Navy recovers ‘ammo’ from LTTE vessel

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Initial investigations into Wednesday’s explosion that destroyed a Sea Tiger craft off Vakarai and the subsequent skirmish between the navy and the LTTE in the same area, revealed that the LTTE was transporting a stock of ammunition including a stock of 120 mm, 81mm mortar rounds and rocket propelled grenades (RPGs), defences sources said yesterday.

"Recovery of mortar bombs and RPGs clearly establish what they were doing," the sources said. The sources said that they were trying to establish whether the LTTE craft was moving southwards from the north or bringing in a fresh consignment of arms following a mid-sea transfer from a bigger vessel.

"The sea movement was taking place in clear violation of the ceasefire agreement," the sources said, adding that the government promptly informed the Norwegian-led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) about the latest violation. Vakarai incident took place a day after the SLMM ruled that the LTTE violated the agreement previous Wednesday by transferring armed cadres from the Wanni to the east and then directing a sea plane carrying Anton Balasingham over the scene where the navy intercepted the illegal movement.

Naval units engaged in a search operation in the area immediately after this week’s engagement, the first combat since an indefinite ceasefire came into effect on February 22, recovered mortar bombs and RPGs among other items wrapped in polythene. "They were floating," the sources said, agreeing that the navy was able to recover only a fraction of the cargo. Everything else went up in flames when the blast, apparently triggered by the cadres on board to avoid detection by the navy. The sources described the incident as one similar to the incident in the Indian ocean where self styled LTTE Lieutenant Colonel Kittu ordered the destruction of their vessel carrying a massive stock of armaments when the Indian navy surrounded the vessel over a decade ago.

The ill-fated boat was identified as a trawler also known as a multi-day fishing craft. Apparently there were no survivors.

The boat laden with explosives and ammunition went up in flames shortly after a routine naval patrol conducted by the Commander-Eastern naval area- spotted it along with a smaller craft. "Our craft started moving towards the bigger vessel when the blast occurred," the sources said. The other craft moved away from the scene and succeeded in avoiding the Fast Attack Craft (FACs) taking advantage of a large number of fishing boats operating in the area. A little later, naval units have come across another Sea Tiger craft which opened fire at the navy, forcing them to fire back. The LTTE boat was hit during the engagement.

During the engagement and the subsequent deployment of additional naval units, Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe was regularly briefed while the security forces, the LTTE and the SLMM took measures to prevent further incidents. Since then there had been no other incidents, the sources said, expressing confidence that it would not upset the peace process. All bases in the North-East were placed on a heightened state of alert immediately after the two sides exchanged fire, the sources said.

The sources expressed the belief that LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran too has taken prompt action to control the situation.

Both the Premier and Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgesen have repeatedly said that there would be set-backs. Both have expressed the belief that the parties to the February 22 agreement would be able to overcome whatever the reversals.

The government expects Norwegian Major General Trond Furuhovde-led SLMM comprisin representatives of Nordic countries to give a ruling on the Vakarai incident.

Last Tuesday (30) President Chandrika Kumaratunga strongly criticised a Trincomalee based foreign SLMM member for directing the navy to release the three boats carrying a large stock of armaments including sniper rifles and 40 LTTE cadres including their Trincomalee district leader

Paduman. President Kumaratunga while addressing an urgently summoned meeting of the National Security Council (NSC) at Janadhipathi Mandiraya, had attacked the SLMM for ruling in favour of the LTTE, the sources said. She expressed the belief that the SLMM should not have directed the navy to release the boats laden with armaments including at least 40 boxes of ammunition. The SLMM asked the navy to let the boats leave despite the Trincomalee based monitor having an opportunity to inspect the boats, the sources said.

She has taken the stance that the boats laden with weapons should have been held after releasing the LTTE cadres, the sources said.