War on terror revisited: Part 33
August 19, 2012, 12:00 pmBy Shamindra Ferdinando
Immediately after the Maldivian Coast Guard had saved the lives of four members of a Special Sea Tiger unit from a sinking Indian trawler in Maldivian territorial waters on May 16, 2007, Sri Lanka sought access to those in Maldivian custody. Maldivian President Maumoom Abdul Gayoom’s administration swiftly granted SriLanka’s request, helping the SriLanka Navy Intelligence to dispatch a team to question them.
Within 36 hours, representatives of SLN Intelligence were in the Maldives. There had never been a comparable case involving a member of the eight- nation South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), established on Dec 8, 1985.
Under interrogation by SLN Intelligence, LTTE cadres revealed their role in mid-sea arms transfers, thereby giving valuable information with regard to arms, ammunition and various other equipment stored onboard the LTTE’s floating arsenals operating in international waters. They were among a selected group of personnel cleared by LTTE Intelligence Chief Pottu Amman for the operation.
Acting on the information obtained from those in Maldivian custody and intelligence provided by the US, the SLN destroyed four LTTE vessels in separate confrontations on Sept.10, 11 and Oct 7, 2007. The vessel sunk 2,600 nautical miles south of Dondra head was the largest LTTE-owned ship destroyed during the conflict.
Addressing the media at the Media Centre for National Security (MSNS), Kollupitiya, on Sept 11, 2007, a jubilant Navy chief, Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda declared that the LTTE’s capability to wage war had been significantly reduced with the destruction of ‘three floating warehouses’ each 45 to 75 meters in length on the high seas on Monday (Sept 10, 2007) and in the early hours of Tuesday (Sept 11, 2007). Karannagoda asserted that the enemy’s sea supply was on the verge of collapse. (Biggest blow to LTTE arms smuggling with strap line Three aircraft, fast attack craft, bullet proof vehicle on board destroyed ships––The Island Sept 12, 2007).
The operation involved SLNS Samudura (formerly US Coast Guard cutter ‘Courageous’), SLNS Suranimala (Fast Missile Vessel acquired from Israel), SLNS Sayura (formerly of the Indian Navy) and SLNS Shakthi (Landing Ship Tanker acquired from China). The navy deployed two logistic vessels, 520 and 521 to re-fuel the Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs), deployed for the mission.
Those in Maldivian custody had boarded ‘floating warehouses’ and knew all about their cargoes and the ongoing operation to replenish the depleted LTTE arsenal. Most importantly, they furnished irrefutable evidence to justify the GoSL’s assertion that the LTTE was in the habit of using Tamil Nadu fishing fleet for mid sea arms transfers. They also admitted that the ill-fated trawler, Sri Krishna, commandeered by them, belonged to the Tamil Nadu fishing fleet. Sri Krishna disappeared on March 4, 2007, along with its 12-man crew-ten from Kanyakumari and one each from Thoothukudi and Kerala. They went on to reveal how they had transferred 11 of the 12 member crew of the 25-metre long vessel to Vanni, while retaining its skipper Simon Soza. The Indian survived the attack. He was rescued by the Maldivians, along with four members of the eight-member Sea Tiger crew. They exposed the mid-sea transfer of arms, ammunition and equipment, the complicity of Tamil Nadu fishing fleet and most importantly, the rapid deterioration of the LTTE’s fighting capability (Sea Tigers in Maldivian custody facilitated SLN attack––The Island Sept 13, 2007).
Those conducting a post-war evaluation of Sri Lanka’s war against terrorism should at least now inquire into the circumstances under which the LTTE exploited the Tamil Nadu factor to its advantage. Soza could help them establish complicity of Tamil Nadu in LTTE operations. Another person who could relate LTTE operations is Sekar, another Indian. Sekar, who survived an SLN attack on an Indian trawler on Nov 14, 2006 near Sand Banks and subsequently was repatriated to India, through the Indian High Commission in Colombo. Even three years after the conclusion of the conflict, the GoSL is yet to examine critical developments as well as significant issues, which prolonged the conflict. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) didn’t touch on such issues at all.
Sri Krishna had been flying the Sri Lankan flag at the time the Maldivian Coast Guard vessel, Huravee, a 46-year-old Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) confronted it in southern Maldivian territorial waters. ‘Huravee’ had swung into action after the Sri Krishna crew fired at a Maldivian dhoni (fishing craft). The vessel went down at 8.25 am following a 12-hour stand-off. The Maldivian intervention greatly embarrassed the Indian government, which turned a blind eye to what was going in its own waters in spite of SriLanka’s repeated warnings of increasing LTTE activity. The revelation that those in Maldivian custody, too, had been part of the LTTE group responsible for the Kanyakumari massacre stunned the Indians. The confrontation in the Maldives took place in the wake of Indian Defence Minister A. K. Anthony clearing the LTTE of any wrongdoing. Anthony alleged that the SLN had killed 77 Indian fishermen between 1991 and mid-April 2007.
The Maldivian government acceded to the GoSL’s request for an opportunity to question terrorists in their custody, though India declined Sri Lanka access to LTTE suspects in its custody. Interestingly, India, too, sought to interrogate those in Maldivian custody, though the SLN received the first opportunity to speak to them.
The LTTE and its activists in Tamil Nadu reacted swiftly. They resorted to a damage control exercise. As the SLN gained access to Sea Tigers in Maldivian custody, the LTTE and Tamil Nadu administration launched an operation to transfer the remaining members of Sri Krishna crew from northern Sri Lanka to South India. On the day after the destruction of Sri Krishna, the LTTE ferried 11 Indians across the Palk Strait, from a base at Arippu, south of Mannar, to two different locations along the Tamil Nadu coast. The LTTE operation succeeded due to failure on the part of the SLN as well as the Indian Coast Guard/Indian Navy to intercept Sea Tiger craft ferrying Indian fishermen (LTTE frees Indians after losing Sri Krishna––The Island May 20, 2007).
India simply ignored the Maldivian example. The GoSL never had access to those in Indian custody for their involvement with the LTTE. But the GoSL received substantial Indian assistance during eelam war IV. Strengthening of the navy’s OPV fleet had been an important development, which played a critical part in the overall combined security forces strategy. And it would be important to keep in mind that the GoSL received crucial Indian backing to continue with the offensive.
Soon after the Maldivians intercepted the vessel, the Norwegian Embassy in Colombo got in touch with the Maldivian High Commission in Colombo to inquire into the incident. Norway suggested that the Maldivian Coast Guard avoid using force and settle the issue without loss of life. The Norwegian mission in Colombo wouldn’t have intervened without having informed Oslo. The LTTE sought Norwegian help to save Sri Krishna, its crew and cargo as it knew a confrontation could expose the complicity of Tamil Nadu in the LTTE operation. Ironically, a group of Indian naval personnel, too, had been onboard Huravee, along with their Maldivian counterparts, when it was directed to confront the rogue vessel. Indian personnel were eyewitness to the rescue of Sri Krishna’s Indian captain, Soza. The Indian defence establishment would never have expected Indian navy personnel to be part of a Maldivian Coast Guard operation against the Sea Tigers, thereby helping the GoSL expose a lie, propagated by Tamil Nadu.
During the Galle Dialogue 2011 last November, Lt. Col. Mohamed Ibrahim of the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF), explained the circumstances that had led to that confrontation. He said that the Sea Tigers had emptied barrels of diesel onto the deck before setting it ablaze. He was responding to a query raised by a participant at the seminar, which focused on regional as well as international maritime security.
Huravee, formerly ‘Tillan Chang’ of the Indian Navy arrived in Colombo on Feb, 2008 on a three-day visit. The vessel was on its way back to the Maldives after undergoing repairs in Chennai. Huravee visited Colombo in Oct 2007.
In Jan 2008, a top US military delegation led by Admiral Robert F. Willard, the chief of the US Pacific Feet, arrived in Colombo on a three-day visit.
Admiral Willard’s visit was the first high level military visit since the signing of the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) signed in 2007.
Admiral Willard’s delegation visited Trincomalee, where it received a firsthand account of ongoing SLN operations against the LTTE/Sea Tigers, including the battle against suicide attacks. The world’s solo super power had been deeply concerned about tactics adopted by suicide attackers following the devastating attack on the guided missile destroyer, USS Cole of Yemen in Oct 2000. Sea Tiger Commander Thillaiyampalam Sivanesan aka Soosai, in an interview with the BBC, asserted that Al Qaeda had copied LTTE tactics. In an exclusive interview with the BBC’s Francis Harrison, during the Oslo-managed Ceasefire Agreement, Soosai boasted that Al Qaeda had emulated LTTE tactics. Soosai was quoted as having said that other terrorist groups, too, should learn from the LTTE.
The interview with Soosai recorded during LTTE celebrations on Heroes’ Day and broadcast over BBC Television, was posted on the BBC Website’s South Asia section, under the heading, "Tamil Tigers Reveal Suicide Secrets" as a video clip. The news feature introduced the Black Tigers as "The Original Suicide Bombers of the World."
Referring to the attack on three ‘USS Cole’, Soosai said, "they are using our tactics. I think in Yemen they used our strategy of suicide attack to blow up an American ship. That is exactly what we used to do."
America’s readiness to assist Sri Lanka should be viewed against the backdrop of its determination to neutralise Al Qaeda and its allies. During a banquet at SLN headquarters, Admiral Willard congratulated the SLN on the successful operations conducted on the high seas on Sept 10, 11 and Oct 7, 2007. Admiral Willard acknowledged that the US Pacific Command had monitored SLN action throughout the operations and there had been a lot of excitement among US officers (US to beef up SL’s maritime surveillance capability––The Island Jan 20, 2008). At the conclusion of the conflict in May 2009, President Mahinda Rajapaksa publicly appreciated US support received by the SLN. In fact, the GoSL received support from the US during the conflict, including a series of arrests, which caused irrevocable damage to LTTE weapons procurement operations. Nothing could have been as important as the exposure of Raj Rajaratnam, founder of the Galleon Group hedge fund. Rajaratnam, who had financed the LTTE throughout the war, offered funds for the rehabilitation project for LTTE cadres during the CFA. The US also strengthened the SLN’s capacity to conduct operations on high seas by paving the way for the GoSL to acquire the US Coast Guard Cutter ‘Courageous’, during the CFA. The role played by the then Minister Milinda Moragoda to enhance relations between the GoSL and the US shouldn’t be ignored, though the former UNP minister is no longer in active politics. In fact, Moragoda incurred the wrath of many including some of his own colleagues in the UNP for pushing for closer military ties with the US and India.
Shocking Indian move
A section of the Indian establishment went out of its way to shield LTTE operatives. In Dec 2007, six LTTE cadres, who may have had vital information on the Kanyakumari massacre on May 29, 2007 as well as the seizure of Sri Krishna were given a seven month prison sentence by the Chief Judicial Magistrate of Ramanathapuram and set off against the period they had served in Madurai prison. In spite of the ‘Q’ branch of Tamil Nadu Criminal Investigation Department (CID) exposing their special role in the LTTE and unlawful activity in Indian territory, they were tried on a charge of violating the Indian Passport Act (Arms smuggling Tigers charged under Indian Passport Act; May have witnessed Kanyakumari massacre––The Island Dec 11, 2007).
India also denied SriLanka access to Jayakumar alias Gowrishankar (34), a senior Sea Tiger operative arrested along with another LTTE operative (46-year-old James) and an Indian (42-year-old-Ravishankar) in Dec 2007. At the time of their arrest, they were looking for a trawler for outright purchase with funds made available by an LTTE operative based in the UK. (Lanka seeks access to top LTTE agent in Indian custody––The Island Dec 11, 2007).