north-eastern deep seas.

The Navy's Northern Naval Area Headquarters in Kankesanthurai and Eastern Naval Area Headquarters in Trincomalee deployed a fleet of 12 Dvora Fast Attack Craft (FACs) and and at least three Fast Gun Boats (FGBs). A significant feature of this deployment was the presence on board of representatives of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), those tasked to monitor the ongoing ceasefire. Some of the craft went to re-inforce "Operation Waruna Kirana" - a Naval blockade in the north-eastern seas established in June 2001, to prevent Tiger guerrillas from smuggling weaponry and related items. Others were out on a search mission and later formed a cordon off Mullaitivu.

The "Operation Waruna Kirana" blockade extends in the high seas off the coast from Chalai (north of Mullaitivu) southwards to Alampil, (north of Kokkutuduwai and adjoining the Nayaru lagoon). The Navy has used a large part of its assets to place this permanent blockade some six miles off the shore. According to operational orders issued by Navy Headquarters, Naval craft in this cordon are required to liase closely with vessels deployed in "Operation Seal," where larger Navy vessels patrol deep seas some 60 miles off the coast.

Assisting the Sri Lanka Navy in the conduct of "Operation Waruna Kirana" is the Sri Lanka Air Force, which shifted its Air Surveillance Command Centre from Anuradhapura to Trincomalee, in June last year. They were tasked not only to carry out reconnaissance flights but also operate UAV's (unmanned aerial vehicles) to detect Sea Tiger boat movements.

If the February 22 Ceasefire Agreement scaled down both Naval and SLAF activity considerably, the former's operational capability, particularly in the deep seas were badly hindered by its aging fleet and the lack of spares for its newer acquisitions - matters that have rendered its operational capability to less than half of what existed before the latest ceasefire. In this backdrop, it is no secret that the Navy's capability to intercept, leave alone prevent unloading of warlike items, is woefully inadequate.

Moreover, Rules of Engagement (ROE) for Sri Lanka Navy personnel, issued after the Ceasefire Agreement, have also placed some restrictions. The ROE issued by Navy Commander Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri, on March 1, this year, (just six days after the ceasefire), defines the "action to be taken when a LTTE supply vessel is detected."

"If identified as a LTTE supply vessel and is within the territorial waters of Sri Lanka (12 nautical miles)," Vice Admiral Sandagiri has issued specific instructions. Among them:

* The SLN unit detecting such vessel will initially interrogate the suspect vessel through radio communications.

* If the suspected vessel does not adhere to instructions of the SLN, the latter will board the vessel in the exercise of the right to visit and search the vessel for the purpose of determining any violation of the laws of Sri Lanka. If such vessel is found to have violated the laws of Sri Lanka, SLN will proceed to arrest the vessel and bring it to the nearest port to be dealt with according to law;

*If the suspect vessel does not adhere to SLN instructions and attempts to avoid SLN units, it will be considered a hostile act and warning shots will be fired across the bows to make the suspicious vessel adhere to the instructions given by SLN units.

* If the suspect vessel still does not respond and continues to disobey SLN orders, it will be considered as a hostile act and SLN will reserve the right to take whatever action necessary to stop the vessel, including the recourse to use of force.

The above orders, Vice Admiral Sandigiri made clear, also applied in respect of "LTTE vessels found within the contiguous zone of Sri Lanka (24 nautical miles) ". He said the SLN is entitled to apprehend any vessel on the high seas if found engaged in:

* Manoeuvring of a vessel in order to rendezvous with LTTE log boats/any other boats with a clear intention of transferring/smuggling in warlike materials;

* Transferring warlike materials to LTTE log craft/other craft or making preparations to (a) receive LTTE log boats (b) to effect transfer of warlike materials (c) to launch loaded/empty LTTE boats.

* Unauthorised broadcasting in radio frequency spectrum

* Launching aircraft (fixed wing/rotary wing) with the intention of violating Sri Lankan air space.

* Any other manoeuvring of a vessel in a suspicious manner, which may be deemed to be contrary to peaceful means.

It is clear that Naval craft deployed to detect the tanker in question did not have the opportunity to enforce any of the Rules of Engagement spelt out by Vice Admiral Sandagiri. In as much as it is difficult to independently verify the Navy's claim that no warlike items were unloaded, it is equally difficult to ascertain usually reliable reports early this week that the Sea Tigers succeeded in unloading some boat loads of assorted ammunition and even mines. There were also unconfirmed reports of thousands of litres of fuel and some boxes, suspected to be loaded with ammunition, being dumped into the deep sea. This is said to be after the Indian Navy detected the vessel.

However, the MoD claim that the "ship in question did not enter Sri Lankan territorial waters" is correct. Barring one, or at most two instances in recent times, unloading of all warlike material have always been carried out in the deep seas from ships to barges or boats equipped with more than one outboard motor for speedy runs. A few miles closer to the coast, they are known to be escorted by Sea Tiger attack craft ashore to prevent any interception by the Navy. In the case of the latest suspicious vessel, it was known to be moving much beyond the deep-sea limits to which Sri Lanka Naval craft have been tasked to operate.

Moreocer, none of the Naval vessels tasked for the detection were able to proceed to the area.

No matter whether warlike items were unloaded or not, the United Front Government appears to be taking the latest LTTE move very seriously. Navy Commander Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri, will leave for New Delhi, possibly on Tuesday, for talks in this regard with high-ranking Indian Navy officials. His task will be to seek further Indian Navy assistance for the Sri Lanka Navy to prevent any future attempts by the LTTE to smuggle warlike material.

Defence Minister Tilak Marapana, now in New Delhi to attend to matters related to civil aviation (a subject under the Transport Ministry which is his other portfolio) has also been asked to meet Indian Defence Minister, George Fernandes. It is not clear whether Vice Admiral Sandagiri will also be on hand for this meeting.

Whilst giving priority to preventive measures, the UNF Government is also to raise issue about the latest shipment at the next round of peace talks with the LTTE in Nakorn Pathon, Thailand, next month.

Even after the Ceasefire Agreement of February 22, the LTTE has strongly defended their right to induct warlike material though they denied they were engaged in the task. During a visit to the Wanni in May, this year, the head of LTTE's Political Wing Tamil Selvan told The Sunday Times (Situation Report - June 2) "We totally deny we are bringing in arms and taking more people but at the same time we reserve the right to defend this issue by saying there is nothing to prevent us from doing so."

He added, "The Sri Lanka Government and the military has been allocating money without much reduction to purchase arms and have embarked on a recruitment drive. If they can do that, there is nothing specific to prevent the LTTE from doing the same thing. There is no necessity for the LTTE to bring in weapons and take in more people because we have a committed agenda for peace."

If the UNF Government now has proof of the latest LTTE move, what have heightened their concerns is developments in the Norwegian capital of Oslo early this month. The third round of peace talks there ended with a dramatic announcement by Norway that the LTTE had agreed to seek a federal solution within a united Sri Lanka.

Whilst agreeing to "explore a solution founded on the principle of internal self-determination in areas of historical habitation of the Tamil speaking peoples, based on a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka," UNF leaders associated with the peace process ask why there was a need for the LTTE to resort to an enhanced arms build up.

Since a settlement is yet to be worked out, the LTTE may well argue, much against the Government's wishes that they want to have a strong military in their own region. In fact, LTTE Chief Negotiator, Anton Balasingham, who was on a visit to Switzerland to study the system of Government in that country, had inquired of examples where militaries existed within a federal set up or in a confederation. In that context, the creation of a much stronger LTTE military machine would undoubtedly make the LTTE stake stronger claims. Much the same way as they could lay claims that the newly opened "Police Stations" and "Courts of Law" in the East showed that their writ now runs in the Eastern province.

Ill informed sections of the Government reacted in a bizarre fashion when The Sunday Times reported the news that LTTE "Police Stations" and "Law Courts" had begun functioning from November, this year, in the east. One Parliamentarian complained that a photograph of the "Law Courts" that appeared in The Sunday Times was four years old. A loquacious Cabinet Minister, now a TV personality of sorts in chat shows, claimed, (and continues to claim), quoting Police Chief T.E. Anandarajah, that an agent provided the photograph. He boasts that these "police stations" and "law courts" had existed for years in the east and likened them to those operated by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in the south. Yet, Government's peace negotiators raised issue with the LTTE at the Oslo talks (after the revelations were made) and won an assurance that no more "police stations" or "law courts" will be opened in the east.

And now, the Government has reacted positively to The Sunday Times report on the mystery weapons ship in the high seas. It has not only admitted that the Navy received information about a suspicious ship but has now embarked on tougher preventive measures. Like the assurance it won in Oslo to prevent opening of more "police stations" and "law courts" in the east, the latest preventive measures are to prevent the LTTE resorting toa major weapons build-up. These moves are indeed a welcome change from the previous stance of berating the media for its revelations.

The knotty issue of HSZs
It was undoubtedly an embarrassing moment for Defence Secretary Austin Fernando. Before undertaking a trip to India early this week, Defence Minister Tilak Marapana, summoned him for a meeting to ascertain matters relating to the second meeting of the Sub-Committee on De-escalation and Normalisation (SDN) inside an aluminium tent in the no man's land at Muhamalai, (Jaffna peninsula) between Security Forces and LTTE check-points on December 14.

The Sunday Times learnt Mr. Marapana was concerned over complaints he received that members of the Sri Lankan military team were constrained by Mr. Fernando from expressing their reservations relating to certain issues over the High Security Zone (HSZ) during the SDN meeting. The senior officer concerned, Jaffna Security Forces Commander, Major Gen. Sarath Fonseka had made representations to the Defence Minister. He wanted to ensure that the HSZ was not dismantled with the concurrence of the Defence Secretary.

Even if Mr. Fernando, who headed the Sri Lankan side, tried to soften his men from speaking their mind out, perhaps for fear of offending the LTTE side, the fact that the issue over the High Security Zone (HSZ) had become an explosive one is no secret. The military establishment was agog with the story of the note of caution sounded by the Tiger guerrilla delegation's, Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan alias Karuna, at the talks. He is learnt to have said that his leader (Velupillai Prabhakaran) had urged them to ensure that the issue over the HSZ is resolved without delay. Otherwise, it would be difficult for them to take part in future SDN meetings and they would be forced to raise the issue at a higher level, he is learnt to have pointed out.

Even if the note of caution was not reflected in the official news release issued by the Norwegian Embassy after the SDN meeting, it did confirm that the issue of the HSZ was "discussed at length." This is what it said:

"The matter of High Security Zones, especially in Jaffna peninsula, was discussed at length. The parties agreed that a solution to the resettlement of internally displaced people in present High Security Zones and other areas presently perceived as inaccessible to the public could only be solved through integrated plans of action agreed upon by the two parties. These plans will include both security issues as well as humanitarian needs.

"Such plans should be developed in consultation between the relevant Brigade field headquarters. In order to work out appropriate plans and procedures and to build gradual trust between the parties in the process, it was agreed that such plans should start on limited areas and be developed continuously while already agreed plans are being implemented.

"General Fonseka, commander of the Sri Lanka Army in Jaffna peninsula, will deliver a proposal for the first of such plans for a limited, previously populated area in the High Security Zone in the Jaffna Peninsula, before 21st of December.

This plan will thereafter be discussed and agreed upon in a meeting between General Fonseka and Colonel Theepan, LTTE commander of the North, with the assistance of Major General Trond Furuhovde, Head of SLMM, as a consultant to the SDN.

"This principled way of connecting security to normalisation is regarded by the parties as an expression of de-escalation contributing to building confidence between the parties.

"The SDN agreed that LTTE would within 14 days present a proposal on a structure and procedure on how to deal with return of land and property to the rightful owners. This proposal will be presented to the GOSL (Government of Sri Lanka) and taken up for decision at the next meeting of the SDN. The next plenary session of the SDN will be held in Omanthai on January 20."

The High Security Zone in several parts of the Jaffna peninsula is over 150 square kilometres in extent and constitutes about 15 per cent of the landmass in the peninsula.

The Sunday Times learns that Jaffna Security Forces Commander, Maj. Gen. Sarath Fonseka yesterday delivered a document containing his proposals to Gen. Trond Furhovde, head of Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM). It is to be forwarded to LTTE "commander" for North, "Colonel" Theepan.

The Sunday Times learns that the Security Forces have offered to release two sections from the High Security Zone, one in Keerimalai (west of Palaly) and another near Ariyalai/Tanankilappu areas (south east of Jaffna). However, they have insisted that in return the LTTE should disarm their cadres, withdraw artillery/Mortars and other heavy weapons. They also say the police should be permitted to carry out checks in areas to be released.

The response of the LTTE, that is demanding a fuller withdrawal from the High Security Zone, will only be known in the coming weeks. Whether it will accept the conditions and discuss issues with Maj. Gen. Fonseka or reject them outright is not immediately clear.

At a press conference he gave and published in The Virakesari of December 18, the head of LTTE's Political Wing, Tamil Selvan, has declared that people of the north and east should be allowed to return to their original homesteads by getting the military to withdraw from civilian populated areas they have "captured" and continue to occupy. "It is only then we can successfully implement our projects," he has said.

The press conference came after Mr. Selvan declared open the LTTE's Secretariat for Economic Development. Here are some of the questions posed to him by the media and answers given as reported in The Virakesari.

Q: What was the outcome of the meeting held during the past two days?

A: We have taken a firm decision to establish a fund for rehabilitation and reconstruction.

Q: How will this fund be managed?

A: It will be controlled by international organisations including UNDP and the World Bank. After the Sub Committee (Government and LTTE) identifies specific projects, funds will be channelled through the Secretariat.

Q: Will there be separate fund for the Muslims affected by the war?

A: The Sub Committees will look into the interests of all communities. Whatever projects are initiated, the benefits will reach all communities. Those badly affected will be compensated.

Q: How will the fund be directed to the Secretariat? Will foreign aid be sent directly or will it be channelled through the Central Government?

A: The fund has been set up for reconstruction, rehabilitation and development work. Whatever funds given by donor countries for these purposes will be sent directly. This will be monitored by organisations such as the World Bank and the UNDP.

Q: Will this Secretariat establish branches in other districts?

A: Every district in the north-east will have a Committee comprising the District Secretary, two members of the LTTE and another member nominated by the government. These Committees will study the needs of the people in the area and bring it to the notice of the Secretariat.

Q: What are the projects to be introduced immediately?

A: There are thousands of people who have been displaced and their fundamentals have been denied. Therefore rehabilitation is the immediate priority. That would be attended to immediately.

Q: When is this Secretariat due to commence functions?

A: Functions began soon after we opened it on Sunday (December 15).

Q: Do you think as you try to implement projects the issues of security related problems including the High Security Zones can crop up?

A: Only if the 'occupied army' withdraws from the areas they are 'occupying' and allow the people to return we can successfully implement the projects.

Q: The people have not been allowed to return to their original places. Therefore how do you think you can successfully implement these projects?

A: The civilians should be allowed to return to the areas that have been captured by the Army. Otherwise whatever the project we try to implement will not bring any results. The government wanted time to make an announcement regarding the issue of allowing civilians returning to their original places and they were also expecting the LTTE proposals on this issue. Therefore we will give time and we believe that it will bring results.

We have also opened an account at the Kilinochchi Bank of Ceylon branch. The Norwegian Embassy made the first deposit. They placed one million Norwegian Kroners or Rs 12.5 million.

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