War on terror revisited: Part 19July 15, 2012, 7:46 pm
By Shamindra Ferdinando
The sinking of the LTTE owned MV Koimer in early Mach 2003 during the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) has been the navy’s first major successful operation on the high seas, though it never received the coverage it really deserved.
SLNS Sayura was at sea when its radar detected a suspicious vessel about 110 nautical miles north east of land.
Captain Ruwan Dias (currently Director General, Sri Lanka Coast Guard (SLCG), Dias holds the rank of Rear Admiral) decided to investigate, though there had been no specific information regarding the presence of an LTTE ship in the area at that time.
Formerly of the Indian Navy, SLNS Sayura is the largest Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) still in service. It played a crucial role in eelam war IV, hunting down the LTTE’s floating warehouses during the tenure of Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda as the Commander of the Navy (CoN). In 2003, SLNS Sayura had been spearheading operation Waruna Kirana, aimed at blocking LTTE sea supply routes to Chalai and Mullaitivu on the northern coast when it confronted MV Koimer.
Having an LTTE ship in SLNS Sayura’s gun sights, navy headquarters acted swiftly and decisively. The navy top brass didn’t even bother to alert the then UNP government or Norwegian-led Scandinavian truce monitoring mission as regards the operation underway on the high seas. SLNS Sayura had to cope with the situation as the navy lacked the much needed assets to support the operation.
Throughout the operation, SLNS Sayura had been in touch with Colombo and Trincomalee, while navy headquarters directed additional units to the area. In the absence OPVs capable of rushing to the scene, the navy dispatched one gunboat and one Fast Attack Craft. By the time they had reached the scene, the LTTE vessel was on fire, after being hit by Bofors guns mounted on SLNS Sayura.
In the wake of allegations that the naval action had undermined the CFA, Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri emphasised that the Commanding Officer of SLNS Sayura had acted on specific instructions issued by navy headquarters (CBK wants Ranil to raise smuggling at Tokyo talks; Artillery among lethal cargo in sunken LTTE ship––The Island of March 13, 2003).
Rear Admiral Dias told The Island on Friday: "We managed to close in on the ship about 180 nautical miles away from land. As per the instructions received from navy headquarters, we gave them an opportunity to surrender, though they chose to make an attempt to escape even at the risk of their lives. Regardless of our order to surrender or face the consequences, the LTTE fired heavy calibre weapons at us. Three personnel, including an officer received injuries during the confrontation. We didn’t have any alternative but to target the rouge ship. It was a tremendous success for the navy. The service naturally felt proud of its achievement."
Lt. Commander, P. C. Pathiraja, who was the navigating officer on board SLNS Sayura at that time said on Friday that the unprecedented success had given a tremendous boost to the navy’s morale. In a brief interview with The Island, Commander Pathiraja, now retired, said that Lt. Commander, S. A.W. Seneviratne (now retired), who had been on duty before him had logged the target. Commander Pathiraja said: "The crew thought they were on to something. We pursued the target relentlessly for several hours and in the early hours, we spotted it. The vessel was taking a very unusual course. It was about 190 nautical miles north east of Point Pedro at first light. It was a tanker about 70 m in length. The vessel kept moving suspiciously and we had to act. We challenged it. It did not respond to our repeated calls to identify itself and we had to step up pressure. Having received instructions from Colombo, we fired over the ship before closing in on the target. As we moved closer, they fired at us, causing injuries to several personnel. We took evasive action, before attacking the ship."
The LTTE could have easily surrendered to SLNS Sayura and come along with it to Trincomalee, he said. "Once they had fired at us, we targeted the ship with maximum firepower at our disposal," Commander Pathiraja said, adding that as the LTTE tanker was sinking SLNS Sayura intercepted a message originating from the sinking vessel. "One of those men on board the sinking ship vowed to take revenge. It was a chilling communication. As SLNS Sayura moved away, a Chinese-built gunboat commanded by Lt. Commander, A. K. Guruge and a Fast Attack Craft commanded by Lt. Commander Prasanna Hewage moved in. They fired at the ship, making its journey to bottom of the sea faster, he said. Those on board never tried to escape, he said.
"We were elated. Having transferred the wounded to the FAC, we moved towards Trincomalee. As our ship approached Trincomalee navy base, we felt so proud to see two SLAF choppers, carrying National flags flying toward us. Then they turned back and led our ship towards the harbour. We received a stirring welcome. Shortly thereafter, the Scandinavian truce monitoring mission interviewed us on board our ship. They wanted to know the circumstances, under which we had fired at the LTTE ship. The SLMM reacted quite excitedly in the wake of a major crisis. The next day, we left Trincomalee for Colombo and the following day I was at the annual Royal Thomian at the Sinhalese Sports Club grounds. My old colleagues gave me a rousing welcome at the Royal tent."
What Commander Pathiraja perhaps didn’t realise was that the navy’s action was causing an unbearable headache to another Royalist, PM Ranil Wickremesinghe.
"About six weeks later, we received a death notice through our sources based in Kilinochchi, announcing the death of six LTTE personnel consequent to our action off Mullaitivu."
The LTTE reacted angrily. About ten days after the confrontation between SLNS Sayura and MV Koimer , the Sea Tigers blew up a Chinese boat, Fu Yuan Ya 225 killing 15 Chinese nationals and two Sri Lankans off the North-eastern coast of Sri Lanka. The LTTE probably felt that the Chinese may have alerted the navy, regarding the presence of ‘MV Koimer’ in the area.
Amidst a furore over the sinking of MV Koimer and a desperate attempt on the part of the GoSL and the Norwegians to prevent a similar incident in the future, the navy struck again. Before discussing the confrontation leading to the destruction of the second LTTE ship, MV Shoshin on June 14, 2003 (India helps in search for 2nd Tiger ship––The Island of June 15, 2003) it would be pertinent to examine the Waruna Kirana exercise, conducted in the northern seas. Having realised that there should be a permanent blockade to prevent large scale sea movements, the navy launched that operation in May 2001. Navy headquarters felt that a permanent patrol could hinder LTTE movements about 100 to 150 nautical miles away from land by detecting and intercepting suspicious vessels. The navy sustained the operation at a massive cost to the taxpayer until Vice Admiral Karannagoda changed the concept in 2006. Karannagoda, undoubtedly the country’s most successful navy commander, believed that ships shouldn’t be deployed without having credible intelligence.
While the GoSL and Norwegians had been trying to persuade the LTTE to join the two-day Tokyo Donor Conference on June 9 and 10, 2003, the LTTE made its move.
The navy detected two LTTE vessels in the early hours of June 14, 2003. At the time of the detection, a big ship was towing another craft. Although the smaller of the two vessels escaped during the operation, the navy managed to zero in on the bigger craft about 175 nautical miles north east of Mullaitivu. Although the navy and the LTTE exchanged fire, the former declared that the enemy had blown up the vessel to avoid its capture. The navy also alerted India to the presence of the LTTE vessel and sought their help to track down the elusive target (India helps in search for 2nd Tiger ship––The Island of June 15, 2003).
Government leaders reacted angrily as the seriousness of the incident dawned on them. The Norwegians and the LTTE leaders were also frothing at the mouth with the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga publicly congratulating the navy. Sinking of the two vessels caused irrevocable damage to relations between the navy and the then government. The government alleged that the navy was working against the peace process, a charge denied by navy top brass. Vice Admiral Sandagiri on many occasions told The Island that the LTTE could have easily saved the CFA by not trying to enter Sri Lankan waters. Those pushing for peace never bothered to press the LTTE to adhere to the peace process. Instead, they wanted the Sri Lankan military to turn a blind eye to what as going on, he told The Island.
Many an eye brow was raised when the navy and President’s office issued two entirely different statements as regards the circumstances, under which MV Shoshin went down on June 14, 2003. Navy headquarters said that the LTTE crew had triggered a blast causing the destruction of the vessel, whereas the President’s office said that the navy had sunk the vessel. The President’s office said that having had no response from the LTTE, the navy had proceeded to attack the LTTE ship and sunk it at approximately 9.00 am (Sri Lanka time). The navy said that the ship had sunk at 6 am. (President’s version differs from Navy’s––The Island of June 15, 2003).
The navy could have intercepted the second vessel if the generators of the FMV (Fast Missile Vessel) SLNS Nandimithra had not packed up at a crucial time of the operation. The ship, one of the two FMVs acquired from Israel in 2000 had been spearheading the operation when its generators failed. (Tiger craft escapes when SLNS Nandimithra’s generators pack up––The Island of June 16, 2003).
The SLAF deployed a surveillance aircraft to help locate the LTTE ship. As its second surveillance aircraft wasn’t available, the SLAF deployed one AN 32 in support of the Beech craft. Interestingly, the SLAF didn’t throw its weight behind both navy operations targeting LTTE ships, though it had jets at its disposal. The SLAF acquired Kfirs, a multi-role aircraft from Israel in early 1996.
The navy didn’t make any other detection during Vice Admiral Sandagiri’s tenure. In fact, the next detection was made off Kalmunai on Sept 17, 2006 at the onset of eelam war IV, during Vice Admiral Karannagoda’s tenure. The confrontation, which took place 120 nautical miles away from land, claimed the lives of 14 LTTE cadres. In support of the navy task force comprising Offshore Patrol Vessels and Fast gun boats engaged in the operation, the SLAF jets, unlike on previous occasions, launched from Katunayake, bombed the LTTE vessel carrying artillery shells and ammunition.
The navy’s approach towards the CFA during the 2002-2003 period caused numerous problems for the government, particularly the navy seemed to be taking a strong stand against the LTTE, overtly. In spite of the GoSL’s attempts to reach an understanding with the navy, the top brass, in spite of differences among them in some instances, took the LTTE’s challenge seriously. As the ground situation deteriorated rapidly due to the LTTE build-up, the navy caused a major political crisis by publicly backing MP Lakshman Kadirgamar’s accusations as regards a looming threat to the strategic Trincomalee navy base. The trouble erupted just a few weeks after the sinking of MV Shoshin. The government accused the navy of working with President Kumaratunga and MP Kadirgamar, while the President insisted that the defence establishment couldn’t risk security of the port city in the belief that the LTTE wouldn’t go on the offensive. The UNP was placed in an extremely difficult and delicate situation. The late foreign minister went to the extent of warning India that an LTTE build-up targeting Trincomalee could pose a threat to India’s interests. Angry UNPers demanded that PM Wickremesinghe immediately curtail MP Kadirgamar’s security as he had been playing politics with the national issue.
In a surprising move, navy headquarters threw its full weight behind MP Kadirgamar, with the then navy spokesman, Captain Jayantha Perera (currently Director General Operations, Perera holds the rank of Rear Admiral) declared that Kadirgamar was repeating confidential information made available by the navy (Navy backs Kadir’s claims of LTTE Trinco threat––The Island of Sept 7, 2003). Navy headquarters made its move in the wake of the UNP alleging MP Kadirgamar of making up ‘stories’ on information provided by the then Eastern Commander, Rear Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda. They were accused of working overtime to scuttle the Oslo-led peace process. Navy headquarters publicly acknowledged that Rear Admiral Karannagoda had briefed Messrs Kadirgamar at President’s House on Aug 4, 2003 regarding the LTTE threat before the same presentation was given to Defence Minister, Tilak Marapone and Defence Secretary, Austin Fernando. (Navy backs Kadir’s claims of Trinco threat––The Island Sept 7, 2003 issue).
The dispute over the LTTE build-up in Trincomalee sharply divided the navy, with an irate Karannagoda alleging that a section of the government, as well as some of his colleagues at headquarters conspired against him. Karannagoda told The Island that MP Kadirgamar had revealed the setting up of new LTTE positions targeting Trincomalee, particularly the harbour, on the basis of his presentation on Aug 4, 2003. (COMESAST to sue government television station on Trinco issue––The Island of Sept 14, 2003).
In spite of repeated warnings, the government refused to adopt a tough stand against the LTTE, which openly exploited the situation to its advantage. Although the navy didn’t come across any big ships trying to smuggle in arms, ammunition and equipment, the LTTE would have definitely brought in armaments during the latter part of 2003, 2004 and 2005. The LTTE would have changed its strategy after losing two ships in early 2003, to ensure a steady supply of arms and ammunition. The LTTE wouldn’t have assassinated MP Kadirgamar on Aug 12, 2005 without first replenishing its arsenal to face any eventuality.
(Next installment on July 18 will focus on the assassination of Kadirgamar and EPRLF frontliner, Robert, during the CFA).
The JVP quit the UPFA on June 16, 2005 not on June 16, 2004 as reported in the ‘War on terror revisited’ piece in the June 29, 2012 issue of The Island. One-time LTTE theoretician, Anton Balasingham and his Australian born wife, Adele had received VIP chopper rides courtesy the SLAF during peace talks during Ranasinghe Premadasa’s presidency (1989) and then Ranil Wickremesinghe’s tenure (2002-2003) as the PM. The installment on July 4, 2012 inadvertently referred to the Balasinghams visiting Sri Lanka in 2009.