Friday, October 07, 2005

The 'safe house' controversy by Frederica Jansz

The mystery surrounding the army unit operating from a house at millennium city in Athurugiriya has deepened after revelations that Lohan Ratwatte has connections with a key member of the group and was in and out of the house.

The man in charge of the Tamil men found working out of this house with a unit of the Military Intelligence Directorate is a former PLOTE member by the name of Mohan alias Pillai - better known as 'PLOTE Mohan.'

A para military member working with the Sri Lanka Army has confirmed to The Sunday Leader that 'PLOTE Mohan' and Lohan Ratwatte have shared a close friendship for a considerable period of time.

Lohan Ratwatte frequently visited the house at Athurugiriya after it was rented on December 7, last year, in the company of Mohan. The visits were all done with the full knowledge of Captain Shahul Hameed Nilam who was in charge of the unit. The house was rented from Captain Nilam's wife, violating procedure laid down by the army.

Working on a tip-off

It was due to Lohan Ratwatte's frequent visits to the safe house and the close connection to Mohan that Superintendent of Police Kulasiri Udugampola, was tipped off that one of the Ratwatte sons could be hiding there. When SP Udugampola raided the house in search of the Ratwatte brothers who were evading arrest, he came across a cache of weapons including highly destructive thermobaric flame throwers.

The whole incident would have passed off without much notice if not for the abortive cover up by the Army Commander Lt. General Lionel Balagalle. General Balagalle claimed that this safe house was used by the top secret long range recce patrol unit, and those arrested were members of this unit who have been credited with successful assassinations of LTTE leaders in the north and east.

The army commander, calling them 'National Heroes,' complained that the police had exposed the identity of this unit. This false story was also 'sold' to the newly appointed Defence Minister Thilak Marapona, who ordered an end to the police investigation. This however was anything but the truth.

Mohan, a close friend of Lohan Ratwatte, was originally a member of PLOTE. He has been named by the Human Rights Commission as one of the people responsible for massacre of civilians in Vandaramulla. After leaving PLOTE in the early 1990s, Mohan and some other Tamil cadres belonging to the PLOTE, began free-lancing for the army's military intelligence unit. Mohan began carrying out various contract jobs in coordination with the army. The group of former rebels under 'PLOTE Mohan's' command has always operated out of Batticaloa town.

Turning a blind eye on lavish lifestyles

Mohan was enlisted as a private in the army later that year and he and his group were paid cash rewards by the SLA. The amount of money paid depended on the importance of the LTTE member assassinated. In the mid 1990s, the Mohan group began to earn a reputation for being involved in extorting and blackmailing traders in Batticaloa. Members of this group also began to lead lavish lifestyles that superseded the money they were paid by the army. The army, for reasons best known to themselves, decided to turn a blind eye on these activities by the Mohan group.

Some members of Tamil group's group told The Sunday Leader that they had met both Mohan and Lohan Ratwatte together. They said there were stories that Lohan Ratwatte and Mohan were involved in a protection racket and that the house in Athurugiriya was one such of the locations the protection racket was been operated.

One of the key players in the cover up of the Athurugiriya incident is Brigadier Kapila Hendawitharane, director of the military intelligence directorate of the army. Brigadier Hendawitharane was first introduced to Gen. Anuruddha Ratwatte by Lt. Col. M. D. Fernando. Fernando was sacked from the army in the 1970s by former president J. R. Jayewardene for allegedly attempting to do politics in the army. He was reinstated by the PA government in 1995. He wielded immense influence with General Ratwatte.

Brigadier Hendawitharane's close relationship to Lt. Col. Fernando helped matters. The brigadier is married to a niece of Colonel Fernando. Brigadier Hendawitharane was fully aware of what was going on at the house at Athurugiriya. The director, MI, has known Mohan for a period of over ten years and is aware that Mohan's group was never involved in the operations carried out by the long range recce patrol units of the special forces.

Brigadier H. K. G. Hendawitharane, on January 4, 2002, (two days after the police raid at Athurugiriya), wrote to the Investigating Officer of the Army, Gen. Ivan Dassanayake, stating that, "The arms, ammunition and other equipment issued to captain S. H. M. Nilam have been officially authorized by the director operations and the director military intelligence for the purpose of using them in covert operations in the uncleared areas of Batticaloa."

In the letter, the head of military intelligence further claims that captain Nilam has already returned part of the weapons, and was in the process of handing over the balance at the time of his arrest by the police on January 2, 2002. For added measure, he states that the commander of the army is of the opinion that exposing this officer and soldiers and their activities to the media would lead to a threat to their lives and will discourage army personnel from undertaking such operations in the future.

Hendawitharane asserts that this letter is being submitted on the directions of the commander of the army, in order to assist the investigating officers in the ongoing investigations. What is interesting in this letter is the information that has not been divulged to General Dassanayake. For instance, when were the weapons released to Captain Nilam? When were they taken to Batticaloa? When were they brought back to Colombo and when was the first batch of weapons handed back to the army from the alleged safe house? Common sense would dictate that Captain Nilam would have handed back the thermobaric launcher immediately, knowing fully well the strict controls imposed by the army on its use based on worries that it would fall into the hands of the LTTE.

Obviously, the letter was intended to block any serious investigation by General Ivan Dassanayake into the activities of the Athurugiriya unit. This tantamounts to interfering with the investigation and influencing the investigating officer even before he had begun his inquiry. (See box for letter).

The blatant lies and official pressure exerted on General Dassanayake not to proceed with any investigation raises the question as to what the army commander and the military intelligence chief are trying to hide. What needs to be ascertained is what exactly these men were doing at the Athurugiriya house fully armed with thermobaric and other arsenal sufficient to cause massive destruction.

The Sunday Leader has found that this was the first time four thermobaric weapons have been issued to members of the army outside an operational area. Not only was it issued to Captain Shahul Hameed Nilam's group to be stored at the house at Athurugiriya, one weapon had been fired at the army camp at Panaluwa, where three former LTTE members now working for the military intelligence were trained by the army to fire the weapon.

Thermobaric weapons target

The men had been told their target would be a large motorcade including a bus. However senior military officers in Batticaloa point out that the LTTE in the east travel solely by motorbike and double cabs. They do not travel in motor. March 4th, 2002

Courtesy : Sunday Leader(SLK)

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