August 20, 2013, 8:40 pm
War on terror revisited : Part 164
Katunayake airbase during eelam war IV:President Mahinda Rajapaksa proudly sits at the controls of a Kfir. Kfirs of the No 10 squadron spearheaded the air campaign along with MiG 27 and Chinese jets.
By Shamindra Ferdinando
The then President Ranasinghe Premadasa closed down the Israeli Interests Section on April 20, 1990 much to the delight of the Muslim community here. The President’s move was meant to silence the then SLFP leadership, which had been clamoring for the closure of the Israeli Interest Section, since President Premadasa’s predecessor, JRJ invited the Israelis to Colombo, in accordance with a tripartite agreement involving the US, Israel and Sri Lanka. The agreement also envisaged the establishment of Voice of America (VOA) station at Iranawila, much to the apprehension of India.
Had the UK and United States offered direct military assistance to Sri Lanka in response to JRJ’s plea, the country wouldn’t have had to seek Israeli armaments as well as expertise to meet the terrorist challenge. The then Soviet Union, too, turned a blind eye to Sri Lanka’s predicament due to its extremely close relationship with India, particularly in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in Dec 1979. The Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan until February 1989. India declined to condemn the Soviet invasion, which one-time Indian Foreign Secretary J.N. Dixit called one of the two major foreign policy blunders made by Premier Indira Gandhi, the other being forming terrorist groups in Sri Lanka (Makers of India’s Foreign Policy; Raja Ram Mohun to Yashwant Sinha. Dixit who had been India’s High Commissioner in Colombo at the time of the signing of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord authored the book published in 2004).
President Premadasa made his controversial decision in the wake of Victor Ostrovsky, a former member of the premier Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad revealing in his best seller, ‘By Way of Deception; The Making and Unmaking of a Mossad Officer’ that the Israelis providing military training simultaneously to both Sri Lankan military personnel as well as Tamil separatists in Israel in the mid 80s. It would be pertinent to mention that Ostrovsky never identified those who had undergone training there as members of the LTTE, though a reference was made to Tamil Tigers, whom the author described as a grouping of Tamil guerilla factions. The best seller was co authored by Claire Hoy.
US facilitates GoSL-Israel relationship
The then US administration of Ronald Reagan was instrumental in setting up the Israeli Interest Section in response to the growing threat posed by Indian sponsored terrorist groups. Having declined to provide US military assistance as it didn’t want to annoy India, President Reagan instead facilitated a working relationship between Israel and Sri Lanka for the latter to receive both weapons and expertise. The setting up of the Israeli Interest Section in Colombo took place in the wake of several high level visits by US officials, including Defence Secretary Casper Weinberger on Oct 1, 1983. Weinberger’s visit was followed by US General Vernon Walters, President Reagan’s Special envoy.
An examination of revelations made by Ostrovsky stunned many countries, including the US. Ostrovsky disclosed how Mossad withheld from the US information relating to planned suicide attacks on US and French barracks in Beirut killing 241 US personnel, including 220 Marines and 58 French paratroopers, respectively. The Oct 23 1983 blasts, caused by explosives-filled trucks caused injuries to 60 US and 15 French personnel, respectively. According to the author, Mossad felt that the loss of US lives could poison US-Arab relations, hence the decision was made to remain silent. Israel made a futile attempt to have the book banned worldwide through legal means after having failed to convince Ostrovsky not to go ahead with his project. Israel wouldn’t have tried to thwart the publication of the book if Ostrovsky was making it up. There couldn’t be a reason to concoct a story relating to Sri Lanka, if the other claims were true.
Among other shocking revelations was Mossad having the then PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s driver as well as bodyguard on its payroll.
President Premadasa appointed a Presidential Commission of inquiry to probe Ostrovsky’s revelation relating to Sri Lanka. Among those who gave evidence was eminent journalist Mervyn de Silva. He stated as follows:
"He said he was of the opinion that the opening of the Israeli Interest Section in Colombo was an unwise step in the face of formal protests and warnings by the leader of the Opposition and the ruling party’s Muslim members led by Dr M.C.M. Kaleel. It was wrong to have assumed that Israel’s national interests coincided with Sri Lanka’s national interests, and more particularly with Sinhalese interests."
Mervyn de Silva went on to say that the elementary fact of Israel’s foreign policy is that the national interest of Israel is the ultimate test and that the Israelis pursue this with cold blooded calculation.
Although the circumstances had been vastly different, the actions of US Army Pfc Bradley Manning (arrested in May 2010 in Iraq), and Edward Snowden (now a refugee in Russia), of the US National Security Agency (NSA), were similar to that of Ostrovsky’s. Revelations made by Manning and Snowden, too, sent shock waves through the global community with the US administration earning the wrath of the US public, over the ongoing surveillance project targeting them.
A foolish move
Whatever the circumstances under which Israel provided training to a group of Tamil separatists in Israel, President Premadasa’s decision to sever diplomatic relations with the Jewish state could have had a debilitating setback to Sri Lanka’s war effort. The country couldn’t have deprived its armed forces of superior Israeli arms, ammunition and equipment in the backdrop of Western powers turning down President JRJ’s plea for weapons. The military also received Israeli military expertise in ground fighting, particularly FIBUA (Fighting in built-up areas) in the ‘80s. The Israelis arrived in Sri Lanka as agricultural experts and set up a training base at Maduru Oya in 1985 to train the army in close quarters combat. Interestingly, at the same time, the Pakistan army had an ongoing project at Saliyapura, Anuradhapura, to train the army. Israel also sent in experts to streamline VIP security in the wake of the JVP making an attempt to assassinate President JRJ in parliament in August 1987.
President Premadasa believed that his government didn’t require Israeli assistance as he was confident of having a political deal with the LTTE. Having invited the LTTE for talks in May 1989, soon after winning the parliamentary polls in April 1989, President Premadasa, Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces acted contrary to the interests of the armed forces. Premadasa announced his decision to close down the Israeli Interest Section close on the heels of India pulling out its Army from Sri Lanka deployed in the then temporarily merged Northern and Eastern Provinces, in accordance with the Indo-Lanka Accord signed on July 29, 1987. The last Indian army contingent quit Sri Lanka on the morning of March 24th, 1990. President Premadasa announced his decision to cease operations of the Israeli Interest Section on April 20, 1990, though the US and Israel knew of the president’s decision in advance. The announcement couldn’t have been made at a worse time.
President Premadasa’s motive for doing away with diplomatic relations with Israel was political. The UNP leader felt that it would be greatly advantageous to him politically to get rid of the Israelis. The President and his advisors as well as the service chiefs didn’t take into account the possibility of the LTTE resuming hostilities. When UNP heavyweights, A.C.S. Hameed and M.H. Mohamed strongly protested against President JRJ going ahead with the pact with Israel, the UNP leader declared that those opposed to his move were free to leave the government. None of those opposed to the Israeli presence here wanted to leave the government. JRJ insisted that defeating terrorism was much more important than appeasing the sentiments of a section of the government. JRJ took an uncompromising stand on his security policy. In fact, JRJ had no option but to depend on Israel for critical military supplies. President Premadasa wasn’t bothered about the implications of his decision. Having annihilated the JVP by November 1989, President Premadasa remained supremely confident of reaching a longstanding agreement with the LTTE. The President’s faith in the LTTE as well as short term political gains influenced his imprudent decision. The UNP leader never realized the LTTE’s strategy. In fact, President Premadasa publicly urged India to call off its military mission here at the behest of the LTTE, even before LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham accompanied by his Australian born wife, Adele flew into Sri Lanka from London, in late April 1989.
Dvoras to the fore
President Premadasa ignored the fact that Israeli built Fast Attack Craft (FACs) remained a critical part of the overall SLN assets deployed against the LTTE. Since the acquisition of the first pair of 47 ton Dvora FACs in early 1984 and four more craft of similar type two years later, Israeli vessels played an important role in interdicting terrorist boat movements across the Indo-Lanka maritime boundary and defending coastal army bases. President Premadasa realized his folly only when the LTTE resumed hostilities during the second week of June 1990, within weeks after breaking off diplomatic ties with Israel. Having lost the overland Main Supply Route (MSR) to the Jaffna peninsula, the army largely depended on the navy for its supplies. Although the SLAF operated regular flights to Palaly, it couldn’t meet the growing requirements of rapidly expanding army deployment in the Jaffna peninsula. Landing Craft as well as other ships carrying men and material from Trincomalee to Kankesanthurai couldn’t proceed without a large force of FACs escorting them. At the height of the conflict in 2009, the navy had to deploy as many as 20 FACs to escort a convoy from Trincomalee to Kankesanthurai. Had Israel deprived Sri Lanka of the FACs, the navy would have experienced great difficulties in meeting the LTTE challenge at sea. Although Sri Lanka acquired some FACs from the US, France, South Korea as well some built by Colombo Dockyard which operated in collaboration with Japan, the Israeli craft remained the preferred fighting vessels. The navy greatly benefited by Israeli FACs night fighting capabilities.
The LTTE threat to ship movements had been so high that the navy was compelled to seek the support of both the SLA and the SLAF to protect its convoys. At the height of the conflict, the navy had to deploy one Fast Gun Boat (FGB), 20 FACs, twenty-two Arrow Boats and two Inshore Patrol Craft (IPC), while one Mi 24 helicopter gunship and one Beach craft, too, were assigned to protect a single Trinco-KKS convoy. This was revealed by Vice Admiral Samarasinghe before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) at the conclusion of the conflict. The army had to place artillery units deployed along the coast on alert to provide gunfire support, in case of an attack on an SLN convoy.
The Israeli FACs to date remain the main strike force, though they may never engage in combat operations again.
When the LTTE resumed hostilities, President Premadasa had to look for new sources for armaments, though China remained the major supplier of arms. Contrary to expectations, President Premadasa couldn’t secure major armaments from the Arab world, hence the military quickly realized that Israel was indispensible as an arms supplier, whatever Ostrovsky had to say about Israel having had a hand in training Tamil terrorists at the onset of the Indian sponsored destabilization project here. The then State Minister for Defence, Ranjan Wijeratne and Trade and Commerce Minister A. R. Mansoor, who undertook a special mission to several West Asian countries to explore ways and means of acquiring new armaments soon found out that the country couldn’t depend on them.
In late 1999, the navy finalized an agreement with Israel for the acquisition of two used Fast Missile Vessels (FMVs). Israel trained ship crews numbering 116 there before Sri Lanka took delivery of the vessels in Aug 2000. They were subsequently commissioned as SLNS Suranimala and SLNS Nandimithra. Although many criticized the acquisition of the vessels, they played the role of Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) during the hunt for LTTE floating arsenals in 2007 and 2008 on the high seas. Along with the two vessels, acquired at a cost of $ 26 mn, Israel gave four Gabriel Mark II missiles free. Israel also gave Sri Lanka the option to order two new FMVs at a cost of $ 46 mn each.
The change of government in Aug 1994 paved the way for enhanced relations with Israel. During the early part of the CBK administration, Sri Lanka acquired Kfirs, a modern multi role fighter aircraft (in service with the SLAF since 1996), Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (also in service with SLAF since 1996. Initially, Sri Lanka acquired three. Subsequently more UAVs, including those capable of conducting night operations were added to the fleet) and most importantly, anti-missile systems, in the wake of shooting down of two British built transport aircraft on April 28, 1995 and April 29, 1995 over the Jaffna peninsula. The SLAF choppers, including the legendary Mi 24/Mi 35 (export version of the Mi 24s) couldn’t have operated without the protection of the expensive Israeli anti-missile systems. At the conclusion of the conflict, veteran helicopter pilot Squadron Leader Sampath Thuyacontha, who commanded the No 09 attack helicopter squadron told the writer that the SLAF couldn’t have sustained operations without adequate anti-missile protection. "What the Israelis produced, especially for our Russian built gunships, was excellent. It met all our requirements."
In spite of efforts by some Western powers to deprive Sri Lanka of weapons, Israel remained a source of strength throughout the war.