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Deputy Defence Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte, the Army Commander Rohan Daluwatte and several other top officers left Colombo yesterday (7) morning in a military helicopter for a trip to Weli Oya. The pilot experienced mechanical trouble on half way through their journey. They had to make an emergency landing. The helicopter forcelanded 5KM north of Pompaimadu 10 kilometers inside the LTTE controlled area. But they returned to Vavuniya camp unhurt after eight kilo metres of trekking.... For almost three hours the fate of the nations Generals hung in the balance as they inched through dangerous terrain.
Deputy Defence Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte and a team of highest ranking security officials had a brush with death yesterday after their helicopter force landed in LTTE-dominated territory some ten kilometres north west of the Vavuniya defences.
After learning from the occupant of a house that they were far out of the forward defence lines, they walked eight kilometres to meet up with troops deployed on a hurriedly prepared land and air operation. They were still two kilometres outside the defences and the Tiger guerrillas had by then destroyed the US built Bell 412. They were all unhurt.
With General Ratwatte were Army Commander Lt. Gen. Rohan Daluwatte, Inspector General of Police W.B. Rajaguru, Overall Operation Commander (OOC) Major General Asoka Jayawardena and members of their personal protection groups. They were bound to Weli Oya military base for a top level conference.
Concern about Gen. Ratwatte and his team on board the Bell 412 grew after a second SLAF helicopter, a Bell 212, that had departed from Colombo much later had landed in Weli Oya. It is customary for aircraft carrying VIPs to maintain radio silence until moments before touch down but hours were passing by and there was no word.
The news that General Ratwatte's helicopter had gone missing shocked the security establishment and literally over-loaded Colombo's telephone exchange causing panic. Some news agency reports spoke of the helicopter having crashed with no survivors.
President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga heard the disturbing news when she drove to the Army grounds to board an SLAF helicopter flight to Attanagalle. She was to be the chief guest at the International Disabled Day commemoration at the Sanghabodhi Maha Vidyalaya, Nittambuwa. Instead of boarding the chopper, she rushed to Army Headquarters to get a first hand account of what had happened.
Her first move was to ensure that the helicopter meant to fly her and another one assigned for security escort be immediately tasked to carry groups of commandos for a search operation. She ensured they were airborne within minutes but the pilots aborted the mission mid way and turned back after they were told on their cockpit radio that General Ratwatte and party were safe.
Hearing the good news President Kumaratunga promptly telephoned General Ratwatte in Vavuniya. She requested him to return to Colombo but the Deputy Defence Minister was keen to finish his scheduled programmes before doing so.
Air Force Commander Air Marshal Oliver Ranasinghe who was to have joined General Ratwatte's entourage but opted out for personal reasons, flew immediately to the SLAF base at Katunayake and was at the operations room personally directing air searches. This was while the Sri Lanka Army's Deputy Chief of Staff, Major General Srilal Weerasuriya, put together a hurried ground rescue plan. On hand to arrange for air cover was SLAF's Chief of Staff, Air Vice Marshal Anslem Peiris.
Air Force Commander Air Marshal Oliver Ranasinghe, was last night due to appoint a court of inquiry to conduct a detailed investigation into yesterday's incident.
Preliminary findings, SLAF officials claim, point to a fault in the aircraft's instrument panel causing a malfunction of the compass. The pilot of the Bell 412, Squadron Leader Sagara Kotakadeniya, is also reported to have observed a low cloud base.
The Court of Inquiry probe will also ascertain whether a low fuel warning was caused by instrument fault or whether the engines began to flame out due to lack of fuel. Another aspect that will be gone into is whether there was disorientation on the part of the pilot.
Early reports of the incident said Pilot Kotakadeniya brought down the Bell 412 safely to ground through the cloud cover. Thereafter, members of the security detail had spoken to inmates of a household nearby and learnt that they were far out of the security forces FDLs. Being on the ground, radio communications in the chopper were not working. The pilot and a commando security officer had immediately walked ahead to inform the authorities at the FDL and seek assistance.
The Bell 412 had force landed some ten kilometres north west of Pompaimadu in an area dominated by the LTTE. Usually LTTE cadres are not permanently deployed in stretches of land ahead of FDLs since they are within mortar firing range. Moreover, there are perimeter patrols that cover areas ahead.
By the time the duo reached the FDLs and passed on the news about the forced landing. General Ratwatte and party had decided to leave the landing site and walk towards the FDLs. They had trekked some eight kilometres when they were met by troops who advanced on foot while SLAF MI 17 helicopters provided cover. They were immediately escorted to the Joint Operations Headquarters in Vavuniya.
MI 17 pilots reported that by the time the Bell 412 was on fire and the flames were reaching skywards. Tiger guerrillas had reached the area and destroyed it.
Soon after the Bell 412 took off with General Ratwatte and party from the Police Grounds in Colombo, a Bell 212 took off some 20 minutes later. On board this chopper were Sri Lanka Navy Chief of Staff Rear Admiral Cecil Tissera, Chief of Staff of Sri Lanka Air Force Air Vice Marshal Anslem Peiris and Senior Deputy Inspector General of Police (Range One) Lucky Kodituwkku. The Bell 212 arrived first in Weli Oya where a top level conference was scheduled.
Soon after his rescue General Ratwatte and his party had a hurried lunch and flew to Weli Oya for the conference before returning to Colombo.
The Operational Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence did not give details of the incident. A four paragraph statement issued last evening said:
"Several helicopters carrying Gen. Anuruddha Ratwatte and top level security personnel were on a routine inspection mission in the operational area, this morning Saturday, December 7."
"One of the helicopters experienced technical problem and made an emergency landing North West of Vavuniya."
"The President immediately directed operations from army headquarters to establish contact and arrange for their safe return."
"The Air Force Commander assisted by Major General Lal Weerasooriya and other senior security personnel swiftly executed an excellent coordinated operation by air and ground and ensured the safe return of the above persons."
The PA Mulberry group has planned to revamp itself in the face of speculation that members loyal to party hierarchy had infiltrated the group to bring about a split or to influence the decisions taken by the group, political sources said yesterday.
The members met on Thursday in an emergency session to prevent what it saw as an attempt to split the group.
A Mulberry group member who did not want to be named, told The Sunday Times he strongly believed that some PA Ministers had introduced MPs loyal to them to create a split within the group or to gain political mileage.
He said some members who joined recently had been trying to mar the image of the group which had taken up several issues and helped solve many problems, including the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) strike in mid this year.
"We now begin to feel that the claim by over forty members calling themselves the Mulberry group is slowly but surely tarnishing the good work done by the initial group," said the spokesman. "The present group works in a different dimension."
The member said of late, however, at least on six occasions, the Mulberry group had failed to find solutions to several problems. He said there was no co-ordination among the members and cited a recent meeting organized by a section of the Mulberry group with representatives of the paramedics to end their strike.
He said that this meeting was organized without the consent of the leadership. He claimed that only five to six of the members could call themselves the actual Mulberry group. "The infiltration of new membership has been in such a manner that, the real objectives of the Mulberry group is diminishing with new ideas being convincingly replaced," he said.
The group's secretary, Upali Gunaratne commenting on the emergency meeting told The Sunday Times that it was held to keep the group as one unit and to prevent a possible break-up.
However, he said reports about a split within the group, were not true.
Mr. Goonaratne admitted that in recent times several members of the group had on many occasions intervened in issues to gain prominence. "We would put a stop to this by issuing official statements in future, and also by introducing a newspaper - "Mulberry News."
The Criminal Investigations Department has sought permission of the Attorney-General to re-arrest former Army Commander and ex-ambassador, General Cecil Waidyaratne in connection with an alleged fraud over the import of communication equipment needed to jam LTTE communications.
The application was filed this week by the CID which is still investigating the import of communication equipment from a British firm in 1993.
Gen. Waidyaratne earlier was released on Rs. 5 million cash and Rs. 7.5 million surety bail on November 20 by the Fort Magistrate, Manilal Waidyatilleke. The ex-Army commander was released on medical grounds.
General Waidyaratne, who was the Commander of the Army in 1993, had sought permission from ex-President D. B Wijetunga and former Defence Secretary, General Hamilton Wanasinghe to purchase a set of communication equipment valued at Rs. 70 million. Subsequently three sets were imported at a cost of Rs. 500 million, according to CID sources.
CID sources said the then Army Commander had pointed out that the communication equipment was needed to be set up in three locations in the north and east to jam LTTE communications.
Investigations centre around a claim for Rs. 500 m.for the equipment. The cost is alleged to have included charges for training and advice on how to use, the sources said. The CID investigations claim that communication equipment imported to the country had later been found to be not suitable for use in Sri Lanka.
A former Royal College and Tamil Union cricket captain S.S. Kumar was gunned down at the Borella Golf Links yesterday morning.
Police said Kumar was killed by an unknown gunman around 10.30 a.m. while he was playing golf near the tenth hole. No arrests had been made as yet.
It is learnt that Kumar had earlier received death threats from a police officer and he had complained to DIG Indra de Silva.
Kumar played cricket for Royal College between 1961-63. After leaving college he played for the Tamil Union and captained the team.
Golf Club sources said yesterday they closed the club soon after the shooting took place while Borella police are continuing investigations.
Kumar was prominent in the business field as managing director of several companies. The motive for the killing is yet not clear, police said.
The Colombo High Court Judge hearing the criminal defamation case filed on behalf of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga against the editor of The Sunday Times refused to summon the Secretary of the Judicical Services Commission to produce a circular he had sent out transferring English stenographers from other courts to take down proceedings in this case.
Earlier, lawyers for the editor, asked court to issue summons on the JSC Secretary to produce the circular after the Deputy Solicitor General told court that The Sunday Times had published a false story stating that these English stenographers had been so transferred.
During the trial this week, Chartered accountant Rohan Fernando gave evidence. He said he did not think the article in the gossip column on which the editor is indicted was defamatory.
The trial continues next week.
President's Counsel Thilak Marapona with S.L. Gunasekera, Kumar Ponnambalam, Hemantha Warnakulasuriya, Upul Jayasuriya, Ronald Perera and Maithri Gunaratne instructed by Samararatne Associates appear for the editor
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