Monday, 13 August 2012

Post-CFA LTTE build-up, sinking of MV Koimer

War on terror revisited: Part 17


By Shamindra Ferdinando

The Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) arranged by the Norwegians in February 2002, gave the LTTE the opportunity to enhance its fighting power. In spite of repeated warnings by intelligence services and the armed forces, the UNP leadership turned a blind eye to the growing build-up. Within weeks of the signing of the CFA, the LTTE stepped-up recruitment of children. The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) only recorded complaints from parents. Local ceasefire monitors worked with the LTTE, with some of them openly cooperating with the group. The Co-chairs to Sri Lanka’s peace process, too, remained largely silent. In a bid to attract more school children to its fighting ranks, the LTTE organised various functions with the participation of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA).

Even though the breakaway of Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan or Karuna Amman in March 2004, deprived the group of several thousands of trained cadres; the Kilinochchi leadership still had a formidable force at its disposal. The then Defence Secretary, Austin Fernando (Dec. 2001 to Nov 2003), admitted that the LTTE had launched a major recruitment campaign at the time of the second round of peace talks in Nov 2002. Fernando pointed out that the LTTE had gone ahead with the campaign though the GoSL released all LTTE prisoners and reduced the security perimeter of the Jaffna High Security Zone (HSZ) (Negotiating Peace in Sri Lanka: Efforts, Failures and Lessons).

"The fact that the CFA solidly withstood every calamity for four years and the region resumed social and economic development logically concludes the success of the implementation of the security related CFA provisions," Fernando asserts in a piece titled ‘The Peace Process and Security Issues.’

Edited by Kumar Rupesinghe, in his capacity as the Chairman of the Foundation for Co-Existence, ‘Negotiating Peace in Sri Lanka’ was funded by Norway and the Berghof Foundation for Conflict Studies. Among those who contributed to the Norwegian and Berghof funded project were the then Secretary to the Prime Minister Bradman Weerakoon, one-time columnist for ‘The Island’ Dharmalingham Sivaram aka Taraki and the first head of the GoSL Peace Secretariat, B. A.B. Goonetilleke.

The then Defence Secretary’s assertion as regards the usefulness of the CFA should be examined against the backdrop of extremely negative opinion expressed by retired DIG Merril Gunaratne, one-time Director General of Intelligence. Gunaratne is of the opinion that the LTTE had taken advantage of the CFA to enhance its fighting capability. The CFA provided the much needed time and space for the LTTE to re-build its depleted fighting formations, bring in new consignments of arms, ammunition and equipment and mostly importantly, prepare the population for an all-out war, Gunaratne told The Island. If not for President Kumaratunga’s intervention in Nov 2003, leading to fresh parliamentary polls on April 2, 2004, the then government could have caused irrevocable damage, he said. The author of two books, Gunaratne discussed how the then government ignored intelligence warning as regards enemy build-ups. Within one and a half years, the LTTE trained and deployed 6,000 new cadres.

When the issue was raised by the intelligence community, the government dismissed warnings, claiming that the LTTE did not have the required infrastructure to train personnel in large numbers and that India also doubted the local assessment (Cop in the crossfire).

Gunaratne in his memoirs quoted then PM Wickremesinghe as having told a security conference, "Even the Indians think that the numbers are HIGHLY EXAGGERATED. (emphasis added)."

Gunaratne said that the then Defence Secretary didn’t support his assertion as regards LTTE strength, though he now acknowledged that there had been large scale recruitment.

The LTTE obviously needed thousands of fresh cadres to carry out simultaneous coordinated attacks in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Large scale recruitment of children as well as adults coincided with the LTTE bringing in ship loads of arms, ammunition and equipment. Although the navy had been successful in thwarting some arms shipments, it didn’t have the required facilities to meet the challenge head-on. The navy, struggling to maintain the sea supply route between Trincomalee and Kankesanthurai in the face of the growing Sea Tiger threat, could not cut off supplies. The SLAF, too, found it extremely difficult to maintain a 24-hour surveillance, though both services made a laudable effort. But the LTTE had plenty of ammunition for its heavy guns, mortars and artillery as hostilities intensified.

In spite of losing a few trawlers bringing in ammunition and two ships in 2003, the LTTE had brought in a massive quantity of arms, ammunition and other equipment. The navy destroyed ‘MV Koimer’ and ‘MV Shoshin’ off Mullaitivu on March 10, 2003 and June 14, 2003, respectively, during the tenure of Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri. The sinking of MV Koimer triggered a major dispute between PM Wickremesinghe’s government and President Kumaratunga. The government alleged that the navy had acted on President Kumaratunga’s orders to jeopardise the peace process, a charge vehemently denied by the then navy chief. On the day after the incident, PM Wickremesinghe met President Kumaratunga at President’s House to discuss the ship affair. (Vessel didn’t reveal last port of call-Navy -––The Island of March 12, 2003 ).

The March 10, 2003 confrontation took place a week prior to the next round of talks at Hakone, Japan. It was the first hit since the destruction of ‘MV Mariamma’, 190 nautical miles west of Nicobar on March 11, 1998.

During the two-and-a-half hour meeting, the President stepped up pressure on the PM to take up the arms smuggling issue with the LTTE, peace facilitator Norway and Peace Co-chairs. This was after the President was told that the ‘MV Koimer’, sunk 185 nautical miles north-east of Mullaitivu, carried ten 130 mm artillery pieces and a substantial stock of ammunition (CBK wants Ranil to raise arms smuggling at Tokyo talks; Artillery among lethal cargo in sunken LTTE ship ––The Island of March 13, 2003). The Island also reported in the same issue the acquisition by Sri Lanka of the US Coast Guard ship, ‘Courageous’, the first vessel to be acquired since the Navy received six US-built Trinity Maine Fast Attack Craft (FACs). (SL acquires US Coast Guard ship –– ‘The Island’ of March 13, 2003)

As the navy rightly took up the position that LTTE ships wouldn’t be allowed to use the Sri Lankan waters, the SLAF flew the SLMM head, Maj. Gen (retd) Tryggve Tellefsen and the mission’s legal advisor, Pekka Vihervs, for crisis talks in Kilinochchi, in the wake of the Mullaitivu incident (SLMM wants to establish last port of call, final destination––The Island of March 13, 2003).

The ship affair also dominated talks involving a Norwegian delegation led by then Deputy Foreign Minister, Vidar Helgessen, top government representatives and the LTTE (CBK, Helgessen meet re-scheduled––The Island of March 13, 2003).

The LTTE refused to cooperate with the SLMM, which admitted that the LTTE had declined to reveal either the last port of call or the final destination of ‘MV Koimer’, whereas the navy allowed the Scandinavian mission to inspect ‘SLNS Sayura’ (formerly of the Indian navy) which had confronted the LTTE ship. The SLMM also interviewed the Commanding Officer of the ship. The SLMM head also had a one-on-one meeting with the navy chief at the latter’s headquarters in a bid to ensure that such confrontations would not repeat. (Info on sunken ship withheld - The Island of March 16, 2003)

The abortive arms smuggling attempt meant that the LTTE intended to acquire weapons it needed urgently, whatever the consequences. Instead of demanding an immediate end to arms smuggling operations in support of the ongoing build-up, the SLMM, at the behest of the Norwegians, worked overtime to arrange a meeting between the navy and the LTTE to finalise an agreement on the movement of LTTE vessels. This was consequent to talks between the GoSL and the LTTE at Hakone, Japan. Deputy Head of the SLMM, Hagrup Haukland acknowledged the move, while the navy told Defence Minister Tilak Marapone that giving in to the LTTE demand could cause serious trouble. (Tigers seek legality for ‘merchant ships’ – ‘The Island’ of March 30, 2003).

The SLMM really pushed hard for an agreement between the navy and the LTTE in the wake of the Mullaitivu incident (April 17 deadline for Govt. and LTTE to respond; SLMM proposals aimed at averting clashes at sea––The Island of April 7, 2003).

In an exclusive interview with The Island, Vice Admiral Sandagiri said that those on board ‘MV Koimer’ had most probably sent the vessel down to the bottom of the sea by flooding it. Sandagiri asserted that the Sea Tigers had opened the sea valves of the vessel after ‘SLNS Sayura’ fired its manually operated Bofors guns (Navy chief convinced Tigers sank their own ship ––The Island of April 6, 2003).

The rapid build-up of the LTTE’s conventional fighting capability depended on the replenishment of depleted stocks ahead of the final offensive. The LTTE had no intention of giving up its overseas supply network or altering its military strategies. In fact, the LTTE was confident of dealing a massive blow to the military at the onset of eelam war IV.

The LTTE ordered an attack with small arms fire on the Ceylon Shipping Corporation owned ‘Lanka Muditha’, 14 nautical miles north of Foul Point, Trincomalee on the night of March 31, 2003. The vessel was carrying about 1,700 officers and men returning to their bases in the Jaffna peninsula and Jaffna islands. (Navy sure Tigers attacked Lanka Muditha – The Island of April 2, 2003).

The LTTE quit the negotiating table on April 21, 2003, while the SLMM was pressing an agreement on sea movements. In fact, the LTTE proposal on LTTE ship movements had been even discussed between President Kumaratunga and PM Wickremesinghe with the participation of MP Lakshman Kadirgamar (LTTE assures SLMM: will abide by MoU –– The Island of April 23, 2003). The Norwegians made a desperate effort to convince the LTTE not to leave the negotiating table, while the UNP lambasted the Opposition for taking advantage of the unforeseen crisis. (Opposition taking political advantage over LTTE pullout-Senarath Kapukotuwa –– ‘The Island’ 0f April 25, 2003). The UNP still didn’t realise that the LTTE was working according to a a well thought out plan.

The Opposition pushed for the immediate expansion of the SLMM by bringing in three more countries. The Opposition pushed for India’s inclusion in the monitoring mission. The SLMM turned down the proposal, pointing out that the composition of the mission couldn’t be even considered without the LTTE’s consent! (Tigers must agree to Indian role: SLMM ––The Island April 27, 2003 issue).

Much to the consternation of the navy, the SLMM strove to allow the LTTE to operate ships even after the LTTE had quit the negotiating table. SLMM chief Tryggve Tellefsen met Defence Secretary Fernando and Navy Commander, Sandagiri on May 2, 2003 at the Defence Ministry for this purpose. (Top level confab to avoid Navy––LTTE clashes at sea ––The Island of May 3, 2003).

Vice Admiral Sandagiri and the government had been on a collision course due to the navy’s tough stand on the CFA. The navy high command reacted to various moves made by the government, the LTTE as well as the SLMM. Although the government confronted the navy chief on numerous occasions, Vice Admiral Sandagiri pursued his strategy which lead to the destruction of ‘MV Shoshin’ on June 14, 2003. The incident caused chaos in the political establishment.