Friday, 31 August 2012

LTTE’s procurement network and the Chinese factor

War on terror revisited: Part 36

By Shamindra Ferdinando

One-time Sri Lankan Army chief and High Commissioner in Islamabad, Gen. Gerry H. de Silva discussed the importance of Sri Lanka having an uninterrupted supply of arms, ammunition and equipment to face any emergency.

The Gemunu Watch (GW) Regiment veteran highlighted a major crisis experienced by the Sri Lankan military, on the eve of the then Sri Lanka’s largest ever combined forces operation, Riviresa, which brought the Jaffna town under GoSL control in early Dec, 1995.

Addressing a one-day confab in Colombo on Feb. 23,2005, on Pakistan-Sri Lanka relations, Gen. Silva recalled how Pakistan had airlifted urgently needed weapons and ammunition when supplies from Sri Lanka’s main supplier China were delayed due to some reason. Gen. Silva appreciated Pakistan pulling out weapons and ammunition from operational areas to meet Sri Lanka’s requirement.

Five years later, Pakistan airlifted Multi Barrel Rocket Launchers (MBRLs) for deployment in the Jaffna peninsula, in the immediate aftermath of the LTTE capturing the strategic Elephant Pass base in April 2000.

The seminar, organised by the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad, in collaboration with the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS), attracted many experts from both countries. Gen. Silva emphasised that the military was able to thwart LTTE efforts primarily due to what he called prompt and ready military assistance provided by China and Pakistan. A grateful Silva said: "Assistance received from these two friendly nations was always prompt, well within the budget and well suited to our servicemen."

Sri Lanka never made an all-out effort to prevent the LTTE from acquiring arms, ammunition and equipment until the Rajapaksa government made representations to the People’s Republic of China as regards terrorists receiving a range of Chinese weapons. The GoSL produced irrefutable evidence to prove that brand new weapons of Chinese origin were in the hands of the LTTE. In fact, the LTTE primarily used Chinese equipment, including artillery and mortars, though it obtained equipment manufactured in various parts of the world.

Capture of ‘Indumathie’

On the evening of June 19, 2008, the Sea Tigers mounted a large scale raid on Point Pedro in the Jaffna peninsula. The attacking party comprised 24 craft, including four explosives laden boats, operated by suicide cadres. However, the navy, backed by land based SLA artillery launched a heavy counter attack forcing the Sea Tigers to withdraw, leaving one large attack craft. It was the largest Sea Tiger attack craft captured by the navy during the entire war. The vessel, just five metres shorter than the SLN21- meter long Israeli built Fast Attack Craft (FAC) believed to be of Indonesian make, was mounted with five weapons–one 14.4 mm twin-barrelled anti-aircraft weapons and four 7.62 multi-purpose machine guns-all of Chinese origin. It was powered by four Japanese Yamaha 250 horsepower outboard motors (OBMs). The vessel was towed to Kankesanthurai, the SLN’s Northern area headquarters, where they found four bodies of Sea Tigers, possibly including the body of the man who led the operation. The SLN assertion was based on the fact that the captured vessel carried four communication sets, for boat-to-boat and boat-to-land communication. Interestingly, ‘Indumathie’ was equipped with Japanese JRC radar as well as US Gamin GPS (Global Positioning System) of South Korean make (SLN captures LTTE attack craft with strap line Shore-based SLA artillery help thwart attack––The Island June 21, 2007).

The captured vessel was among five Sea Tiger craft destroyed off Point Pedro. The SLAF deployed Mi 24 helicopter gunships in support of the SLN. The battle highlighted the importance of combined fire comprising FACs, shore-based artillery and multi barrelled rocket launchers as well as heli-fire in thwarting an LTTE raid. (Tuesday’s battle highlights SLA’s critical role in defence of Jaffna coastline with strap line Captured craft had Japanese radar, Chinese guns and US direction finding equipment––The Island June 22, 2007).

The LTTE for the June 19, 2007 battle, deployed 16 craft similar to the one captured by the SLN. Hence, they, too, may have been equipped with US and Japanese equipment and mounted with Chinese guns. According to the navy, this particular craft had been built at an Indonesian boatyard to the Sea Tigers’ own specifications. Sea Tigers categorised them as ‘Wave Rider’ class.

Unfortunately, both the SLA and SLN claimed the lion’s share of credit for the successful counter attack causing friction among a section of the top brass. The SLA claimed that the SLN was able to capture ‘Indumathie’ only after the vessel had been disabled by SLA artillery, whereas the SLN insisted FAC (P 412) targeted Sea Tiger craft with a 107 mm rocket, also of Chinese origin. The SLN said that ‘Indumathie’ had also been hit by 30 mm Bushmaster weapon mounted on some of the Fast Attack Craft. (Lanka concerned over Chinese-built LTTE arms with strap line SLN rocket fire disabled LTTE attack craft––The Island June 24, 2007).

GoSL briefed China on LTTE efforts to procure large stocks of arms, ammunition and equipment in early 2007. China responded positively to the request. (LTTE bid to tap top Lankan arms supplier foiled with strap line Government acts as multimillion dollar deal if finalised––The Island Feb 21, 2007). Sri Lanka intervened after the LTTE had received at least three consignments of armaments.

The SLN believed that the LTTE could have procured what it required via a circuitous route. At that time, speculation was rife that Chinese weapons could have been procured using North Korean end-user certificates. On Feb 28, 2008, the navy destroyed an LTTE ‘floating arsenal’ on the southern high seas, leading to the recovery of some mortars and artillery shells (130 mm and 152 mm) of Chinese origin. A few weeks before the Feb. 28 confrontation, the navy seized a 22-foot-long fibre glass dinghy mounted with one 14.5 mm single barrel anti-aircraft gun and a multipurpose machine gun also of Chinese origin following a battle off Baththalangunduwa (Tigers’ North Korean link bared?-The Island March 5, 2007).

Subsequent to The Island revelation, the North Korean Embassy in New Delhi assured the GoSL that it wouldn’t help the LTTE to procure arms. The North Korean mission told the SL mission in New Delhi that it had no connection with the LTTE, while claiming an international plot to derail what North Korea termed as smooth progress of six-party talks aimed at denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and also to drive a wedge between North Korea and the GoSL.

The LTTE had plenty of ready cash to procure weapons and hire those whom it considered as experts in the field. Kumaran Pathmanathan alias ‘KP’ now under house arrest, confirmed the existence of a vast LTTE procurement ring, which enabled the organisation to acquire whatever it needed. The LTTE never hesitated to take risks in its endeavour to acquire sophisticated weapons, as well as new technology. The LTTE believed that it could off-set Sri Lankan military’s numerical superiority by deploying state of the art armaments. The LTTE could have bought over influential officials as well as those on retirement to work on their behalf. The arrest of five persons, including retired Indonesian marine General Erick Wotulo by US agents for planning to ship arms to the LTTE revealed the link. The GoSL’s battle against the LTTE received a mega boost from US action to thwart LTTE efforts to procure weapons. Whatever US criticism of accountability issues in Sri Lanka, the GoSL should be grateful for crucial assistance, including information on the LTTE shipping fleet. The Rajapaksa’s government made a determined effort to improve relations with the US to counter the LTTE threat as it knew the US support was crucial for countering LTTE efforts to procure weapons overseas and transfer them to Sri Lanka, using a fleet of vessels.

LTTE leadership obstacle to peace

President Rajapaksa’s government also entered into the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) in March 2007 regardless of opposition by some political parties. Also known as ‘NATO Mutual Support Act’, ACSA highlighted the relationship between the US and SriLanka. In fact, some constituent parties of the UPFA expressed concern over the growing relationship between SriLanka and the US. The LSSP was one of those concerned by the agreement. It called for revelation of the agreement (LSSP wants military agreement with US published––The Island March 11, 2007). Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa emphasised the importance of US action targeting the LTTE in a brief interview with The Island, immediately after having talks with visiting US State Department official Steven Mann and the then US Ambassador in Colombo, Robert Blake. The meeting took place in the immediate aftermath of the signing of the ACSA, which was discussed with the previous administration headed by Ranil Wickremesinghe (2002-2004). Rajapaksa told Mann that the LTTE leadership was an obstacle to peace, therefore it had to be wiped out (No halt on offensive against LTTE; Lanka seeks more US support to stop arms flow––The Island March 11, 2007).

The GoSL dismissed criticism directed at it over the finalisation of ACSA. The JVP and UNP, too, criticised the UPFA move. The UPFA reminded the UNP that during Wickremesinghe tenure it had finalised an agreement with the US not to surrender each other’s citizens to the International Criminal Court (Govt. UNP initiated military logistical agreement with the US––The Island March 15, 2007).

On March 18, 2007, the LTTE suffered a one-two punch when Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs), destroyed two of its floating warehouses on the high seas before they could transfer their cargo to multi day trawlers belonging to the Tamil Nadu fishing fleet. The LTTE lost two ships earlier on Sept 17, 2006 and Feb 28, 2007. The destruction of two more ships on March 18, 2007 caused a major shortage of ammunition, prompting the LTTE to step up its efforts to procure weapons overseas. They experienced two major obstacles. On one hand, the SLN had carried out a series of successful attacks on its floating warehouses as well as trawlers, including those owned by Tamil Nadu deployed to transfer weapons from big ships to shore (LTTE suffers double blow on high seas; Faces critical shortage of ammunition––The Island March 19, 2007).

The GoSL could never have brought the LTTE to its knees without destroying its arms procurement network, including its Tamil Nadu support base (Lanka targets Tigers’ overseas procurement network––The Island March 21, 2007).

The issue of the LTTE obtaining Chinese arms from a third party came up for discussion, when a UNP delegation visited Beijing in May 2007, on the invitation of the Chinese government. The UNP delegation, led by its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe rapped the GoSL for investigating a Chinese link in LTTE arms procurement operation. The GoSL insisted that it had never investigated a possible Chinese link, though it brought credible intelligence to China’s attention as regards LTTE working through North Korean agents to secure equipment (Arms to LTTE: Govt rules out Chinese link; China thanks UNP for boycotting Belgium confab of the Tibetan separatist movement––The Island May 21, 2007).

The LTTE also obtained weapons from Eastern Europe and various other sources. A case in point is the acquisition of Russian built heat seeking ground to air SAMS, as far back as during the deployment of the IPKF. The LTTE successfully fired SAMs against British built Avros as well as Russian built AN 32 during earlier phases of the conflict. After the liberation of the Eastern Province, the military recovered a 22.7 pound SAM-14 aka Stela 3 buried in the jungles of Thoppigala. Stela 3, which has a larger warhead, is the successor to SAM 7. The IPKF recovered one SAM-7during its deployment here (1987-1990). At the onset of eelam war IV, the LTTE made an attempt to procure SA-18, also of Russian origin, to bring down Kfirs and MiG 27s. After the liberation of the Eastern Province, the army recovered about 20 big guns, including two 152 mm artillery pieces and over a dozen 120 mm and 81 mm mortars. (Intelligence op. led to missile recovery-The Island Aug 2, 2007).

The LTTE was never short of ammunition for its big guns whereas the military always was plagued by shortages of ammunition and spares.

After the conclusion of the conflict, there was intense speculation of the LTTE also obtaining Chinese armaments, using Eritrean end user certificates, a charge denied by Eritrea. The LTTE never experienced a shortage of arms, ammunition and equipment, until the SLN targeted its floating warehouses on the high seas and trawlers carrying armaments from big ships to Sri Lanka’s northern shores.

(Next installment on Aug 29 will examine US assessment on Sri Lankan military on the invitation of the then UNP-led UNF government. The unprecedented US report is the only one of its kind made during eelam conflict).