12th August 2001
Katunayake attacks: turmoil continues to exacerbate
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|The reverberations caused by the
July 24 devastating attack on the Air Force base at Katunayake, and the
adjoining international airport, continues to impact increasingly on the
lives of Sri Lankans every day.
If the immediate outcome is the reluctance of some airlines to fly to Colombo and the increase in airfares, the result of higher insurance premiums, other events clearly showed more shocks, some as devastating as the attack itself, is round the corner. The front pages and business columns of the media have been full of reports on the paralyzing effect of the Katunayake incidents on various sectors of the economy. So has it been on television and radio.
But one recent episode sends a chilling message to Sri Lankans about the shape of things to come. A leading flour manufacturing concern in Trincomalee wanted to ship to Japan a consignment of 4,000 tons of wheat and pallets. That was part of their regular business practice whilst producing almost the entirety of Sri Lanka's requirements of flour.
Early this week, a cargo vessel, which had called at Indian ports, was due to dock at Trincomalee to pick up the wheat and pallets. The consignment of 4,000 tons was worth US $ 250,000 and the manufacturing concern was paying a freight of US $ 80,000 to have it delivered to Japan. It was only when the vessel was a few miles outside the Trincomalee port did its owner learn of the shocking news.
The vessel would have to pay a further insurance premium of US $ 180,000. If the ship owner was to pay that amount, they would find themselves in a ridiculous position. That would mean they would not only have to forego the US $ 80,000 the manufacturing company was paying as freight, but also pocket out another US $ 100,000. On the other hand, the manufacturing concern found it would incur a heavy loss if they went ahead with the shipment by paying the new premium. The result – the cargo vessel bypassed Trincomalee and is now heading for a port in Japan with other cargo collected in India.
The message becomes very clear. The consequences of the Black Tiger attacks on Katunayake, the worst in the 18 year long separatist war, will force every Sri Lankan to face the crunch in a big way in the coming weeks and months. Paradoxically, it is just an year after they were forced to tighten belts to enable the Government to spend billions of rupees to re-equip and modernise the security forces. This was in the wake of the humiliating military reversals that began in November 1999 and ended by May last year, with Tiger guerrillas marching virtually to the doorstep of Jaffna.
And now, the price of every item that is imported will sky rocket. That includes fuel, food and medicine. The experience of the flour manufacturing concern in Trincomalee shows costs will become prohibitive not to mention fears of shortages reminiscent of the 1970s. In this frightening backdrop, how a beleaguered Government will find more funds for the rising cost of war remains a crucial question.
That is if one is to go by the periodic practice, in the past seven years, of meeting security forces requirements to procure more and more modern equipment and other items. Whether all the billions of rupees poured in has brought in a commensurate return is a debatable question, though undoubtedly, it has spawned a large, new breed of millionaires, both in and out of uniform. Not one has been indicted in the past seven years for any misdemeanour.
On the other hand, the question arises whether the security forces, and even the Police, will be in a position to meet the newer threats posed by the Tiger guerrillas without their periodic routine of seeking more funds for fresh acquisitions. That too at a juncture when the guerrillas have demonstrated clearly that they have taken the ongoing high intensity war into a new sophisticated phase – a phase where the Government has also been forced to think of more sophisticated responses. This is already being resorted to in strengthening security not only at the Bandaranaike International Airport but also at the Colombo and Trincomalee ports.
At the BIA, millions of rupees are being spent for electronic devices including fences. In the coming week, a team of Israeli experts will arrive to advise authorities on how to further strengthen security there. At the Colombo Port, where Navy Commander, Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri, has taken personal charge, a substantial volume of the Navy's resources used in the battle against guerrillas, is being utilized to protect it. It is a daunting task for the Navy chief since intelligence warnings in the past weeks speak largely of threats to ports.
It is in this backdrop that a team of more than 60 detectives are probing the July 24 attacks at Katunayake. Groups chasing up various clues are reporting daily to Director, CID, Asoka Wijetilleke, who in turn was briefing DIG (CID), Punya de Silva. The latter has been regularly keeping President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga posted on the developments. Although there has been no significant breakthrough, detectives appear to have made some progress by pursuing vital clues.
The find of an empty tin of canned fish at Major Raj Fernando playground, on the outskirts of the airbase, the point from which the attackers set about on their devastating mission, has led to some interesting revelations. The empty can bore the seal of the Negombo branch of a leading supermarket chain. There the detectives learnt that not only tinned fish but almost every other food or drink item had been purchased at this store.
Sales staff not only traced a copy of the receipt but also spoke about the dark, tall, well built man, wearing a gold chain, who came on a lady's push bicycle to the make the purchases. It bore a cane basket in front of the handle. Ladies push bicycles are said to be a common feature in the Negombo town. Noting the large quantity he purchased, a sales assistant had asked the customer how he could take them on a push cycle. He replied there was no problem since there was a bus parked a little distance away. A helper from the store carried the packages to a Mitsubishi Rosa bus and placed the packages in the passage between seats.
The helper heard the driver of the bus telling another person inside, in Tamil, to take the packages to the very rear. There were no other passengers in the bus. The customer spoke fluent Sinhala with the sales assistant. The description of the Mitsubishi Rosa bus fitted the one that was used by the Black Tiger cadres to arrive at Major Raj Fernando playground to launch the attack, but its whereabouts are not known.
It has become clear that the guerrillas were operating from a safe house in the Negombo area or its close environs. Detectives suspect that weapons and Black Tiger cadres either arrived by boats from Sea Tiger bases in the north west or through the Wilpattu jungles. It is from here that they had also begun to spread into the City and suburbs. This was particularly during the period when security was very lax after the LTTE announced a unilateral ceasefire on Christmas eve, last year, and renewed it every month until April, this year. The level of vigilance at check-points located at entry and exits to the City have been woefully inadequate. A study by a Western diplomatic mission about security inadequacies in the City during the LTTE's five month long unilateral ceasefire tells a sordid tale and reveals the LTTE's capability to hit targets in the City with ease. The study was prompted by the mission's requirement to plan out its own security and that of its nationals living in Sri Lanka during a contingency.
Cellular phone numbers written on the back of an Icom communications set, found in a thicket near Major Raj Fernando playground, led the detectives to some interesting revelations. The cellular phones which were suspected to be used by the guerrillas were obtained from mobile phone companies in Colombo with Sinhala names as subscribers. Incoming calls on these phones have mostly been from telephone call booths in the Negombo area operated by a private company.
This has again confirmed suspicions that the Negombo area, or its immediate vicinity, was the centre of Tiger guerrilla operations for the launching of the Katunayake attacks. As reported in these columns last week, detectives are also on the trail of accomplices who helped the attack group to gain entry. They believe one of them used a balaclava, or a face mask, since he feared his identity would be known by those in the area. Collaboration by those inside the airbase is not being ruled out.
On Friday night, President Kumaratunga, took time off her busy schedule grappling with a deepening political crisis for her People's Alliance Government, to chair a top level conference at the Janadipathi Mandiraya. It was dedicated to enhancing security at the BIA and the Colombo Port. A Navy official made a presentation of how port security has been beefed up whilst another from the Sri Lanka Air Force spoke of enhanced security measures at their airbase and the BIA.
Besides the service chiefs, the Inspector General of Police, among others taking part were Minister of Aviation and Airport Development Jeyaraj Fernandopulle Minister of Ports Development and Development of the South Ronnie de Mel and retired Air Vice Marshal Anselm Peiris, Chairman of Airport and Aviation Services (Sri Lanka) Ltd.
During the two hour long discussion, President Kumaratunga asked the Commander of the Sri Lanka Air Force, Air Marshal Jayalath Weerakkody, on the progress of the inquiry he was now directing into the attack on the airbase. He replied that a report would be made available to her by a week.
An Air Force Court of Inquiry, headed by its controversial Provost Marshal cum intelligence expert, Air Vice Marshal Vijith Tennekoon, who is serving an extended term in the service, is now conducting a probe into the attack on the airbase. The Court has been hearing evidence from several senior officers during which there have been interludes of heated exchanges between those testifying and others trying to defend their positions.
In one instance, a senior officer had claimed that a defence plan for security at the airbase had been forwarded to the SLAF Directorate of Operations as far back as October, last year, but had not been approved. An angry officer from the Directorate retorted that such a report had only arrived in January, this year, and not October, last year. In at least one instance, a senior officer told his colleague, a good friend, "You look after yourself. I will have to say what I want and defend myself."
The Court of Inquiry report is expected to be completed next week. It will indeed be a difficult task for AVM Tennekoon who has to probe some of his colleagues including a close friend and comrade, Air Commodore R.A. Ananda, who until his interdiction recently was the SLAF Base Commander at Katunayake. The latter has made some strong criticism of the SLAF hierarchy when he testified before a magisterial inquiry. So much so, the magistrate had been prompted to remark at one point that if he had the power, he would have summoned the Commander of the Air Force to answer issues raised by Air Commodore Ananda.
Even if Air Marshal Weerakkody did not have the opportunity to go before the Magistrate, his response will still come when he makes a statement to CID detectives. This will undoubtedly focus on some serious issues raised by the former SLAF Katunayake Base Commander. Detectives are to record his statement next week.
The attack on the airbase, and the adjoining international airport, was cloaked in some comical controversy after allegations that the authorities did not have any intelligence warning. As reported in these columns (Situation Report – July 29), a common sense factor, rather than an intelligence warning, could have given one a warning of a possible attack on the airbase and the international airport. It coincided with the 18th anniversary of the unfortunate ethnic violence of July, 1983. It came in the month of "Black July," a significant month in the LTTE calendar where retaliatory attacks are carried out. If one has forgotten all that, only two weeks prior to the Katunayake attacks, that Kfir interceptor jets and Mig-27 ground attack aircraft had rolled from the runway there to conduct air raids on LTTE targets. It is now acknowledged by Government's leading intelligence agencies that the Katunayake attacks were in direct retaliation for the air raids. This is through their own sources and from foreign intelligence channels.
As repeated retaliation, Air Force jets are continuing to bomb LTTE targets not only in the North but also in the East too. Referring to recent air raids in the east, the Tamilnet website of August 7 says "Seven houses were destroyed and at least ten cattle were killed due to heavy aerial bombing by two Sri Lanka Air Force Kfir jets on residential areas in the villages of Pendukalchenai and Thoppigala, about 34 kilometres north-west of Batticaloa town around 10.30 a.m, Tuesday morning, residents said.
"The houses that were bombed Tuesday were constructed with the financial assistance of the Norwegian aid agency NORAD, a local non-governmental organisation official said.
"SLAF has intensified air raids during the past few days in the north and east of the country, according to military sources."
Would that lead to a continuation albeit escalation of the see-saw battles of retaliatory attacks. After all, some of the targets, one could now argue, were on projects funded by Norway, the facilitator the Government of Sri Lanka expects to bring the LTTE to the negotiating table.
Comical situations seem to afflict the security establishment in a big way these days. Early this week, the Army in Batticaloa distributed a printed Tamil leaflet in the district. Translated into English, this is what it said:
"Government security forces are planning to attack LTTE camps. We are requesting the public to follow the following guidelines.
1. Move away at least four kilometres from the LTTE camps.
2. Refrain from visiting the areas where LTTE camps are located.
3. Store stocks of food and other essentials for at least two months.
4. During this period do not keep contacts with the LTTE.
5. Not to move around in the vicinity of the Badulla Road.
"Government forces are trying to use new aircraft and weapons to weaken the LTTE. They have identified the LTTE targets through information obtained from persons who surrendered and the public. The forces are going to carry out air attacks and therefore public are requested to follow above guidelines. This is being done in order to protect the civilians."
Needless to say the official Army pamphlet caused panic among residents. TULF Vice President V. Anandasangaree wrote to President Kumaratunga, warning her that the intended military offensive would cause "mass destruction and loss of life among civilians". He said "I wish to point out that this type of operation will not be tolerated by any right thinking people, in particular by the international community".
He added: "As the Head of State it is your sacred duty to protect every citizen in the country and not to cause unnecessary hardships to the innocent people."
Alluding to this letter and on an impending Army offensive in the east, a senior diplomat asked me "have these guys (meaning the Government) gone absolutely crazy ?." He was bold enough to ask me to disclose his name. But I had second thoughts after remembering he would find honourable mention in a special programme in the official State radio, the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation. That is the new stepped up effort to silence anyone holding views that are different from the Government. A Government propagandist (one time coveted reporter of a leftist rag), complained over the airwaves of the SLBC that CNN, reporting on the July 24 attacks on the airbase and the international airport, had referred to the attackers as an "unidentified group."
Valuable time was de voted in the Sinhala and the English news bulletins not only to the CNN report but also to the correspondent by name. There were several ugly insinuations made. A 9.15 p.m. commentary in Sinhala after the news bulletin also berated him. It took Information and Media Secretary Janadasa Peiris, to order the SLBC to run a rebuttal on the same programme the next day. The reason: CNN never referred to an unidentified group but named the LTTE as the attackers. Hence the SLBC reports and the commentary were based on utter falsehood. Pathetically muck rakers have become the front line defenders of media freedom for President Kumaratunga's government, that too at a moment of national crisis. It may not be a bad idea for the new Media Minister, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, to review the media relations campaign he began soon after assuming office. Some believe letting them loose on the national airwaves will resolve all the ills of the Government.
Now to the most important question – Was the Army planning an offensive operation against Tiger guerrillas in the east. The answer is an emphatic "NO." Why then was the warning issued to residents in the Batticaloa district ? The reasons are again comical. The Army officer responsible for Psychological Operations in a Brigade in Batticaloa ordered that the pamphlet be printed and distributed among all residents. This was his response to a whisper campaign the LTTE had launched in the district calling upon residents living near military camps to move out since they were planning attacks.
They had also been advised to stock food supplies. So the Psy Ops officer thought of a retaliatory move least realizing that his operation was psy ops on none other than the Government and the security establishment. Again, it also caused enough confusion in the Colombo based diplomatic community and contributed in good measure to fears of further instability in Sri Lanka. The Psy Ops warning to Batticaloa district residents did not mean the troops were taking things easy. In fact intelligence warnings have moved them to make hectic preparations against a possible attack by the LTTE.
Even before the Katunayake attacks, the Directorate of Internal Intelligence (DII) warned that Sea Tiger cadres were being trained in the seas off Mullaitivu in the use of underwater suicide kits. The guerrillas were intending to use these cadres to attack the Colombo and Trincomalee ports. One group which was asked to practice with newly designed underwater suicide kits, the DII said, had completed its training on June 30. During this training, one female suicide cadre identified as Sathyanathan Sathyavani, died after her suicide kit exploded accidentally. This group has been moved to Trincomalee under the charge of Sea Tiger leader, Soosai.
Now to another comical event where the Government of Sri Lanka did not fear to tread where their French counterparts would have. The Special Media Information Centre (SMIC), the Government's official arm for the dissemination of information declared in a news release on August 8 under the headline "The French authorities prohibit the hard core LTTE cadres from entering France".
"The French authorities have prohibited the following LTTE connected persons from entering France:
a. Anton Stanislaus BALASINGHAM alias Anton – LTTE
b. Arunachalam CHRISANTHAKUMAR alias SHANTHAN – LTTE
c. Lucien Rupert SOOSAIPILLAI alias THANAM - An associate of Arunachalam Krishanthakumar
d. Vallipuram RAMACHANDRAN alias RAMSAR - LTTE
e. Sothilingam SANTHAKUMAR alias Chinna Shanthan - LTTE
f. Kathiravelpillai KUHACHANDRAN – Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) (LTTE Front – (Note: the reference is to TRRO – Tamil Refugees Rehabilitation Organisation)."
The press release received wide play both in the local and foreign media, more so, because Anton Balasingham, the chief negotiator of the LTTE in the Norwegian peace initiatives could no longer visit France where the LTTE has offices and substantial membership. But three days after the news spread, the French Foreign Ministry denied the report. French Foreign Minister, Hubert Verdrine, was quoted by a spokesman as saying that the Government of France has not banned any particular persons or members of any particular organizations from entering France.
Though unwittingly, the Government of Sri Lanka (through the SMIC) has done a great favour to the LTTE. They have got the French Government to assure Dr. Balasingham and the five others (mentioned in the official press release) that they were welcome in France.
How did this latest event in the comedy of errors come about ? At the weekly Monday meeting of the security forces top brass on July 31, at the Joint Operations Headquarters, presided over by Chief of Defence Staff, General Rohan de S. Daluwatte, an official of the Directorate of Foreign Intelligence (DFI), the external intelligence arm of the Government, announced that Dr. Balasingham and five others have been debarred from entering France. It was decided that the matter should be given the widest publicity.
The DFI has one of its staffers stationed in Paris but he has moved out. The new officer, with fresh experience serving in an Asian capital where LTTE activity was hectic, is to move there shortly. So, for Sri Lankans, it has been weeks of political, military and economic blunders. That is whilst preparing to face the brunt of more hardships coming their way.
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