attack: Here is the full story
* State media denials only provide a "no
* CID finds more evidence on how Sea Tigers and front man Nixon
planned the attack
* International bodies busy making security assessments on Sri Lanka
Last week's The Sunday Times
front page lead story by Reporters Asif Fuard and Chris Kamalendran,
as well as a brief account in the Situation Report on the Tiger
guerrilla plot to attack ships in the Colombo Port going awry has
ruffled feathers in sections of the Government.
Even before a thorough interrogation of the Tiger
guerrillas, who were arrested, was carried out and a fuller picture
of their plans emerged, a few Government officials were piqued.
This saw the Government run Independent Television Network (ITN)
single out The Sunday Times in its main
news bulletins last Sunday night. They quoted Deputy Minister of
Ports and Aviation, Duminda Dissanayake as saying the report was
incorrect. "There was no intention to attack the Colombo Port
and such reports could be damaging to the economy," he said
as ITN ran visuals of the front page of The Sunday Times.
A similar report was also aired in Rupavahini,
the national television network and the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation
A junior official monitoring international satellite
news broadcasts spotted a "crawler" or the one liners
that move at the bottom of the TV screen in one leading channel.
It would be unbelievable to most but he complained to his bosses
that there was an "organised conspiracy" against the government.
The reason - this one liner had quoted a news agency report to say
the guerrillas were arrested near the airport town of Negombo. Believe
it or not, he opined that was to suggest that like the reported
attempt on the Colombo Port, which had been denied, a sinister effort
was being made to project that the airport would also come under
attack. He was imparting his "expert knowledge" to the
Government. One would expect the remarks to have been dismissed
with a laugh or the contempt it deserves. But there were those who
believed it and decided on "counter measures."
It was just a simple case of the satellite news
channel placing matters in context by giving its viewers a known,
identifiable location near where the arrests had been made. Viewers
worldwide are familiar with airports and the news agency in question,
whose report was used by the satellite TV channel, had chosen to
describe it that way. Much the same way they described Kebitigollawa,
where the gory massacre took place, as being close to the sacred
Buddhist City of Anuradhapura. Or like saying a claymore mine exploded
outside a Navy camp near Colombo. The reference was to Welisara,
a place many around the world would not have known or identified.
|The passport and National Identity Card of
That "learned opinion" and its acknowledgement
by some saw how a clear pattern of Government's warped damage-control
strategy emerged over the week. This reflected the very poor degree
of professionalism with which some officials handled media issues.
A government-run newspaper voiced the concerns of those in the shipping
industry. "There is hardly any evidence to say that they were
planning attacks on the Colombo Port," Ariyaseela Wickremanayake,
Chairman of Master Divers was quoted as saying. The Chairman of
the Shippers Council, Jayantha Perera, according to the same account,
claimed "irresponsible media reports could lead rating committees
of international underwriters to put the Colombo Port under 'held
cover' status, which would prepare the ground for underwriters to
impose a war risk surcharge on vessels arriving in Colombo."
Kiran Atapattu, Chairman of Colombo Engineering,
had declared that "a negative media campaign against Colombo
Port will result in the increase in freight charges." He had
also warned that "negative publicity by international media
will encourage competing ports in the region to capitalize on it
by spreading the message that Sri Lanka is a war zone." Whether
this is a reference to the "crawler" or whether Mr. Atapattu
was speaking about "negative publicity" by any other international
media is not clear.
But leave alone "negative," there was
hardly any reference to an attempted guerrilla attack on the Colombo
Port in any international media. The full facts had not emerged
then. Moreover, a senior Police official had repeatedly declared
early Saturday night (June 17) that the Colombo Port was not the
target. That assertion was widely quoted by news agencies. Even
the reference made in the "crawler" in the satellite news
channel came from such a news agency report. It was only The
Sunday Times that made the revelation last week. Immediately
thereafter on Sunday night, the ITN SLRC news bulletins had declared
the report was incorrect. How come there is "negative publicity
by the international media" when there was no reportage at
One cannot fault some of these key players in
the country's shipping industry for the concerns expressed. It may
be on the basis of what they sincerely believe or have been made
to believe. But the all important question is whether an attempt
by the guerrillas to attack the Colombo Port, a failed one at that,
would become the one reason, and the only reason why the underwriters
in question would set the stage to impose a war surcharge on the
Could such underwriters be so deaf, so dumb and
so blind that they are blissfully unaware of what is going on in
Sri Lanka? Don't they see in newspapers, television and hear on
radio of the almost daily attacks by the LTTE and the limited retaliatory
strikes? Are they unaware of the resultant fears of an all-out war?
Surely their representatives in Colombo report such matters regularly.
In such an event, are they not concerned about their business interests?
Will they not worry about the targets that would come under attack
in a heightened war? Would they only get concerned after the reportage
of a failed attempt and then spring into action?
Since reports of a low-intensity Eelam War IV
got under way, these underwriters were among a plethora of international
bodies conducting security assessments over developments in Sri
Lanka. Their main aim is to ascertain what would happen if this
ongoing low intensity war escalates? This is why Foreign Minister
Mangala Samaraweera was advised by none other than President Mahinda
Rajapaksa to brief these underwriters whilst in the United Kingdom
of the threats posed by the guerrillas and the maximum precautions
taken by the security forces and the police to ensure the safety
of ports, airport and other vital installations.
In fact, a logical course of action in the wake
of a full-blown war being thrust on the Government is to ascertain
what targets would become vulnerable. This has been done, more particularly
in the City of Colombo and suburbs by the defence and security establishment.
Targets that would become vulnerable to guerrilla attacks have been
identified and heightened preventive measures introduced. Three
of the areas, among many, where greater security preparations have
gone into effect are the Colombo Port, Bandaranaike International
Airport and the adjoining Sri Lanka Air Force base.
For obvious reasons one cannot detail out what
these security measures are. But Doubting Thomases could easily
feel assured if they ask the Commander of the Navy Vice Admiral
Wasantha Karannagoda, the Commander of the Air Force Air Marshal
Roshan Gunathilaka or his predecessor and now Chief of Defence Staff,
Air Chief Marshal Donald Perera. It would suffice to say they have
carried out threat assessments on installations coming within the
purview of the Navy and the Air Force respectively and taken adequate
Vice Admiral Karannagoda had studied closely the
Tiger guerrilla attack on the Colombo Port on April 12, 1996. Similarly,
the other two high-ranking Air Force officers have closely examined
how guerrillas infiltrated and attacked their base and adjoining
international airport in Katunayake on July 24, 2001. This is why
the attempt by guerrillas to carry out explosions at the Colombo
Port would have been difficult even if calmer seas permitted them
to reach there.
Therefore, the knee jerk or panic reaction by
a few ill informed government officials to deny reality and infuse
unfounded fears is counterproductive. Added to that is the bizarre
or ridiculous judgements of the "satellite news channel"
monitors who better qualify to be conspiracy theorists. Their actions
not only deprive the Sri Lankan public the correct picture but also
lead to serious doubts on the Government's credibility, both in
Sri Lanka and abroad. This is when attempts are made to find very
poor alternatives for the naked truth. How much public co-operation
could the Government expect for its counter terrorism efforts from
the public when such smokescreens are placed before them?
Could it not have been better for those concerned
to highlight the threats that came last week and assert that the
guerrilla attempts would not have succeeded? That is because of
the stepped-up security precautions that were very much in place.
Did not the Navy prevent the May 11 guerrilla attack on Pearl Cruise
II with 710 troops on board? Then they were, quite rightly, praised
for their bravery and commitment. But fears of a so-called damage
to economy have overtaken sound rationale. As a result, it is a
case of economizing on the truth to save a so-called damage to economy.
Though not intended, their approach last week also tends to cast
doubts on the efficacy of the security establishment and their preparedness
to meet guerrilla threats.
It was not only underwriters who were busy making
security assessments in Sri Lanka after fears that a low-intensity
war may rapidly escalate. There were a whole host of others including
businessmen, investors and international organizations. I was asked
by the heads of security of two leading international airlines operating
through Colombo for meetings. One was a former head of the Asian
branch of a highly effective European intelligence organization
that covered Sri Lanka. The other was a senior police officer in
a European country. A third request came from the security chief
of a giant American multinational with offices in Colombo. He was
an Air Force officer whose last stint before retirement was in troubled
Iraq. All of them were in Colombo to ascertain the prevailing security
situation and whether it was safe for their organizations to operate
from Colombo. They were all making detailed inquiries.
Like chats with me, they met many others including
top defence, military, police, intelligence and government officials.
They also met with leaders in commercial establishments, trade chambers,
diplomats including defence attaches and many others. Similarly,
underwriters whose trade involves billions of dollars would continue
to keep themselves regularly briefed on security developments in
the countries they do business. They have dedicated offices and
appointed country representatives for this purpose. Therefore, does
the answer lie in telling them nothing happened when something takes
place? Would they believe it?
This is where there is a greater responsibility
for the government. Like preparing the armed forces and the police
to face a war thrust on them, they should ensure their officials
are educated on current developments, are able to understand the
various nuances and are professional enough to state the Government's
case. That is to explain to Sri Lankans and the world outside that
the Government wants to boldly meet threats, be it to the security
or economy of the country and ensure the well being of its people.
That includes having to cope with the media.
The answer does not lie in chasing perceived enemies
or using the government's resources to simply print or broadcast
bland denials, accuse all and sundry including foreign media organizations
and believe things would end happily thereafter. To the contrary,
that sees the birth of more crises of credibility. This malady has
afflicted successive governments.
Last week's The Sunday Times front page lead story
and the account in the Situation Report of a Tiger guerrilla plot
to attack eight different ships in the Colombo port coming a cropper
for two consecutive days due to rough seas is the stark truth. In
a major breaking story, some of the accompanying details that emerge
turn out to be different as more developments unravel. The Pamunugama
incident is no different. A few details did change as both the security
forces and the police began to uncover fresh evidence and piece
together what happened. There were no deaths of guerrillas and no
one was hospitalized.
Today The Sunday Times (Situation Report) reveals
exclusively how the sea-going of arm of the LTTE, the Sea Tigers,
planned the attack on the Colombo Port. Also targeted was the Sri
Just before crack of dawn on Saturday (June 17),
four youth clad in frogmen's kits and oxygen cylinders in their
back dived into the deep seas off the shores of Pamunugama. They
had arrived there in small boats after having met together to don
their kits and for a final briefing at a floating "Command
Centre," a fishing trawler anchored in the deep seas off Negombo.
Each diver had strapped to his waist two large bombs, fitted with
timing devices and magnets. They had scrapers to scrape barnacles
from the hull of ships before attaching the bomb (or improvised
explosive devices - IEDs) with the help of magnets. The men were
making their second attempt. Rough seas had prevented them the previous
The four began to swim in the direction of Colombo.
The rough seas were preventing their advance. They encountered serious
difficulties. They abandoned their bombs and began to swim towards
the shore. Residents in Pamunugama and the neighbouring coastal
areas heard a loud explosion. A bomb they dropped in the deep seas
Moments later, civilians living near the coast
of Pamunugama saw three suspicious looking youth in frogmen's gear
walking towards land. A second loud explosion was then heard. A
second bomb they dropped had exploded. Taken aback by their frightening
appearance and the second explosion, the residents promptly telephoned
Pamunugama Police. They acted equally promptly. A team that arrived
took into custody the three Sea Tiger frogmen. The fate of the fourth
is not known.
Later that Saturday Police Chief Chandra Fernando
ordered the CID to take over detailed investigations. DIG (CID)
Asoka Wijetilleke assigned a team under Director (CID) Sisisra Mendis
A team of detectives was placed in the hands of
Mahes Perera SP. They were quick to make arrests of accomplices
and bare more details of the plot. The four men had planned to attach
bombs to the hull of ships. Each had been tasked to place bombs
in two ships. These ships were in the Colombo Port. Due to security
reasons, no ships are allowed to anchor outside the harbour area.
Instead they are expected to move towards the seas off Panadura.
Whilst two bombs exploded at sea, two were discovered
floating in the seas off Wennappuwa. Another two were recovered
from a small boat that was drifting. The remaining two and the Sea
Tiger cadre who held it are still missing. CID detectives believe
even if the seas were calm; it would have been difficult to penetrate
the new security measures in place around the Colombo Port. This
was after studying the modus operandi of the attack and the precautionary
measures in place.
By Saturday evening, Navy Headquarters had not
only discerned the intentions of the Sea Tigers but had also further
enhanced security measures. In addition, at 5.45 p.m. (on June 17)
they sent out a signal to naval establishments throughout Sri Lanka.
This is what it said: (The emphasis is mine)
"Arrest of LTTE suspects and
recovery of diving gear and explosive devices today at Pamunuwa
(sic) and Wennappuwa suggest LTTE attempt to target SLN (Sri
Lanka Navy) craft at sea and assets in harbour.
"Ensure units and men on deployment
thoroughly briefed of the likely threat and importance of vigilance
and alertness to launch counter surface/under water threat.
"Deploy additional sea units
tactically to prevent any unauthorized boat/craft entering the high
security zone from any direction. Fishing ban to be strictly enforced.
"Monitor effectiveness of radar
surveillance constantly with suitable experienced personnel manning
them with direct communication to units on deployment.
"Increase static and roaming
deployment on breakwater, beaches and piers with proper instructions
on likely threat of swimmers and reaction to counter.
"Additional manpower being provided
One other paragraph in the signal which deals with specific security
measures to be taken is withheld.
It is no secret that "Sri Lanka Navy
assets in the harbour," referred to in the Navy Headquarters
signal, are all located in the heart of the Colombo Port. This is
where their main installation in the City of Colombo, the SLNS Rangala
is located. Hence, there is no question about the revelation in
The Sunday Times that the Colombo Port was the target though 24
hours later, on Sunday night, there were denials on Independent
Television Network (ITN) Rupavahini and SLBC news bulletins. How
come? Also, how come did a so called negative international media
publicity campaign come about? This is when there was no reportage
of an attempted attack on the Colombo Port in the "international
And now, The Sunday Times learns, there are more
startling revelations about how the plot was hatched. Some of them
are chilling, like the increasingly emerging new pattern of heavily
bribing people in the south to betray or kill their fellow countrymen
and destroy their own institutions. Among the new weapons in LTTE's
arsenal is to heavily bribe civilians in the south to resort to
This is exactly what a top guerrilla leader, identified
by his nom de guerre Nixon did. He spent three years in the Negombo
area winning friends and influencing people. He paid huge cash rewards
to a wealthy Negombo fisherman. Though not his real name, he was
often referred to as Podi Christie. The latter became a close confidant
of Nixon and allowed the use of his house at Beach Road, Negombo.
Nixon reported directly to Sea Tiger leader, Thillaiampalam Sivanesan
One mode of contact was a secure communication
set that was secretly located in the wealthy fisherman's house.
Secret code sheets were found there by detectives but the set had
been removed after news spread about the arrest of the guerrillas.
The wealthy man's son and nephew had also been won over and were
helping Nixon. They were also paid large sums of money.
Soosai has been making elaborate preparations with the help of Nixon
for the attack on the Colombo Port. There had been many occasions
when Nixon would leave Negombo for Mullaitivu and return. In the
past weeks, evidently after it was decided that an attack should
be carried out on the Colombo Port and the Navy, Nixon had hired
a fishing trawler from Podi Christie. This trawler, used as a "Command
Centre," was taken to the mid seas off Negombo. Nixon had used
a communication set and even a mobile phone from the trawler to
regularly speak to Soosai. A team was assigned to Nixon by Soosai.
They were hand picked suicide cadres who were specialist swimmers.
They could swim stretches up to ten kilometers uninterrupted and
were said to be expert divers.
The leader of the team, now in custody, is said
to be 29-year-old Angelo Mariyathas from Jaffna. His passport together
with mobile phones and other items were found in the drifting boat.
He held passport no: N 1248997. He had traveled to Thailand on July
7, 2004 to purchase several frogmen's kits and other related diving
equipment. Thereafter, he and his three colleagues had undergone
extensive swimming practice in Mullaitivu under Soosai's supervision.
This is in addition to several others who were put through similar
training. Where are they and what are the targets assigned for them?
The answers are not known. Undeniably they will be deployed for
All of them were also put through the paces in
under water diving techniques, sabotage and mock firing exercises.
Thereafter Mariathas and his three colleagues had been shifted to
a Sea Tiger base in Silavathurai, near Mannar for further training.
Two of them had come by train from Vavuniya to Ragama and then to
Negombo. Others had travelled by bus from Vavuniya to Colombo and
proceeded to Negombo.
|Neighbours who learnt of Podi Christie's
close links with Sea Tigers attacked his house in Negombo. Here
is a part of the House where damage was caused.
Nixon and the four Sea Tiger cadres had been living
in Negombo. During the past several days they had left for the floating
"Command Centre" the fishing trawler at mid seas, off
Negombo, in small boats. They had used the public pier, the one
used by fishermen at all times. Using the trawler at deep seas,
they had carried out swimming and diving practice. Nixon had kept
watch for any approaching fishing vessels or other craft. Later,
they had carried out reconnaissance of the Colombo port from a distance.
Their first attempt on the night of June 16 failed due to rough
seas. Then they chose pre-dawn on June 17 but the same fate befell
In a separate development on Saturday (June 17)
night Kalpitiya Police detected a boat at Talawila, in close proximity
to St Anne's Church. The only man in the boat had said he had run
short of fuel and offered Rs 1000 to a civilian to purchase diesel.
The latter had telephoned 119, the Police Emergency phone number.
Police arrived and took the man into custody. The boat was laden
CID detectives have found that the explosives
in the boat weighed 98 kilogrammes of C-4 type. It had been neatly
concealed in the front part of the boat. According to confessions
made by the guerrillas, the explosive-laden boat was to be used
to ram a Navy vessel. That attack was to take place simultaneously
as they attacked Colombo Port. A shocking revelation is the fact
that the "suicide boat" in question, together with another
similar one, had been transported to Talawila in a Mitsubishi Canter
truck from Murunkan near Mannar. It had come past 18 checkpoints.
The second boat is yet to be located.
Nixon is said to have fled Negombo after his men
aborted their mission due to rough seas and fell into Police hands.
Whilst his relatives were arrested, Podi Christie surrendered to
the CID on Wednesday night.
In the ongoing low intensity war, some of the
major strikes launched by the LTTE recently have failed. One is
the April 25 attack by a suicide bomber inside Army Headquarters
on Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka. He is now undergoing
medical attention in Singapore and is due next week. Reports say
he will return to his desk anytime thereafter. Another is the May
11 attack on Pearl Cruise II carrying 710 troops. Now, the third
is the June 17 attempt on the Colombo Port including the naval installations.
After the then British Prime Minister Margaret
Thatcher survived an IRA (Irish Republican Army) bomb attack in
her hotel during the Conservative Party convention in Brighton,
the IRA declared "she had to be lucky all the time. We will
have to be lucky only once."
As the Tiger guerrillas step up their attacks,
the same message applies to Sri Lankan security forces. By being
prepared and alert, they can remain lucky most of the time. That,
no doubt, can prevent major attacks. As for ill-informed sections
of the officialdom, the best would be for the Government to make
sure some of them know what they are doing.
Otherwise the trust placed on them is misplaced.
The Government should take the Sri Lankan public into confidence
and tell them the dangers they face. That is the truth. That way
they will not only help the Government but also the security forces
and police who have fought so far to keep Sri Lanka united, as one
nation. If they fail, apologists and conspiracy theorists will not
be able to say it did not happen.