Thursday, March 15, 2007

Tigers vow revenge over Shankar killing as naval encounters continue

A Police Special Task Force (STF) radio in- tercept of a Tiger guerrilla radio communication early this week led to an interesting revelation.

A guerrilla leader from the north, apparently angry over the failure of Sea Tigers to destroy a shipload of Police and troops on board "MV PRIDE OF SOUTH," during deep sea battles off Point Pedro on September 16 (Situation Report – September 23), was berating a local leader in Trincomalee district. The latter responded somewhat apologetically they were not sure whether the cargo vessel was carrying civilians or security forces personnel.

But senior intelligence officials scoffed at the intercept as a propaganda ploy. "They knew very well there were security forces personnel on board," declared one of them. "This is rhetoric to mislead us. Their radio conversations during the attack leave no doubt they were fully aware," he added. Unable to successfully accomplish their mission that day, it seemed the guerrillas were engaging in a bit of psychological operations.

Be that as it may, last week's exclusive disclosure in these columns of the miraculous escape of 1324 persons – 12 Navy personnel, 89 Policemen, 1209 soldiers and a 14 member crew – on board the "MV PRIDE OF SOUTH," has ruffled quite a few feathers.

The cargo vessel left Trincomalee on September 14 and was due to arrive at Kankesanturai port around dawn on September 16. However, a flotilla of over 20 Sea Tiger boats, some with suicide cadres on board, surrounded the cargo vessel and launched fierce attacks 26 miles north east of Point Pedro. This attack, if successful, would have led to a national tragedy the consequences of which would have been frightening. Details of this incident appeared in these columns last week. Eleven Navy personnel were killed in the fighting. Another ten on board a Coastal Patrol Craft though classed as missing in action are feared dead.

Last Sunday itself, Defence Secretary Chandrananda de Silva sought an immediate report from the Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri. The ink on last week's The Sunday Times had hardly dried when the report was ready. It was dated September 23 (Sunday) though it was delivered the next day. This is what Vice Admiral Sandagiri told Defence Secretary de Silva:

"The JOH (Joint Operations Headquarters) indicated request to transfer backlog of SLA (Sri Lanka Army) troops to KKS (Kankesanturai) from Trincomalee vide reference.

"Navy Headquarters proposed "MV Lanka Muditha' or "MV Induruwa Valley" for the task with the dates they are available for the task vide……

However, CGES (Commissioner General of Essential Services) had chartered the vessel "MV Pride of South" disregarding proposal made by Navy Headquarters..

"Although Sea Worthiness Certificate of "MV Pride of South" indicates speed of 14.5 knots, it was observed during a voyage she had made good an average of 6.5 during entire passage.

"Since a slow moving vessel is more vulnerable to enemy attacks than high speed vessels, more escort craft are required for "MV Pride of South."

"In view of the reasons enumerated above, it is requested that CGES be informed to charter medium sized vessels which perform at least 10 to 15 knots for troops transfers.

"It is further requested to inform CGES that SLN (Sri Lanka Navy) be consulted prior to chartering vessels for military purposes."

Vice Admiral Sandagiri has made some damning disclosures in his report. Firstly, he has revealed that despite a Sea Worthiness Certificate expressly speaking about a speed of 14.5 knots, to use his own words, "during a voyage she had made good an average of 6.5 during entire passage." This was obviously not the voyage from Trincomalee to Kankesanturai on September 16 that ended up in near disaster. According to his own Commander in charge of Eastern Naval Area, Rear Admiral Dayananda Dharmapriya, he had "observed vessel at an average speed of 04 knots throughout passage."

Admiral Sandagiri also concedes that "since a slow moving vessel is more vulnerable to enemy attacks than high speed vessels, " more escort craft are required for "MV Pride of South" – a point which Rear Admiral Dharmapriya made in a message to Navy Headquarters on September 14 in an attempt to persuade them not to send the Police and troops on that cargo vessel. Yet, his efforts proved futile. He had warned Navy Headquarters, as reported last week, through three different messages, one as early as June 9, last year.

Though late, it is salutary Vice Admiral Sandagiri has now endorsed a recommendation made by his COMEAST (Commander, Eastern Naval Area, Rear Admiral Dharmapriya), in his message to Navy Headquarters on September 18. This is what he said "……Strongly recommend when chartering vessels for troops/defence cargo transfers SLN team to inspect and ascertain suitability of such vessels for the task."

Vice Admiral Sandagiri also appointed a Navy Board of Inquiry to probe the September 16 attack. It is headed by Commodore Dhammika Samarawickrema and comprises Captain Ravi Wijegoonewardene, Commander Asela Fernando and Lt. Cmdr. D.P.M. Perera.

Despite all this, one important question that remains unanswered is why repeated warnings sent out by COMEAST not to utilize "Pride of South" since it would be hazardous were not heeded by those at Navy Headquarters. As reported last week, Navy Headquarters dismissed all these warnings with a message to COMEAST which said "Your 182034. Incongruous. Note that SLN has no involvement in chartering ships for military commitments. What is provided by CGES been utilized."

The question is raised again as to how the lives of 1324 persons becomes incongruous ? There is no argument that the lives of those who travelled that day by "MV Pride of South" were in near peril. If the Sea Tiger attack succeeded, it would have posed a serious problem to the PA-JVP Government and threatened its very existence. The fact that it did not happen does not absolve the responsibility of those who placed the lives of the Police, Navy and Army personnel in jeopardy for 13 hours.

If one is to go by the asser-tions of an official or officials at Navy Headquarters, any vessel, even one hardly seaworthy would be allowed to carry hundreds of troops since it was being provided by a state agency. On the other hand, there is no gainsaying the Government should probe how the Commissioner General of Essential Services acquired a cargo vessel which purportedly held a Sea Worthiness Certificate for a speed of 14.5 knots but in reality was as slow as a sea turtle . Ironically, this has come about after the Government had withdrawn the responsibility of chartering vessels from the Navy after a string of alleged irregularities. One need hardly explain why this happens.

A sad aspect in the conduct of the ongoing separatist war in the past seven years is the lack of transparency and accountability. Paradoxically those responsible for serious lapses and severe losses have won plum positions. Others responsible for loss of valuable lives are free to repeat their adventures. And here is a case where 1324 policemen and troops faced near death and disaster. This episode, like many others, will also go into the limbo of forgotten things.

Worries for the Navy were not over with the drama on Sunday, September 16. The very next Sunday (September 23) a string of sea battles off Mullaitivu was to cause more concern, particularly in the backdrop of previous warnings that guerrillas were expecting a shipload of weapons from Kampuchea.

Four Fast Attack Craft were patrolling the seas some 15 nautical miles off the coast of Mullaitivu around 7.45 a.m. last Sunday (September 23) when they observed on their radar a cluster of boats. They were around 30 nautical miles from land. Ahead of them, some 50 nautical miles away, there were also two gunboats on patrol. Simultaneously the FACs reported the sighting of the cluster to the headquarters of Northern Naval Area and Eastern Naval Area.

Suspecting that a major logistics move was under way, COMNORTH (Commander, Northern Naval Area, Commodore Upali Ranaweera) sent four Fast Attack Craft. His eastern counterpart, COMEAST (Commander, Eastern Naval Area, Rear Admiral Dayananda Dharmapriya) rushed four Fast Attack Craft and followed with two more an hour later.

As the Navy flotilla closed in, they reported there were seven boats in the cluster – three logistics boats and four attack craft. A gunfight ensued around 10 a.m. By then, the two gunboats had sighted two ships. Fears grew the guerrillas may be preparing to carry out a mid sea transfer of weapons. The logistics boats, it was felt, were in the vicinity to move the cargo to the shores of Chalai, where a main Sea Tiger base is located.

When news of the incident reached Colombo, there was hectic activity, unusual on a Sunday. Chief of Defence Staff, General Rohan de S. Daluwatte, rushed to the Joint Operations Command Headquarters located inside the Army Headquarters complex. Joining him there were the service commanders – Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle (Army), Air Marshal Jayalath Weerakkody (Air Force) and Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri. Even before crisis talks could begin, the previous week's incident involving "MV Pride of South" was very much in the mind of Vice Admiral Sandagiri. "They (The Sunday Times) have taken us apart today," he said and asked those present "have you seen it."

But that did not distract the attention of those present. They began focusing on the fighting that was now going on in the deep seas off Mullaitivu. Initial reports spoke of one of the ships behaving suspiciously. When there was no response to radio calls made by one of the gunships, warning shots were fired over the bow.

Deputy Defence Minister, Gen. Anuruddha Ratwatte, rushed into the JOC to join the conference and monitor developments. News reached that two more gunboats from headquarters of COMEAST were speeding towards the location of the two ships. By then Sea Tigers had dispatched eight more boats from the shores of Chalai. They were moving around in two clusters and were heading to help the seven boats engaging Naval craft.

Air Force Commander, Air Marshal Weerakkody immediately ordered Israeli built Kfir interceptor jets to take off from Katunayake to bomb guerrilla boats. During the first sortie itself, Kfirs hit two logistic boats, just three miles from the coast at Chalai. They burst into flames. The jets returned to Colombo but more sorties were thwarted by thick cloud cover and heavy rain.

Two more boats, attack craft, were destroyed by Naval gunfire. The heavy fire emanating from the two logistic boats hit by Kfir jets resembled a ball of fire. Naval craft saw from a distance some cargo being dumped. It turned out to be barrels. One of the barrels were picked up. It was later brought to Trincomalee and was found to contain petrol.

Senior Navy officials say 20 Sea Tiger cadres and 22 Black Tiger cadres were killed in the fighting. There were no casualties to the Navy. The guerrillas, however, have remained silent about their casualties.

By then news reached from COMEAST that one cargo vessel, a container carrier, was on innocent passage. The second was still suspicious. Gunboats made contact with the unidentified vessel and found it was heading from Calcutta to Bombay, a journey that encompasses a voyage skirting around Sri Lanka via eastern, southern and western deep seas. It was a small tanker and suspicions still lingered around.

Navy Headquarters officials say they sought permission from the Indian High Commission in Colombo to board the vessel and conduct a thorough check. The small tanker was ordered to proceed towards Trincomalee. At the harbour mouth, it was checked by Navy personnel who boarded it. Nothing incriminating was found and the vessel was allowed to proceed. It turned out that this small tanker was going from Bombay to Calcutta.

It became clear that the Navy's latest deep sea encounter occurred when the guerrillas were trying to smuggle in a consignment of petrol in barrels. The vessel that brought the cargo, suspected to be from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, is believed to have escaped.

That raises the question of what happened to the cargo vessel from Kampuchea, expected with a consignment of weapons including Multi Barrel Rocket Launchers (MBRLs), boats and weaponry for Sea Tigers. The Sunday Times learnt the defence establishment now has credible evidence to believe part of the shipment had already been smuggled in. The alert to prevent attempts to smuggle in more weapons continues.

A more significant event in the north, predicted by the Special Branch, the intelligence arm of the Police Department, that Tiger guerrillas would launch attacks on or before September 26 to re-capture the Jaffna town did not materialize. The Special Branch warning (Situation Report – September 9, 2001) said "the LTTE plan to launch a major attack to re-capture Jaffna on or before 26th September, 2001, which co-incides with the death anniversary of Thileepan and to keep their promise to the Tamil masses…."

The report which spoke of a heavy build up of LTTE cadres gave details of how the attack would be carried out. The intelligence hierarchy reacted cautiously to this report after a similar warning led to air raids on guerrilla positions in the north in June, this year – a move which drew retaliation in the form of Black Tiger attacks on the Sri Lanka Air Force base and the adjoining Bandaranaike International Airport at Katunayake.

However, guerrilla attacks on security forces positions in the north did occur on the night of September 26. They came in the form of artillery and mortar barrages falling on some areas in Kodikamam and Nagar Kovil. Security officials were expecting this on account of the 14th death anniversary of Thileepan. He ended his life through a death fast from a specially built dais near Nallur Kandasamy Temple in 1987, demanding the withdrawal of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) from Sri Lanka. The death anniversary is marked with religious ceremonies during daytime and gunfire directed at some security forces positions during the night.

This time, however, the artillery and mortar barrages on Kodikamam and Nagar Kovil prompted the security forces to believe it was a diversionary tactic. They feared the guerrillas would attack somewhere in the east last Sunday night. It was only by Monday evening it became clear the stepped up artillery and mortars attacks in the north had another reason – a very high ranking Tiger guerrilla cadre had been killed in a claymore mine explosion. And the LTTE was pointedly accusing the security forces of carrying out the attack on Shankar alias Vaithyalingam Sornalingam.

An LTTE statement said: "The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in an official statement issued from its headquarters in Vanni today (26th September) strongly condemned the killing of one of its senior leaders Colonel Shankar. A deep penetration commando unit of the Sri Lanka Army triggered a claymore mine on Col. Shankar's vehicle and he was killed on the spot. The incident occurred around 10.45 am near Oddusuddan in the heart of Vanni, Northern Sri Lanka.

"Col. Shankar has been an active participant in the Tamil people's freedom struggle for nearly two decades. He was a close confidante of the LTTE leader, Mr. Velupillai Prabhakaran and accompanied him in the first historic meeting in the Vanni with Oslo's Special Envoy, Erik Solheim, in November 2000.

"Provocatively, Col. Shankar's killing occurred on the anniversary of the death during hunger strike of Lt. Col. Thileepan, a day of profound sadness amongst the Tamil people. The LTTE leadership shares the Tamil people's outrage and treats the killing of a senior leader with utmost gravity.

"Whilst maintaining to the international community that it is committed to a negotiated settlement, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga's regime has repeatedly sought to sabotage the Norwegian peace initiative and continued its military operations. As a result of repeated Sri Lankan acts of aggression, formal and informal efforts to de-escalate the conflict have proved futile. The attack on Col. Shankar and the date chosen for it highlights the Sri Lankan government's ongoing determination to seek the military option in solving the Tamil national question. Prospects for peace talks through Norwegian facilitation, stalled earlier through Colombo's efforts to sideline Mr. Solheim have been further set back by the killing of this senior LTTE cadre."

Military spokesman and Director, Media at Army Headquarters, Brigadier Sanath Karunaratne, denied any security forces involvement in the killing of Shankar. "They (the LTTE) should know better. We had no hand in the matter at all. Their accusations are false," he told The Sunday Times.

Shankar is no ordinary LTTE cadre. A former employee of Air Canada where he served as an airframe engineer, he was on holiday in Sri Lanka when the unfortunate ethnic violence occurred in July 1983 – the one event which triggered off the 19 year long separatist war. Instead of returning to Canada, he enrolled with the LTTE and has held several important positions. He was at one time a personal bodyguard of Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran with whom he was very closely associated. He was also the head of LTTE's "Air Wing" and was one time helping guerrilla cadres to fly microlight aircraft.

When the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa chose to hold peace talks with the LTTE in 1989, Shankar flew in with other members of the LTTE delegation from the Wanni jungles in a Sri Lanka Air Force helicopter to Colombo frequently. Intelligence officials who accompanied him on these flights often spoke of Shankar being personally assigned to follow matters relating to the talks and report back directly to his leader. This was whilst then political wing leader Yogi headed the team of LTTE negotiators.

Shankar is said to have been travelling in a double cab along the Puthukkudiyiruppu-Oddusuddan road when a claymore mine exploded killing him on the spot. Though it is known that he was to take part in a Thileepan commemoration meeting, it is not clear whether he was on his way to the meeting or was returning when the incident occurred.

Despite the vehement denials, both by Brigadier Karunaratne and the Ministry of Defence, persistent LTTE accusation that a "deep penetration commando unit of the Sri Lankan Army triggered a claymore mine on Col. Shankar's vehicle" killing him has raised a serious issue – a possible Tiger guerrilla retaliation.

The security establishment has become alive to this threat and have not only enhanced security precautions for top rung military and police officials but have also warned security installations which are possible targets. These include those in the Weli Oya sector and the Eastern province. There have also been warnings of possible attacks on Mannar island. Weaponry from LTTE bases in Kilinochchi are reported to have been moved towards Viduthalthivu for this purpose. Some warnings speak of a retaliatory strike in the next few days. Even the security of VVIP and VIP politicos have been strengthened after protection groups said they wanted to take no chances.

One security source likened Shankar's affinity to Tiger leader Prabhakaran to be almost similar to the relationship the latter enjoyed with his erstwhile friend and colleague, Charles Anthony. It was to avenge the security forces killing of Charles Anthony, his close friend and confidante that Mr. Prabhakaran triggered off the first LTTE landmine explosion at Tinnelveli, near Jaffna in July 1983, that killed 13 soldiers – the event that triggered off ethnic violence in July 1983. He also named his son Charles Anthony and later gave the same name to a "battle hardened" fighting unit.

And now, 19 years later, threats of an impending retaliatory strike will not only dim further prospects for any peace talks but also propel a military, which has refrained from offensive action since "Operation Agni Khiela," in April this year, to go into high gear.

Whether a Government, still saddled with a political crisis and a deteriorating economy, can cope with the new situation now developing is the billion dollar question. More so with Tiger guerrillas poised to attack military targets and the international community, now rallying together to fight terrorism, urging Sri Lanka to talk peace. That appears to be the new no win situation for Sri Lanka.


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