21st December 1997


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ISLAMABAD - Pakistan's acting President Waseem Sajjad (L) escorts Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga during a military guard of honour in Islamabad yesterday. MS. Kumaratunga arrived in Pakistan on a three-day official visit. - REUTER


Ambush of ambulance: who is killing whom in Trinco ?

Sanaka Samarasinha reporting from Trincomalee

With the operation in the Wanni and upcoming election in Jaffna, Trincomalee and the rest of the east seem to have been left out of the limelight these days. So much so one gets a feeling that the people of Trinco have acquired a sense of resignation.

Sure, they feel abandoned and neglected, but they also seem to have decided to just live with that belief rather than agitate for attention. Then again with the continuing war, the lack of attention may not be such a bad thing after all.

It's not all business as usual this week though. The normally sleepy coastal town is buzzing, albeit for a day or two, with an ambulance being attacked and two hospital employees being killed. With large numbers dying each day as a result of the war, not too many folk outside Trinco bat more than an eye lid. But in town, this is something to analyse and re-analyse over and over again.

soldiers guards the spot where the ambulance was ambushed

Soldiers guards the spot where the ambulance was ambushed

About 8.45 p.m. on Monday, the Nilaveli Hospital ambulance was shot at by unknown gunmen on the Nilaveli-Kuchchaveli road, about 25 km north of Trinco town. The road hugs the eastern coast and stretches on to Pulmoddai. The two occupants of the van, driver M. Saunderarajah and cleaner V. Dillirajah were killed in the attack. That much is clear. But thereafter the story becomes less apparent. By noon on Tuesday rumours are rife in town though nobody really seems to know what happened. It takes a visit to the location of the shooting Tuesday afternoon before some sense of what took place sinks in.

There isn't much of a road beyond Nilaveli. The recent rains have washed away what the war has helped to erode. Potholes the size of craters and large piles of elephant dung dot the 13 kilometres from Nilaveli to Kuchchaveli. Checkpoints are numerous, and during the day time the security forces maintain a "picket" on both sides of the road.

There isn't much traffic here. Just the occasional soldier on a bicycle, gun slung across his back fetching water for his colleagues. Outsiders are hardly seen here, and all the soldiers at the checkpoints seem eager to chat. The journey thus ends up taking a lot longer than hoped.

One middle-aged corporal says he was at the checkpoint when the ambulance went through Monday. "If they can fire at an ambulance, they'll fire at anything," he warns me.

Soldiers and policemen in Kuchchaveli are a dejected lot. They seem to have been forgotten by the rest of the world. "It's like Siberia," one soldier says. "We don't even have a proper vehicle here, and that's why we couldn't transport that patient to the hospital ourselves." The army has only two so-called functional vehicles here. Both are tractors. One wasn't running when I visited, and the other has to be pushed to be started. The police have a truck at their post in Kuchchaveli, but it is in such a sorry state that among numerous other defects the brakes only work on one wheel, says a policeman.

The ambulance story unfolds thus: Officers at Kuchchaveli army camp had requested their colleagues at Nilaveli to send an ambulance to pick up a young soldier who was complaining of severe chest pains at about 7.30 p.m. on Monday. Hospital sources say an officer arrived at Nilaveli Hospital soon thereafter and requested the doctor there to send the ambulance to Kuchchaveli to "transport a civilian" who was suffering from intense chest pains. The ambulance set off about 8.15 p.m., passed several military checkpoints, and about one kilometre from the entrance to the Kuchchaveli army camp was confronted with a burst of gunfire.

Soldiers at Kuchchaveli say it took them about half an hour to reach the ambulance because they had to clear the road to get to the location. Saunderarajah, who had been shot in the chest and hand was dead when they arrived.

Dillirajah had been shot in the pelvic area and was still alive, but died while being carried back to the camp. The flashing light on the ambulance was still on when the soldiers got there. The windscreen was shattered and the ambulance was pulled over to the left of the road.

All indications were that the shots had come from behind a bush and in front of an abandoned house a few feet from the road on the seaside.

Soldiers at the spot say they had heard one burst of a semi-automatic weapon. One of them points at the vacant building and says LTTE posters had been put up on the walls there last week. Another says west of the road is a vast swathe of jungle, and they suspect an LTTE camp exists some five miles into the jungle. "I even saw smoke out there this morning," chips in a third.

The suggestion is obvious: LTTE cadres have free access to this part of the road at least at night. There is no doubt in their minds that the Tigers are responsible for the shooting.

Military officials in Trinco as well as the soldiers in Kuchchaveli theorise that the Tigers intercepted the message from Kuchchaveli army camp to Nilaveli, and setup an ambush in the expectation that soldiers would be accompanying the hospital staff in the ambulance to pick their colleague. "They obviously thought there was an escort in the van," says one soldier.

But attitudes in town seem quite different. "If they wanted to get the soldiers, why didn't the Tigers wait until the ambulance was returning?" says one man. "Then they could have been sure that there were soldiers in the van. This is the work of the security forces," he alleges.

A rumour has been spreading since early Tuesday that the ambulance was shot just outside the entrance to Kuchchaveli. When it is pointed out to some of the sceptics that this is not so and that the incident occurred between a checkpoint and the camp, both of which are 1 km from the location they counter that in any event the soldiers and police move around outside the camp at night. A hospital source says villagers had told him that security forces personnel move around in the area at night frequently, and on occasion fire in the air.

"The military has been expecting an attack in an ambulance for some time now," he says.

He points out that an ambulance was similarly attacked three months ago on the Kandy road just outside town near a police checkpoint. "Once again the security forces claimed that it was the LTTE," he says, "but it was very close to a security post."

Senior military officials deny that either one of the incidents was caused by the security forces.

Saunderarajah's father-in-law, V. Thangavadivel is careful not to directly apportion blame to anyone.

"We don't know who killed him," he says, "but it happened close to a police post."

Hospital staff in Nilaveli and Trinco are visibly traumatised by the killings. Trinco hospital staff observed a 24-hour token strike on Tuesday, which was reported by Rupavahini as "a protest against the LTTE attack." A senior doctor is quick to point out that it is a protest against "whichever party is responsible." "We want these attacks to stop, regardless of who is doing it," he says.

Later that day the ambulance drivers' union in the district informed hospital authorities that they will not drive after 5 p.m. and before 6 a.m. because of security concerns.

"Now see what happens," says one doctor, "all patients will suffer as a result of this type of incident."

In defence of the security forces it must be acknowledged that given the jungle terrain and the fact that the military request may have in fact been intercepted by the LTTE it is certainly possible that this was an attack staged by Tiger cadres. It is by no means certain or even necessarily probable that this was the result of miscommunication on the part of the military as suggested by some.

However, what remains important here is that the public - particularly the Tamil community — perceives such incidents as being caused by the security forces. Says one Tamil government official, "It's very simple. If a Tamil is killed the military is usually blamed, and if a Sinhalese is killed the Tigers are blamed."

This thinking is just one example of the ethnic division in Trinco, and how almost every issue acquires communal undertones here. The problem is complex, and requires a comprehensive solution.

But as long as the status quo continues, the security forces may unfortunately be forced to take the blame even for acts they did not commit.

Call for jubilee amnesty

By S. S. Selvanayagam

A UNP MP has appealed for the granting of an independence jubilee amnesty to Tamil detainees against whom there's no substantial evidence.

The call was made by parliamentarian Jayalath Jayawardena after he and fellow MP Sarath Ranawaka last Wednesday visited Tamil inmates in the Kalutara prison in the aftermath of the Dec. 12 riot in which three prisoners were killed and about 10 injured.

They also called for the appointment of an impartial commission to probe the riot with witnesses being provided with security and the right to secrecy.

They also asked that journalists be allowed to visit the prisoners regularly while facilities for other visitors are also streamlined.

Meanwhile, the National Peace Council (NPC) has described the Kalutara riot as a flagrant abuse of human rights of those held in state custody, and also cause for concern due to its ethnic dimension.

More than 550 Tamil prisoners in Kalutara and hundreds elsewhere have complained that they have been held in detention for several years without cases being filed against them.

Human rights groups have regularly appealed that investigations be expedited so that those against whom there is evidence could be charged in courts while others are released.

Court barrier for S. Thomas' warden

The Court of Appeal has extended the Stay Order it issued last month restraining the appointment of a warden designate of the S. Thomas' College, Mt. Lavinia.

The court granted the extension when a revision application filed by a parent of a student against the Board of Governors of the college came up before it.

The plaintiff petitioner, S.A. Manawadu had earlier filed action in the District Court of Colombo contesting the purported appointment of Eksith Fernando as warden or warden-designate of S. Thomas' College alleging that he was not qualified for the job.

The court by the extended stay order which will be operative till February 11 , next year thus further restrained Mr. Fernando from assuming duties in either of the said offices.

The order also restrained the Bishop of Colombo and the Board of Governors of STC from appointing Mr. Fernando as warden or warden-designate.

The matter has been fixed for argument on February 9.

Talk on Turin Shroud tonight on radio

Inspiring new scientific, scriptural and spiritual revelations about the Turin Shroud — now being described as the 5th Gospel — will be outlined by Prof. Fr. Louis-Marie Navaratne OSB in a special Catholic half-hour programme on the SLBC tonight at 8 p.m.

The latest research using computer technology was done by a group of 40 scientists and Father Navaratne says " what has been discovered is God's gift to the world to make the 2000th birthday of Jesus."

Father Navaratne who has 3-dimensional pictures from the imprints on the Shroud providing scientific proof of the Resurrection, will be interviewed by Vilma Wimaladasa in the radio programme produced by Rani Pushpanauagam.

JVP to thrash out 'ghost story'

By Shyamal A. Collure

The JVP is seeking an urgent meeting with President Kumaratunga to discuss threats and other moves to suppress the party following reports of a possible armed insurrection.

General Secretary Tilvin Silva told The Sunday Times when there were reports of insurrection plans by an unidentified party, the inference to the JVP was obvious.

He charged that as in the past the Govt. was trying to use these reports to supress the democratic rights of the JVP.

Mr. Silva said the President had upto Friday not responded to their request and the party might have to take other measures, if its grievances were not heard. He did not explain what those measures might be.

The JVP Secretary said sections of the media had reported that the CID had documents or other evidence relating to alleged plans for an armed insurrection, but again no party was named.

"If a certain organisation is preparing for an armed struggle it is a grave situation. If such a situation has actually arisen, what a responsible government should do is to expose that organisation directly and to act against it lawfully and openly, instead of using such a situation to terrorise others," he said.

To substantiate his charges that the Govt. appeared to be building a case against the JVP Mr. Silva referred to a statement by the President that Wijeweera's ghost was appearing. He also referred to Deputy Defence Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte's veiled threat against those who were meeting in secret and collecting money in tills.

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