Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Eelam war IV: Weapons transit point Tamil Nadu



DMK chief M. Karunanidhi with Congress leader Sonia Gandhi in Chennai. Having ruled India for a decade since May 2004, the Congress led United Progressive Front (UPA) suffered a humiliating defeat at the recently concluded parliamentary polls. Throughout eelam war IV (August 2006-May 2009), the DMK administration in Tamil Nadu backed the LTTE, though the group was classified as a terrorist group since the assassination of Italian-born, Sonia’s husband, Rajiv, one-time Congress leader. The LTTE assassinated Gandhi in May 1991, while he was campaigning in Tamil Nadu.

by Shamindra Ferdinando

A chance confrontation between the navy and the LTTE off Talaimannar on the evening of October 31, 2006 led to the recovery of high explosive motor bombs and a small consignment of 12.7 mm ammunition. The navy intercepted a trawler as it was heading towards the Vanni mainland. The recovery of 27 boxes containing 120 mm motor bombs revealed the existence of an LTTE supply line through Tamil Nadu. The navy believed that the vessel could have come from Tamil Nadu, unless it received a load of ammunition from a floating warehouse belonging to the LTTE on the high seas. Although the navy asserted that it could have been the first arms smuggling bid since the collapse of the Geneva talks between President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government and the LTTE, the LTTE was widely believed to have brought sizable stocks of arms, ammunition and equipment during the Oslo-arranged Ceasefire Agreement (CFA). The then Tamil Nadu government led by M. Karunanidhi (DMK), turned a blind eye to what was happening in the Southern Indian state. Jayaram Jayalalithaa’s Opposition AIADMK too, remained mum for obvious reasons (First arms smuggling bid after Geneva II thwarted with strap line navy recovers mortar bombs from LTTE vessel - ‘The Island’ November 6, 2006).

Last week, the writer dealt with how the LTTE had brazenly used the Tamil Nadu fishing fleet to its advantage in spite of it being a proscribed organization since the assassination of one-time Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991.

In the wake of the November 2005 presidential election which brought Mahinda Rajapaksa into power, the LTTE stepped up its Tamil Nadu project. The LTTE used a fleet of trawlers to move supplies to the Vanni mainland from the high seas, via Tamil Nadu, widely believed to be the main transit point. During January-mid November 2006, the navy confronted the LTTE in the Gulf of Mannar. Some of the confrontations took place close to the Indo-Lanka maritime boundary. Although some Indian fishermen could have perished in confrontations between the navy and Tamil Nadu trawlers commandeered by the LTTE, the DMK remained silent. Both the DMK as well as the AIADMK ignored what was going on even after the navy rescued a Tamil Nadu fishermen identified as Sekar after he jumped from a trawler commandeered by the LTTE, soon after it was hit by a pair of Sri Lankan Fast Attack Craft (FACs) off Kudiramalai point on November 14, 2006 (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’ November 17, 2006).

The Congress ignored the Tamil Nadu-LTTE relationship. The Congress returned to power in May 2004 after having defeated the Baratiya Janata Party (BJP) led the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Although the Central government of India knew the ground situation, it turned a Nelsonian eye. By late 2006, the LTTE was operating in Tamil Nadu in a big way.

The navy strongly pushed the government to take up the issue with New Delhi. President Mahinda Rajapaksa sought Indian intervention to thwart the LTTE from using her waters to move arms, ammunition and equipment to the Vanni mainland. The President raised the issue during a visit to India President Rajapaksa didn’t mince his words when he requested India to neutralize the LTTE threat. Although Sri Lanka felt that coordinated sea patrols could deprive the LTTE of freedom of movement, India couldn’t have supported such an initiative due to the Tamil Nadu factor. In the absence of a joint effort in the Gulf of Mannar, Sri Lanka expected India to police her waters effectively. The navy found it extremely difficult to maintain the required level of surveillance, simultaneously on the east coast as well as the Gulf of Mannar, due to lack of resources. The navy struggled to meet its commitments in the wake of losing five FACs during 2006. The LTTE fully exploited the difficulties experienced by the navy. But the ‘silent service’ worked overtime to break the Tamil Nadu supply line as the army battled for control in the Eastern Province (Sri Lanka wants India to prevent LTTE using her waters - ‘The Island’ November 27th, 2006).

The next successful navy operation couldn’t have taken place at a better time. A naval task force comprising three FACs and an Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) intercepted an Indian trawler carrying a consignment of armaments about 50 nautical miles on the morning of November 27, 2006, as President Rajapaksa was visiting New Delhi. The vessel was moving in the direction of Sri Lanka. The navy struck following a four-day surveillance mission. The navy swiftly apprised President Rajapaksa of the latest destruction (MR presents a strong case for Indian action with strap line LTTE vessel sunk near Indo-Lanka maritime border-The Island, November 28, 2006).

The seizure of a fishing craft on February 13, 2007, 27 nautical miles north-west of Point Calimere by the Indian Coast Guard took an unexpected turn when a section of the Indian media alleged that it was on a suicide mission against a key Sri Lankan military target. The Hindu speculated that the explosives -laden vessel was perhaps on its way to blow up the Kankesanthurai harbour. The newspaper quoted well informed sources as having said that among the five persons-three Sri Lankans and two Indians detained along with the boat were a Sea Tiger cadre and Black Tiger operative. The navy dismissed The Hindu report. The navy believed that the 34-foot multi-day fishing craft, with a maximum speed of about 10 knots wouldn’t have been allowed near the KKS harbour, under any circumstances. India never gave the SLN access to those in their custody. India also claimed that several explosives-laden LTTE vessels operated in the seas between India and Sri Lanka, posing a grave danger. India asserted that these boats were on suicide missions targeting SLN vessels as well the Colombo harbour. But the navy dismissed the Indian claims. The navy pointed out that slow moving trawlers had never been used in suicide missions. The navy alleged that some interested party wanted to identify the vessel seized on February 13 and subsequently blasted by Indian authorities as one of the boats deployed on a mass suicide mission (Lanka rejects Indian claims of LTTE ‘suicide-pack’ in Indo-Lanka waters with strap line reiterates call for joint naval patrols - ‘The Island’ February 24, 2007).

Initially, the Indian Coast Guard claimed that the vessel was on its way to Tamil Nadu. The Coast Guard asserted that a suicide belt recovered from the boat, along with 2,000 kgs of explosives was to be used in an attack on a major temple festival. The Indian media quoted the then Coast Guard regional director, Rajendra Singh as having said that the CG had succeeded in thwarting a terrorist attack on a major temple festival.

In the wake of the unsubstantiated claim of ‘suicide-pack’ operating in Indo-Lanka waters, The Island came across information regarding a hitherto unreported attack on an Indian tug positioned south of Point Calimere in June 2006. The ill-fated vessel was believed to have been deployed alongside a dredger assigned for the controversial Sethusamudram project. The LTTE was alleged to used a limpet mine to blast the tug (Sea Tigers blast Indian tug deployed for Suthu project - ‘The Island’ February 18, 2007).

‘The Island’ also discussed the possibility of some of the weapons that were being moved to the Vanni with the help of Tamil Nadu being procured from China by North Korea on behalf of the LTTE. The recovery of 152 mm and 130 mm artillery rounds as well as 120 mm mortars following the sinking of an LTTE ship identified as ‘MV Kiyoi’ south of Dondra on February 28, 2007 further reinforced the assertion that the LTTE was receiving armaments of Chinese origin. The navy trapped ‘MV Kiyoi’ 365 nautical miles (675 km) south of Dondra. The LTTE lost 18 cadres, including five self styled Lieutenant Colonels. The seizure of the 22-feet long fibre lass dinghy, mounted with a 14.5 mm single barrel anti-aircraft weapon and a multi-purpose machine gun of Chinese origin off Battalangunduwa in early 2007 highlighted the urgent need to block the weapons supply line (Tigers’ North Korean link bared? - ‘The Island’ March 5, 2007).

Close on the heels of The Island report, the North Korean embassy in New Delhi assured the Sri Lankan High Commission also in the Indian capital, that North Korea wouldn’t support the LTTE. North Korea alleged that there was an attempt to bring the country into disrepute (Lanka targets Tigers’ overseas arms procurement network-The Island March 21, 2007).

The DMK facilitated the LTTE project. The DMK leadership continuously accused the navy of targeting the Tamil Nadu fishing fleet. It was part of the DMK/LTTE strategy to discourage the navy from challenging the Tamil Nadu fishing fleet. The LTTE planned to exploit the situation to smuggle in as much as possible weapons to the Vanni, using the Tamil Nadu fishing fleet. The DMK repeatedly demanded the Centre to halt the Sri Lankan offensive against the LTTE. Having organized a series of protests against the navy, a top DMK delegation met the then Deputy Sri Lankan High Commissioner based in Chennai, Hamza to discuss what the Tamil Nadu media called attacks on innocent Indian fishermen. The then State Electricity Minister, N. Veerasamy, met DHC Hamza on March 12, 2007 in Chennai. Following that meeting, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Karunanidhi claimed that Hamza had conveyed Sri Lanka’s readiness to allow Indian military personnel on-board SLN vessels to ensure that there wouldn’t be further attacks on Tamil Nadu fishermen. Navy headquarters promptly dismissed Karunanidhi’s claim. The then SLN chief, Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda asserted that foreign personnel couldn’t have been allowed on vessels deployed under any circumstances (Lanka won’t accept Indians on SLN vessels - ‘The Island’ March 14, 2007).

The then navy media spokesperson, Captain DKP Dassanayake played a pivotal role in countering a high profile propaganda campaign targeting Sri Lanka’s efforts to thwart LTTE arms smuggling operations. Had it not been for Dassanayake’s insight, the propaganda campaign could have had a destabilizing effort on the naval strategy. The navy media acted swiftly and decisively to counter propaganda.

A section of the Indian media propagated that the SLN was indiscriminately attacking the Tamil Nadu fishing fleet. Instead of discouraging Tamil Nadu fishermen from crossing the Indo-Lanka maritime boundary, the DMK stepped up pressure on the navy. The DMK relentlessly attacked the navy. It was acting on behalf of the LTTE. The LTTE dealt directly with Tamil Nadu administration as well as the Opposition AIADMK. At that time, the Tamil Diaspora wasn’t a factor. The LTTE ran the show. The LTTE prevented the formation of Tamil outfits. Prabhakaran would have never have allowed the formation of a grouping like the UK based Global Tamil Forum (GTF) to campaign on its behalf. They Tamil Nadu based political parties to the hilt. In fact, Tamil Nadu was nothing but a tool, cleverly used by Prabhakaran to undermine India. The Centre always struggled to cope up with Tamil Nadu. The collapse of the BJP government in 1999 following Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK quitting the BJP-led coalition government is a case in point. The AIADMK move stunned India. However, the BJP-led coalition won the election and ruled India until May 2004. Having defeated the BJP in May 2004, the Congress remained in power until May this year. Now, after having regained power, the BJP led coalition, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), is exploring the possibility of reaching an alliance with Jayalalitha. Although newly elected premier Narendra Modi’s government doesn’t require Jayalalitha’s muscle for survival, Sri Lanka should be wary of a new partnership between the Centre and the AIADMK now in power in Tamil Nadu. The outfit consolidated its power in Tamil Nadu at the recently concluded parliamentary polls by securing 37 out of 39 electorates. The remaining two ended-up with two regional allies of the BJP. The bottom line is that a Modi-Jayalalitha agreement will give the entire Tamil Nadu state to the NDA.