Chalai attacks bear ceasefire charade
Navy bravery foils Tiger attack, saves lives of 710 security forces
SLMM witnesses battle, reprimands LTTE
For the past many weeks the Northern Naval Area Headquarters in Kankesanthurai (Jaffna) was baffled by suspicious boat movements in the seas off the shores of Mullaitivu.

A stretch of some 15 kilometres from this strategic North-Eastern coastal town, up to the village of Chalai further north, has remained the main staging area for the sea going arm of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Sea Tigers. Their attack craft conducted daily manoeuvres. It involved two to three craft but the number gradually increased. Though still puzzled, the Navy could no longer ignore.

They placed Dvora fast attack craft (FAC) to monitor the suspicious activity. Two of them, P-411 and P 480, were located directly off the shores of Mullaitivu. Two more, P-421 and P-497, were located directly off the shores of Chalai, known to be where the Sea Tiger headquarters is located. The Dvoras reported periodically to Northern Naval Area Headquarters that a few boats appear to be engaged in combat exercises. It seemed that the actions were deliberate and intended to draw the attention of the Navy. By noon Thursday the activity centered around three guerrilla attack craft.

But an incident shortly past noon elsewhere on Thursday was to change the course of events. Reports came that Tiger guerrillas had attacked an Inshore Patrol Craft (IPC). It had occurred at the Mutur jetty that is separated by seas from the Eastern Naval Area headquarters in the Dockyard in Trincomalee. Was this a diversion for another major operation Tiger guerrillas had planned?


Navy Commander Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda

Lt. Cmdr. Prasanna Edirisinghe

Sub Lt. R.M.I. Rathnathilaka

That operation, the Navy had been alerted by credible intelligence channels, was to carry out a mid-sea transfer of defence supplies. A ship was to unload them into fishing trawlers somewhere in the deep seas. That was to be anytime on Thursday, Friday or Saturday. Thereafter they were to be smuggled in through the north east coast. Navy Commander Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda had ordered counter measures. As a supplementary effort, the regional Navy headquarters in the north and east deployed more vessels by noon Thursday.

For Northern Naval Area headquarters in KKS, deployment of additional FACs had an added importance. An intelligence warning the previous day had alerted them to a possible attack on a naval convoy in the north-eastern high seas. For this purpose, it was felt, that guerrilla vessels could move out from Chalai area. Hence, they deployed two more Dvora fast attack craft, P-421 and P-497 to join the two (P-418 and P 420) FACs positioned in the seas off Chalai earlier. The FAC P-421 had on board Lars Bleymann, an SLMM member stationed in Jaffna, and the vessel flew their flag. Together with the two FACs off Mullativu, the six naval craft were ordered to remain in a high state of alert.

It was around 3.30 p.m. on Thursday when Commanding Officer of FAC P-418 Lieutenant Commander Prasanna Edirisinghe reported to Northern Naval Area headquarters the number of guerrilla attack craft in the seas off Chalai were increasing. It was now becoming clear the Sea Tigers were ready to embark on a major offensive operation.

In the meanwhile, just before dawn on Thursday, the passenger ferry Pearl Cruise II had left the Dockyard in Trincomalee with 710 unarmed Army, Navy, Air Force and Police personnel. They were returning to their postings after leave. The privately-owned vessel is on lease to the Navy and is the main mode of troop transport to the Jaffna peninsula. Only a limited number of personnel are ferried by air from Ratmalana to Palaly and vice versa. A Fast Gun Boat and two Dvora fast attack craft were providing close escort. On board the passenger ferry was Ilkka Happlina, a member of the SLMM. He is based in Trincomalee.

At least 12 guerrilla attack craft mounted with an assortment of weapons in each of them - 23 mm and 20 mm guns, .50 calibre guns or light machine guns were moving at high speed, some 30 to 35 knots, towards the Pearl Cruiser II and the escort vessels. Four smaller vessels laden with explosives and guided by suicide cadres were also at the scene. The time was 4.35 p.m. The four Dvoras off the shores of Chalai moved in to intercept and came under intense fire.

They promptly alerted the three escorting naval vessels and Pearl Cruisier II. They were some 30 nautical miles off Point Pedro. The FACs began to respond with gunfire thereafter. The loud bursts were heard along the shores of Point Pedro southwards up to Vettilaikerny and beyond.

Passenger ferry Poseidon renamed Pearl Cruiser II

In Colombo, the news sent shockwaves reeling down the defence and security establishment. A second major guerrilla attack was now under way. The first was just over two weeks ago when an LTTE suicide bomber infiltrated Army Headquarters and attempted to kill Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka. Navy Chief Vice Admiral Karannagoda was at his office attending to routine chores. He rushed to the Operations Room to personally take charge. Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa, who was concerned about the safety of the troops, rushed in. He was at a conference at the Foreign Ministry. He was followed later by Presidential Secretary, Lalith Weeratunga. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera joined in thereafter.

Then began a tense, near 90-minute sea battle where the valour and bravery of the Navy men became a shining highlight. Vice Admiral Karannagoda was on the radio giving detailed directions. He was talking to Rear Admiral Upali Ranaweera, Commander Northern Naval Area (COMNORTH) and Commodore Jayantha Perera, Deputy Eastern Naval Area Commander. Rear Admiral S.R. Samaratunga (COMEAST) was away on leave.

The passenger ferry, the gun boat and two Dvora FACs were ordered to move away further into the deep seas. Two Dvoras deployed near the Delft Island (with an SLMM monitor on board one of them) were also ordered to protect the passenger ferry. Pearl Cruise II crossed the IMBL (International Maritime Boundary Line) between India and Sri Lanka. They were in Indian territorial waters. From Colombo, contact was made with the Indian Navy to afford protection should they come under fire. The Sunday Times learnt Indian authorities responded with the offer of not only naval support in such an eventuality but also air action if it became necessary.

Bitter battles were now raging between Sea Tigers and Navy. According to a Navy source who spoke on grounds of anonymity, the Dvora P-418 skippered by Lt. Cmdr. Prasanna Edirisinghe carried out three attack runs during which four Sea Tiger boats were destroyed. But, his Dvora then came under intense fire that disabled the engine. Whilst drifting one or more guerrilla suicide boats rammed the fast attack craft. It was sunk. The brave officer, his deputy Sub Lieutenant R.M.D.H.S. Ratnayake, 17 sailors and an Army signalman on board are feared dead. Like their beloved ones, there will be many Sri Lankans who will be saddened today at the thought that they gave their lives so their 710 colleagues and those escorting them may live. They averted a national tragedy. As a result of their action, Pearl Cruise II was able to enter the KKS harbour just after 10 p.m. that Thursday.

During search operations on Friday, carried out under heavy security, eight bodies have been discovered. As the search went on, a naval patrol observed at least two suicide eight boats closer to the Mullaitivu coast. The Air Force was placed on alert to bomb them if they ventured out to sea. They did not. The Navy recovered parts of a ransom where outboard motors (OBM) are fixed to a boat. This belonged to the boat used for the suicide attack and showed that it had been installed with four OBMs each with a 400 horsepower capacity.

That meant the suicide boat could travel at high speed. Lt. Cmdr. Edirisinghe is to be recommended for the highest posthumous honour for his bravery. Also due for posthumous honour is his number two and those on board the Dvoras. However, posthumous promotions for them and others feared dead will have to wait for a year unless their bodies now missing are found. Until then, Navy Headquarters, in terms of existing regulations, have to declare them Missing in Action. A Navy source quoted intelligence reports as saying that a guerrilla mass funeral for nearly 50 cadres was held near Vettilaikerny yesterday. But there has been no word from the LTTE.

Guerrilla casualties during the encounter are not exactly known. The Navy estimates that over 40 have died while the LTTE had claimed an incredibly low figure of four with 15 others injured. That latter is said to be during a radio intercept.

The bravery of the officers and men who commanded the other FACs is also to be recognized. Due for honour together with their men are Lt. Cmdr. I.W.M.A. Wijewardena (CO - Dvora P-420), Lt. R.J. Walgampaya (CO - Dvora 421) and Lt. R.M.I. Rathnathilaka (CO - Dvora P-497).

Together with their dead colleagues, these Navy men not only saved the lives of their 710 colleagues and escorts. They made sure that the Tiger guerrilla operation, after they had become militarily stronger during a four-year-long ceasefire, did not succeed and lead to mass funerals countrywide during a significant week. That was Vesak when the nation is marking the 2550th anniversary of Buddha Jayanthi. The consequences of such an eventuality would have been unimaginable.

If the brave Navy men were denied access to some modern equipment, the result of some filthily corrupt and inept senior officers opting for outdated ones to make a fast buck, they had one great asset. That was their courage, commitment and determination. They displayed it in abundance in the face of the irreparable harm caused by some politicians, who screamed that national security interests were in danger but did nothing. The serious shortcomings caused by their inaction were clearly highlighted during Thursday's encounter. Due to security considerations they cannot be detailed out until a few more annual English summer holidays are over.

It is only in adversity that a nation realises there are brave men and women in their armed forces whose great richness is to place their lives in harm's way for the sake of their country and not become billionaires or millionaires. Even if the nation is helpless about growing corruption, they would no doubt be mindful about today's heroes, majority of them poor but patriotic, courageous and clean.

When the fighting was raging in the seas off Chalai, the Navy also sought the support of the Air Force. This was to attack the Sea Tiger boats from air. It was just before dusk when Israeli-built Kfir interceptor jets and Russian built Mi-24 helicopter gun ships took to the skies. The Mi-24s were at the scene only minutes before dusk and thus were unable to play a much aggressive role.

However, two pairs of Kfir jets carried out bombing sorties on Tiger guerrilla targets in the Wanni, the first time during the four-year ceasefire. According to a Government statement, the Sri Lanka Air Force "conducted a limited operation to deter further attacks by the LTTE."

It said the operation was "confined to an already identified illegal aviation facility under construction by the LTTE in Iranamadu." The wording of the statement including a veiled reference to an "illegal aviation facility" may give one the impression that the LTTE was building a new airport. It is not so.

The Kfirs bombed the 1.4 kilometre long LTTE airstrip south east of the Iranamadu irrigation tank. Initial reports say the bombs fell on one end of the runway but details of damage or casualties caused are not known. The airstrip is within an area which the LTTE has declared as a "high security zone" and civilian access there is strictly prohibited. The existence of this airstrip, capable of handling even a fully loaded Hercules C-130 aircraft, and the LTTE acquisition of air capability were exclusively revealed from time to time in The Sunday Times (Situation Report). Periodic Air Force surveillance of the airstrip area revealed continued development activity including construction of buildings.

A request by the SLMM to visit the airstrip for inspection after the Air Force bombing on Thursday evening has been refused by the LTTE. This is in marked contrast to the Head of the truce monitoring team Maj. Gen. (retd.) Ulf Henriccson being allowed access to guerrilla dominated areas of Sampur after air raids there. It is only after that visit did the SLMM declare in a statement that the Air Force had targeted guerrilla positions.

It was only on Friday May 5 that an Air Force Beechcraft on a surveillance flight observed an unidentified aircraft at an altitude of some 10,000 feet over Mullaitivu skies. They have been unable to positively identify whether it was a combat aircraft or one used for civilian purposes. Also observed on the tarmac was another smaller aircraft that resembled an Argentina-built Pucara. However, Air Force officials say this could even be a dummy placed there to mislead.

Similar suspicions were entertained when LTTE light aircraft were first spotted on an apron near the airstrip. Extensive tyre marks, continued surveillance has revealed, showed up on the runway confirming that the guerrillas were regularly using this airstrip. This includes night flying training, which intelligence sources confirm, have been going on.

An interesting aside to the gun battles at sea came from SLMM monitor Lars Bleymann who was on Dvora P-421. Using a satellite phone he carried with him, Mr. Blaymann was giving a live commentary to the SLMM headquarters in Colombo about the fighting. At one point he expressed fears that the vessel he was on board, flying the SLMM flag, too would come under fire. The beneficiaries of his reportage were a few Colombo-based journalists. They surprised senior military officials by trying to verify information the former had not yet heard.

If Mr. Blaymann was on board Dvora-P 421, there was Mr. Ilkka Happlina on board Pearl Cruise II. So the SLMM men were both hearing and seeing what the Tiger guerrillas were doing. That Thursday evening they issued a statement declaring that the LTTE had "committed gross violations of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) in the recent days by moving at sea with the aim of provoking the Sri Lankan Navy and now finally embarking on an offensive operation against the navy sinking one vessel and putting SLMM monitors in grave danger."

The SLMM said "The LTTE has made, what the SLMM feels are threats to our monitors warning them not to participate in patrols in Navy vessels. The SLMM takes these threats very seriously and would like to remind the LTTE of its responsibility as an equal partner to the Ceasefire Agreement to do everything in its power not to jeopardize the monitors' safety."

SLMM head retired Swedish Major General Ulf Henriccson drove to Kilinochchi for a meeting on Friday with LTTE Political Wing leader S.P. Thamilselvan. He expressed serious concerns over the safety of the members of his mission. But Mr. Thamilselvan was to raise another issue. The SLMM statement, quite rightly, had declared that "The sea surrounding Sri Lanka is a Government controlled area. This has been ruled so by the Head of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission in line with international law. Non-state actors cannot rule open sea waters or airspace. The LTTE has therefore no rights at sea.”

Mr. Thamilselvan was contesting this assertion. In a letter handed over to Maj. Gen. (retd.) Henriccson he referred to an SLMM press release issued on April 25 2003. This is how it went: "When the Ceasefire Agreement was signed on the 22nd of Feb 02, the LTTE fighting formations, including the Sea Tigers, existed. Consequently, the LTTE Sea Tigers exists as a De Facto Naval Unit…."

If at first the SLMM had blundered in acknowledging LTTE's claim of rights to use Sri Lankan territorial waters, their statement last Thursday declaring that "the sea surrounding Sri Lanka is Government controlled area" has rectified it. That is more than three years later. What does this mean? Does it not show that through colossal blunders over the interpretation of Sri Lanka sovereignty, the SLMM is also contributing and exacerbating problems whilst accusing all and sundry including the media of doing so? Is it a case of each SLMM Head having his own way? There was one (Maj. Gen. (retd.) Tryggve Tellefsen) who wanted the Sea Tigers recognised as a "de facto" force. He was unceremoniously sent off. There was another (Brig. (retd.) Hagrup Haukland) who declared the LTTE were "freedom fighters" and pronounced that the "Army cannot win this war."

It was only two weeks earlier, the SLMM accused the Sri Lankan security forces of "extra judicial killings." Under Government protest they backed out with another statement retracting their earlier "judgement." The presence of two monitors in the high seas during Thursday's confrontation gave the SLMM the opportunity to issue a strong statement. What of the female suicide bomber's attack on Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka on April 25? The SLMM said it would for the "time being refrain from drawing any immediate conclusions about the possible perpetrators."

Do they still find it difficult to say who the perpetrators are? Do they, like their “judgement” on the LTTE attack on Chinese trawlers in 2003, feel it was the work of a "third force?" Isn't it time the Government assess the role of the bunch of Scandinavian self acclaimed "do gooders" who call themselves the SLMM? They have not only lost their credibility but have, quite clearly, failed in their role of being consistent and impartial. On the other hand, it does not do any good for the Norwegian peace facilitators who have sustained the peace process so far.

Despite continued attacks by the LTTE, President Mahinda Rajapaksa insists that his Government is committed to the Ceasefire Agreement and a negotiated settlement. During a meeting on Thursday at "Temple Trees," however, he declared that his patience should not be misunderstood for weakness. "I have vowed to protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. I will defend my people whether they are in the north, east, west or south," he told me. Excerpts of an interview he gave appears in a box story on page 11.

Like the attempt to kill Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, the LTTE's grand plan to kill over 700 troops at sea on Thursday misfired. Intelligence sources say LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran has berated his Sea Tiger leader Thillaiampalam Sivanesan alias Soosai for not accomplishing "the mission."

There is no doubt now. Eelam War IV has not only begun but portends to grow in intensity. Even if two of their major efforts have come a cropper, there is no doubt the LTTE will continue to step up violent attacks. Like the brave men in the Navy, there are others too in the Army, Air Force and Police. A nation looks to them to rise to the occasion.

SLMM hails Navy officer's exemplary behaviour
The Sri Lanka Monitoring Misssion has commended the officer in charge of Navy Dvora patrol craft P-421, Lieutenant R.J. Walgampaya, for his exemplary behaviour in the face of last Thursday's LTTE attack on his vessel.

SLMM Deputy Head of Naval Monitoring Team in Jaffna Lars Bleymann was on board the Dvora P-421 with the SLMM flag aloft when the attack took place. In a letter dated May 12 to Rear Admiral Upali Ranaweera, Commander, Northern Naval Area, this is what Mr. Bleymann said:
"I wish to thank the SLN in general and Lt. Walgampaya, OIC P-421, and his crew in particular for the fact that I am still here.

"It is my sincere opinion that Lt. Walgampaya yesterday before, during and after the Sea Tiger attack behaved exemplarily. I cannot describe in words how thankful I am to him. His calm and collected behaviour during this operation is a credit to SLN. I mean that from the bottom of my heart. He never wavered, never lost his coolness and never lost his professionalism. Not one single session during the attack did I have any doubts about his abilities. His crew carried out his orders and were never in doubt. They too are a credit to SLN.

"I am proud to be able to say that I was on P-421 during this terrible episode. I would be very grateful if you could personally pass my comments on to him and his men. "Once again I would like to state that they are real credit to your organisation. With people like that serving for you, you can rest assured that SLN is in a very good state.

"I would also like to pass on my sympathy to the families of the victims of P-418. I was lucky enough to be on board with Lt. (Cmdr.) Edirisinghe and his crew only two days earlier."

President says committed to peace, vows to protect country and people

President Mahinda Rajapaksa

Amidst his many official chores, President Mahinda Rajapaksa found time for an interview with The Sunday Times on Thursday. Here are edited excerpts:

On situation in the country being grim:
I will not agree or disagree. There is, however, some uncertainty about the peace talks. The LTTE has not yet decided to come for it. The signals we are getting are different. We are very much committed to peace talks. I hope the LTTE also realizes the gravity of the situation they are causing. It will affect the people of this country.

Other than that, economic development is going on. We have achieved a 6.5 percent growth. Foreign investment is coming in. If you go through BOI (Board of Investment) approved projects, what we have received for the first quarter of this year is more than the whole of last year.

I am an optimist. As I stated during my address to the nation on Independence Day, for every drop of blood that flows a greater degree of sweat has to be spent. All the major projects were started within the first six months of my Presidency. The coal power project in Norochcholai has been pending from the time of late President Ranasinghe Premadasa. So were the Kotmale project, the Katunayake highway, the second phase of development for Sethsiripaya, a port in the south and an international airport in the south.

On expressing personal confidence that things will work out, much the same way it did during presidential elections in november, last year:
I have that confidence. Whatever action I have taken with regard to the ethnic issue, I have remained completely transparent. There are no hidden agendas or secret agreements. Be it with the people of the south, north or the east, I have remained very open.

LTTE helping him 'win' at the presidential elections in the belief he was 'easier to tackle' than his opponent unp leader Ranil Wickremesinghe:
They may be correct in thinking that way. I strongly feel I can be easily approached by people. I think I know people's feelings. So, in that way the LTTE is correct. But they must have that same confidence towards me in the future too.

On the ceasefire becoming a sham:
The ceasefire is still in place and my Government respects it. But the LTTE has violated it on a number of occasions. I know there have been allegations of violations by the armed forces or the police. But they are relatively less.

However, can any of these be compared with the attempt on the life of the Commander of the Sri Lanka Army? What could be compared with the attack on a naval convoy on Thursday? What is the comparison with the killing of our Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar? What could be compared with all these killings?

We carried out a limited operation in Sampur. That came after the LTTE attacked the Army Headquarters on April 25 and attempted to assassinate our Army Commander and the simultaneous attack on the Navy in Trincomalee. This was a serious incident that shocked the nation. I had to make sure such dastardly attacks are not repeated. I have vowed to protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka.

The people have given me a solemn mandate for this. I have to defend the country. I have to and I will continue to defend my people whether they are living in the south, north, east or west. My patience should not be misconstrued as weakness. I will not waver in my commitment to the people from all parts of our nation. If they (the LTTE) insist on continuing their attacks, I have to defend my country. Whether it is north, south, west or east I will protect the people with the same commitment.

I ordered a limited operation and the armed forces executed it. It was a limited one and was aimed at specific targets. I have the fullest confidence in the capability of our armed forces and the police. But that does not mean we do not accept the ceasefire. It was preventive action to avert another war. With the attack on Army Headquarters, it was widely claimed that the LTTE has declared war on us. But, as the head of a responsible Government I continue to respect the ceasefire.
Honourable peace cannot be achieved easily. For the sake of the country the people have to bear some of the hardships.

On Norway's role as a peace facilitator:
I think they are doing their best. This is my inheritance.
On allegations that corruption is on the increase:

I will not protect anyone. If there are allegations against any person, it is up to the Police to investigate and initiate action. There are many state agencies also tasked with this responsibility. I will not prejudge persons. I will not do that. However, I must state categorically that during my tenure no person who squanders the wealth of this nation will be spared.
When such allegations are leveled against politicians, I have an added responsibility. I will have to make sure that such accusations are not made by their rivals for political reasons without any valid basis.

On the rising cost of living:
Going through the index it is clear there has been no increase in prices of local produce like rice, vegetables etc. They have come down. The problem is with imported items. There is also a great disparity in prices at the wholesale point and the retail outlets.

When the world is reeling under the effect of a barrel of oil going at US$ 72, how can we in this tiny island have no impact?
An official committee is already going into this issue. They have been asked to recommend ways and means of bringing down prices. But I can see that the economy is growing. There is development activity. New projects are coming up. The construction industry is active and there are more buildings coming up.

Whilst we will do everything possible to ease the burdens on the people, one has to be mindful that development is the answer to most of our problems. I do not want to make political gains and will take even an unpopular decision if it is going to help in development and is better for the country. This is why I want to push ahead with the Norochcholai power project and set up an international airport in the south. Some people were trying to take political advantage of this.

Earlier no one took decisions on such matters. They thought more about their vote bank. I will not stop development work and think only about votes. I have consistently proven that I have not contested elections for political survival. I have never compromised on principles.

On the formation of a National Government:
Such a Government is possible if it is made up of all political parties with the exception of none. We cannot isolate one. It all depends on the situation.

Otherwise a national government would only pave the way for a dictatorship. I don't want that to happen. There must be an opposition and their views must be heard. There should be checks and balances. Working together on a common platform on common issues is different. This is what we are now doing in respect of the ethnic issue. This is what we are doing in our resolve to fight terrorism and violence. This way we can reach broader consensus on common issues. There is also a lot of room for constructive criticism.

In a nutshell a National Government should not be one where Members of Parliament get together to distribute ministerial portfolios. It should reflect views and have the broader consensus of everybody.

A message to the LTTE:
I always tell them to cease violence. The international community must also pressurize the LTTE to do this. It is my personal view that the ethnic issue should not have been internationalized. We should have treated it as a domestic issue and resolved it ourselves. As for me, I do not want to internationalize it any further.

I am here with a clean sheet. I do not carry any baggage. I do understand the problems of the Tamil speaking people. There is absolutely nothing that we cannot resolve. Bring it to the table, sit and discuss it with me.

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