The Situation Report
2nd May 1999
How a Sea Tiger op failed
By Iqbal Athas
Ten heavily armed Black Sea Tiger guerrillas set out from a base in the north east coast, some three weeks ago, on a special mission.
They walked out of the Sea Tiger base at Chemmalai, a coastal strip south of Mullaitivu, wedged between the Nayaru lagoon and the Indian Ocean, trekking westwards across the Wanni terrain, far ahead of the security forces defences. They dodged foot patrols that ventured into Tiger guerrilla dominated terrain.
The young men took turns to climb tall trees to monitor their path of advance. En route they ran into only their guerrilla colleagues. They met to greet each other. There was no mention of their mission. That seemed a closely guarded secret.
After an overnight camp out, the group had crossed from the east to the west coast and arrived at the Sea Tiger base at Nachikuda. After rest and recuperation for a few days, the men packed their rations and boarded a boat at night. They were armed with a GPMG (General Purpose Machine Gun), Kalashnikov assault rifles, explosives, under water mines, diving kits, goggles and ration packs.
The boat sped its way from the coast towards Indian waters and veered leftwards to cross the Adams Bridge, the shallow gap between Rameshwaram (in India) and Talaimannar. Thus entering the Gulf of Mannar, the group arrived in the coastal village of Silavathurai. From there, they trekked southwards by land, crossing the wild life infested Wilpattu jungles to arrive at their destination. That was a coastal stretch that over-looked the Dutch Bay, which forms the mouth of the Puttalam lagoon.
Within minutes, the guerrillas had begun their mission - to mount surveillance on the Naval Sub Unit (NSU) at Battalangunduwa. This NSU stood as a forward position to the Navy Base at Kalpitiya which lay some 25 nautical miles south. Through their binoculars, they observed Navy boat movements. Close attention was focused on four Navy patrol craft that lay positioned in a cluster when not in use. Frogmen, who were among the ten, had planned to dive into the lagoon and place mines on the four boats. The place where the men established the observation post, apt enough, was known as Kolam Kanatte (Comedy Cemetery). Later they were to embark on unidentified sabotage missions.
If the surveillance operation succeeded, that would have paved the way for attacks on the NSU and possibly the Kalpitiya Navy base too. Moreover, the four boats of the NSU would have been blasted. But a change of mind by one of the ten men led to a different course of events.
One night, the ten guerrillas were fast asleep. One of them decided to carry out a different operation. He tip toed his way out of Kolam Kanatte and swam towards the neighbouring Ippan Tivu, a small island which was home for Muslim fishermen. Observing the movement of a fishing boat, he raised cries. A fisherman flashed his torch. There was a man raising cries. He appeared to be drowning, or so the fisherman thought. He was soon taken on board.
On arrival at Ippan Tivu, the man confessed he was a Tiger guerrilla and pleaded he wanted to be handed over to Navy officials. The next morning, the fishermen did just that. And now, both Navy and intelligence officials are putting him through rigorous interrogation.
The man has been identified as 23 year old Sabapathypillai Chandramohan alias Thamarai Chelvam. He disclosed background information about himself. He was an orphan and had been adopted by foster parents who lived in Chilaw. He had left home when he was ten years old to work in a garage in Grandpass. The details were verified and confirmed correct.
But, the authorities are yet skeptical. Chandramohan claims he had been a member of the LTTE for over ten years. He was now a Black Sea Tiger cadre. These highly trained suicide cadres are regarded as the "commando arm" of the LTTE's Sea Tiger Unit. He had joined the LTTE after he made contacts with some members whilst working at the garage in Grandpass. When he was serving as an ordinary member of the Sea Tiger wing, Chandramohan has said, he made a personal appeal to its leader, Soosai, to promote him to the rank of a "Black Sea Tiger."
Soosai had replied that he should put in a lot of effort by displaying his fighting skills if that was to be done. Chandramohan had claimed he did just that by taking part in the November, 1993, LTTE attack on the Pooneryn defence complex. He had also taken part in the attack on on the Mullaitivu military base in July, 1996. That was how he had come to be placed in the Black Sea Tiger team on that special mission. The reason for giving himself up was because he was home sick and wanted to see his foster parents. He was also fed up of what he was doing, or so he claimed.
But his interrogators are not fully convinced. Would a hard core Black Sea Tiger cadre, who has remained in the guerrilla group for over ten years, give himself up purely to see his foster parents ? Or was there something more to his story ? Interrogators are busy trying to find answers to these and many other questions. Chandramohan's first hand knowledge of some matters, which the authorities have come to know earlier through other reliable channels, have confounded the situation further.
Whilst Chandramohan was being interrogated, Navy patrols launched a search for the nine Black Sea Tigers. They had fled Kolam Kanatte but left behind some tell tale evidence. Since the only escape route to their base is the same path they used to arrive in the Puttalam coast, troops have moved into the Wilpattu jungles to track them down. The Navy has also intensified small craft patrols in the Gulf of Mannar to hunt for them. The searches continued yesterday. The news of the Black Sea Tigers operation at Battalangunduwa came as the defence establishment in Colombo were pre-occupied with the maritime operations of the LTTE. News arrived last week through intelligence channels that the LTTE had unloaded an arms shipment in the high seas off the Mullaitivu coast on April 17. Earlier, a captured Tiger guerrilla confessed that another load of military hardware - a Multi Barrel Rocket Launcher - MBRL (107 mm), SAM 14 Surface to Air Missiles, medical supplies and artillery/mortar shells had arrived (Situation Report April 18). There was also news that shops and offices were closing early afternoon to enable people engaged there to undergo military training including how to fire weapons. This followed an LTTE "decree" that all persons in the age groups 20 to 28 living in the Wanni region undergo military training. This included even students and teachers in schools. (Situation Report - April 18).
Coupled together with the regular arrival of weapons shipments in the past several weeks, providing military training to non members have heightened suspicions on the latest LTTE moves. Are the Tiger guerrillas, who have remained less active in the past weeks, making preparations for a major offensive ? Are they now planning to rope in non member cadres as reserves for this purpose ? This is the first time the LTTE had embarked on a military training programme of such proportions to non members. Needless to say such an exercise involves the use of a large volume of ammunition not to mention the arms. This is where part of the fresh shipments appear to be of use.
Military authorities have convincing evidence that a few shipments, with substantial cargo, did arrive and were smuggled into the Wanni through the north eastern coast. However, the only instance that is still shrouded in an element of doubt is the case of the trawler "MV Mariamma," which the Sri Lanka Navy says, was heavily laden with cargo worth over ten million US dollars. What the cargo itself was made up of is still not clear. Nor is the case of how the value of the cargo was estimated.
Last month, the Government sought the assistance of the Indian Navy, through diplomatic channels, to intercept "MV Mariamma." A note circulated by Navy Headquarters in Colombo to the local media gave the background to the events.
It said : "On 3rd March, 1999, at approximately 1400 hours, Director, Maritime Coastal Surveillance (MCS) Unit, Ministry of Fisheries, Colombo, reported to NHQ (Naval Headquarters) that a deep sea fishing trawler "Deepa III" had been fired upon by an unknown vessel approximately 120 nautical miles north east of Mullaitivu and communication has been lost with "Deepa III" since the reporting
".SLN vessels were able to detect debris and submerged parts of three multiday fishing vessels in the general area 50 -
70 nautical miles off the coast of Mullaitivu and Point Pedro "On 7th March, 1999, at approximately 1745 hours, the Director, Maritime Coastal Surveillance, reported information from multiday fishing vessel "Tharangi" that another multiday fishing craft "Titus II" was approached by a 60 - 70 foot long merchant vessel named "Mariamma" and they were being forced to go alongside. The vessel "Mariamma" was black in colour, fully laden, crane and what appears to be a gun in front and white colour cabin at the rear. There have been Tamil speaking personnel dressed in sarongs armed with weapons on deck. At this time " Mariamma" was approximately 210 nautical miles north east of Point Pedro and "Tharangi" was approximately 25 miles north of "Mariamma."
"On this information, SLN Hq activated an intensified search of the area deploying six Fast Gun Boats and 12 Fast Attack Craft . During this operation two of the multiday fishing craft were towed to harbour and salvaged by SLN to observe that craft were sunk by gun fire damages with no trace of human life."
The note claimed "the prompt and co-ordinated SLN deployment on information provided by multiday vessel.. has forced .."Mariamma" to abandon her intentions of transferring cargo at sea or approaching the Mullaitivu coast, and it is presumed, has compelled her to turn back to her port of origination: either in the Bay of Bengal or Andaman seas. The available information indicates that the value of "Mariamma" with its warlike cargo is in the region of 10 million US dollars."
The Navy's presumption that "Mariamma" was unable to unload its cargo, I understand, came after the Defence Ministry in Colombo received reports from India, again through diplomatic channels. There had been a specific assurance from Indian authorities that "Mariamma" and her cargo should not be a concern for the Sri Lanka Government any more. A similar assurance had also been received by the Sri Lanka Navy from their Indian counterparts. However, there was no detailed explanation as to what has in fact happened.
It is in this backdrop that national newspapers in India carried news reports that an Indian Navy operation to "nab gun runners near the Andaman and Nicobar Islands" had ended in a fiasco. Reports said though the Indian navy ships closed in on the trawler, inexplicably, it was decided that "MV Mariamma" would be intercepted in the night. But that night the Indian ships found that the trawler was sinking 200 kilometres off the Andaman coast and the operatives on board escaped on a Gemini boat after dumping the arms overboard.
But western intelligence sources in Colombo said they believed the events were otherwise. The Indian Navy seized the cargo and later destroyed the trawler. They said the undeclared military cargo were loaded into Navy (LCMs) landing craft and transported to the shore. But independent verification of these reports were not possible.
But, behind the scenes, diplomatic exchanges between Colombo and New Delhi over this episode has gone one for the past several weeks. India's High Commissioner in Colombo, Shanker Menon, has had at least two rounds of informal meetings with Navy Commander, Vice Admiral Cecil Tissera and his senior officials. The Navy Chief was directed by the Defence Ministry to take part in these meetings after Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, himself showed keen interest in this and other related matters.
As a result, two high ranking officials of the Sri Lanka Navy will leave for New Delhi next Wednesday ( May 5) for talks with their Indian counterparts. The team comprises Director (Naval Operations), Commodore C.N. Thuduwewatta, and Deputy Director, Captain T.S.G. Samarasinghe. Commodore Tuduwewatte is now in Israel leading a three member Navy delegation to examine two Super Dvora gun boats the Navy will shortly acquire. The two member team were recently briefed by Foreign Secretary, Wilhelm Woutersz.
Adding significance to the team's impending departure is the meeting Navy Chief, Vice Admiral Tissera, had this week with Sri Lanka's High Commissioner in New Delhi, Mangala Moonesinghe. The latter is now in Colombo for consultations with the Government on current developments in India. Accompanying Mr. Moonesinghe to Colombo was Sri Lanka's Defence Attache at the New Delhi mission, Captain D.W.A. Dissanayake (of the Sri Lanka Navy).
The presence of both High Commissioner Moonesinghe and Defence Attache, Capt. Dissanayake, among other matters, also revolves around a hitherto unpublicised issue that has caused considerable concern at the highest levels of the Government.
That related to a directive by Indian Defence Minister, George Fernandes, of July 27, 1998, to stop interception of vessels carrying weapons and narcotics unless prior approval is given by the Ministry of Defence. The move angered the heads of India's Army, Navy and Air Force. See interview by India's sacked Navy Chief, Admiral Vishnu Bhagawat, on this page.
The service chiefs jointly told Mr Fernandes on August 8, 1998, that the anti gun running operations in the Andamans were mandated operations by the Army, Navy and Coast Guard. They neither required prior approval nor that information be given in advance to the Ministry of Defence.
India's ousted Navy Chief, Admiral Vishnu Bhagawat, has publicly declared that the LTTE, Myanmarese (Burmese) and the North East rebels operated from Mr. Fernandes' residence - a suggestion that the unusual and unprecedented July 27 order was intended to help them.
The order by Defence Minister Fernandes came months after when Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, had launched diplomatic initiatives with India for joint co-operation between the Indian Coast Guard and the Sri Lanka Navy in the Palk Straits - the thin strip of Indian ocean that divides India and Sri Lanka. Early last year, High Commissioner Moonesinghe had himself discussed the issue with Mr. Fernandes. Later, the Sri Lanka envoy reported to Mr. Kadirgamar that the Indian Defence Minister had urged him to forward a set of proposals. Even before that materialised, Mr. Fernandes had issued the directive.
However, other senior BJP leaders and Government officials with whom Colombo has dealt on these delicate issues, one high ranking Government source said, has been "both understanding and sympathetic." The source who spoke on grounds of anonymity said " they (New Delhi) also have to cope with very delicate issues when they have to accede to our demands for help. We have been told what they are and we appreciate them."
Colombo is now ready with concrete proposals for co-operation in the Palk Straits with India's Coast Guard and for joint co-operation between the Navies of the two countries to curb Tiger guerrilla gun running.
The question now is whether the issue will be raised with the caretaker Government of Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee. Or will the Government wait till the upcoming Indian elections are over, and approach the new Government that will come into power ? A decision is most likely in the coming week.
Mr Kadirgamar has also mooted the idea of joint co-operation between Sri Lanka and Thailand to curb LTTE weapons smuggling. He raised this issue last month with visiting Thai Deputy Foreign Minister, Sukumbhand Paribatra. This was in the wake of reports that the LTTE used some ports in Thailand for its gun running operations.
Mr. Kadirgamar first raised the issue when a high level Thai military delegation headed by Supreme Commander, Gen. Mongol Amornphist, visited Colombo. Mr Paribatra was accompanied by senior Thai intelligence officials during his visit. Follow up talks on the matter are to take place later this month in Bangkok.
The truth of the "Mariamma" incident will remain shrouded until the national issues that complicate the revelation of its true facts become irrelevant. Be that as it may, what is of concern to Sri Lanka is whether the "Mariamma" did unload its cargo. The attention of the presence of this naval intruder in our waters came to light after the attack on Deepa III . As to whether this was before or after unloading of its cargo is not certain except for the vague version that the crew got away after dumping its cargo overboard. There is no evidence of any recovered weapons to prove the fact.
If the mission of "Mariamma" was to run guns to Sri Lanka, then it is highly unlikely that it would have been detracted from its mission to skirmish with unarmed fishing trawlers unless it was after it was accomplished. To think otherwise is to underestimate LTTE operational efficiency. Logically, therefore it should be considered that the engagement the "Mariamma" had with the fishing trawlers was on its way out from Sri Lanka waters and that any question that arms were thrown overboard is unsubstantiated evidence at the best.
Quite apart from the "Mariamma" incident, and other similar incidents of arms smuggling into Sri Lanka, the larger issue of the free use of the Indian Ocean for such trafficking should as a whole be of security concern to the countries in this sub continent. Indeed, it should be of worry to all the littoral states of the Indian Ocean.
Especially so when considering the multi political and social structures, the economic disparities and the divisive tendencies of the many countries in this littoral. These weaknesses were exploited to the advantage of the then colonial powers and could again be the fissures to destabilise the security of the region.
It is therefore to the interest of the Indian Ocean region as a whole, and to the Indian sub continent in particular, that maritime naval co-operation be structured to counter security threats to its littoral countries. Whilst that is a larger issue with many inherent complications, the immediate concern is to prevent maritime intrusion into Sri Lanka.
The Eelam ideology is of concern to both India and Sri Lanka. The bitter lessons of the past one and a half decades of that conflict to both countries should at least strengthen their resolve to implement the infra-structure for Naval and Maritime co-operation.
This will be to the greater security of both India and Sri Lanka.
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