A warning went out that a group of Tiger guerrillas had arrived in the city from Batticaloa. Their mission – to carry out reconnaissance to identify members of the now well known Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols (LRRP), or deep penetration groups, that have carried out attacks inside guerrilla dominated territory.
Since a "cessation of hostilities" between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is now in force, the task of the group, a senior Intelligence official says, is not to carry out assassinations. He believes it is to identify those responsible, their addresses and other details. "They want to be ready to take on those targets if an opportunity arises," he adds.
He may be right in his assessment. But that is not to say that in the past the LTTE has not carried out attacks when a ceasefire or "cessation of hostilities" has been in force.
On July 13, 1989, the leader of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), and then Parliamentarian Appapillai Amirthalingam, was assassinated by an armed group. This occurred when President Ranasinghe Premadasa was locked in peace talks with the LTTE. The latter strongly denied allegations that its cadres were involved.
That phase of the negotiations broke down in June, 1990 triggering off "Eelam War Two." Later, Anton Balasingham, now LTTE's chief negotiator, admitted publicly that the guerrillas had assassinated Mr. Amirthalingam. That came during talks which were bi-lateral. However, this time, Norway is playing the role of a facilitator and has obtained assurances, both from the Government and the guerrillas, not only to ensure the truce holds but also to formally incorporate it into a full fledged ceasefire agreement.
But the reason for the presence of the guerrilla group from the east in Colombo is the direct outcome of the Police raid on the Army's Safe House at Athurugiriya on January 2. The sequence of events that followed was to formally confirm the existence of Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols and their activities.
Operations by LRRPs, or deep penetration groups, is not confined only to a single apparatus in the Army. There are in fact three distinct units, each specialising in infiltrating enemy lines and carrying out devastating attacks. But only the activities of the Army's Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI), one of the organs that directed and controlled LRRP operations, came to light following the raid on the Safe House at Athurugiriya. This was a "rear base" for the DMI's long range patrol units. They also had "forward operations bases" in secret locations in the east from where they ventured out to take targets in guerrilla held areas.
In the coming weeks, the Supreme Court, the nation's highest judicial institution, will hear details about how the DMI's long range patrols operated, how they took on targets and continued to maintain secrecy until the ill conceived Police raid on the Safe House blew it all. An officer and four soldiers have filed different Fundamental Rights violation petitions where they have given hitherto top secret details of how they operated and what happened to them. Some of the highlights in the petitions appeared in The Sunday Times last week though names of those involved were withheld in view of the serious security threats it would pose them. However, some sections of the media, of course unwittingly, gave the names of those concerned when reporting that they had filed petitions in the Supreme Court.
While the cases of the DMI's heroes are awaiting hearings from the Supreme Court, Tiger guerrillas have embarked on a massive witch hunt to round up those helping the LRRP team of DMI. At least three of them have been summarily executed. That included a boatman, who under cover of darkness, helped ferry LRRP teams across a river in Manmunai (Batticaloa) to guerrilla controlled areas. Hundreds of families in uncontrolled areas in the Batticaloa district are being questioned by guerrilla cadres to ascertain whether they helped the LRRP teams. Those identified face instant death. It is in this backdrop that the guerrilla group from Batticaloa has entered the City.
The actions of two specialised Army apparatus dealing with Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols still remain a top secret. Some of their prized achievements, which are bold and daring, cannot be revealed. However, in the case of the DMI, the activities of its own LRRP teams have become privy to the LTTE after the raid on the Safe House at Athurugiriya. In the coming weeks, more details will become public when the Supreme court begins hearings. How does the Military Intelligence directorate's LRRP teams operate ? How have they acquired targets ? What are the dangers they face ?
The answers came in an exclusive The Sunday Times interview with a member of the LRRP team. He spoke on grounds of strict anonymity. For obvious reasons, some of the remarks he made had to be withheld. Yet the story he related rings true to the motto of Britain's Special Air Services (SAS), one of the world's most elitist commando units - Who Dares Wins.
He sat in the front seat of a double cab. The stubble on his face shows he had not shaved for a couple of weeks. The muscular arms betrayed his identity.
He keeps thumping on the dashboard every now and then. At times he is restless. He could not stretch his long legs. He places his right leg on the seat to feel comfortable but soon takes it off to look outside. He seems alert to something which he fears would happen. We are on the edge of a football field, just off a main road near a construction company. It seems it was instinct, the survival techniques they are taught.
I asked him to relate one of his forays. I have chosen to identify him only by one of the call signs he used on an assignment which is unrelated to this story. "Golf Whisky," was given a task by the Directorate of Military Intelligence last year. Together with two colleagues, he left the Army Camp at Vavunativu near Batticaloa. Having dodged minefields during a delicate trek in the night, they arrived at dawn in a jungle patch. They remained there for the whole day and did not venture out for fear of detection. They used long range binoculars to see movement of people including guerrilla cadres and survived on ration packs. At night, just past 10 p.m., they moved out.
Using Night Vision Devices (NVD), they trekked towards an area where they were to accomplish their mission. They had been well briefed, not only on the target but also on the terrain. "We moved with our back packs and weapons all throughout the night. Before dawn, we always found a place to hide. It has not been easy. On one occasion, we were worried after seeing a group of civilians. But they thought we were LTTE men, "Golf Whisky" said.
It was November 17, last year, when we took up position near a mound after placing claymore mines in the direction of a road. It was almost late evening when they spotted a double cab coming along. There were some seated inside. Behind, in the cab area, at least two guerrilla cadres carrying weapons were watching either side of the road. Suddenly, the claymore mine exploded throwing the double cab, now a wreck, off the road. From a distance it looked mangled. "We managed to move back and spent the night in a thicket. We knew that we had hit an LTTE vehicle. That was all we knew as we began our trek to base," he said.
Spending a night in an area which had a thick outgrowth, "Golf Whisky" and his two colleagues settled down to another meal. This was also from the ration pack. One slept whilst the other two took turns watching. Sleep was restricted to less than an hour or so but "Golf Whisky" says "we cannot enjoy that sleep. We are conscious somebody can ambush and kill us. It is more a case of keeping our eyes shut. But that helps," he adds.
It was only after they returned to base that they discovered they had accomplished their target. "Major Mano" or "Oscar" (his radio call sign) was killed. "Major Mano" was a key guerrilla cadre. During security forces operations in the North, he was the man tasked to monitor all SF communications. He was also one of a handful of guerrilla leaders consulted by LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, when major attacks were planned.
"Major Mano" had not only undergone basic guerrilla training but has also been taught radio communications.
At the time he was killed, he was the guerrilla in charge of LTTE communications network in the east. He had been fluent in English, Sinhala and Tamil. Intercepts of radio conversations prior to the attack showed that he was so fluent in Sinhala that he pronounced words in such a way it gave the impression he was a Sinhalese.
"We only saw the claymore mine explode damaging the vehicle. Confirmation of "Major Mano's death came later during both radio intercepts and on the Tamilnet website," said "Golf Whisky."
"Major Mano" was a close associate of LTTE's leader for the east, Karuna. He had been involved in countering security forces offensives during "Operation Riviresa" and "Operation Jaya Sikurui." Following the guerrilla seizure of Elephant Pass, he had moved to the east. As the man in charge of communications network in the East, he had been responsible for jamming security forces radio communications periodically.
"There are successes and there are frustrations too," says "Golf Whisky." In July, last year, they were tasked to take on the LTTE military wing leader for Batticaloa district, "Jim Kelly." They trekked guerrilla dominated terrain for seven days in this operation in Batticaloa south. They waited for their quarry to arrive but he did not turn up. They were forced to abandon mission and return to base. On another occasion in September last year, they waited for another target to arrive in a location in Batticaloa north. Three days after they had moved in, just at the time the man was expected, very heavy rains broke out. Visibility became poor and there was no sign of any vehicle. They were forced to return to base.
One of their prize achievements, "Golf Whisky" boasts took place on June 6 last year. This was when they launched a claymore mine attack on "Lt. Col. Nizam" alias November Mike (his radio call sign) in Kokkadicholai. He was the military intelligence wing leader of the LTTE for the Eastern province and masterminded almost all the major guerrilla suicide missions in Colombo. That included the suicide bomber attack on then Minister of Industrial Development, C.V. Gooneratne, at the Ratmalana junction on June 9, 2000. "Lt.Col. Nizam" was a senior LTTE cadre who received training in a base in India. The string of electricity transformer explosions in various parts of Sri Lanka, including the City and attacks on telecommunications installations had been planned and directed by this former Eastern province intelligence wing leader.
On November 26 last year, the LRRP team ventured into Pulipanchakal. Here too it carried out a claymore mine attack killing two senior members of the LTTE mortar group in Batticaloa, "Major Swarnaseelan" and "Captain Devadas." They were later identified as specialists in handling 81 mm and 120 mm mortars. This was followed by another attack on December 3, last year. Though a top LTTE cadre was expected, the claymore mine exploded when an Isuzu Elf vehicle was passing by It killed three guerrillas.
What would you say is your most unforgettable experience, I asked "Golf Whisky." He smiled and paused for a long while. I asked whether it was a secret. "No," he replied. "The target was so near, so close. Then the unexpected happened," he said striking his hand hard on the double cab dashboard. He did not hide his frustration.
It was December 21, last year. Two LRRP teams from the DMI had been tasked to take on two important targets. If successful, they would have been their biggest accomplishment. But it was not to be.
One LRRP team went behind guerrilla lines in Kokkadicholai (Batticaloa bowl) whilst the other slipped into "Beirut," (Batticaloa Central) known to be one of the major LTTE bases in the east. Their targets ? LTTE's Military Commander for the East, Karuna and one of his close confidantes, Ramesh. They had entrenched themselves in a secret location and were ready.
The men had spent almost five days, sleeping in jungle areas during day and trekking during the night.
On December 24, last year, their encrypted radio communication set crackled. It was orders from the Directorate of Military Intelligence to abort mission and return to base. The reason – the LTTE had announced a "cessation of hostilities" and the Government had decided to reciprocate.
"The return journey was very troublesome," says "Golf Whisky." There were at least two different occasions when they feared they would be spotted. The third time, they had to divert course after a woman spotted them. "We were not sure whether she identified us or whether she thought we were LTTE. We did not want to take a chance. We had to divert course and this took a long time," he said.
There are occasions when we have been spotted. In one such instance, we had to radio the nearest Police Special Task Force (STF) base. "We gave details of our location. Mortars began to rain ahead of us. That helped us to make a hasty retreat," said "Golf Whisky".
On December 27, the men returned to their Safe House in Athurugiriya. Some of the weapons they carried from there to another "forward operations" Safe House somewhere in Batticaloa were returned. Others remained at Athurugiriya when the Kandy Police headed by SP Kulasiri Udugampola, raided the premises.
The weapons they took were from five different military installations – Army Headquarters, Panagoda, Kosgama, Kadawata and Maradana. They had to be accounted, documented and returned to the officers who issued them. Some also had to be returned to the Regimental Headquarters of the Military Intelligence Regiment.
One of the reasons for the delay was the lack of a typewriter at the Safe House at Athurugiriya. The document had to be therefore prepared at an Army camp in Kohuwala. It began on December 29, last year. The next day was a Sunday. Hence, the preparation of documents was concluded on December 31. Since January 1, 2002, was declared a half holiday by the Army, they were to be returned during the following days. But the raid came on January 2.
I asked "Golf Whisky" whether he had encountered difficult moments. His mood changed and the smile on his face faded away. The soft heart behind the tough man began to show when he appeared choked with emotion. "I lost a good friend during an LRRP operation," he says. What happened ? "He was caught red handed by the Tigers with a claymore mine in his hand. This compromised his mission. The man was tortured," he said in soft tones.
"They hung the claymore mine with a rope around his neck and paraded him many times before civilians. Thereafter, he was shot dead," said "Golf Whisky." Was he a regular soldier or a former guerrilla cadre now enlisted to Army ranks ? "I am sorry I cannot tell you that. All I can say is that he was a very good friend. He has saved my life during an LRRP operation. I am sad to miss him," he added.
That speaks a lot for a breed of men whose grit and determination is little known. But their tales have now become a public secret after the ill conceived Police raid, which none other than Defence Minister, Tilak Marapana, has described was a publicity stunt.