The Situation Report
12th September 1999
Mortar ship — scoop and the spook
By Iqbal Athas
Zimbabwe loses at both ends; Israel holds the key
Since July, 1997, The Sunday Times has ex-clusively revealed the mystery behind the missing consignment of 32,400 rounds of 81 mm mortars, ordered by the Sri Lanka Army from Zimbabwe Defence Industries (ZDI).
It all began when the United States Embassy in Colombo received an anonymous fax, purportedly from the LTTE, which said "We have hijacked a vessel carrying arms, sailing under the Liberian flag. The name of the vessel Stillus Victoria"
As The Sunday Times began to unravel details in the succeeding months, there were official claims that all what was ordered from Zimbabwe had arrived. Hastening to support these claims, in August, last year, were some media reports which declared in banner headlines that the cargo had arrived at the Colombo port. They even suggested that the fax was a deliberate leak by a western diplomatic mission. If these reports were to be believed, there would have been no mystery to unravel and the matter would have ended there. The LTTE also denied any involvement and charged the episode has been exploited to tarnish their 'international image'.
But The Sunday Times continued to investigate the mystery and expose the facts. So much so, in September, 1997, Zimbabwean authorities broke silence to confirm that the shipload of mortars they were to supply to Sri Lanka had gone missing. Zimbabwean Defence Minister, Moven Mahachi, said he suspected Tiger guerrillas to have intercepted it.
So much so, in January, the Government decided to order the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to conduct a full inquiry. It can now be revealed that the inquiry, among other things, began with the CID probe team obtaining from The Sunday Times details of exclusive revelations made over the weeks and months. As the probe continued, these revelations came to be confirmed.
Assisted by C.R. de Silva, Additional Solicitor General, the probe team flew to the Zimbabwean capital of Harare in May, 1999, in what still remains the first leg of their investigation. As exclusively reported in The Sunday Times of May 16, 1999, the team comprised Punya de Silva, DIG (CID) and Sisira Mendis SSP, who is also head of the local branch of the Interpol.
In Harare, the probe team's findings confirmed revelations made by The Sunday Times. That is not all. They found new evidence that threw fresh light on the mystery. More on that later.
But in August, this year, sections of the media contradicted their own original account that the vessel carrying the 32,400 mortar rounds had in fact arrived at the Colombo Port.
If they now confirmed they did not arrive, this time, they now agreed there never was such a vessel that carried a shipment from ZDI from the Mozambican port of Beira-a pertinent fact which The Sunday Times had already revealed last year. However, since the ZDI (Zimbabwe Defence Industries) did not admit to loading any ship at all, these new reports asserted there was no ship to hijack in the first place. Fact, fallacy or fiction ?
Before the answer is revealed, it is relevant to mention that the Chief Executive of Zimbabwe Defence Industries, Colonel Tshinga Dube, confirmed to the Sri Lankan probe team what The Sunday Times World Exclusive of September 6, 1998 had reported. Extracts from our published report confirm ZDI played a hoax on the Government of Sri Lanka. Here are excerpts from that World Exclusive:
"The Zimbabwean Government owned Zimbabwe Defence Industries (ZDI), which contracted to supply 32,400 rounds of mortar bombs as part of a multi million rupee deal, has duped the Sri Lanka Army, investigations by The Sunday Times has revealed.
"The ship on which the goods were to arrive-a Liberian registered 'MV Stillus Limmasul'-has turned out to be non existent.
The Lloyd's Register of Shipping does not list the name or the purported owning company 'Stillus Shipping Limited' with an address in the city of Limmasul, in Cyprus.
"The Sunday Times has found that the Liner Bill of Lading is a forgery. Investigations have revealed that there is no Stillus Shipping Company by the name given in the Liner Bill of Lading.
"It bears the address 'STILLUS SHIPPING LTD., (International Maritime Transport-Limmasul, Cyprus), 111, Spyrou Araquzou St Limmasul, Cyprus'. It does not carry any telephone number in Cyprus. Instead the only numbers given are a fax and telex number of a so-called '@ Special Transport Branch'-London. Both the fax and the telex do not function.
"The Sunday Times has found that such a shipping company did not exist. Another declaration, which has now turned out to be fraudulent, is the reference to the port of shipment. The Liner Bill of Lading (issued by the ship owner or his agent, in this instance the ZDI) which was received by the Bank of Ceylon was self-contradictory. It has been issued in the Croatian port of Rijeka whilst the shipment was described as Beira in Mozambique. This has escaped the attention of both the Bank of Ceylon and the Sri Lanka Army. "Documents in possession of The Sunday Times show that ZDI officials-Chief Executive Tshinga Dube, Company Secretary, Douglas Mrewa and Financial Manager, M. Fumhai, cleverly used the Zimbabwean State organisation as a front. "Whilst giving Sri Lankan authorities various reasons for not being able to execute the order, the ZDI officials had been involved in a secret deal with an Israeli arms dealer to obtain the mortars from elsewhere. "Col. Dube, the prime mover, worked this with Sapir Ben Tsouk, head of the Israeli arms firm, LBG industries..."
Those excerpts from the World Exclusive on September 6, 1998, clearly reveal that ZDI had perpetrated a fraud on the Government of Sri Lanka and claims of a shipment from ZDI, originating from the Mozambican port of Beira were a myth. Does that therefore mean there was no sea shipment at all? Here again, findings of the Sri Lanka probe team have not only confirmed The Sunday Times revelations but have also come up with new evidence.
For the first time, ZDI Chief Executive Col. Dube has confessed to the Sri Lanka probe team that his organisation paid an undisclosed sum of money to Sapir Ben Tsouk, the Israeli arms dealer, to execute the Sri Lanka Army's order. In terms of an arrangement Col. Dube had reached with Mr. Tsouk, the latter was to procure and make available the military hardware for ZDI to forward to the Sri Lanka Army. In effect that was a private arrangement and the ZDI was pretending that the goods were being manufactured and delivered by them. This was how one of the air shipments contained mortars with made in Belgium markings and was found to be old.
The Sri Lanka Army's order with an FOB value of US dollars 6,019,000 (Rs 397.2 million) was made up of the following items:
1. Ball-belted Ammunition for General Purpose Machine Guns (GPMG)-500,000 rounds. Cost-US$ 280 per 1,000 rounds.
2. Coloured Smoke Grenades- Red. Green, Yellow and Blue-1,000 rounds each. Quantity 4,000 rounds. Cost — Red $ 28 each, Green $ 20 each, Yellow $ 19 each and Blue $ 19 each.
3. Mini Claymore mines-2,000 nos at $ 27.50 each.
4. 81 mm Mortar Bombs-40,000 rounds at $ 62 each.
5. 120 mm Mortar Bombs-20,000 rounds at $ 162.50 each.
With freight charges at $ 300,000 (Rs 19.8 million) the total cost (C&F) totalled $ 6,300,000 (Rs 422.3 million).
The above military hardware was to be delivered to Sri Lanka through four air shipments and two sea shipments.
Beginning January, 1997, four air shipments were delivered to Colombo. The two sea shipments were to be made up of 32,400 (or exactly 32,398 rounds) of 81 mm mortars and over 30,000 rounds of 120 mm mortars. The mortar consignment was to be the first sea shipment and the 120 mm mortars was to be the second.
If the 81 mm mortar shipment went missing, the second sea shipment of 120 mm mortars arrived in Colombo as arranged. Col. Dube has confirmed that this shipment too had been arranged by the Israeli arms dealer, Sapir Ben Tsouk.
CID detectives have now discovered that like in the case of the missing mortar shipment, shipping and other documents connected with the sea shipment for the 120 mm mortars were forged. Documents have made out that this shipment arrived from Singapore. From where was it brought to Singapore assuming that the declaration was correct. Which country did the cargo originate from ? Was another vessel used to bring the cargo to Singapore ? These are some of the many questions the CID wants to find answers to.
The Sunday Times reliably learns that the Sri Lanka probe team's assignment in Harare assumed the form of a fact finding mission. No formal statements were recorded from Zimbabwean officials. However, the team interviewed both Col. Dube, who is known to have influential links with Zimbabwe Government leaders and General Manager, Douglas Mrewa. Though Mr. Mrewa is no longer with the ZDI, he has met the Sri Lanka probe team voluntarily. He too had confirmed revelations made in The Sunday Times including the role of Sapir Ben Tsouk.
Col. Dube's biggest embarrassment, according to remarks he made to the Sri Lanka probe team, was the fact that the State owned Zimbabwe Defence Industries had been played out on two different fronts. Firstly, ZDI had paid a large sum of money to Sapir Ben Tsouk of LBG Military Supplies in Israel to procure the military hardware from his own sources. This was to be delivered to Colombo by ZDI as their own products. Whilst Mr. Tsouk had honoured his commitment on the clandestine deal in respect of the other products, trouble arose over the consignment of 32,400 rounds of 81 mm mortars.
Whilst the mystery over the missing mortar shipment continued, ZDI forwarded fraudulent documents to the Sri Lanka Army to obtain payments for the military hardware. That was to be made through a Korean financier-Kolon International Corporation (KIC)- in five instalments after a grace period of one year.
The Sri Lanka Army had already remitted $ 1,724,443.50 to Kolon International Corporation as the first instalment but later asked them not to release the money to ZDI since the 81 mm mortar shipment had not arrived. This money is now accumulating interest at KIC. Be that as it may, the Army, in a strange move, made direct payments for shipments that arrived.
However, it refused to make payment to the ZDI for the second sea shipment of 120 mm mortars. Financially, therefore, they had not incurred a loss though some glaring irregularities over how procurement procedures worked came to light.
But for ZDI, they had paid Mr. Tsouk to obtain the hardware. An undisclosed sum had been paid both for the 81 mm and 120 mm mortar shipments to Mr. Tsouk. And now, ZDI did not receive any payment from Sri Lanka. They had lost both ways.
Col. Dube had told the Sri Lanka probe team that he kept in touch with Mr. Tsouk in Israel both via telephone and fax. In a fax dated July 23, 1997, Sapir Ben Tsouk, Managing Director of LBG Military Supplies in Haifa, Israel, told the Zimbabwe Defence Industries how the 81 mm mortar consignment went missing: Among the points he made:
*Regarding your question if the vessel left at all with the cargo, I hereby confirm that goods left on 28.5.1997 from Rijeka, Croatia. I've been present at site and I have seen the vessel, I've seen the containers, I have checked personally part of the containers in which there were what it was concluded between us.
*The next notice on the vessel was from south of Port Elisabeth while on her way to Madagascar. From here and until Sri Lanka, there was no communication whatsoever on the vessel.
*As far as I know, the vessel sailed under Liberian flag, and she is registered in Liberia, and according to the fax you sent me yesterday, I understand that you have checked and it is indeed registered in Liberia, although according the information in the Internet, the Army Headquarters of Sri Lanka claim that the vessel is registered in Greece.
*Regarding the speed of the vessel, I was informed that the sailing speed of the vessel is approx. 15 knots (by personal experience, as officer from the Israeli Navy, this speed can change according to the condition of the sea).
*Regarding the name of the Captain, I don't know his name, despite the fact that I've met him and I've talked to him several minutes, when in Croatia, I know that he is Indian, I have also seen that the crew of the vessel was Philippine origin."
Sri Lanka Interpol has now made contact with their counterparts in Israel. This is to enable the probe team to visit Haifa and interview Mr. Sapir Ben Tsouk, the man who now holds the key to the rest of the probe.
Highly placed Military Intelligence sources confirmed The Sunday Times reports that there was strong reason to believe the LTTE hijacked the 81 mm mortar consignment — a fact which has been confirmed to them through foreign intelligence channels. As revealed in The Sunday Times, the liberal use of these 81 mm mortars was the main cause for heavy casualties during the 17 month long 'Operation Jaya Sikurui' (Victory Assured). An ZDI identification on any of these mortars does not arise since they were not made in Zimbabwe.
The probe team has not come to any firm conclusion that there was no such ship and the vessel is a ghost ship. All evidence, as it stands, leads to the conclusion that the 81 mm mortar consignment were in fact loaded on to a ship. The only missing evidence to positively confirm the role played by the vessel is the statement of Mr. Tsouk.
If the probe team is convinced that the vessel is a hoax, then there is hardly any need to visit Israel to interview Mr. Tsouk as the mystery of the 81 mm missing mortars then ends with the ZDI. It is to confirm this that the probe team has yet to visit Israel. This will conclusively put the lid on any speculation and wild guesses over the matter.
If the entire episode is to be taken as a hoax and to be left as such, whether there existed a vessel or not is hardly relevant. The significance is that this vessel in fact carried the consignment of mortars and that is therefore an integral part of this episode. It was from this vessel that the LTTE seized the consignment of mortars.
Therefore what is important now is not to conjecture on the presence of a ghost ship but investigate the reality of it for it supplied the mortars to the LTTE. And that is what the probe team is now bent on doing. Like confirming what The Sunday Times revealed on the Zimbabwean aspect of the deal after their visit to Harare, their trip to Israel will undoubtedly bring out the truth. But an Israeli response is delaying their departure.
Meanwhile, Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Srilal Weerasooriya, who returned from Singapore after taking part in the Pacific Heads of Armies Conference sponsored by the United States Army, effected a series of new changes. Major General Lionel Balagalle, Chief of Staff, who is Security Forces Commander, Wanni, is to return to Army Headquarters. He will now work in his substantial post as Chief of Staff. Taking his position as Security Forces Commander, Wanni, will be Major General Wasantha Perera. Maj. Gen. Perera was acting for Maj. Gen. Balagalle when he was away on a week long official trip to Hawaii, United States.
Major General Janaka Perera, Deputy Chief of Staff is to function as Commandant, Staff College, Batalanda. This is in addition to his role as Deputy Chief of Staff. Major General Anton Wijendra, who is now the Commandant, leaves next week for a stint at the National Defence College in Pakistan.
Major General Sarath Munasinghe, General Officer Commanding the Army's 54 Division is to retire from March, next year. The move has fuelled speculation that he will take up a top government post. Brigadier K.B. Egodawala, the Deputy GOC is likely to be elevated to take command of the 54 Brigade.
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