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A scout ranger platoon leader checks his NVG prior to jump-off for another combat patrol during Balikatan Excercise with US special forces, Basilan Island, Southern Philippines .
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Karuna: Here’s the real story by Iqbal Athas

Despite Herath’s denial, Army gave ‘protective custody’ to Karuna and Govt. knew about it.

Most Sri Lankans were otherwise busy that Monday, April 12. With just a day to go for the Sinhala and Hindu New Year, the most widely observed holiday period, seasonal festivity took over from what turned out to be another "national pre occupation" - the internecine feuding in the Tiger guerrilla hierarchy.

Renegade eastern military commander Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan alias "Col" Karuna had suffered a humiliating defeat just three days before. Troops loyal to leader Velupillai Prabhakaran launched a simultaneous two pronged attack - one crossing the Verugal River and the other, a boat landing between the shores of Verugal and Kathiraveli. They were rapidly advancing to the southern reaches of the Batticaloa district.

That morning "Col" Karuna sat for a meeting with his senior cadres at his Thennaham base in Karadiyanaru, 26 kilometres north of the Batticaloa town. First he ran through a check list to ensure his cadres, who heeded his order to withdraw, had carried out instructions to destroy military hardware and demolish military structures. Then he told them why he chose not to go in for a confrontation. That was to save death and destruction to the people of the district.

With that over, most of those present were attending to personal chores. Hours later, dusk began to envelop the area. Three vans, one behind the other, drove in a row to the base. United National Front parliamentarian Ali Zahir Mowlana alighted from the first one, his personal vehicle. He shook "Col." Karuna's hands and a brief conversation ensued.

Thereafter, the renegade leader, clasping a small travel bag, boarded the van together with Mr Mowlana. Fifteen others, each carrying a travel bag, got into the two other vans. The group included Rabert, then Military Wing leader for Batticaloa district, Nilavini (Charlie Akka) then Women's Wing Military leader, Premini then Women's Wing Political Leader, Theenthamil, a senior Women's Wing commander and Lavanya, a female cadre.

The three van motorcade had begun a journey to Colombo under cover of darkness. With the dawn of the New Year just hours away, it was unimpeded by any hassle. There were no checkpoints or speed traps. Past the serene surroundings of Polonnaruwa, the only distraction was a couple of lone elephants on the edge of the highway along the Minneriya jungles.

The first stop was Dambulla Rest, a guest house at Dambulla. There some helped themselves to rice and curry whilst others ate short eats. Some of the staff at the guest house recognised "Col."Karuna. They were to later ring the media in Colombo to say he passed through in the company of a Government MP, a regular customer- a claim both "Col." Karuna and his party denied strongly to those who came in direct contact earlier. They spoke of taking a different route and making no stop-over. This was mentioned in these columns too. When the dinner was over, a member of the group was quick on the draw. He pulled out thousand rupee notes from a bundle and paid the bill. There were many other bundles in the hand bag.

As "Col. Karuna" joined Mr. Mowlana in his private van for the rest of the journey, their conversation turned to securing a safe place in Colombo for their stay. That was until he found a way of leaving Sri Lanka. "Don't worry. I will find you a safe place where there is security," the latter told him.

It was exactly midnight when the three van motorcade came to a halt at the JAIC Hilton, Sri Lanka's only apartment hotel at Union Place. Mr Mowlana registered "Col." Karuna and his group under his own name. Of course, he made clear; payment for the stay would be made by the occupants. Only "Col." Karuna and seven others (including the four females in the party) chose to stay at the JAIC Hilton. They were whisked off in a lift to the 22nd floor. There they went into two apartments, both offering a panoramic view of the City.

Eight others including Rabert left in the two vans to Hotel Janaki in Thimbirigasyaya. Just the next day, Police had arrived at this hotel following a tip off to check on the identities of those present. They left when nothing incriminating was found. Yet the Police party did not know that among the group whose identities they had checked was Rabert, until that week Tiger guerrilla "Military Commander" for the Batticaloa district. He was only known by his nom de guerre and that helped. His real identity, Subramaniam Kurukulasingham, gave the Police no clue. But fearing further intrusions by the Police, the group immediately dispersed from the hotel. (Situation Report - April 18)

Rabert later returned to Batticaloa to ensure the safety of his family. He was caught and taken to Wanni. It is now confirmed that he was interrogated and shot dead. His comrades-in-arms, Jim Kelly, Thaatha and Vishu, who had sought safety in Kurunegala had also later returned to Batticaloa on the lookout for their respective families. They were arrested too and taken to Wanni. They are also feared dead though there is no independent confirmation like in the case of Rabert.

I asked Ali Zahir Mowlana, National List MP of the UNF last Friday what made him play the role of guide and guardian to "Col." Karuna and party. He said he had known "Col." Karuna from his younger days and he had remained a close friend.

Here is the story in his words. "Karuna got in touch with me soon after the attacks on his men. He wanted to dismantle everything, avoid any confrontation to prevent bloodshed and leave the area. I asked him to contact the SLMM (Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission). He said he had no confidence in them since the SLMM had allowed the Wanni cadres to come to Batticaloa through Trincomalee for the attacks.”

"He wanted to go abroad. I said I could not help him in that. I said he could perhaps ask the Peace Secretariat. But this was holiday time. He wanted to get to Colombo before the Wanni cadres infiltrated the area and caused more bloodshed. I said let me give it a try.

" I am a Muslim and am always for peace. I don't know what courage I got. I brought him along with his party and deposited them in a safe place, a place where there was security. That was the JAIC Hilton. I did it with the best of intentions…I did it for the sake of peace…"

Mr Mowlana also disclosed that Thambirasa Ramesh who was summoned to Wanni to be named as "Overall military Commander" for Batticaloa-Ampara districts had made contact with him earlier. He said "Soon after the flare up, Ramesh telephoned me from Wanni and asked me whether I was in touch with Karuna. He knew I was friendly with him. I told him I did not know his whereabouts at that time. He then told me to pass a message to Karuna asking him to leave the country without causing any more trouble. I passed this message. It was much later that Karuna appealed to me to take him to Colombo."

However, Mr. Mowlana's letter of resignation as a National List MP gave a different version. In that he claimed he acted on the advice of Ramesh. Evidently Mr. Mowlana had figured out that JAIC Hilton was a secure location. Just across the road was Savsiripaya (the former Acland House), the state guest house where Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapakse occupied. Security around the area was tight. Further down the road, the Army had a detachment off Braybrooke Place.

The dinner at Dambulla Rest turned out to be a costly affair. Word spread that "Col." Karuna had arrived in Colombo. Media speculation about his whereabouts continued to mount. The Sunday Times (Situation Report - April 18) revealed he had "beat a hasty retreat to the South." Contradicting some media reports at that time, the Ministry of Defence (on April 15) denied that Karuna had been escorted into the City by armed Security Forces personnel.

The Ministry of Defence was right. It was parliamentarian Ali Zahir Mowlana, as confirmed now by his own admission, who had escorted "Col." Karuna and his men all the way from Batticaloa to Colombo. But a mystery began on April 16, the day after the MoD had issued the denial. After three days of stay at the JAIC Hilton, where they spent most of their time making mobile phone calls or watching TV, "Col." Karuna and his party had paid all their bills and vanished. Where did they suddenly disappear?

For weeks, the answer to this question came in the form of guessing games. For most in the security establishment and the Police, the question on their lips was "where is Karuna?" At least the leadership of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Kilinochchi had figured out the answer. Their intelligence channels had been active.

So much so, intelligence cadres and pistol gangs mounted searches for the renegade leader and his associates. (Situation Report - April 18). This became increasingly clear as some of "Col." Karuna's men were killed in the City. In other words the LTTE had established that their most wanted man was hiding somewhere in or near Colombo. Otherwise there was no need for them to pour large numbers in the form of hit squads into the City and suburbs. Many are the suspected locations these squads searched.

For 66 long days the guessing game over "Col." Karuna's whereabouts continued. But on Saturday (June 19), LTTE's "Overall Forces Commander" for Batticaloa-Amparai, Ramesh, declared dead by sections of the state media, appeared before a group of journalists to drop a bombshell. He declared "We have confirmed reports that the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) is giving shelter to Karuna and that the Sri Lanka military is trying to use him against the Liberation Tigers." He warned "if the Sri Lanka Government tries to wage war against us making use of Karuna, there will be serious repercussions and we will not hesitate to take appropriate action."

Ramesh said four Karuna faction women cadres including the Batticaloa-Amparai women's military wing leader Nilavini and Premini of the Political Wing had re-joined the LTTE. He announced that these women cadres would hold a news conference to disclose details about Karuna. The news conference took place last Monday. Reporting the event, the Tamilnet website said:

"A senior associate of the renegade LTTE commander Mr. Vinayagamoorthy Muraleetharan (Karuna) said Monday that she and other associates of Karuna stayed in a house provided and protected by the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) in a suburb of Colombo. Ms. Nilavini (Charlie), formerly the commander of the LTTE Womens' fighting formations in the Batticaloa-Amparai district who rejoined the Tigers on Friday 18 June spoke to the press Monday about the renegade LTTE commander's activities with the SLA since he fled Batticaloa on 11 April.

"Three of her female colleagues who returned to the LTTE on Friday were also present at the press meet in the LTTE conference centre Solayakam, about 18 km southwest of Batticaloa.

"She said that a high ranking official regularly visited Karuna for discussions at the SLA safe house in Colombo. According to Nilavini, UNP national list MP, Mr. Alisahir Moulana took Karuna and his associates personally in his own vehicle to Colombo when the renegade commander fled Batticaloa.

"We were first put up at the Colombo Hilton Hotel for three days. Thereafter we (including Karuna) stayed in a safehouse somewhere in Colombo for 7-8 days. Later, we were moved to another house by the SLA intelligence from which we could see the Apollo Hospital," said Nilavini.
"Varathan was also with us," she added.
"The Apollo Hospital is situated in the Colombo suburb of Narehenpita. The SLA has a camp in this area.

"Nilavini said on 13th June Karuna had told them that he was going abroad with his family and left the safe house the same day in a SLA vehicle.
"She said that following Karuna's departure she made a call to a relative in Batticaloa and escaped to the East with his help.
"She said her escape was possible because SLA security at the safe house was lax after the renegade commander's departure."

Another report in the Tamilnet, also on June 21, commenting on the revelations and quoting political sources in Colombo warned that the issue "is likely to raise serious doubts on the bona fides of the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and has introduced a potentially explosive component to prospects for peace."

The same report also quoted Defence Secretary, Cyril Herath, as telling the BBC Sinhala Service Sandeshaya that he denies totally the allegations by the LTTE that GOSL is providing shelter to Karuna. He said that these are just allegations and if the LTTE can provide evidence, the GOSL will investigate the matter. Prompting Sandeshaya to raise issue with Mr. Herath were news agency reports of the revelations made by the women cadres. The issue was now world news.

It is not immediately clear whether Nilavani and her three colleagues were arrested by a Tiger guerrilla hit team or surrendered voluntarily. The Sunday Times has learnt that there was no question of an escape because security at the so called safe house was lax. They had left on their own volition after pointing out they had "internal problems" and claimed there were two different locations elsewhere where they would be safe. Some of the other assertions made by them are also believed to be factually incorrect.

Mr. Mowlana said he was on his way to Nuwara Eliya with his family for a holiday when he heard of news reports about his involvement. "I returned to Colombo and took the decision to resign. I did not want to embarrass my leaders or my party," he said. He lamented that some news reports caused him great pain of mind though he helped "Col," Karuna on "humanitarian grounds." He added "I am already suffering. My mother is crying. My wife is worried. My children are being humiliated in school."

All this generated more media interest. When Cabinet spokesman and Media Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, chaired his weekly briefing after Wednesday's Cabinet meeting, he faced a barrage of questions. A BBC report on Thursday gives an idea of how the story played in world capitals:

"The Sri Lankan Government has admitted members of the army helped a top rebel defector escape and wage a covert war of attrition against the Tamil Tigers.

"The Information Minister Mangala Samaraweera said an informal inquiry was being held into the incident. He described it as "rather disturbing" and an attempt to sabotage the peace process……

"After repeated denials from the army that they had anything to do with Colonel Karuna, the information minister has now admitted military personnel were involved. However, he stressed this was without the knowledge of the Government."

The BBC report also quoted Mr. Samaraweera as saying "Obviously, there have been military personnel involved. I mean that we cannot deny, but not with the knowledge or connivance of the government."

A harsher account appeared in the Tamilnet. A report on June 24 said: "Contradicting Defence Secretary Cyril Herath who denied Monday that Sri Lanka Army (SLA) gave shelter to renegade commander Muralitharan (alias Karuna), Information Minister of the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) government, Mangala Samaraweera, admitted to the BBC today that the SLA helped Karuna "escape and wage a covert war of attrition against the Tamil Tigers" according to a BBC report from Colombo…….”

On Wednesday night, hours after his remarks at the media briefing, The Sunday Times learnt Defence Secretary Herath spoke to Minister Samaraweera. This prompted the Office of the Cabinet Spokesman to repeat Mr Samaraweera's earlier assertion at the news conference in a press release. It said the Media Minister "did not admit to the authorized involvement of the Sri Lankan military in the Karuna issue as alleged. He said the Government is inquiring into the possibility, to ascertain if some individual elements in the Army were involved in the issue."

It was too late. The wire services had already moved out what he said at the news conference. And that has been printed or broadcast by many foreign media. Minister Samaraweera's remarks at the news conference over the Karuna affair as well as the subsequent news release on the same matter appears in a box story.

One would have thought the assertions of the Government Spokesman and Media Minister would end all speculation. In the former capacity, he spells out Government policy and position. In the latter he is responsible for the country's media. But that was not to be. Deputy Defence Minister, Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, who was on his first official visit to Army Headquarters on Thursday (accompanied by Defence Secretary Herath) later spoke to the media present there. He said the Army had no connection at all in helping Karuna to escape from the East or thereafter. The allegations against the Army on Karuna were totally false and added that false propaganda was spread by those who are against the Government in reaching a settlement on the ethnic crisis.

Another Cabinet Minister, Douglas Devananda, leader of the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP), a constituent partner of the UPFA revealed to The Hindu newspaper in Chennai that he was in touch with "Col." Karuna on the telephone. Even if some of his colleagues in the Cabinet were unaware or were making contradictory statements, here was Mr. Devananda keeping in touch with the renegade leader.

The many contradictory statements showed that even eight months after the defence portfolio was brought under the President, matters in this vital sector that concerns the nation's national security interests are still in disarray. Whose version is the truth? Is it the one brought out by Defence Secretary Herath, Government Spokesman and Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera or the Deputy Defence Minister (and a former Prime Minister) Ratnasiri Wickrem-anayake?

The Sunday Times is able to reveal today that the Army did provide "protective custody" to "Col." Karuna and his party. The fact that such protection was given to him and his cadres was brought to the attention of the authorities concerned, investigations by The Sunday Times revealed. They were fully aware. But this was after "Col." Karuna and his group had sought and obtained "protection."

However, The Sunday Times learnt that a serious situation arose during the period when they were in protective custody. This was when men loyal to "Col." Karuna continued a string of violent attacks on cadres loyal to the Wanni leadership. This infuriated the senior UPFA leaders. They contended they were completely unaware of such actions and charged some sections in the Army of unilaterally aiding or abetting "Col." Karuna's group. Their fury was compounded by the fact that they were engaged in desperate moves to re-start the peace process. The Army hierarchy, The Sunday Times learnt, had strongly denied the allegations of complicity by any officer or other rank in the Army in any of the attacks and insisted that the misapprehensions had no basis.

The Sunday Times learnt this was one of the main reasons why the Army's Chief of Staff, Major General Shantha Kottegoda was appointed Overall Operations Commander (East) and posted to Batticaloa district. His main brief was to bring the situation under control by dealing firmly with anyone in the armed forces suspected of any involvements. That way the UPFA leadership wanted to send a strong message to the LTTE leadership that it did not in any way support or condone the attacks on their members in the East, particularly the Batticaloa district.

To be promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General, Shantha Kottegoda will take over as Commander of the Sri Lanka Army from Thursday (July 1). His appointment was confirmed by President Kumaratunga on Friday following a meeting with Defence Secretary Herath. He takes over from Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle, who was also Chief of Defence Staff (CDS).

A move to appoint Navy Commander Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri as Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), since he is the senior most serving armed forces commander, has been put on hold. After Lt. Gen. Balagalle's retirement, the post of CDS is to remain vacant until President Kumaratunga finally determines whether the post should go to a retired Army officer or be rotated as expected earlier. Some senior retired officers have lobbied that the post of CDS should always be an Army appointment.

The fact that the defence establishment has been in disarray since it was brought under the President on November 4 last year has been repeatedly highlighted in these columns. For more than six months, there was no Deputy Minister in charge. President Kumartunga, who took over the defence portfolio from then UNF Government on grounds of "deteriorating national security", had to cope with the pressures of office in the Presidency. Hence matters were placed in the hands of a retired Police Chief, Cyril Herath though known to be a man of integrity, but has had no experience in matters military.

If the Tiger guerrillas have stepped up recruitment and are inducting more weaponry to build a stronger military machine, the battle preparedness of the armed forces has hit a new low. Their equipment needs have not been met. Whilst no blueprint or plans are on hand to improve them, priority attention seems to be on training troops for peace keeping operations abroad. There has been no proper action plan or strategy to deal with a crisis situation. For obvious reasons many of these setbacks and the worrying situations that have arisen cannot be spelt out.

But today, as some of the recent events show, it is not only battle preparedness that becomes essential. Equally important, if not more, is the need to maintain the relative peace that exists due to the ceasefire. It cannot be done by a defence establishment that has been allowed to drift with no sense of direction. Ad hoc remedies and accusing others for all the sins will be of no avail. Decisive measures to clean up all arms of the defence establishment are the need of the hour.

It is not only through these and other measures that the UPFA can avoid creating suspicions about their bona fides and ensure the peace process remains on track. Must one say that the much talked of transparency is still lacking or non existent as the UPFA continues to remain embroiled in a crisis of credibility.

Karuna affair: The Mangala muddle
Cabinet Spokesman and Media Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, dealt with the Karuna affair during the media briefing he held after the Cabinet meeting last Wednesday. Here are edited excerpts of what he said:
"The duplicity of Mr. Ranil Wickremasinghe and the United National Party stands exposed today for all to judge in the face of the confession made by one of the female cadres of the LTTE who was with Karuna for some time.

"In this so called Karuna affair, it is now extremely clear that Mr. Ranil Wickremasinghe has played a key role through Mr. Ali Zahir Mowlana, who was advisor to the Prime Minister for two years during the UNP Government. Therefore it is obvious that he has used Mr. Mowlana to help Karuna's exit from the east while encouraging the parallel policy of carrying out a media campaign to accuse the Alliance of working with Karuna to endanger the peace process with the LTTE.

"Now Mr. Wickremasinghe is trying to wriggle out of the situation by getting Mr. Mowlana to resign. He was appointed as a National List member by passing several other senior members. He was appointed to the post for his services to the UNP.

"At this stage I wish to state categorically again and again that the Government officially has had no direct or indirect involvement with the breakaway LTTE faction. The Government is committed to the peace process and we will not do anything which endangers the peace process. I would like to re-iterate our commitment to implement the Ceasefire Agreement. And any problems which may arise can be solved through negotiations by the principal parties involved.

"We see this whole episode as an internal problem of the LTTE and we believe that their internal problems can be solved without fighting." Question: Aren't reports that the Army helped Karuna disturbing?

Answer: Perhaps you are right. It is disturbing but I have mentioned that the Government was not officially involved directly or indirectly in the Karuna affair. According to an editorial in Sudar Oli ( a Tamil daily), editorial, that even the security forces escorting the Tamil National Alliance MPs against Karuna was engineered by Ali Zahir Mowlana. So there is a possibility that there may have been certain security forces personnel working in their personal capacity along with Mr. Mowlana.

Question: Is this matter being investigated?
Answer: We are conducting an investigation ourselves. We are looking into the whole Karuna affair to see whether there are any security lapses. Karuna's whereabouts have not been informed to the Government or to the relevant people.

Question: Has an offer of safe passage for Karuna been made by the Government earlier stand?
Answer: Our position is that any citizen should be provided security. That is a duty of a government. If you tell that you are under threat, we will provide the security.

Question: Are you concerned about the possibility of fighting breaking out between the two groups?
Answer: It is an internal problem. We do not want to see any fighting.

Question: Do you consider Karuna's group military or political?
Answer: We consider him as a breakaway faction of the LTTE. The LTTE is a military organisation.
Later on Wednesday night, the Office of the Cabinet Spokesman also issued a press release. This is what it said:

"Information and Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera this morning explained to the media the Government's position on the Karuna issue at a briefing held at the Department of Information in Colombo.

"The Minister wishes to reiterate that he did not admit to the authorised involvement of the Sri Lankan military in the Karuna issue as alleged. He said the Government is inquiring into the possibility, to ascertain if some individual elements in the Army were involved in the issue.
"He said the Government is committed to the Ceasefire Agreement and will not jeopardize the peace process."