SPECIAL REPORT : Part 27June 10, 2014, 12:00 pm
Chennai, May 19, 2007: Sri Krishna crew members air their woes to the then Chief Minister Karunanidhi. The LTTE transferred them from the Vanni mainland to Tamil Nadu immediately after the Maldivian Coast Guard sunk Sri Krishna, commandeered by a special squad of Sea Tigers. Among those rescued by the Maldivians, was Simon Soza, ‘Sri Krishna’s’ skipper.
by Shamindra Ferdinando
The DMK secured Southern Tamil Nadu State at the May 2006 election, as the LTTE was preparing for an all out war in Sri Lanka. The LTTE leadership needed a sea route to ensure a steady supply of arms, ammunition and equipment to its fighting cadre deployed in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. In fact, the success of the LTTE’s war effort primarily depended on its ability to sustain an uninterrupted sea supply route, though at one point it built at least two big runways in the Vanni east to accommodate large transport aircraft. The bid to use transport aircraft never materialized.
An attempt to assassinate Army chief, the then Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka in late May 2006 was meant to demoralize the armed forces, including the navy, which was given the unenviable task of stopping arms shipments.
The LTTE had no option but to utilize the Tamil Nadu fishing fleet to transfer weapons from floating LTTE warehouses on the high seas to the Vanni across the Indo-Lanka maritime boundary. The LTTE had the then Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi’s blessings to go ahead with its operation, therefore the group didn’t expect serious trouble from the Indian Coast Guard or law enforcement authorities. Karunanidhi bent backwards to assist the LTTE project. The Indian National Congress failed to take tangible measures to thwart LTTE operations, though it knew of the DMK’s involvement with the LTTE. The Congress permitted the Tamil Nadu operation to continue.
The navy not only had to stop arms smuggling, but counter TN/LTTE propaganda as well. The navy faced an extremely difficult task. With the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), receiving a mandate to investigate the conflict during the Feb 2002-May 2009 period, it would be pertinent to discuss a series of events in early 2007. These events can shed light on the complicity on the part of Tamil Nadu in terrorism as well as the Centre’s failure to tackle the situation. India prolonged the conflict in Sri Lanka. The people of Tamil Nadu too, suffered due to the DMK’s contentious policy. ‘The Island’ coverage of the events taking place on the ground as well as out at sea during that period would never have been a reality without the then navy spokesman Captain D.K.P. Dassanayake’s perceptions. The two previous articles too, focused on the Tamil Nadu factor, with this piece being the third and perhaps the most significant of all. Had it not been for his efforts, perhaps, there wouldn’t have been the required coverage of events taking place rapidly out at sea, beginning early March 2007. A close examination of the circumstances under which those events took place revealed the existence of the high profile link between Tamil Nadu and the LTTE.
Karunanidhi seeks Singh’s intervention
Karunanidhi sought the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s intervention in late March 2007 in the wake of an attack on a Tamil Nadu fishing craft about 35 nautical miles off Kanyakumari, well within Indian territorial waters. In a letter dated March 31, 2007, addressed to PM Singh, Karunanidhi alleged: "... an unidentified group of attackers opened fire on a Tamil Nadu fishing boat." Karunanidhi was referring to the killing of five Tamil Nadu fishermen on March 29, 2007. Quoting a fisherman who had survived the attack, the Tamil Nadu leader said that two boats, which approached the ill-fated boat from "the Sri Lankan side and without any provocation or warning, indiscriminately opened fire on the Indian boat. All the attackers numbering about 20 were youngsters either bare bodied or in casual dress."
Karunanidhi made several allegations as well as recommendations to Premier Singh. The veteran politician warned Premier Singh that unless some stern measures were taken by the Centre to make Indian waters safe, the situation was likely to get out of control. Alleging that a third party might have carried out the attack attack, Karunanidhi urged Singh to establish the identity of attacks as well as their international connections. He also called for enhanced Indian Navy and Coast Guard presence in the Tamil Nadu seas and to bring the entire naval effort under a unified command. The Sri Lankan navy strongly denied the Tamil Nadu leader’s claims, made in the wake of a section of the Indian media accusing the SLN of the massacre. When the SLN strongly countered the Indian media reports, Karunanidhi made a ridiculous attempt to assert that some smugglers with international links might have killed the fishermen. The SLN insisted that there was no basis for claims that there was a third party operating in the sea.
‘A third party’ blamed for killing 16 Chinese nationals
Interestingly, on the day of the Kanyakumari massacre, there had been a high level SLN delegation in New Delhi. The delegation responded to what SLN headquarters called was unfounded allegation. The SLN recalled how the Norwegian-led Scandinavian truce monitoring mission accused an unknown third party of attacking a Chinese fishing vessel about 22 nautical miles north of Mullaitivu on March 19, 2003. The attackers mowed down 16 Chinese and two Sri Lankans on ‘FU Yuan YU 225’. The monitoring mission asserted that neither the LTTE nor the Sri Lankan government could have carried out the attack. Although those who had survived the attack as well as the crew of another Chinese vessel also operating in the area told the mission of the LTTE’s culpability, chief of monitors, retired Major General Tryggve Tellefsen requested the government and the LTTE to find, disarm and arrest ‘criminal elements’ operating on their own. Both the truce monitoring mission and the Tamil Nadu administration went out of their way to protect the LTTE. Their approach towards terrorism baffled many (Lanka challenges bid to shield Tigers with strap line Killing of five Tamil Nadu fishermen-The Island, April 5, 2007).
A chance detection exposes TN-LTTE conspiracy
The Indian Coast Guard made a crucial but chance breakthrough on April 11, 2007. Having spotted two ‘vallams’ 26.5 nautical miles southeast of Kanyakumari, a Coast Guard vessel had ordered them to stop. It was among nine ships backed by three maritime aircraft engaged in a special operation in the wake of the Kanyakumari massacre, on March 29, 2007. The Coast Guard swiftly apprehended the ‘vallams’ and took 12 persons into custody. A section of the Chennai based media quickly identified the arrested persons as armed Sinhala men. The widely read Dinakaran, affiliated to the ruling DMK, on a front-page report declared that 12 fishermen were in custody. But the arrested consisted of six Sri Lankan Tamils and six Tamil Nadu fishermen. The six Sri Lankans were identified as Arul Gnanadasan (20), C. Robin (23), S. Selvakumar (19), M. Pannibose (28), D. Arul (19) and Ravi Kumar (24). Under interrogation, the Indians claimed that they had no option but to rescue the Sri Lankans stranded off Kanyakumari in a trawler named ‘Maria.’ The Indian Coast Guard seized the two ‘vallams’ about 14 nautical miles away from the ‘Maria’ which also recovered by the same service.
India ignored an SLN request for an opportunity to interrogate the suspects, whom the service believed had been involved in the Kanyakumari massacre. The SLN strongly suspected that the six arrested Sri Lankan Tamils were LTTE cadres assigned for a special operation aimed at transferring armaments from the high seas to the Vanni via Indian waters. The Coast Guard detection and subsequent revelations embarrassed the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, though he pretended he wasn’t bothered at all (Indian Coast Guard seizes ‘Maria’, six Lankan Tamils-The Island April 16, 2007). Although India arrested several LTTE cadres during 2007, beginning with the apprehension of three persons along with two Indians on February 13, 2007 off Kodiyakarai, the SLN was never given an opportunity to question them (Lanka wants access to ‘terror’ suspects in Tamil Nadu custody-The Island April 19, 2007).
A significant ‘Q’ branch probe
In spite of the DMK’s attempts to whitewash the LTTE, the ‘Q’ branch of the Indian Criminal Investigation Department (CID), on April 27, 2007 accused the LTTE of carrying out the Kanyakumari massacre. The ‘Q’ branch asserted that the six Sri Lankans arrested in the company of Tamil Nadu men on April 11, 2007 were members of special Sea Tiger squads deployed to ferry arms, ammunition and equipment from an LTTE ship on the high seas. According to a two-page note issued by the then Tamil Nadu Director General of Police, the group in Indian custody was among the units given this task. The arrested persons claimed that members of another Sea Tiger squad carried out the Kanyakumari massacre, whereas the SLN believed the group in custody was responsible. The police chief said that the boat involved in the March 29, 2007 attack also bore the inscription ‘Maria.’
The ‘Q’ branch made another extremely important revelation into clandestine LTTE operations. The investigation resulted in one of the most important findings made during 2007, thanks to a chance detection made by the tiny Maldivian Coast Guard, a couple of weeks later. Under interrogation, those Sea Tiger cadres arrested on April 11, 2007, revealed that another squad had seized a large Indian fishing vessel, the Sri Krishna, on March 4, 2007 close to the Indo-Lanka maritime boundary. The seized vessel’s crew comprised 12 men-ten from Kanyakumari and one each from Thoothukudi and Kerala. The arrested persons claimed that the Sea Tigers commandeered the vessel after having transferred the crew in another craft to that the Vanni. The ‘Q’ branch made the revelation in the backdrop of some interested parties alleging the SLN of either seizing or destroyed the Sri Krishna (LTTE massacred Indian fishermen, seized large vessel with 12 men with strap line Tamil Nadu probe reveals-The Island April 29, 2007).
At one point, India sought the SLN help to locate the Sri Krishna, after Verkodu Visai Padahu Meenavar Sangam of Rameswaram asserted that it may have reached Kalpitiya waters.
LTTE Political Wing leader S. P. Thamilselvan accused the SLN of seizing Sri Krishna.
Rajya Sabha contradicts ‘Q’ branch
A humiliated Karunanidhi informed the State Assembly of the LTTE’s direct involvement in a spate of incidents. The DMK leader had no option but to acknowledge the LTTE’s complicity even in attacks on Tamil Nadu fishermen. However, the opposition AIADMK didn’t make a big issue about it. Then much to the surprise of all, the Centre intervened on behalf the LTTE. No less a person than the then Defence Minister, A.K. Anthony, reiterated the hotly disputed charge that the SLN was continuing attacks on Tamil Nadu fishermen in the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar. Anthony was responding on May 9, 2007 to a query raised by C. Perumal in the Rajya Sabha. Perumal was evidently acting at the behest of the LTTE lobby. Both Perumal’s question and Minister Anthony’s response had been probably prepared by the same party. Reporting a slight increase in such attacks in the recent past, Minister Anthony accused the SLN of killing 77 Tamil Nadu fishermen during the 1991-2007 period. India totally overlooked a spate of incidents as well as the findings made by the ‘Q’ branch. In an obvious bid to counter adverse reportage in a section of the Sri Lanka press, India’s Press Information Bureau released Minister Anthony’s statement headlined ‘Attack on Tamil Nadu fishermen by Sri Lankan Navy’ which dealt with measures taken by the navy and the Coast Guard. Sri Lanka strongly denied Indian claims alleging complicity on the part of some officials in the LTTE terror campaign (India shields Tigers despite compelling evidence of attacks on TN fishermen with strap line...overlooks Kanyakumari massacre, seizure of Sri Krishna with 12 men, castigates SLN in Rajya Sabha-The Island May 11, 2007).
Sinking of ‘Sri Krishna’
What Tamil Nadu as well as India never expected was another country intervening in the clandestine LTTE arms smuggling operation. That intervention was made by the Maldivian Coast Guard under extra-ordinary circumstances, on May 16, 2007. The Maldivian Coast Guard engaged a vessel carrying the Sri Lankan flag after the latter fired at a Maldivian fishing craft. Following a 12-hour stand off, the Maldivians sank the craft flying the Sri Lankan flag. Interestingly, there had been some Indian naval personnel onboard the Maldivian craft engaged in the operation. The Indian presence ensured that the Indian National Congress knew what exactly happened in Maldivian waters. The LTTE would never have expected those commandeering the vessel to surrender. The Maldivians rescued five persons who jumped overboard from the sinking vessel, subsequently identified as Sri Krishna. The rescued men told the Maldivians and their Indian instructors (The Indians were helping the Maldivian Coast Guard personnel to familiarize with CG vessel Huravee, gifted by New Delhi to Male) the circumstances under which they were found in Maldivian waters, while engaged in transferring armaments from a floating warehouse. Sri Krishna’s skipper, Simon Soza had been among the five rescued by the Maldivians. The Sea Tigers admitted that the remaining Indians were being held in a camp in the Vanni (Maldives sink Indian craft hijacked by Sea Tigers-The Island May 18, 2007).
The sinking of the Sri Krishna was the second high profile incident involving an Indian trained terrorist group in Maldivian territory. The raid on Male during the first week of November, 1988 by sea borne PLOTE (People’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) terrorists at the behest of a Colombo based Maldivian businessman, Abdulla Luthufee was the first. Interestingly, the Indian navy sank MV Progress Light commandeered by Luthufee’s mercenaries in a bid to reach Sri Lankan waters.
Had the SLN had an effective deployment in the seas off the northwestern coast, it could have scored a significant victory by thwarting an LTTE plan to shift the remaining crew of ‘Sri Krishna’ from the Vanni mainland to Tamil Nadu. The LTTE transferred altogether 11 Indians on May 18 and dropped them at two different locations. Had Soza died during the confrontations, the LTTE would have quietly killed the Indians to cover-up the Sri Krishna episode. The Maldives promptly responded to an SLN request to question those in their custody. Their interrogation helped SLN efforts to break the enemy sea supply route (LTTE frees Indians after losing Sri Krishna with strap line SLN gains access to Sea Tigers in Maldivian custody-The Island, May 20, 2007).
Soon after the Maldivians had intercepted the Sri Krishna, the Norwegian embassy in Colombo sought information from the Maldivian High Commission in Colombo regarding the incident. The Norwegians wouldn’t have raised it with the Maldivians without being asked by the LTTE. However, by the time Norway got in touch with the diplomatic mission, the Maldivians had cleared SLN intelligence to interrogate those in their custody (Foreign embassy tried to help LTTE arms vessel escape with strap line Sinking of Sri Krishna by the Maldivian Coast Guard-The Island May 26, 2007).