Friday, 31 August 2012

LTTE suicide-pack in northern waters

War on terror re-visited: Part 32


Oct 2010: Members of All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) demonstrate in Rameswaram protesting against alleged SLN attacks on Tamil Nadu fishermen. Former Ministers Jeyakumar, Kalaimani, A. Anwarraja, district secretary K.C. Animuthu, former district secretary S. Murugesan took part in the agitation.

In July 2007, Tamil Nadu fishermen netted two rounds of 120 mm mortar about 15 nautical miles off Uvary, Kanyakumari. The bombs, each weighing 20-25 kgs were neatly packed in wooden boxes. On Dec 5 and 11, 2006, Tamil Nadu fishermen found three rounds of 120 mm mortars. Recoveries highlighted the use of Indian waters for the transfer of armaments (TN fishermen ‘net’ 120 mm ‘ammo’ – The Island Aug. 1, 2007)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Close on the heels of the ‘Q’ branch of the Tamil Nadu Criminal Investigation Department exposing the LTTE’s hand in the Kanyakumari massacre, India’s Press Information Bureau in the second week of May, 2007 released a statement captioned ‘Attack on Tamil Nadu fishermen by Sri Lanka Navy.’ The bureau quoted Indian Defence Minister A. K. Anthony as having accused the SLN of killing 77 Indian fishermen during the period from 1991 to mid April 2007. Minister Anthony overlooked the Kanyakumari massacre, the seizure of ‘Sri Krishna’ etc by the LTTE. Minister Anthony was responding in the Rajya Sabha to a query raised by C. Perumal in the wake of allegations and counter allegations over what was going on in the Palk Straits. The minister’s statement in the Rajya Sabha meant that an influential section of the establishment was making an attempt to shield the LTTE. Sri Lanka strongly refuted the Indian statement (India shields Tigers despite compelling evidence of attacks on TN fishermen; overlooks Kanyakumari massacre, seizure of Sri Krishna with 12 men, castigates SLN in Rajya Sabha – The Island’ May 11, 2007).

The Kanyakumari massacre on March 29, 2007 took place on the eve of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in New Delhi, hence bringing immense pressure on the GoSL. Allegations that the SLN had targeted the trawler carrying fishermen from Kanyakumari when it strayed into Sri Lankan waters caused a diplomatic row.

Under pressure from Tamil Nadu, India turned a blind eye to LTTE operations in its territorial waters. The LTTE brazenly used Tamil Nadu fishing fleet to transfer arms, ammunition and equipment from floating warehouses to the LTTE-held Mullaitivu coast, as well as the north-western coast. On the evening of Nov. 14, 2006, the SLN arrested a person of South Indian origin when he jumped overboard from an Indian trawler on fire in the seas off Kalpitiya, west of Kudiramalai point (Indian link in LTTE arms smuggling operations with strap line Indian survives SLN attack on arms carrying trawler near Indo-Lanka maritime boundary – ‘The Island’ Nov 17, 2006).

TN fisherman rescued

The suspect, Sekar of South Indian origin, was brought to Colombo, where he revealed how six LTTE craft had surrounded his trawler on night of Nov 13, 2006 and fired into the air before seizing the vessel. A pair of Fast Attack Craft attacked the Indian trawler killing all on board except Sekar, who jumped off the ill-fated vessel as it went down. Interestingly, the Indian had identity cards issued by the Tamil Nadu Fisheries Authority to three of his colleagues, though he claimed he was the only Indian held by the LTTE. According to him, there had been seven LTTE cadres onboard the trawler, when FACs moved in for the kill.

The SLN requested the Indian High Commission in Colombo to take charge of the South Indian and repatriate him. The Tamil Nadu media remained largely silent on the issue. The then Navy Commander, Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda, told The Island that the LTTE couldn’t have transferred arms, ammunition and other equipment on its own. The LTTE operation needed the support of the Tamil Nadu fishing fleet, though some fishermen may have had no option but to help the LTTE or face the consequences.

The Navy chief briefed the National Security Council (NSC) on Nov 15 of the developing situation. President Mahinda Rajapaksa was informed of four previous detections made by the SLN on Feb 11, March 25, Oct 15 and Oct 31 in 2006. The SLN insisted that all four trawlers belonged to the Tamil Nadu fishing fleet and at the time of interception they had been heading towards the north-western coast. The confrontation on March 25 caused the destruction of an SLN vessel. Encirled by the SLN, the LTTE chose to blast the vessel along with a large consignment of explosives and ammunition. The blast triggered by the LTTE was powerful enough to rip apart a FAC positioned about 50 meters away from the Indian trawler!

The SLN also intercepted an Indian trawler off Kachchativu on Jan 26, 2006. The five-man crew confessed that they were carrying over 60,000 electrical detonators from India.

Following the confrontation on Oct. 31, 2006, near Sand Banks, the SLN recovered a small quantity of 120 mm mortars.

According to Vice Admiral Karannagoda, currently Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Japan, the LTTE had changed its mode of transferring arms, ammunition and equipment consequent to the change of SLN deployment aimed at cutting off enemy supply routes to Chalai and Mullaitivu. In line with operation Waruna Kirana, launched in May 2001, the SLN planned to intercept LTTE floating warehouses about 100 to 150 nautical miles off land. But, once Karannagoda took over command, he changed the strategy. Instead of waiting for the LTTE to take the initiative, the new Navy chief wanted to go for the LTTE international supply network. The LTTE quickly realized the danger in giving the SLN an opportunity to target its naval fleet. The LTTE decided to commandeer Tamil Nadu trawlers to transfer armaments from floating warehouses to Sri Lanka. Sekar’s trawler was one of the many vessels captured by the LTTE. Tamil Nadu neither investigated LTTE operations nore took action at least to prevent terrorists placing the lives of Tamil Nadu fishermen at grave risk.

Although Sekar claimed he was not involved in arms smuggling, but merely carried out LTTE orders due to threats, the SLN believed the South Indian was engaged in the operation. Tamil Nadu never made an attempt to investigate the alleged complicity in its fishing fleet in LTTE operations, though it could have easily launched an inquiry on the basis of Sekar’s statement.

MR in New Delhi

President Rajapaksa raised the issue during an official visit to New Delhi in the last week of November in 2006. The President was accompanied by the then Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Air Chief Marshal Donald Perera and Maj. Gen. Chula Seneviratne (redt) of the Intelligence.

The SLN found it extremely difficult to maintain the required level of surveillance simultaneously on the Mullaitivu coast and the Gulf of Mannar due to lack of resources. Having lost five fast attack craft in 2006 alone, the SLN felt that it couldn’t effectively counter the LTTE threat unless a fresh boost was given by way of new craft. The SLN struggled to sustain the sea supply route from Trincomalee to Kankesanthurai in view of a heavy Sea Tiger build-up. In fact, no other Navy in any part of the world had been forced to sustain a sea supply route through hostile territory for almost 20 years. The army lost the overland main supply route to Jaffna, in 1990.

The GoSL also sent the then Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake to brief Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam on LTTE efforts to use the region for its operations. The President and Prime Minister called upon regional partners to help thwart LTTE plans. The GoSL had never made a similar attempt before to counter LTTE efforts to procure arms. The President felt that an all-out effort was needed to foil LTTE operations. He personally raised the issue with relevant countries, urging them to deny LTTE access. Having returned from New Delhi, the President reiterated his commitment to finish off the LTTE.

The attempt on Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s life on Oct 1, 2006 should be viewed against the backdrop of Sri Lanka’s efforts to cut off the Tamil Nadu supply route. Had the LTTE succeeded in its attempt to assassinate the Defence Secretary, the war effort would have collapsed. The GoSL offensive had been at an early stage and the President could have faced an extremely difficult situation. The absence of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa would have derailed the offensive. Fortunately, the LTTE failed to execute missions targeting the Defence Secretary as well as Sri Lanka’s best army commander, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, on April 25, also in 2006.

Covert explosives import charge

The Tamil Nadu media targeted the SLN in an effort to demoralize the service, particularly its top brass. The TN administration made an effort to discredit the SLN by making public a non-existent secret pact between the GoSL and a Narpur based businessman. In December, 2006, Tamil Nadu press quoted Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi as having ordered an investigation into the recovery of a large stock of non-electrical detonators, which the media described as explosives bound for Sri Lanka (Lanka rejects covert explosives import charge – The Island Dec 11, 2006).

Despite Colombo’s denials, the Indian press continued to undermine the military effort against the LTTE. But the military leadership remained committed to an all-out offensive against the LTTE. The media also fuelled speculation that Sri Lankan ports were at the risk of being attacked and cut off by Sea Tigers. Vice Admiral Karannagoda told The Island that an attempt was being made to frighten shippers and isolate the country.

LTTE ‘suicide-pack’

In Feb 2007, the Indian media alleged that an explosives-laden LTTE craft was on a suicide mission. They speculated that it could be targeting vessels either leaving or approaching Kankesanthurai harbour. They warned that at least 15 explosives-packed LTTE boats operated in Indo-Lanka waters posing a grave danger to ships. The SLN felt that the ‘suicide-pack’ story was a total fabrication to discourage its patrols from approaching Indian trawlers engaged in arms smuggling operations. (Lanka rejects Indian claims of LTTE ‘suicide-pack’ in Indo-Lanka waters; Reiterates call for joint patrols – The Island Feb. 24, 2007). The unsubstantiated Indian media reports prompted shipping lines as well as insurance companies to explore the possibility of increasing premiums.

The ‘suicide-pack’ story was concocted after India blew up an LTTE craft taken into custody along with 2,000 kgs of explosives on Feb 14, 2007, claiming it posed a threat to the Chennai port. The India media speculated that the boat could have been on its way to attack Kankesanthurai harbour, a claim denied by the SLN. (The circumstances under which the arrest was made on Feb 14, 2007 were discussed previously).

The LTTE made an attempt to raid the Colombo Port in Jan 2007. Timely action by the SLN prevented a major disaster. In the wake of media reports of an LTTE ‘suicide-pack’, the GoSL took a series of steps to enhance security at key ports. But, some politicians found fault with the SLN for being too harsh on the fishing community. No one dared acknowledge that the LTTE was using the fishing community to facilitate its terrorist operations. The LTTE operated simultaneously on several fronts. It had direct access to Colombo-based diplomatic missions, journalists as well as politicians.

In March 2007, the Indian media quoted Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi as having said that the GoSL was willing to deploy Indian personnel on board its patrol craft. The announcement was made soon after the then Sri Lanka’s Deputy High Commissioner in Chennai, Hamza met a DMK delegation led by State Electricity Minister, N. Veerasamy. The confab took place in the wake of a massive protest held in Chennai against the SLN. The Chief Minister’s son M. K. Stalin led that protest demanding that India take punitive action against the SLN. The GoSL dismissed Indian media reports as regards the SLN agreeing to share its vessels hunting for Sea Tigers with Indian Navy or the Coast Guard (Lanka won’t accept Indians on SLN vessels – ‘The Island’ March 14, 2007)

A move closer to M’tivu

In Nov. 2007, the Tamil Nadu fishing fleet made a different move on the Mullaitivu waters. Large clusters of Indian trawlers moved almost 10 nautical miles close to LTTE-held territory at Vettilaikerni. It was their first major foray into Mullaitivu waters since Dec 2005. The SLN asserted that explosives-packed Sea Tiger craft could use the fishing fleet to move closer to SLN convoys moving from Trincomalee to Kankesanthurai or the other way around. The SLN in a bid to discourage the Indians detained 17 trawlers along with 95 fishermen and brought them to Kankesanthurai. President Rajapaksa ordered them released after New Delhi intervened (Lanka urges India to stop ‘fishing in troubled’ waters; trawling off LTTE territory prompts naval action – The Island Nov 6, 2007). The LTTE constantly pressured the Tamil Nadu fishing fleet to operate according to its plans. The success of Sea Tiger operations across the international maritime boundary between India and Sri Lanka, as well as its activities on the seas off Mullaitivu, needed a human shield. On the ground it took cover behind civilians right up to the final phase of the operations on the Vanni east front. The situation was the same out at sea. The LTTE used fishing communities in India and Sri Lanka to facilitate its operations.