Sea battles for A9
- LTTE mounts pressure to open up key highway
- Govt. comes under international stricture
for civilian deaths
- More ammunition for Prabhakaran to fire heroes'
By Iqbal Athas
The message on Thursday reached Northern Naval
Area Headquarters (NNAHQ) almost simultaneously. It was around 4.30
p.m. A naval patrol at location "Charlie" reported that
a flotilla of Sea Tiger boats was headed northwards. That was from
their base in Thalayady (south of Nagerkovil near Muhamalai). At
the same time, the naval detachment at Point Pedro saw blips on
their radar. The flotilla was in the seas, some five nautical miles
from the shores of Point Pedro.
Those at the Operations Room at NNAHQ were not
unduly alarmed. In fact, only days earlier they sent out their latest
warning to naval establishments in the Jaffna peninsula. Possible
surprise attacks by Sea Tigers prompted them to enhance security
measures. Additional precautions were taken along the coast and
in the outlying islands.
The scenes at the NNAHQ after the news arrived
resembled a war movie. Some officers and men were rushing to board
ten Fast Attack Craft (FACs). Others were already on board and readying
the weapons systems or taking in loads of assorted ammunition. Some
officers were hurriedly giving their men a last minute briefing.
They set sail to form a barrier to face the enemy flotilla. They
were soon in battle.
|The remains of Arivu, the Deputy Military
Wing leader of the LTTE for Trincomalee district, in the boat
detected by the Navy at Sampaltivu.
It came as the naval craft were advancing towards
15 Sea Tiger boats. They were under intense fire. An explosive laden
Sea Tiger boat manned by suicide cadres rammed Dvora (P 416). It
was engulfed in a ball of fire, disintegrated into pieces and sank.
There was nothing left of it. Later, Dvora (461) was hit. It was
NNAHQ sought help. Air Force Kfir jets and Mi-24
helicopter gun-ships arrived. They engaged the Sea Tiger boats.
Their pilots had a difficult task since the targets were moving.
The Eastern Naval Area Headquarters in Trincomalee sent seven Dvora
Fast Attack Craft. They joined in the fighting. As dusk began to
envelope the area, survivors said the battle resembled a massive
fireworks display at sea.
It was only when it ended three hours later that
the details of the drama began to unfold. There were of course different
official versions of the incident. They contradicted each other.
All of them, as has been the practice in the recent past, spoke
of exceedingly high enemy losses both in terms of men and material
or gave accounts that were not even remotely related to the sea
battle. Do people believe them?
Dissemination of disinformation is not unusual
during a war. They are considered part of an exercise, among other
matters, to boost public morale. But unrealistic and lopsided claims,
sometimes to cover up shortcomings of those responsible for lapses
and at other times to create an aura of unprecedented successes,
have far reaching consequences. In this enlightened era, they raise
serious questions of credibility for the Government and cast doubts
in the minds of the discerning public.
Those who are unsuspecting tend to believe in
some of the yarns and are lulled into a high degree of complacency.
That, sad enough can deny the Security Forces the higher degree
of co-operation and support they expect from the public. This is
when the veracity of the claims made is proven to be far from the
truth. Thursday's incident is a classic case of this syndrome like
the October 11 Muhamalai debacle. One simple example to illustrate
the point is the claim that 22 Sea Tiger boats were destroyed in
Thursday's sea battle. The Sunday Times has confirmed with highly
placed sources in the Navy that only 15 boats were involved in the
attack. The question therefore is whether those responsible for
such spin truly believe the public would gobble up what they say.
Why insult their intelligence then?
Even the Secretary to the President, the genial
Lalith Weeratunga, who visited the NNAHQ at Kankesanthurai on Friday,
underscored this grim reality. During a short speech, he highlighted
the need for officers and men in the Navy to remain in a high state
of alert. He cautioned them that there was no room for complacency.
Mr. Weeratunga arrived there on a previously scheduled visit to
see how food supplies to the peninsula were being handled. He was
accompanied by the Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Wasantha
By Friday morning, the trail left behind by the
encounter in the seas off Point Pedro became clearer. The Navy had
lost two Dvora Fast Attack Craft, P 416 and P 461. On Friday, Navy
divers recovered the bodies of four sailors (from P 461) but could
not locate even the wreckage of the first Dvora (P 416) that was
destroyed. Divers were to resume their search yesterday.
When the second Dvora (P 461) was burning, Sea
Tiger cadres boarded the naval vessel. They took four sailors into
custody and removed the weapons on board. They were Leading Seaman
Kamal Hemantha Kumarasiri (26), Samantha Kumara Hewage (28), Indika
Prashantha Pitiyakumbura and Anil Priyanka Madadeniya (21).
The main armament of the Dvora, the 23 mm Canon,
Heckler & Koch AGL (Automatic Grenade Launchers), Fifty Calibre
(Point Five Zero) Guns and Light Machine Guns were seized. A large
stock of 23 mm Canon shells was also seized.
Pictures of the captured sailors together with
the weapons seized were displayed in the pro-LTTE website Tamilnet.
This was how Sri Lankans and the outside world first knew of the
hostages and the seizure of weapons.
Official accounts claimed "many Sea Tiger
cadres were killed." LTTE's "Military Spokesman"
Irasiah Ilanthiriyan was quoted in the Tamilnet as saying five Sea
Tiger cadres died. Independent verification of guerrilla casualties
is not possible. On Friday the Navy was trying to ascertain how
many were on board Dvora P-461, whether it was 16 or 18 together
with the Officer-in-charge and his deputy.
Four bodies of crew members were recovered and
four more have been taken hostage by the LTTE. In respect of Dvora
P-416 which was destroyed, there were 17 Navy personnel on board.
Five of them were rescued. Twelve have been classified as Missing
in Action and are feared dead.
On Friday morning, alert Navy personnel had a
different encounter in Trincomalee. At dawn, a Navy patrol in the
seas near Fort Frederick, at Back Bay, observed what appeared to
be a cluster of fishing boats. It was before 6 a.m. when fishing
is allowed in the seas off Trincomalee. The patrol closed in cautiously
after firing warning shots into the air. A battle ensued. At least
one Sea Tiger boat, said to be explosive laden and with suicide
cadres, was destroyed. Navy personnel observed from a distance that
one of the boats carried a coffin. They were not sure whether it
held a dead cadre or an improvised explosive device. They could
not get closer for fear of explosions. And soon, the other boats
fled from the area and the Navy gave chase.
The answer came after the Sea Tiger boats were
apprehended off the coast of Sampaltivu. The coffin held the body
of Arivu, the LTTE deputy military wing leader for Trincomalee district.
He was number two to "Colonel" Sornam. A routine Army
patrol at a location north of Batticaloa had observed Arivu and
a group laying an ambush for them. They hit back killing Arivu.
His body had been brought to Trincomalee south for embalming and
was headed for Mullaitivu where the LTTE leadership was to accord
him "funeral honours."
If the LTTE took four sailors as hostage on Thursday,
it was now the Navy's turn. On Friday at Sampaltivu, Navy sources
in Trincomalee said, they arrested Karvannan together with two of
his accomplices. He was one of those responsible for Sea Tiger boat
movements from Trincomalee to Mullaitivu and vice versa. Arivu's
body which was retained in the morgue at Trincomalee hospital was
later handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross
(ICRC). They in turn handed it over to the LTTE yesterday.
The Sea Tiger attack on the Navy off Point Pedro
on Thursday, quite clearly in contravention of the Ceasefire Agreement
of February 2002, is significant in many respects. The most important
is the clear message that the LTTE would continue to mount pressure
on the Navy to restrict their use of the north-eastern seas. The
move is to hinder Government's efforts to transport food, fuel,
medicine and other essential items by sea and force it to re-open
the A-9 highway from the Muhamalai end. In the light of this, intelligence
sources do not rule out more battles at sea.
The Government continues to remain steadfast that
its decision to re-open the A-9 highway for contiguous access from
the Wanni to Jaffna peninsula will not be changed. This is the issue
on which peace talks in Geneva on October 28 and 29 collapsed. Sri
Lanka delegation leader, Nimal Siripala de Silva declared that the
Government wanted to watch the LTTE for "two to three"
weeks before taking a decision. But an increase in hostilities between
the Security Forces and Tiger guerrillas has distanced the two sides
from talking peace to waging more war.
The Sunday Times learnt that during the collapsed
Geneva talks the leader of the LTTE delegation S.P. Thamilselvan
made a proposal to extend the two-day talks in Geneva. He had told
Norwegian facilitators that their delegation was willing to stay
for two or three more days if the Sri Lanka Government delegation
was willing to extend the talks to arrive at a decision on the opening
of the A-9 highway. The Norwegian facilitators had in turn conveyed
it to the Government delegation. However, Government members had
said they could not do so due to prior commitments in Colombo.
|Head of SLMM retired Norwegian Major General
Lars Johan Solvberg takes cover during Army's Artillery fire
It is in this backdrop that the Sri Lanka Monitoring
Mission (SLMM) was examining the practicality of an alternate supply
route to Jaffna suggested by the Government. The proposal was first
placed before Erik Solheim, Norway's Minister for International
The Head of the SLMM, retired Norwegian Major
General Lars Johan Solvberg, was making an on-the-spot study of
this proposal in the Wanni. Whilst in Pooneryn, a one time jetty
divided from Jaffna town by the lagoon there, together with LTTE's
Pulithevam (S. Prabagaran), narrowly escaped Army artillery fire
that fell on the area.
The incident angered the Norwegian Government.
Sri Lanka's Ambassador to Norway, Ahamed Jawad, was summoned to
the Foreign Ministry in Oslo, to be handed a strong protest over
the incident. During a conference summoned to brief envoys of the
Donor Co-chairs (United States, European Union, Japan and Norway)at
the Foreign Ministry on Thursday the issue was raised by Norway's
Ambassador to Sri Lanka Hans Brattskar. A reply came from Army Commander
Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka. He said the Army was unaware of the presence
of the SLMM head in Pooneryn. The Norwegian envoy did not pursue
the matter further at the conference.
However, The Sunday Times learnt the Norwegian Government has told
Ambassador Jawad that the their Embassy in Colombo had officially
informed the Government's Secretariat Co-ordinating the Peace Process
(SCOPP) of Maj. Gen. (retd.) Solvberg's visit. They have added that
they dealt with the SCOPP on all matters relating to the peace process.
At the same conference, the subject of the alternative
route came up. The Secretary General of the SCOPP, one time UN diplomat
Palitha Kohona, said such a route could only be opened with the
consent of the two sides i.e. the Government and the LTTE. The latter
has already rejected the alternative route via Pooneryn to Jaffna.
That brings the issue back to the re-opening of the A-9 highway,
the Entry-Exit point at Muhamalai. This assumes added significance
in the light of the November 27 "Maveerar (or Great) Heroes
Day address by LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran.
With only two weeks or 14 days to go for the event,
ground realities have changed considerably. It is continuing to
change. Until October 11, when it was widely perceived that the
LTTE has almost been defeated militarily, questions were raised
over what Mr. Prabhakaran would say. That again was in the light
of the ultimatum he issued on November 27 last year.
In that he warned that if the Government "rejects
our urgent appeal, we will, next year, in solidarity with our people
intensify our struggle for self-determination, our struggle for
national liberation to establish self-government in our homeland."
That is if the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa did not
come forward soon with a "reasonable political framework"
that will satisfy the political aspirations of the Tamil people.
On October 11, the Army's debacle in Muhamalai
was the beginning of a major change in the scenario. Many other
factors that would sure form key elements in Mr. Prabhakaran's address
were offered by the Government, either through its inaction, inability
or both. That includes the growing humanitarian crisis in the north
where food, fuel and essential items are still in short supply.
It is no secret that the current crisis is unprecedented with civilians
in the North being forced into near levels of starvation.
Hard on the heels of this followed the incident
in Kathiraveli, north of Vakarai where men, women and children,
who were in a school complex housing internally displaced persons,
were killed and others injured by Army artillery and Multi Barrel
Rocket fire. The incident that forced the Government to express
regret drew the ire of the international community and generated
grossly adverse worldwide publicity for the country.
On Thursday the United States urged the Government
to conduct an "immediate, independent investigation into the
November 8 incidents and bring the responsible parties to justice."
The US said it would exhort the Sri Lanka Government to adopt corrective
measures to prevent civilian casualties "that also take into
account instances where civilians may be used as 'human shields'
in the future." A statement issued in Washington by State Department
spokesman said the US is also "disturbed that the Head of the
Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission and his delegation came under fire
in Pooneryn in the north of Sri Lanka on the same day."
Hard on the heels of this came another incident
in Colombo. On Friday, Tamil National Alliance parliamentarian Nadarajah
Raviraj, was shot dead in broad day light at Narahenpita. Once again,
the incident was to draw more adverse worldwide publicity about
the deteriorating law and order situation and the worsening humanitarian
crisis in Sri Lanka. Mr. Raviraj was a fearless Tamil politician
who courageously espoused the cause of the people he represented.
That was both in and out of Parliament. Details of the attack on
civilians in Vakarai and the assassination of Mr. Raviraj appear
elsewhere in The Sunday Times.
In a bid to underscore the Government's serious
concern, President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared that help from Britain's
Scotland Yard would be sought to assist in investigations. The last
occasion when such help was obtained was during the late President
Ranasinghe Premadasa's tenure. It came after the assassination of
Lalith Athulathmudali on April 23, 1993. Not even the assassination
of former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar on August 12 last
year led to seeking Scotland Yard assistance. A Government source
explained, "In that killing, we know who the culprits are.
It was the LTTE. In this shooting, the assailants have not been
identified. We want to know who is behind it and what the motives
These incidents have not merely given the LTTE
leader a few issues to highlight in his speech. More importantly,
from his perception, he can claim, much against many wishes in the
south, a "justification" for retaliatory military action.
This is why heightened military preparations have gone into place
and Security Forces are in a high state of alert. Can the resultant
uncertainty continue for ever?
If it is not to, decisive Government action becomes a sine qua non.
That, no doubt includes a greater political control of the defence
and security establishment. It requires priority. No amount of media
bashing for mirroring a grave situation is going to help if the
real issues are not correctly addressed.