War on terror revisited: Part 1
June 3, 2012, 7:27 pm
By Shamindra Ferdinando
In the run-up to the Dec 5, 2001 parliamentary polls, UNP leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe alleged that the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) was planning to assassinate him. He claimed that the DMI was training Tamil terrorists at the Panaluwa Army Testing Range to mount an attack on his campaign bus, as well as his political rallies. The unprecedented allegation triggered hostilities between the ruling People’s Alliance (PA) and the UNP, with the army placed in an extremely embarrassing position.
On the instructions of Wickremesinghe, UNP Chairman Charitha Ratwatte and Deputy Chairman Daya Palpola wrote a hard-hitting letter to Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle warning that he would be held responsible ‘in the event of an unfortunate incident’. The UNP duo accused the Army chief of training personnel to engage in a destabilisation campaign against the UNP.
Having consulted the political leadership, an irate Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Balagalle addressed a letter to Ratwatte and Palpola dismissing their accusations. The Island, in a front-page exclusive captioned ‘Army chief says no truth in UNP claims,’ in its Nov 11, 2001 issue revealed the exchange between army headquarters and te UNP headquarters, Sirikotha. The report was based on what Lt. Gen. Balagalle had told this writer the previous evening. The army chief, himself a one-time head of the DMI, said that there was absolutely no basis for the UNP allegation that a hit squad was undergoing training in the use of high explosives and thermobaric weapons.
The UNP ignored the army chief’s letter. The allegation was repeated throughout the campaign.
The UNP-led United National Front (UNF) emerged victorious with 109 seats, while the defeated PA managed to retain 77. The remaining seats were shared by the JVP (16), the TNA (15), the SLMC (5), the EPDP (2) and the DPLF (1). It was one of the bloodiest elections with the five-week campaign claiming the lives of almost 50 people, with the Dec. 5 massacre of a group of SLMC supporters at Udathalawinna being the single worst incident. This massacre, allegedly carried out by troops attached to the Vijayaba Infantry Regiment (VIR) caused a vindictive UNP leadership to order a raid on a safe house used by the DMI situated at Millennium City, Aturugiriya, on Jan. 2002, which changed the course of the conflict. The UNF cited intelligence reports that Anuruddha Ratwatte’s sons wanted in connection with the Udathalawinna massacre were taking refuge at Aturugiriya.
Although the UNP subsequently played down the incident, it turned out to be one of the major turning points in the conflict. It contributed to a deterioration of the security situation and thereby helped the CBK-JVP combine undermine the UNF government. President Kumaratunga took over three key ministries in Nov. 2003.
Had the UNP leadership been a little cautious, it would never have publicly accused the army of an assassination plot, Gen. Balagalle told The Island last Thursday.
Operating hit squads behind enemy lines had been a key element in the army’s strategy, Lt. Gen. Balagalle said, alleging the then Opposition had failed to grasp what was going on. He said: "Had they quietly raised the issue with us and sought a clarification without playing politics with national security, the Aturugiriya fiasco could have been averted. Even ex-LTTE cadres were brought in for operations along with a valuable input from civilian informants. We were successful due to many reasons such as training from Pakistani instructors. We also accommodated troops from other fighting battalions to engage in operations behind the enemy lines, though the Special Forces and Army Commandos spearheaded the campaign." At the time troops were undergoing training in Pakistan, he had functioned as Security Forces Commander, Jaffna, he said.
The Aturugiriya raid ruptured relations between the UNP and the Army. It caused irreparable damage to national security and giving the PA an opportunity to undermine the UNF government.
At the behest of the UNP, a section of the media, including the Colombo-based correspondents working for international news agencies, highlighted the Aturugiriya raid speculating the army’s alleged involvement in anti-government activities. Investigating officers alleged that those based at Aturugiriya had been involved in the alleged attempt to assassinate Wickremesinghe in the run-up to the Dec 5 polls. Subsequently, they were accused of planning attacks in the city and suburbs to sabotage the Norwegian-led peace process.
The UNP allegations had the desired impact in the wake of state television showing recovered items, which included 66 sets of LTTE uniforms, four thermobaric weapons, seven claymore mines each weighing 10 kgs, 10 claymore mines, each weighing one kg each, three T-56 assault rifles along with 400 rounds of ammunition, 10 anti-tank weapons, detonators, cyanide capsules, exploders, remote controlled devices and wire rolls. While a section of the media lashed out at the army, in a front-page exclusive captioned ‘Controversy over police raid on army officer’s Millennium City residence,’ on Jan 4, 2002, The Island revealed that police team from Kandy led by UNP loyalist, Kulasiri Udugampola, had raided an army safe house. The police team was backed by a team of CCMP (Ceylon Corps of Military Police). In spite of the army strongly objecting to the police action, with both Lt. Gen. Balagalle and the then Director of DMI, Brigadier Kapila Hendarawithana (currently Chief of National Intelligence) reassuring the government of the legitimacy of operations undertaken by the DMI, the police was let loose on covert operatives. In spite of Lt. Gen. Balagalle rushing Hendarawithana, who later figured in many controversies to the scene, SP Udugampola went ahead with the raid. He had obtained permission from courts to search the premises. Udugampola had the backing of the then Interior Minister, John Amaratunga. IGP Lucky Kodituwakku, though being convinced of the legitimacy of the DMI operation, was helpless.
Interestingly, Amaratunga, who authorised the damaging Aturugiriya raid was among those seated in the front row along with President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa at the recent launch of ‘Gota’s War’ by The Island columnist, C. A. Chandraprema. ‘Gota’s War’ dealt with a range of issues culminating with an alleged US attempt to hire one-time security forces spokesman, Maj. Gen. Prasad Samarasinghe to go against Sri Lanka on the human rights front.
The Island revealed former US ambassador Patricia Butenis’s plot in an exclusive captioned ‘GR rejects testimony attributed to unnamed Gen.’ with a strap-line ‘Reveals US attempt to bribe serving officer,’ in the Jan 30, 2012 issue.
The Kandy police raided the safe house shortly after the officer-in-charge of the DMI operation had handed over part of their arsenal. Those involved in the hit-and-run operations in LTTE held-areas had returned to Colombo on Dec 27, 2001 in the wake of the Wickremesinghe administration declaring its readiness to go ahead with a Norwegian initiative to bring about a truce. The Kandy police also accused the army of planting two claymore mines targeting a UNP candidate along the Wattegama-Panwila road, in the run-up to the Dec 5, 2001 polls.
The then security forces spokesman, Brig. Sanath Karunaratne emphasised that those operating from Aturugiriya were involved in ‘army duties’ (The Island Jan 4, 2002). Regardless of protests by the army, those arrested were taken away to the Narahenpita CMP headquarters before being transferred to Kandy. They were treated like criminals and held under humiliating conditions. Six of them, including an officer were held in one room. For two weeks, the media reported all sorts of conspiracy theories.
Those arrested were held for almost two weeks before being released. The police raid would never have been possible without an influential section within the army cooperating with the political establishment to undermine a vital operation, which brought the LTTE under immense pressure.
The UNP and the police justified Udugampola’s raid. Asked whether he had used the safe house to accommodate his sons, one-time Defence chief, Anuruddha Ratwatte, candidly acknowledged that he wasn’t even among those who knew of the existence of that particular rear base, though the army kept him informed of operations undertaken by the DMI. (Feb 1 issue of The Island, 2002)
The then Defence Minister, Tilak Marapone, one-time Attorney General, to his credit, thwarted an attempt by the Kandy police to prolong the detention of DMI operatives using the provisions of the PTA. The Wickremesinghe regime didn’t even bother to consult the armed forces and police top brass regarding the provisions of the agreement. Then Navy Commander, Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri told the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) how then Defence Secretary, Austin Fernando, had bypassed them with regard to sensitive military issues.
Fernando in an article captioned ‘The Peace Process and Security Issues’ (Negotiating Peace in Sri Lanka: Efforts, Failures and Lessons) admitted that the failure on the part of the then government to consult the military had been a failing. Fernando said (page 42): "The military chiefs weren’t consulted in the drafting of the CFA. Of course, a casual opportunity was given to them to discuss the draft with Ministers of Defence (Tilak Marapone) and Constitutional Affairs (Prof. G. L. Peiris). This wasn’t considered adequate by them as they didn’t get an opportunity to discuss the CFA with their senior officers".
The UNP realised the importance of clandestine operations undertaken by the DMI when the CFA declared that ACTIVITIES BY DEEP PENETRATION UNITS should be ceased along with the cessation of all military action. The LTTE wouldn’t have demanded a ban on DMI operations unless it had been vulnerable to those hunting them in their own backyard. Obviously, the LTTE wouldn’t have bothered about the DMI had the latter been stalking Wickremesinghe in the run-up to Dec 2001 polls.
Retired Senior DIG Merril Gunaratne, who was Defence Advisor to Wickremesinghe during the CFA, exposed the UNP leadership in the recently launched ‘COP IN THE CROSSFIRE.’ The first book of its kind, written by one-time Director General of Intelligence, revealed how the top UNP leadership has taken security issues lightly at the expense of the country as well as the party. Asked whether he had been involved in the operation to move the Kandy police against the DMI, Gunaratne told The Island on Friday that he categorically opposed the move. "I was convinced the PA government wouldn’t target Wickremesinghe, thereby allowing the UNP to benefit from the sympathy vote. Unfortunately, Wickremesinghe and his top advisors felt the army was hell bent on destroying the UNP."
‘COP IN THE CROSSFIRE’ revealed how the then Interior Minister John Amaratunga’s son-in-law (Dinesh Weerakkody), did a weekly piece on military/intelligence matters after he turned down a directive to do a newspaper column in support of the peace effort.
The Aturugiriya raid had a catastrophic impact on the armed forces, which experienced untold hardships due to miscalculations on the part of political and military leaders. Following the betrayal of the DMI, the LTTE unleashed a series of operations in the city, its suburbs and in the Eastern Province. Altogether, about 50 military personnel, Tamil informants as well as ex-terrorists, died at the hands of the LTTE as their identities were revealed owing to the raid on the army safe house. The dead included two senior military officers, both killed in Colombo. Although, the two military officials, holding the rank of Major and Colonel could have been on a hit list regardless of the Aturugiriya fiasco, the LTTE exploited the situation to demoralise the army. Daring operations directed at the DMI and police intelligence helped boost the LTTE’s image. The military was placed in an unenviable position as the suspension of the PTA effectively neutralised counter-measures directed at LTTE hit squads.
Inspector Dale Gunaratne, the then President of the Police Inspectors’ Association, was perhaps the only official publicly critical of the UNP’s response to the LTTE threat. Although his superiors reacted angrily, Gunaratne lashed out at the government for allowing the LTTE to exploit the CFA to its advantage. Citing the killing of Inspector Thabrew at the Dehiwela police station, IP Gunaratne alleged that the suspension of the PTA in keeping with the CFA was nothing but a grievous threat to those fighting terrorism. He kept on lambasting the UNP and his own superiors for not taking action to neutralise the LTTE threat. But the UNP was determined to salvage the crumbling peace process at any cost. For those at the helm of the government, the lives of security forces and police didn’t matter, as long as they believed the LTTE would remain in the negotiating process. Politicians felt whatever the provocations, the peace process should continue.