Monday, October 18, 2004

LRRP: Secret agency swirls in mystery by Iqbal Athas

Located somewhere near the borders of Tiger guerrilla dominated Wanni, it was only known as "Training Headquarters." That again was by a select few who were associated with it. They knew its significance and importance but kept it a "top secret."

To others who saw it occasionally from a distance, it looked just another building where troops were billeted. No one raised questions. No one offered to explain either. The area was out of bounds to all but a handful.

In the recent weeks word spread, from ear to ear, in the military hierarchy about this "Training Headquarters." They were only talking in whispers at the Mess Halls or during one on one chats.

Their attention had been drawn after reports that the Army's Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols (LRRPs), the prized units that were dreaded by Tiger guerrillas, had been disbanded. It was not so.

I said last week that contrary to such reports, "Some two months ago, Army Commander Lt. Gen. (Shantha) Kottegoda relieved Major General Gamini Hettiaratchi, a highly respected officer with a proven track record, from training any more Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols (LRRP). Painstakingly he had raised more than 35 such units in the recent past after putting the men through rigorous training.

I added: "The hand picked men were from the Army's Commando Brigade and Special Forces Brigade. Whether Lt. Gen. Kottegoda took the decision to stop LRRP training on orders from above or on his own is not clear. Those under training were consequently asked to revert to their respective units."

These comments in The Sunday Times last week came on the very day Sri Lanka Army was marking their 55th anniversary. Last Sunday morning Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Kottegoda, arrived at Army Headquarters in full ceremonial regalia. There was a guard turn out. He was then received there by Major General Sunil Tennekoon, Security Forces Commander, Jaffna. That was in his capacity as Colonel Commandant of the Artillery Regiment. His men were according a guard of honour to their chief.

Thereafter he walked towards the Army Headquarters building to be received by Chief of Staff, Major General Chula Seneviratne. The latter conducted him to a dais in the nearby lawn from where Lt. Gen. Kottegoda addressed troops. Seated in the front rows were members of the clergy whose blessings he received earlier. Later, it was time to partake in Kiribath and sweetmeats with those present. All ranks and representatives of the media were present.

A reporter asked Lt. Gen. Kottegoda whether he had disbanded the LRRPs or stopped training. He responded angrily "I am not mad to do such a thing. Not in my wildest dreams…." He said their existence is very essential and these men were still being trained.

Lt. Gen. Kottegoda was worried his remarks on that occasion, reflected in some media, tended to give the impression that they were part of his address to troops. That would have amounted to an official admission by an Army Commander before all his troops about covert LRRP activity and the targets they accomplish. "I did not tell that to the troops. I have the tape and you can check it out if you want," he told The Sunday Times. But he insisted what he told reporters at the traditional Kiribath interlude was "absolutely correct." The LRRPs have not been disbanded and training activity was continuing. "There is no change in this," he said.

Despite Lt. Gen. Kottegoda's assertion, the whisper campaign about the "Training Headquarters" had grown louder after last week's disclosure in The Sunday Times (Situation Report) that training activity had been halted. As word spread, it became clear that this headquarters had been closed down and more questions were now being raised.

What was this "Training Headquarters" and why was it important? It was the nerve centre or the higher command from where all LRRP activities were directed and controlled. As the name "training" implied, it was also the nerve centre from where such activity was carried out. Though this headquarters has been closed down, The Sunday Times will not reveal where it was located. Installed there were computers that contained highly classified information about guerrilla activity, operational records and many other vital data. It was hooked on line to an intelligence agency in Colombo. The staff maintained other records.

This "Training Headquarters" came directly under the charge of Maj. Gen. Hettiaratchi. He located himself there until he was moved out to Anuradhapura as General Officer Commanding the Army's 21 Division. Thereafter, he was still responsible for this higher command of the LRRPs.

The demise of this "Training Headquarters" came on August 20 this year. It was spelt out very inconspicuously in the middle of a two page list of "FUNCTIONAL CHANGES TO THE ARMY ESTABLISHMENTS AND REDEPLOYMENT - G/OPS/250/GEN (54)." Dated 18th August 2004 and signed by then Director General - General Staff, Major General Parami Kulatunga it was distributed to 12 different Army establishments.

Pointing out that the Army Commander has approved functional changes for establishments and redeployment of troops with effect from August 20, 2004, a one liner from Maj. Gen. Kulatunga simply said "Training HQ at (name withheld) to be suppressed." That meant the closure of the "Training Headquarters." This was how Maj. Gen. Hettiaratchi who was charged with the training LRRP groups was relieved of his responsibilities in this regard.

I erred last week in saying that LRRP men who were under training at the time of the closure were asked to revert to their respective units. By the time orders for the closure arrived the last batch had completed their training and had been posted elsewhere like other groups. The correct position is that two Majors and 37 soldiers attached to the "Training Headquarters" have been reverted to various other units or assigned to senior officers. This higher command is no more. Acquisition of additional equipment, for which Government approval was granted, (as referred to in these columns last week) has been put on hold. This is reportedly on the basis that existing equipment is now sufficient.

Any further comments on developments that followed cannot be made. That could endanger national security interests. However, one thing that could be said is that training has been revived and the concept of operating LRRP groups in an hour of need has not been abandoned.

These developments came amidst several events that seriously dented the Army's image in the public eye. Paradoxical enough, even the senior officer tasked to protect and promote that image could do little. He was also one of the causes.

The number four in the Army's chain command, Major General Sisira Wijesuriya, was arraigned before the Colombo Chief Magistrate, Kusala Sarojini Wijewardena, by officials of the Permanent Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption. After an investigation into his assets, the Commission has alleged that he could not account for Rs 1.9 million. The Court released him on bail after he pleaded not guilty.

Maj. Gen. Wijesuriya was the Director-General - General Staff (DGGS) in the Army. He was to have gone on retirement on February 2, next year. It was only on October 5, he made a presentation at the last meeting of the National Security Council on the need to procure 98 more Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) for the Army in the next five years. The move was shot down by President Kumaratunga since it would have cost the Government a colossal more than Rs 20 billion. This was revealed exclusively in The Sunday Times (Situation Report) last week.

As is the practice under such situations, Army Commander Lt. Gen. Kottegoda, relieved him of his official responsibilities and attached him to Army Headquarters. Maj. Gen.Susil Chandrapala, until then Commandant of the Sri Lanka Volunteer Force was named to the top slot as the new DGGS. Another top slot, due to fall vacant on October 31 this year is the post of Military Secretary. This is when Maj. Gen. K.B. Egodawala retires. Maj. Gen. Udeni Munasinghe, who was promoted to his rank in June, is likely to take this post.

A move to suspend Maj. Gen. Wijesuriya from service, an administrative requirement under such circumstances, was to again reveal the poor state of affairs in the Ministry of Defence. A letter from Lt. Gen. Kottegoda seeking the sanction of the Ministry arrived but there was much confusion. Defence Secretary, Cyril Herath was away in France. Additional Secretary, Sunil Sirisena, who was acting found that in a similar case in the Navy, two officers were continuing to serve though they had been granted bail by Courts. Six months ago, Commander of the Navy (and now Chief of Defence Staff) Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri had written to the Ministry of Defence seeking approval for their suspension. The Ministry had forwarded the letter for an opinion from the Attorney General's Department but there had been no follow up action.

Last Thursday they hurriedly consulted the Attorney General's Department and were advised that regulations warranted suspension. Soon a letter was prepared recommending to President Kumaratunga, who is Minister of Defence, that Maj. Gen. Wijesuriya be suspended. A similar recommendation was also made in respect of the two Navy officers. Her response is being awaited tomorrow.

In the case of the Navy, Commodore Sarath Fernando, head of Dental services and Lt. Cmdr. C. Jayawardena were investigated by the CID. They were later produced in Court and bailed out for allegedly accepting gold coins from the now defunct Pramuka Bank. Both have denied the charge. That had come about after depositing in this bank money from the Officers' Benevolent Fund. This is a non public fund to which contributions are made by officers in the Navy. Commodore Fernando has been the President of this fund.

One of the two Navy officers, now facing suspension, has an added problem. In view of a delay on the part of the Ministry of Defence to respond, he was sent on a training course abroad. This was after he was found eligible. But senior Navy officials had made sure he signed a written undertaking he would repay all costs connected with this course if he was suspended from service.

A second shock for the Army came in the same week when Military Spokesman, Colonel Sumedha Perera, was named the third accused in a case of forgery before the Colombo High Court. He is charged with aiding and abetting forgery. Lt. Gen. Kottegoda has now recommended that he be suspended from service forthwith. Here again the recommendation now awaits President Kumaratunga's formal approval.

Earlier, when The Sunday Times (May 30 2004) front paged a report headlined "Military Spokesman, ex BASL Secretary face forgery charges over land deal", Col. Perera was questioned about it by then Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle. He claimed in writing to him though there was a case, he had been told by an official in the Attorney General's Department that no indictments would be served against him. But that has now turned out to be false.

The matter was allowed to rest there and Army Headquarters did not check then with the Attorney General's Department. However, soon after indictments were served on him last Wednesday, they were consulted and were advised to recommend immediate suspension. Col. Daya Ratnayake currently Commander of the 232 Brigade (in Valachchenai) is expected to be named as the new Military Spokesman.

In terms of regulations governing the armed forces, officers placed on suspension are not entitled to any facilities including vehicles and escorts. They are also not entitled to pay. All military installations are out of bounds for them.

Just the week before his suspension, Col. Sumedha Perera was at the centre of another controversy at Army Headquarters. This was after Maj. Gen. Sivali Wanigasekera, Commandant, Army Staff College (and Regminental Commander, Gajaba) had met Lt. Gen. Kottegoda with a plaque that was to be placed at the newly built swimming pool of the Gajaba regimental headquarters in Saliyapura, Anuradhapura.

The plaque named a leading businessman, the largest importer of spirits for the manufacture of liquor, for the donation he had made to build the pool. He had donated Rs. 8 million. It had also named Col. Perera, then Centre Commandant in Saliyapura but the plaque had carried his title as "Director Media." Maj. Gen. Wanigasekera had argued this should be placed not only because Col. Perera was instrumental in obtaining the donation but would also be an encouragement to other officers. But Lt. Gen. Kottegoda had wanted the matter reviewed.

There has also been a spate of other incidents involving middle and junior level officers. Last week Police arrested Major Anuruddha Wijebahu of the 215 Brigade in Mannar for a spate of vehicle robberies and other unlawful acts. As one senior serving officer remarked, there was prompt and harsh punishment when it came to a solider. But in dealing with officers, the bureaucratic machinery has broken down and action was not forthcoming. As a result, it led to morale problems, he pointed out.

These events only demonstrate the urgent need to promptly streamline the country's defence establishment, from the Ministry of Defence to the armed forces. That should be a task of priority for President Kumarartunga, Minister of Defence and Commander-in-chief to immediately arrest the deteriorating trend and inspire greater public confidence. A delay can mean disaster.

India out? Palaly project not patch up work
A delay in foreign help prompted the Government to decide to go ahead with the rehabilitation of the runway of the Sri Lanka Air Force base in Palaly on its own.

The decision was made by the Cabinet on Wednesday, October 6. This was on a recommendation made by President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. Before this decision, India was one of the countries that offered help.

As earlier scheduled, an Indian delegation will arrive in Colombo to further discuss help for modernisation of the Palaly airport, Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar told The Sunday Times. He said "this offer is still open but we (the Government) want to get it going because we cannot delay it any further."

He was commenting on last week's report in these columns about the Government's decision to go ahead.

The Sunday Times learns that a delegation from the Indian Ministry of Defence will arrive in Colombo next week to discuss many aspects of the proposed Defence Co-operation Agreement with Sri Lanka. One such aspect is the modernisation of the Palaly airport. The main component of this is the rehabilitation of the runway. Its deterioration prompted the need for modernisation.

The offer of Indian help is conditional on a categorical undertaking that the airport is for the exclusive use of the Government of Sri Lanka and India. The key factor in this is the runway. If it is rehabilitated at full cost by the Government using its own funds, the need to give such a guarantee does not arise. The runway can be used by any party with the express approval of the Government. Agreement on this matter has to be arrived at with India before April, next year, the period by which the Government wants to commence work. There is no issue over modernisation work relating to other areas in the airport like terminal buildings and other structures. Expertise and technical know how for such work are also available locally.

It is unlikely the UPFA Government will be in a position provide a guarantee to India that it will not allow all others, except India, the use of the airport. In fact the previous United National Front Government (UNF) that was instrumental in soliciting the Indian offer of help was opposed to such an undertaking. Their position was re-iterated again in New Delhi last week by Leader of the Opposition, Ranil Wickremasinghe during talks with Indian leaders.

After the report in these columns last week, the Commander of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF), Air Marshal Donald Perera, has given what is billed as an "exclusive" interview to the Colombo Correspondent of India's respected Hindustan Times. Claiming media reports were wrong (only The Sunday Times reported it), the Air Force chief has declared the Government was going "to do some patch up work only" on the Palaly air base runway. "We have no expertise to undertake any major upgradation (sic)..," he was quoted as saying. But his Commander-in-Chief, President Kumaratunga, does not think so. Her Cabinet Memorandum speaks about the use of local expertise and the need to use them further. So who is right?

This news report placed some Colombo based Correspondents for Indian media in a spin. One representing a leading news agency, who reported the original The Sunday Times story, was called upon by his head office in New Delhi to explain why he filed a wrong report. He hit back that the Air Force Chief of Sri Lanka was ignorant of a decision made at the highest levels, the Cabinet. He said he had confirmation from the Government. The Indian news agency man knew whom to ask and got it right. If Air Marshal Perera's claim is correct, that "patch up work" is at a cost of Rs 360 million, (exactly Rs 356,945,800 without VAT). So much of money being used for "patch up work" when there is "a lack of expertise?" He is wrong and is blissfully unaware of the factual position.

It is not clear whether this "exclusive" interview was granted by the Air Force Commander after prior clearance from the Ministry of Defence. This is the practice in every country including India. Without such permission, service chiefs in Sri Lanka have remained debarred from granting interviews to the foreign media. If he did obtain approval, Air Marshal Perera would have certainly been better informed. Such clearance is granted on the basis of the subject matter on which the interview is sought. More importantly he would have avoided colossal embarrassment to President Kumaratunga, her Government, to the country, to himself and to the Air Force he commands. How much more hilarious or tragic can things become?

As Commander of the Air Force, Air Marshal Donald Perera, the "exclusive" interview reveals, is unaware that his own Commander-in-Chief, his own Minister of Defence and the President sought Cabinet approval not for "patch up work." She told her Ministers last week "the runway needs to be completely rehabilitated and resurfaced to restore it back to its original condition." To do so, she recommended the services of local state agencies for consultation and construction work. How could this happen if as Air Marshal Perera claims "they lacked expertise?"

Whilst the Indian offer is "still open," Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, who is pursuing the proposed Defence Co-operation Agreement with India, makes clear the Government cannot "delay any longer." And President Kumaratunga's Cabinet Memorandum that was approved by her Ministers sets out the correct facts, some of which are based on what Air Marshal Donald Perera, had brought to her attention earlier on. Here is what President Kumaratunga told her Ministers:

Rehabilitation of the Runway at Sri Lanka Air Force Palaly
1. The runway of the Palaly airport is 2300m long 75m wide. The effective width for resurfacing is 50m. The runway at Palaly airport has been extensively used since the commencement of hostilities in the North and served to be the lifeline to the North over the years. During occupation of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), heavier aircrafts such as IL76 used this runway and Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) too has been using this runway extensively and has resulted in it being deteriorated to a great extent making it unsafe to landing of aircrafts.

2. Over the years, the SLAF maintained the runway utilizing the resources available. But with the induction of heavier aircrafts such as the C-130, the runway needs to be completely rehabilitated and resurfaced to restore it back to its original condition.

3. It is observed that many of the aircrafts operating in and out Palaly are experiencing cracks on vital components, which are both expensive to replace, and poses a flight safety hazard. Analysis of these cracks over a period of time has clearly revealed that they have occurred due to the deteriorated runway conditions at Palaly. Further the unscheduled "Grounding" of aircrafts, which occur due to the runway condition, hampers the smooth air transport operations of the SLAF and costs a large amount of money for the rectification. Therefore, it is essential that this runway is repaired to ensure continuous air operations to the North.

4. Preliminary investigations were carried out by the Research & Development Division (R&DD) of Road Development Authority (RDA) for re-surfacing of the existing runway and its shoulders. Based on the investigations made, RDA has recommended to improve the surface condition of the runway and the underlying surface to ensure prolonged use.

5. On a directive given by me to the Ministry of Defence, M/s Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau (CECB) which is a government owned institute has been nominated as the Consultant and Contractor for this project.

6. The improvements to be carried out to the runway has been studied by a team of Engineers from CECB, who have recommended three alternative methods of construction as appended below while the total cost estimates (TCE) for all three methods are shown in Annex 'A'.

(a) Alternative 1 - Laying of 75mm minimum overlay and use Aggregate Base Course (ABC) for correction layers.

(b) Alternative 2 - Adoption of alternative 1 with 100m thick Bitumen Bound Base (BBB)

(c) Alternative 3 - Construction of all three laying using Bitumen Bound Base (Correction Layer, base course, surfacing)

7. The Commander of the Air Force and SLAF's Civil Engineers analyzed the three (3) alternatives and accepted the Alternative proposal 1, which consists of underlying layer, correction layer and minimum of 75mm asphalt overlay. Due to financial constraints it was decided to withhold the construction of drains which will reduce the total cost by Rs. 51 million.

8. CECB has requested to make available the abandoned Cement Corporation quarry site at KKS for extraction of limestone.

9. CECB's mobilization period to commence this project is six (6) months and the construction period is twelve (12) months.

10. Since CECB has agreed to expedite the project without keeping a profit margin the cost involved for the alternative proposal '1' will be Rs. 360 million without 15% VAT as indicated at Annex 'B'.

11. I agree with the recommendations made by the Commander of the Air Force to accept Alternative 1 and hence approval of the Cabinet of Ministers is sought to -

(a) award the Consultation and Construction of the Runway Project at Palaly to CECB at a total cost of Rs. 360 million without 15% VAT.

(b) incur the expenditure by the SLAF with regard to transportation of men, materials and machinery from Colombo to Palaly air base and back to Colombo on the completion of project by the CECB.

(c) treasury to provide required funds of Rs. 360 million for the implementation of this project and actual cost incurred for the transportation.

(d) to utilize the Cement Corporation quarry site at KKS for extraction of limestone.

(e) the project management to be carried out by a team of CECB Engineers and SLAF Civil Engineers throughout the work process.

(f) to pay 20% of mobilization advance to the Contractor, M/s CECB.

(g) payments for the contact to be made on measure and pay basis.

(h) exemption of 15% of VAT by the Treasury.

Sgd: Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga
President and Minister of Defence
Air Marshal Perera has also denied any US offer of help. Although the US has not come up with a firm proposal, The Sunday Times has learnt from authoritative sources that informal offers of help were indeed made. It was, however, not pursued. Here again, he seems ignorant.

Homeguards freed in ‘prisoner swap’ by Sinniha Gurunathan and A.T.M. Gunanada

The long-awaited prisoner swap between the Government and the Tiger guerillas -- the release of two homeguards in return for ten guerillas in remand custody -- took place in Trincomalee yesterday.

The LTTE handed over the two homeguards, Sarath Bandara and Chandada Piyasiri, to Trincomalee-based SLMM monitors. The duo had been in custody for 68 days. Later, the SLMM who escorted them out of Sampur formally produced them before Minister Maithripala Sirisena, Presidential Secretary W. J. S. Karunaratne and Public Security Ministry Secretary Tilak Ranaviraja at the Navy House in the Dockyard in Trincomalee. From there, the homeguards spoke to President Chandrika Kumaratunga on the telephone.

Coinciding with their freedom, ten LTTE cadres from the Batticaloa jail were released. They had been remanded for various criminal offences coming under the Offensive Weapons Act. The ten were released on cash bail last Thursday. In a tit-for-tat move, the Tigers say they had also imposed what they called a cash bail on the homeguards.

A guerrilla 'court' imposed a Rs. 100,000 bail on each of them, but eventually the LTTE informed them that on humanitarian grounds the payment would not be required. They also wanted a person living in the LTTE-controlled area to sign as surety, but since nobody came forward, LTTE's Trincoamalee district political leader Elilan signed.

They were also told to appear at the Sampur police station on November 26, but later Elilan informed them it would not be necessary to appear in courts. The two homeguards and their families were later taken to the location where their relatives and members of the North East Sinhala Association were waiting.

Hours before the release, Elilan had come to the site where the relatives of the homeguards and members of the NESA had been carrying on a protest and assured them of the release.

He told them that since a Batticaloa court on Thursday had released ten LTTE cadres on cash bail, the LTTE would do the same for the homeguards. But he added that the LTTE was willing to pay the cash bail if the homeguards' families did not have the money.

Elilan told the relatives that the LTTE had been trying to work out a compromise for the release of the homeguards since they were taken in on August 10, but the government had not agreed.

Elilan invited the relatives and members of the NESA to accompany him to where the homeguards were being held but they wanted an assurance from the SLMM.

The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission which was widely criticised for being unable to exert pressure on the LTTE said yesterday that it had displayed its toughest stand with the LTTE on this matter.

SLMM Deputy Chief Hagrup Haukland told The Sunday Times that the formal communication sent by the SLMM to the LTTE Theoretician Anton Balasingham was a final warning and was 'strongly worded'.

"We are not happy with the way the LTTE is doing things. We have been stern in our communication and informed the LTTE that we wanted an immediate response. Yesterday we had a pledge made by the LTTE Political Wing leader, S.P. Thamilselvan that the home guards would be released at the earliest," the SLMM Deputy Head said.

"We have sent a strong worded letter to them. It is clear that they have gone back on their word. We expect an immediate response from them and we have told them so," he added.