Army deserters pose serious security risk

Islandwide search on for 50,000 former soldiers, as crime involving ruthless cadres trained in
the use of firearms escalates.
Yasasmin Kaviratne and Damith Wickremasekera report

A string of crimes believed to be the work Army deserters has prompted the Sri Lanka Army to launch an islandwide search for some 50,000 Army deserters. One of the latest incidents involving Army deserters occurred in Warakapola last week. Two ex-Army Commando unit soldiers posing as bank officers, and accompanied by an armed police deserter in uniform, robbed a pawning centre in broad daylight.

According to the police, the ex-Commandos had deserted the Army, one 10 years ago, the other six years back, and were heading gangs that were carrying out robberies in different parts of the country. On several occasions, the men had put to use their skills with firearms. In the Warakapola incident, one of the deserters shot dead two of the policemen who were giving chase.

The pawning centre in Warakapola that was the scene of a daylight robbery last week.
Warakapola town mourns the death of two police officers. Pix by Saman Kariyawasam

The police deserter, who hails from Moneragala, is believed to have in his possession a weapon stolen from a member of the Civil Defence Force. The family of one of the two Army deserters believed the commando had been killed in a military operation in the North or the East.

Deputy Inspector General of Police, Sisira Mendis, told the Sunday Times that he was not authorised to comment on the alleged criminal activities of Army deserters, while police spokesman, Superintendent of Police Prishantha Jayakody, said the police did not maintain statistics on crime involving Army deserters. “We do not record whether or not a criminal act was carried out by an Army deserter,” he said.

However, lower ranking police officers say cases of Army deserters involved in crime are on the rise.

Speaking about the Army initiative to round up deserters, Army spokesman Major-General Ubaya Madawala told the Sunday Times that apprehended deserters would be categorised according to the time they deserted the Army, and whether they had committed any crime during that period.
Apprehended deserters will have to attend a police rehabilitation programme.

The Army will either re-recruit deserters or officially terminate their services and give them a vocational training based on their individual skills and capabilities, Major-General Madawala said. He said the government had granted amnesty for Army deserters on four occasions since the end of the war in the North and the East, and deserters who had turned themselves in were allowed to formally leave the Army.

The government offered amnesty to Army deserters on two occasions in 2009, including a special Esala amnesty in August last year. Some 20,000 deserters were lawfully discharged from service in 2009.

This year there were two amnesties – in February, to coincide with the Independence Day celebrations, and in May, to coincide with the Vesak festival. Around 22,000 deserters were legally discharged from the Army this year.

“There will be no more amnesties,” said Major-General Madawala, adding that persons who sheltered deserters or provided them with jobs would be liable to charges under the Penal Code of Sri Lanka.

Ex-servicemen rob pawning centre, kill two police officers at pointblank range

A white Dolphin van bearing a name-board saying “People’s Bank” stopped outside a popular pawning shop in Warakapola town at 3.30 pm last Friday. It was a busy hour, and traffic was heavy on the Kandy-Colombo road.

Three men – one in police uniform carrying a T56 automatic rifle – stepped out of the vehicle and walked into the pawning shop. Claiming to be from the People’s Bank, they said they had come to conduct a “special” check on jewellery and gold held at the pawning centre.

Inspector H. P. N. Kularatna

Assuming the men were genuine bank officers, the staff opened the safes for inspection. A female counter clerk observed the men filling their pockets with cash and jewellery and pressed the alarm, which also rang at the police station some 70 metres down the road.

Realising the police had been alerted, the men rushed to their van, which had four other passengers, and escaped. At the time the alarm sounded, Inspector H. P. N. Kularatna, officer in charge at the Warakapola Police Station, was at his desk. He immediately headed out to the pawning centre, accompanied by a team of policemen. He saw the vehicle speeding away in the opposite direction.

“The van turned off the main road and into Devala Road. We gave chase. I radioed the emergency police car and told them to approach Devala Road from the opposite direction,” IP Kularatna told the Sunday Times.

The three constables in the emergency police car were told to look out for a white Dolphin van, and were given the vehicle number. But the oncoming white Dolphin had a different number.

“One of the constables signalled to the vehicle to move to a side to allow the police to proceed, so they could look for a white van with the vehicle number they were given,” Inspector Kularatna said.

“The thieves did not know this. They thought they had been identified.“One of the men got off the van and approached the police emergency car. He had a T56 hidden behind his back. He came up to the vehicle and shot two of the police officers at pointblank range, killing them instantly. Another shot was fired, injuring the third constable.”

The police later identified the assailant as a soldier who had deserted the Army six years ago. The two police officers who were killed were Sergeant Lionel Ratnayaka of Beligala, Warakapola, and Sergeant Anura Bandara of Pindeniya, Kegalle. The third police officer who suffered a gunshot wound is PC A. Chandraratna, of Kegalle. The assailant leapt back into the white van, which continued on its way. On seeing a police jeep, the driver of the white van turned into another road, which came to a dead end a half-kilometre further on. The men abandoned the van and disappeared into a jungle known as “Koskele” among residents in the area.

The police vehicle in which two constables were shot dead.

Accompanied by soldiers from a nearby Army camp and members of the police Special Task Force (STF), the police formed a ring round the jungle. About 1,000 police and Army officers combed the forest. The gang members were shot dead, one by one, as they encountered the police, the STF and the Army. The last member of the gang drowned while trying to escape across the Ma Oya.

The search operation was conducted in mountainous terrain in heavy rain. The gang members had returned fire, injuring a soldier. Police say they have recovered Rs. 40,000 in cash. “We believe the gang has hidden the jewellery and gold in the jungle,” Inspector Kularatna said.

The police say there were two Army deserters among the seven gang members who were killed, and that these two had masterminded the operation. “One Army deserter led a gang that stole Rs. 600,000 from a Hindu priest. They were involved in another robbery in Kegalle, where they stole Rs. 1.2 million from a house. There are believed to have been involved in a number of robberies.”

Inspector Kularatna said Army deserters have been involved in a series of robberies, and posed a serious risk because they are trained in handling weapons. He said civilians should be careful about sheltering or harbouring Army deserters.

Millionaire businessman shot dead by assassin in uniform

By Hiran Priyankara Jayasinghe

An unknown person dressed as a soldier and carrying a T56 shot a wealthy businessman at his residence in Anamaduwa, in the Chilaw district; the victim was rushed to the Chilaw hospital but was pronounced dead on admission. The incident occurred last week.

Up to last night, the Anamaduwa Police were trying to identify the killer. The circumstances suggest that the killing could have been the work of an Army deserter, the police said.

The victim is Warnakulasuriya Stanis Joseph, 36 years, a millionaire trader who had close business ties with Japan. He was married and had two children. According to the businessman’s widow, a man dressed in Army uniform had come to the house that day and spoken to her husband. “He said his superior was outside and wanted a word with my husband,” she said.

A watcher on the premises, W. A. Premadasa, 57, said two men dressed in Army uniform had come to the house. Police said the two visitors had “neatly” entered the premises without getting recorded by a video camera installed for security purposes.

The whole family was at home at the time. The victim was with his daughter, and his son was upstairs studying. Domestic staff and other workers who are usually on the premises were absent that day.
The victim was a United National Party (UNP) supporter from 2000 to 2002, and ended his involvement with the party when the UNP lost at the election. Mr. Joseph became destitute when his home was attacked and ransacked by supporters of rival political parties.

Subsequently, Mr. Joseph became a supporter of the late D. M. Dassanayake, a deputy minister of the political party in power, the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). Mr. Joseph’s business began to flourish following his association with the deputy minister.

The late Mr. Joseph was involved in a Sri Lanka-Japan joint venture that cultivated “kothala himbutu” (Salacia Reticulata), a medicinal plant unique to Sri Lanka and widely used in the treatment of diabetes and high-blood pressure. A number of Japanese drugs manufacturers use kothala himbutu in their products. In fact, Mr. Joseph was known as “Kothala Himbutu Stanis” because of his business interest in the medicinal plant.

As his fortunes improved, Mr. Joseph moved from his small residence to a palatial house equipped with high-tech fittings, including electronic security equipment. Mr. Joseph had told the Anamaduwa police that he had been receiving death threats.

For now the murder is a mystery, as the police seek to establish whether the killing was motivated by political or personal issues. The Anamaduwa Police are studying film footage from video cameras installed at the victim’s residence for possible clues.

Soldiers, ex-Tigers in joint robbery and killing

By N. Parameswaran

Two soldiers and two former LTTE cadres have been arrested in connection with the killing of a Hindu priest and injuring two of his sons during a robbery in Chankanai, Jaffna.

The Hindu priest succumbed to his injuries on Wednesday, while the two sons remain in hospital. One of the soldiers had lent his service weapon, a T56 automatic gun, to the former LTTE cadres, while the other soldier had assisted in the attempted robbery. The police said the former LTTE cadres were in need of money in order to buy cannabis for their use.

Jaffna Security Forces Commander Major General Mahinda Hathrusinghe said stern action would be taken against the two soldiers. In a separate incident, the men stole five gold sovereigns in Alaveddy, and shot and killed a dog.

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