Port attack: Here is the full story

* State media denials only provide a "no attack" smokescreen
* 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 (SLBC).

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 Anjelo Mariathas

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 all?

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 Colombo Port?

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 measures.

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 Lanka Navy.

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 night (Friday).

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 had exploded.

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 SSP.

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 pm today."
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 media"?

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 treachery.

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 alias Soosai.

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 attacks.

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 them.

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 with explosives.

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.

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