For well over three months now, the fate of 32,400 rounds of 81 mm mortar bombs, ordered by the Sri Lanka Army from Zimbabwe Defence Industries (ZDI), remained a mystery not only in Sri Lanka but the world over.
But last week, the man who undertook the order, Colonel Tshinga Dube, Chief Executive of the Government-owned ZDI, broke silence to publicly confirm the military cargo was missing. He admitted it was possible his firm was conned into loading and transporting the mortar bombs into a wrong vessel.
The news came as a shock to the defence establishment in Colombo. Not that they were not alive to such an eventuality. Rather they were embarrassed that a news blackout on the matter until it was resolved, agreed upon by Colombo and Harare, had been breached by the latter.
In Colombo, at least officially, the "news blackout" had been in place. This silence, despite disclosures in The Sunday Times, prompted Opposition MPs to raise the issue in Parliament. Deputy Defence Minister General Anuruddha Ratwatte responded with a firm reply.
He declared "We have been having dealings with Zimbabwe for arms and all we have ordered has reached here."
He, however, added "... since it was possible that the LTTE may try to get some arms, the Government has taken action to check that. The forces are on alert."
For weeks after General Ratwatte's statement, The Sunday Times, has been investigating the mystery of the missing ship and its military cargo. Revealed for the first time today are hitherto unknown details of how the mortars went missing and the tense drama that has been going on behind the scenes.
The news of the missing ship, stacked with 12 containers of 32,400 rounds of 81 mm mortars was first revealed exclusively in SITUATION REPORT in The Sunday Times of July 20. This was after the United States Embassy in Colombo received an anonymous fax purportedly coming from the LTTE. (See text of the fax on this page)
Questioned by the BBC's Sinhala radio service, Sandeshaya, during its nightly news programme, the LTTE's London spokesman Anton Raja, denied any knowledge.
However, the denial was not publicised in the daily LTTE news releases put out from London.
The deal for the purchase of 32,400 mortar bombs of 81 mm calibre from ZDI was concluded in early February this year. This was during Col. Dube's visit to Colombo. The consignment worth US dollars three million (or about Rs 177 million) was on Cost, Insurance and Freight - CIF - basis. A Letter of Credit (L/C) for this amount was opened by the Bank of Ceylon and the Ministry of Defence issued an End User Certificate (EUC) a document which certifies the final user of any military cargo. An EUC is a sine qua non for any foreign supplier to sell or ship military hardware.
According to the terms of sale, the supplier was to ship the military cargo within a month. The CIF terms meant payment was to be made only after the goods arrived in Colombo.
With a firm order in hand, Col. Dube returned to Harare. The ZDI made preparations to produce the mortar bombs. Since they did not manufacture the outer casing or the fuses for mortar shells, they are obtained from outside sources. Thereafter the mortar bomb is assembled with other ZDI manufactured materials. ZDI inquired from manufacturers in China and Bulgaria about the availability of empty casings. This was to give rise to reports that ZDI attempted to obtain mortars from these two countries to supply Sri Lanka. The requirements were eventually obtained from Bulgaria.
Thereafter Col. Dube arrived in Tel Aviv from Cairo on El Al (Israeli national carrier) flight LY 444 on March 25 and checked into Carlton Hotel.
The next day, he visited LBG Military Supplies an Israeli company dealing in military equipment. The firm is licensed by the Israeli Ministry of Defence. Among others, LBG Military Supplies, represents Israeli security industries and trade in surplus equipment of the Israeli Army and those of other foreign armies.
They are even registered as supplier of the Ministry of Defence in Sri Lanka. They say in the past they have supplied equipment to Sri Lanka, both directly and indirectly.
LBG Military Supplies employs Army officers, security personnel and staff retired from the Israeli intelligence community in various sectors, including security consultancy.
The Israeli arms firm had been introduced to Col. Dube by a senior staff member of another Israeli company, currently setting up a textile plant in Zimbabwe. The introduction has come through Col. Dube's deputy, Douglas Mrewa, who functions as Company Secretary for ZDI.
At the offices of the LBG Military Supplies, Col. Dube shook hands for the first time with Ben Tsuoi, Chief Executive on Thursday, March 26. The senior staff member of the Israeli firm in Harare had personally asked that Col. Dube meet Mr. Tsuoi.
Mr. Tsuoi, a bachelor of the Israeli Naval Academy, served in the Israeli Navy. He was an officer and held positions in several missile boats. He took to a Naval career after his father, then a high ranking officer in the Israeli Navy. In the late 1950s, his father arrived in Sri Lanka in an Israeli destroyer. His task then was to negotiate the sale of two destroyers.
Even before Col. Dube met Mr. Tsuoi, a teetotaller and a strong adherent of the Jewish faith, LBG Military Supplies had received in mid-February a written request for two central items in the manufacture of 81 mm mortar bombs impact fuses and secondary increments (horseshoe shape).
It was Mr. Mrewa who had written to them along with technical specifications. LBG Military Supplies had replied (after checking with a foreign firm) giving prices, delivery dates and method of supply. The Israeli company itself did not manufacture the items.
At the discussion at LBG Military Supplies on March 26, Col. Dube discussed with Mr. Tsuoi and his colleagues ZDI's written request for the fuses and secondary increments. He wanted the materials airlifted immediately to Harare.
Mr. Tsuoi ascertained the method and way of payment. Since Israeli arms dealers are prohibited from shipping any items to Zaire and Rwanda, Mr. Tsuoi questioned Col. Dube about the final destination of his company's goods. Col. Dube assured he would arrange to have the Government of Zimbabwe issue an End User Certificate (EUC), a declaration that the material is in fact being sought by that country.
With discussions over, LBG Military Supplies and ZDI concluded a deal for 33,000 pieces of impact fuses and 200,000 pieces of secondary increments (horseshoe shape).
The rapport between Col. Dube and Mr. Tsuoi was so cordial that the ZDI chief executive was highly pleased.
Mr. Tsuoi, it turned out, was an influential personality among the community of arms dealers in Tel Aviv. He had used his good offices to arrange a visit for Col. Dube to the sprawling Israeli Defence Industries, one of the world's leading arms manufacturers.
With the business deal clinched, Col. Dube boarded flight AZ 2811 on March 30 from Tel Aviv to the Italian capital of Rome. When leaving the Rome airport, something unbelievable had happened. Col. Dube's James Bond brief case containing documents of the LBG Military Supplies deal had been stolen.
He telephoned Mr. Tsuoi from Rome the next day (March 31) to tell him what happened. He requested Mr. Tsuoi to send a copy of the transacted agreement and consent to Zimbabwe.
This was done and a fresh deal was concluded.
On April 28, LBG Military Supplies delivered the items and received payment.
With empty casings from Bulgaria, fuses and secondary increments from Israel, the Zimbabwe Defence Industries (ZDI) began the manufacture of 32,400 rounds of 81 mm mortar bombs. They were packed in 12 container loads by ZDI and moved in trucks under their supervision by road from Harare across the Zimbabwean border to Mozambique.
On May 23, it was loaded from the Port of Beira (which Zimbabwe uses as its main shipping facility) to a vessel said to be "Stillus Limmasul." It left Beira on May 24. The ship was last known to be at the port of Malagasy in Madagascar. It had left there on July 2. The normal time taken for vessels to arrive in Colombo is anything between seven and ten days. Until today, the vessel with the mortar bombs had not arrived. In the second week of July, the US Embassy had received the purported LTTE fax.
What happened to the vessel between May 24 and July 2 is a mystery. There was only a claim by an ZDI official that an Israeli part charterer had his cargo carried to Windhoek in Namibia and that the ship later returned to Malagasy.
The mystery begins with the transportation of the cargo. It should have been the responsibility of ZDI to undertake this shipment for the simple reason that it was an order placed with them. The fact that ZDI got fuses and bomb casings from other sources does not absolve them of the contracted obligation to ship the cargo to Sri Lanka. This is the grey area which remains unaccounted and the point at which the cargo went missing.
Sri Lanka Army officials who were worried by the delay of the military cargo made frantic calls to ZDI. In fact they had earlier extended the Letter of Credit on two occasions after ZDI had wanted more time to execute the order. And now ZDI was saying the shipment has been effected aboard "Stillus Limmasul", a Greek registered vessel.
The news caused serious concern in the Ministry of Defence in Colombo. Fears that the LTTE may have seized the cargo were uppermost. Assistance of several Governments was sought including the United States, Britain, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Local intelligence agencies also made contacts with their counterparts in these countries. The International Police Organisation (Interpol) was alerted.
It is this concern that prompted Navy Commander, Vice Admiral Cecil Tissera, to send out a signal to all Naval bases on July 18 warning that a vessel carrying "arms/ammo to Sri Lanka has gone missing." (SITUATION REPORT July 27).
He said the ship "Stillus Limmasul" left Madagascar on July 2 and asserted that the name of the vessel was NOT in the Lloyds Register and warned of the possibility of the LTTE having hijacked it. He warned the Naval bases to exercise greater surveillance and vigilance to prevent the military cargo being smuggled into Sri Lanka.
According to Defence Ministry sources, the Anglo-American military facility in Diego Garcia, whose Naval and air fleets operate in the waters between Malagasy and Colombo, was alerted to look out for the missing vessel. So was the London-based International Maritime Organisation (IMO) which monitors the movement of cargo vessels world-wide. There was still no word.
The Sri Lanka Army sought immediate clarification from ZDI. Douglas Mrewa , the ZDI Secretary, flew down to Colombo for talks with Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Rohan de S. Daluwatte. At a meeting on August 2 at the Commander's Secretariat, Mr. Mrewa explained that the cargo had been despatched. He accused the Sri Lankan agent of a rival tenderer as the man who may have been behind the purported fax message. The name is being withheld on legal advice.
Mr. Mrewa explained that the ship "Stillus Limmasul" had been part chartered by the ZDI with an Israeli company. It had first carried cargo to Windhoek (Namibia), returned to Malagasy and left there on July 2 for Colombo. He gave the part charterer as LBG Military Supplies of Tel Aviv, Israel.
It is here that things have become curioser and curioser.
If both Col. Dube and Mr. Tsuoi, who struck such a good rapport at their very first meeting, agreed on the sequence of events upto the time of the manufacture of the mortar bombs, they have now begun hurling bitter allegations and insults against each other. That is about the events that followed.
I spoke by telephone to both Col. Dube in Harare and to Mr. Tsuoi in Tel Aviv.
In a lengthy telephone conversation, Col. Dube answered questions put to him. However, he politely declined to answer some questions saying "I do not wish to say anything on that matter.." But he assured he would co-operate with me "to bare the truth."
Mr. Tsuoi, in addition to answering questions during the telephone conversation, also faxed detailed replies on three separate occasions. In his last fax, he remarked "you have taken almost all my working day, and except that you are 'worse' than Interpol and intelligence....."
But in the next sentence, he made it a point to say he was joking.
Col. Dube said that he had entrusted the shipment of the mortar cargo "entirely in the hands of Mr. Tsuoi and LBG Military supplies. He said "it was Mr. Tsuoi who did everything. He knows the Captain of the ship. He knows the company the ship belonged to. All we had was his word. He was highly recommended. What I say to him (Mr. Tsuoi) - you know what went wrong. We must find that out. For that we have to interview the Captain, the owners of the vessel, the address of the ship owner...... and ascertain what happened..."
But Mr. Tsuoi vehemently denied the charge.
He declared "Our company never engaged in shipping and has never transported, chartered or used any ship for transport of military equipment from Beira, Mozambique to Colombo.
Our company was never connected by any contractual arrangement with the Government of Sri Lanka for the supply of mortars."
Although there are no diplomatic relations between Sri Lanka and Israel, Mr. Tsuoi said, "we will be ready to assist" in any investigations Colombo may conduct. He said he has already made a statement to Interpol (Israel) that he and his company had "nothing whatsoever" to do with the ZDI manufacture or shipment of mortars to Colombo.
Mr. Tsuoi revealed that Interpol interrogators had shown him the Bill of Lading relating to the shipment of the mortar bombs. "I am not a part at all in this B/L. The details there state the shipper as ZDI, the consignee as Bank of Ceylon and the notify address as the Ministry of Defence, Sri Lanka."
"After three hours of questioning me, even Interpol people are wondering what had gone wrong," he pointed out.
I asked Col. Dube how he got involved with Mr.Tsuoi and LBG Military Supplies to carry the cargo of mortar bombs when the deal was between the Sri Lanka Army and ZDI. His reply: "I am sorry I am not willing to answer that question. That must remain a secret for the moment. Let us leave that aside. Ben, as I said before, is the one who carried out everything. My impressions of him were very good then."
I asked why he had now changed his impressions about Mr. Tsuoi. I asked: "Do you now suspect him of being a party who colluded possibly with the LTTE ?"
He answered: "All I can say is that the excuses he is giving are very incriminatory. If he says he was unaware when he arranged for the shipper, that they were LTTE fronted, that is one thing. That means he has been conned. He is not doing that. He is saying he has nothing to do.
"We have documentary evidence that he agreed to do the shipping. We paid for the fuses and even for the freight of the mortars to Sri Lanka. The amount is US dollars 1.3 million. We paid that through our bank. There is proof," Col. Dube claimed.
But Mr. Tsuoi denied the charge. He insisted he could prove that his company has been paid only for the delivery of the impact fuses and secondary increments including freight. "I have made that abundantly clear to Interpol," he pointed out.
Mr. Tsuoi alleged that when Col. Dube lost his brief case, he had not ascribed any significance to it. "But afterwards, when analysing the sequence of events, we became confident that the disappearance imperilled the entire deal," he asserted. The ZDI should have informed the Government of Sri Lanka about the loss. Government sources in Colombo said there was no such intimation though it was not clear whether documents pertaining to the deal with Sri Lanka were in the brief case.
But Col. Dube said this "allegation" is all nonsense. I lost my brief case in Rome. But that is not the issue. Mr. Tsuoi has to answer many questions...."
Col. Dube said LBG Military Supplies first shipped the fuses. Later, Mr. Tsuoi had agreed to ship the cargo of mortars to Sri Lanka. "He carried out everything. We were under pressure from Sri Lanka. We had to do everything possible to meet the order very soon. That is why we agreed," he added.
I asked Col. Dube what he knew about the vessel carrying the cargo. He said "We were first told it was Stillus Victoria. Later, Mr. Tsuoi said it was "Stillus Limmasul" and is registered in Greece. Mr. Tsuoi told me that the Captain of the vessel looked like a person of Indian origin. I have heard other sources say he was French. But that is what we want to find out. I have given all the relevant documentation to Interpol."
Col. Dube emphasised that the Government of Sri Lanka did not pay any money in advance for the cargo of 32,400 rounds of 81 mm mortar bombs. Since the ship had gone missing with the military cargo, he said, ZDI had not replaced the items. The assertion put paid to claims in some quarters that ZDI had sent in another quantity of mortars in lieu of the order placed in February. The sequence of events after the Sri Lanka Army placed the order with Col. Dube showed ZDI had hardly any time to turn out another large quantity. Moreover, it had asked for at least two extensions of delivery dates to execute the original order.
He said, ZDI, however, had paid the insurance money for the cargo and were making a claim for refund. Mr. Tsuoi alleges that insurance claims are being made with reportedly forged letter-heads of his company or with paragraphs altered from original letters sent to ZDI. Sources in Harare said the ZDI insurance claims had been put on hold by the European insurance company until its own inquiries were over.
Mr. Tsuoi said he knew that the 32,400 mortar bombs were now in the hands of the LTTE. "This is clear not only from your articles but also from correspondence of Tamils in various Newsgroups in the Internet, that can be located by way of a search engine named DEJA NEWS.
He added: " From the moment we learnt of the missing ship, we were asked by ZDI to send them all information.
I have a special person in the company who acts in this field, mainly for locating trade opportunities. We put the frame on the present story. This way, we found correspondence on regular URL or on NEWSGROUP or by PRIVATE CHAT. Also for your information, there are special software that reveal correspondence on e-mail between people who send e-mails.
However, we do not use this software."
So it was not only Mr. Tsuoi who discovered that the mortars were in LTTE hands. Even the Ministry of Defence in Colombo received confirmation from foreign intelligence channels as early late July. And last Thursday, Zimbabwe's Defence Minister, Moven Mahachi, told the Harare Correspondent of the British defence magazine, Jane's Sentinel, the mortar bombs were "now in the hands of the Tamil rebels."
He said he had no idea of what had actually happened to the cargo which weighed about thirty tons. The text of Mr. Mahachi's statement was circulated to the Harare media. He said "the truth is that the ship was intercepted (and) that is not the responsibility of the Zimbabwe Government...... it's not even the responsibility of ZDI at all." He added: "We were not in control of that ship. We don't own any ship. The responsibility lies with the owner. The ship was somehow intercepted...." He said the LTTE took the mortar bombs and "these mortars are now being used by Tamils against Sri Lanka government troops.
In SITUATION REPORT last week, I revealed details of how the operation to seize the mortar bombs was carried out by Kumaran Pathmanathan or KP. The globe trotting guerrilla who reports directly to LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, heads one of the guerrilla group's important divisions - The KP Department. He is singularly responsible for procuring arms, ammunition, explosives, chemicals, uniforms and other related requirements to the LTTE.
KP also directs and controls LTTE's international shipping operations. For over four months, KP is said to have operated from South Africa making preparations to seize the cargo of mortars.
In Johannesburg last week, the South African intelligence agency was asked to step up surveillance on the LTTE, particularly the mobile group now in South Africa that helped the KP team to carry out reconnaissance in Zimbabwe, the defence supplier and Mozambique. The order had come directly from President Nelson Mandela. This was after South Africa's High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, who is based in New Delhi, visited Colombo last week with his Defence and Military Adviser, Captain Dennis Forrest.
Hitherto, the attitude of the South African intelligence had been different - in the merged agency the African National Congress (ANC) elements were pro-LTTE and the white South Africans who had extended intelligence co-operation with Colombo were sidelined. It was the white South African elements that provided information to their western counterparts that LTTE cadres were being entertained by South African VIPs.
In 1994, KP had carried out a similar operation.
The LTTE had purchased a large quantity of TNT and RDX plastic explosives from the Rubezone chemical plant in Ukraine using forged End User Certificates (EUC). They carried the forged signature of the Secretary, Ministry of Defence, the Government of Bangladesh. If this was detected on time, the Central Bank Bomb explosion in January, 1996, would perhaps not have taken place.
And similarly, if there was an effective intelligence system, the 32,400 mortar bombs would not have fallen into LTTE hands. Perhaps "Operation Jaya Sikurui" now on its fourth month would have ended earlier. Less than 700 soldiers would have died and less than 4,000 would have been wounded. But the mortars have been taking a heavy toll - the single weapon to cause the highest casualties during "Operation Jaya Sikurui."
Read SITUATION REPORT on Page 9 for details of how the mortars are taking their toll.
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