It was the most dramatic disclosure by the Tamil Nadu police in recent memory. The state police chief said on Friday night that it was the ‘Sea Tigers’ who killed five Indian fishermen off the coast of Kanyakumari on March 29.
This is the first time since the May 1991 assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, that the LTTE has been accused of murdering Indian nationals in Indian territory. The killing of the fishermen had taken place in Indian territorial waters south of Kanyakumari and west of Kalpitiya in Sri Lanka.
Tamil Nadu Police Director General D. Mukherjee said in an official statement that the Tigers had shot the fishermen on suspicion that they were spying on their movements. The LTTE men were engaged in ferrying arms and ammunition from one of their ships to the Sri Lankan coast.
In another revelation, the police chief also said 12 Indian fishermen missing since March 4 were actually in the custody of the LTTE after being abducted, along with their boat.
When four fishermen, who survived the attack on them, returned home from the sea on March 29 and revealed that unidentified persons on a civilian boat had opened fire on them, fishermen and political parties had assumed that the Sri Lankan Navy was behind the killings. Two fishermen had died in the boat itself, two vanished into the sea with bleeding bullet injuries, while a fifth man succumbed in hospital after reaching the shore.However, authorities in the Indian Navy, Indian Coast Guard and intelligence agencies knew immediately on debriefing the survivors that this was not just another instance of firing on Indian fishermen. Often, Indian fishermen transgress into Sri Lankan territorial waters and get shot by the Sri Lankan Navy. These incidents are alleged to take place in the vicinity of Kachchativu, or elsewhere in the Palk Bay.
The Kanyakumari incident was completely different. Firstly, the spot was well inside Indian territorial waters and very far away from the routine areas of patrolling by the Sri Lankan Navy. The victims themselves did not say they were fired upon by the Sri Lankan Navy. They identified one of the vessels of the attackers as ‘Maria’, a civilian boat, and also said the assailants were casually dressed, with some of them being bare-chested.
Chief Minister Mutuvel Karunanidhi shot off a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, giving all these details and released copies of it to the media. He demanded an investigation into the identity of the killers and ‘their international connections’. It was clear that he was indirectly absolving the Sri Lankan Navy but he stopped short of naming the Tigers.
It was much later that the police found out the truth. It was a chance discovery, after the Indian Coast Guard found a vessel by name ‘Maria’ drifting in Indian waters on April 11 along with two Indian fishing boats.
The Coast Guard rounded up the Indians and six Sri Lankan Tamils. Initially, the survivors of the attack failed to identify the vessel as the one involved in the March 29 incident.
On April 23, the investigation was handed over to the ‘Q Branch-CID, a wing of the Tamil Nadu police that specialises in investigating cases involving extremists. Officers experienced in interrogating LTTE suspects were deployed, and the six men opened up. They disclosed that ‘Maria’ was indeed the same vessel involved in the shooting; and that they were all ‘Sea Tigers’ whose routine duty was to ferry arms and ammunition from a mother ship to hideouts on land using fishing boats. However, the men distanced themselves from the killing of the five fishermen, saying another group of ‘Sea Tigers’ were involved. They gave an account of what happened on March 29. The Indian fishermen had come close to ‘Maria’ and asked its inmates if they had any fish to spare, as they themselves had failed to catch any. A Sea Tiger cadre, Manavaalan, had told them that there was no fish on board, but the fishermen were persistent. Suddenly, the LTTE men opened fire on the fishermen. Investigators were told that the ‘Sea Tigers’ had fired at the fishermen on suspicion that they were spying on their activities.In the course of the interrogation, the police also managed to solve the mystery of 12 fishermen missing since March 4. The group had put out to sea from Sakthikulangara, a fishing village in Kollam district of neighbouring state of Kerala. They were abducted by the ‘Sea Tigers’, and are still now in LTTE custody.