The recent recovery of a four-barrelled air defence gun on the Vanni front highlighted the LTTE’s once unparalleled ability to procure armaments abroad and smuggle them into north-east Sri Lanka, using its merchant fleet and a range of smaller craft including some belonging to the Tamil Nadu fishing fleet.
For over two decades, the LTTE managed to bring in large stocks of a vast range of arms, ammunition and equipment as it gradually expanded to a force to be reckoned with. The Tigers needed to replenish their arsenal regularly to sustain offensive capability. A sustained procurement strategy facilitated their rapid expansion and transformation from a mere terrorist group to one with a conventional fighting capability.
The LTTE moved in critically important supplies in small quantities to its bases on the north-western coast both north of Mannar up to Pooneryn and south of Mannar. Bigger loads were moved to the north-eastern coast with the unloading operations centred on Mullaitivu-Chalai area. They also maintained regular boat movements between the Northern and Eastern Provinces.
One of its biggest operations was keeping communications between the Jaffna peninsula and the Vanni mainland intact. When the then navy chief, Vice Admiral Clancy Fernando, directed an effective campaign to cut off the Kilali route, the LTTE retaliated by assassinating Fernando in November 1992.
He was the only service commander targeted by Black Tigers until they made an attempt on Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka in April 2006.
Whatever the circumstances on the ground, the LTTE sustained its sea supply routes as revealed during the period of the IPKF’s presence here. During the deployment, the SLN made 150 detections whereas the Indians recorded only four. But when it failed to acquire and smuggle in the required equipment during the IPKF presence, it swiftly engaged the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa in direct negotiations which collapsed in June 14, 1990 with the government losing the overland route to the Jaffna peninsula.
Until the army regained the A9 recently, the Jaffna-based armed forces and police primarily depended on sea line of communications between Trincomalee and KKS as well as Colombo and KKS at tremendous cost to the taxpayer. Although the A9 was opened for civilian movement and transport of cargo following the Norwegian-brokered CFA, the eruption of hostilities in the second week of August 2006 forced the navy to take on an additional workload.
During this time the SLAF played an important role both in moving men to and from the Jaffna peninsula and providing air cover to convoys moving between Trincomalee and KKS.
Despite taking losses over the years, the Sea Tigers remained a formidable force which exploited the weakness in the naval strategy to sustain its sea supply lines both to the north-western and north-eastern coastal areas. The arms recoveries made by the army over the past two years in the northern and eastern theatres, particularly on the eastern flank since the liberation of Paranthan and Kilinochchi in the first week of January this year, revealed the magnitude of their operation.
These stocks would have been sufficient to equip several battalions and elite units tasked with suicide attacks on the armed forces. The recent recovery of the air defence gun by Brigadier Shavendra Silva’s 58 Division in the Puthukudirippu is evidence of the Tigers’ successful procurement strategy.
Although the army initially identified the captured weapon as a ZPU-4 of Soviet origin, subsequent inquiries revealed that it is of Chinese make. The ZPU had been widely used against the US by the North Vietnamese and by the Iraqi forces during their invasion of Kuwait over a decade ago. The belt-fed weapon known as 14.5 mm Quad can be used both against low flying targets as well as light armoured vehicles and personnel.
Although, the army has captured only one such weapon so far, the possibility of there being at least a couple of more in the `no fire’ zone cannot be ruled out. The bottom line is that the bulk of the LTTE’s arsenal had been of Chinese make and the recovery of a dedicated air defence gun underlined that fact.
From where did the LTTE acquire the system? How many of them were acquired? And, most importantly, when were they acquired and how did they end up in the Vanni battlefield? There is no dispute that the Sea Tigers smuggled them in. But the answers to the remaining questions wouldn’t be possible without conducting a comprehensive investigation based on available intelligence on the enemy’s procurement network.
An officer involved with SLAF air defence network told The Sunday Island that the weapon with an effective range of 2,000 metres is one of the enemy’s major acquisitions. He asserted that it was part of their arsenal deployed against the Katunayake-based jet squadrons and No 09 Attack Helicopter Squadron A senior ground commander said that Sri Lanka hadn’t acquired a similar weapon even after the Air Tigers mounted attacks on the Colombo and its suburbs. They never knew about the deployment of 14.5 mm Quad until the unexpected recovery was made.
Although the LTTE had seized millions of USD worth armaments, including different types of artillery, mortars, massive stocks of ammunition and even armoured fighting vehicles in the first three phases of the Eelam War and also brought in a range of specialized equipment through the BIA and Colombo harbour during the Norwegian arranged CFA before the change of government in April 2004, there is absolutely no doubt that bulk of the armaments had been brought in by sea.
Mid-sea transfer of 130 mm and 153 mm artillery pieces as well as a range of mortars, particularly the 120 mm would have been a daunting task. The list is long but nothing would have been as shocking as bringing in fixed wing aircraft in knocked-down condition in ships, transferring them into large trawlers and moving them in.
The LTTE also brought in a range of fast attack craft, including its 16 metre long wave rider class craft built in Indonesia. The capture of one such craft ‘Indumathie’ off Thalaiadi, Mullaitivu following a confrontation in June 2007, revealed the status of its firepower. Mounted with one 14.5 mm twin-barrel anti-aircraft weapon and four 7.62 mm multi purpose machine guns of Chinese origin, the boat powered by four Japanese 250 horse powered outboard motors, had US Gamin GPS and Japanese JRC radar. Just five metres shorter than the navy’s Israeli-built Fast Attack Craft, the wave rider class craft posed a formidable challenge.
Had successive governments realized the threat posed by the absence of an effective mechanism to patrol the northern and eastern waters, the LTTE would have collapsed years earlier. Unfortunately, due to ignorance on the part of the political leadership and the Defence Ministry as well as the navy’s top brass, the LTTE was able to secretly procure armaments, store them both on land and in floating warehouses, and then smuggled them in periodically.
It would be pertinent to examine naval operations directed against the LTTE procurement network with special emphasis on deployment in the Gulf of Mannar, controversy over the alleged attacks on the Tamil Nadu fishing fleet and expansion of the elite Special Boat Squadron (SBS) and the formation of the Rapid Action Boat Squadron (RABS).
We looked at the role played by the SLAF and SLA’s historic triumph over the LTTE on March 8 and April 5 issues respectively. We now examine the SLN’s role in this united tri-service effort.
Although the navy destroyed over a dozen merchant ships operated by the LTTE beginning with the attack on Horizon on February 14, 1996, during Vice Admiral Mohan Samarasekera’s tenure as navy chief, as well as many trawlers, the Tigers always maintained their sea supply route at tremendous cost. Three years earlier, they had lost their first cargo vessel at the hands of the Indian navy at the Bay of Bengal.
The navy destroyed two more ships off Mullaitivu and Nocobar in November 1997 and March the following year.
But nothing could have been as revealing as the attempt to smuggle in armaments in March and June 2003 during the CFA. To the credit of the then navy chief, Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri, the navy sunk two LTTE vessels, Koimer and Shoshin off the Mullaitivu coast on March 10 and June 14, 2003, respectively.
Believing that Chinese trawlers operating in the area had alerted the navy to the presence of these vessels, the LTTE retaliated by sinking two trawlers engaged in deep sea fishing. For the LTTE, suspension of hostilities meant relatively easy access to northern and eastern coastal areas.
Much to the chagrin of the then government, Defence Minister Tilak Marapona, PC, defended the naval action. The navy also intercepted some trawlers bringing in ammunition in the eastern theatre of operations during Marapana’s tenure.
The destruction of the ships and trawlers didn’t deter the LTTE from getting more consignments of armaments over the next three years as it prepared for Eelam War IV. LTTE rebel Karuna shortly after quitting the group revealed that they had brought in 13 arms consignments during the CFA.
Following the detection in June 2003, there hadn’t been a single successful attack on an LTTE ship until an SLN task force comprising Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) and Fast Gun Boats (FGBs) destroyed a vessel 120 nautical miles off Kalmunai Point on September 17, 2006, at the height of Eelam War IV. The navy moved in for the kill as Kfirs engaged the ship once. It was the first successful detection made during Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda’s command.
Hot on the heels of the Kalmunai confrontation, President Mahinda Rajapaksa said that his government wouldn’t turn a blind eye to LTTE arms smuggling activity. The warning was given at a meeting he had with Co-chairs’ representatives, Robert O Blake, Julian Wilson, Hans Brattskar and Kiyoshi Araki. German Ambassador Juergen Weerth too attended the Temple Trees meeting.
Barely a week later Sea Tigers carried out a daring attack on the Galle harbour causing sizeable damage. The attack prompted the US to call off a planned joint military exercise on the Hambantota coast. The exercise involving the Okinawa-based Marine Expeditionary Force and the SLN, including its elite units, had been planned some time ago. But the US didn’t want to go ahead after the LTTE raid.
Had they succeeded in raiding the Colombo harbour as meticulously planned in the early stages of the Eelam War IV the economy would have suffered massive losses.
Under Karannagoda’s leadership, the navy destroyed eight merchant ships in separate confrontations on the high seas with the last successful strike carried out on October 7, 2007 about 2,600 km south of Dondra head. It was undoubtedly an unprecedented feat achieved by painstaking intelligence gathering, both here and abroad, and changing the concept of deployment of major naval assets on the northern waters. During this period, the navy expanded as it took over more responsibilities with regard to deployment on the ground and also played a critical role in covert operations.
In 2006, the navy abandoned ‘Waruna Kirana’, the longest running operation in its history, to launch specific operations on the availability of information on LTTE rogue ships. Launched in May 2001, ‘Waruna Kirana’ was geared to intercept LTTE ships heading towards Chalai and Mullaitivu. It was primarily a waiting game but the navy did not meet its ambitious objectives. With the change of strategy in 2006, the navy went all out against the LTTE supply network with extraordinary success against trawlers bringing in arms, ammunition and equipment from ships.
Despite the navy’s successes on the high seas as well as in the Gulf of Mannar, the LTTE continued to bring in supplies, thereby helping LTTE ground forces to prolong the battle. For almost three years, the LTTE had the fire power to resist the government offensive. Until the last stages of the Vanni offensive, ammunition had never been a problem to the LTTE.
The rescue of Anton Balasingham during President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s tenure and the moving of the Sri Krishna crew held in LTTE custody in the Vanni West to India in May 2007 revealed the Sea Tigers’ capacity. Balasingham, trapped in the Vanni, reached the UK after Sea Tigers moved him by boat and then by ship to Indonesia.
The recovery of 130 mm artillery pieces, surface to air missiles of Soviet origin and massive quantities of plastic explosives by the army is evidence of the efficient procurement machine employed by the LTTE. Without that, the LTTE’s fighting capacity would have collapsed much earlier. The group fought hard to keep its supply lines intact. Money was never a problem for the LTTE with access to millions of USD raised through the Tamil Diaspora to fund its ambitious procurement program.
The LTTE scored a stunning breakthrough in its efforts to procure large stocks of armaments and ammunition when it obtained North Korean end-user certificates - documents needed to legally buy weapons - to meet its requirement from the Chinese. Once Sri Lanka received information about the China-North Korea-LTTE link, the Rajapaksa administration acted swiftly to close down the supply line. Almost all the ships sunk by the navy since September 2006 are believed to have carried armaments of Chinese origin. The navy obtained irrefutable evidence of the Chinese link following the destruction of LTTE ships on the high seas.
While battling the LTTE on the high seas, the navy was also pressed into move civilians to and from the Jaffna peninsula in August 2006 after the outbreak of heavy fighting on the Muhamalai front. The navy took the challenge close on the heels of the ICRCrefusal to facilitate the move due to LTTE opposition.
A high profile US investigation also revealed major sea smuggling operations undertaken by the LTTE in support of its overall effort against the Sri Lankan government. The arrest of several foreigners, including retired Indonesian Marine Corps General Erik Watulo in early 2006, revealed that the LTTE planned to take delivery of a large quantity of armaments 200 nautical miles off the Sri Lankan coast.
The bottom line is that the LTTE at that time had the wherewithal to carry out a large scale mid-sea transfer. Among the items on the LTTE’s shopping list were surface to air missiles, night vision goggles and unmanned aerial vehicles. Investigators asserted that the LTTE purchases could have cost as much as USD 18 million.
The LTTE also acquired sizeable stocks of equipment from India too. In some instances, equipment ordered from various countries including Norway were re-routed to Sri Lanka. The Norway-Tamil Nadu route came to light in October 2007 when Indian authorities arrested Vanni Arasu (36), editor of Tamil Mann (Tamil Soil), the party organ of Dalit Panthers of India and close political ally of the DMK. Arasu had been the recipient of propellers and spares for outboard motors. Although investigations revealed that Arusu, also known as Jeyaraj Rathinam, received the equipment from a person identified as Gokulan based in Norway, he was able to obtain bail.
The detection of an Indian dhow off Kachchativu on January 26, 2006 by the navy revealed the LTTE dependence on supplies from India. The navy arrested a five-man Indian crew and recovered 65,000 electrical detonators of Indian origin from the vessel.
On November 14, 2006, the navy captured an Indian after its Fast Attack Craft blew up an Indian trawler in the seas off Kalpitiya, west of Kudiramalai point. The arrest of Sekar revealed the LTTE-Tamil Nadu link. India, due to domestic political compulsions, continued to turn a Nelsonian eye to the rapidly growing relationship.
To the credit of the navy media, Sri Lanka was successful in tackling a false propaganda campaign aimed at undermining Indo-Lanka relations. A section of the Indian officialdom and the media manipulated incidents, particularly in the Gulf of Mannar, amidst an intensive battle for supremacy.
The seizure of an LTTE craft carrying three Lankans and two Indians 27 nautical miles south west of Point Calimere in February 2007 highlighted the link. The boat carried one suicide kit, one T-56 assault rifle with 124 rounds of 7.62 ammunition, five hand grenades, five detonators, hand-held GPS (global positioning system), satellite phone and eight drums of liqud chemical (55 litres each).
Subsequently, the Indian Coast Guard blew up the boat claiming that it posed a threat as it carried 2,000 kgs of high explosives. The Coast Guard made two similar detections in the same month. Then Indian officials claimed that the boat blasted by the Coast Guard was on its way to target Kankesanthurai harbour. They also discussed the possibility of LTTE suicide craft waiting for an opportunity to attack either KKS or Colombo harbours. The navy asserted that this was part of a strategy to undermine its overall operations.
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi in March 2007 declared that Sri Lanka would accept Indian navy on its vessels as part of a plan to stop attacks on the Tamil Nadu fishing fleet. The navy swiftly denied this claim. Although, many seemed to be unaware, a section of the Tamil Nadu politicians and officials worked overtime to keep the LTTE supply line intact.
But the massacre of five Indian fishermen off the Kanyakumari coast and seizure of Indian fishing vessel, Sri Krishna, in March contributed to the rapid collapse of LTTE operations in the Gulf of Mannar. Karunanidhi’s attempt to shield the LTTE by blaming a third party for Kanyakumari massacre went awry when the chance arrest of a group of LTTE cadres off Tuticorin coast on April 11, 2007, revealed the LTTE involvement.
Interestingly they had been in the company of six Indians. Under interrogation by the ‘Q’ branch of the Indian CID, the suspects acknowledged the Kanyakumari attack was carried out by an LTTE group tasked with transferring armaments from ships to trawlers. This came hot on the heels of Dinakaran, affiliated to the ruling DMK, falsely identfyng the arrested persons as Sinhala fishermen.
The destruction of Sri Krishna by the tiny Maldivian Coast Guard in the third week of May 2007 was a clincher. The Maldivian Coast Guard intercepted the vessel reported missing since March 4 after LTTE cadres commandeered it and fired at a Maldivian dhoni near Gaaf Alif atoll. Of the nine man crew, only five including the Indian captain of the vessel survived.
The Maldivian government swiftly gave the Sri Lankan navy access to LTTE cadres in their custody. In fact, Sri Lanka questioned the suspects before an Indian team arrived there. The interrogation of suspects in the Maldivian custody facilitated subsequent naval operations directed at the LTTE arms procurement network.
As the army gradually regained the Vanni mainland as the Sea Tigers collapsed, the number of civilians fleeing in fibre glass dinghies (FGDs) went up. According to navy headquarters, 1,152 men, 1,203 women and 1,348 children had reached naval units deployed on land and sea off the Mullaitivu coast between Jan. 6 to April 4 this year.
The navy has deployed a sizeable force off the north-eastern coast to help civilians risking their lives to reach units patrolling the sea. According to statistics made available by the navy, only 1,050 men, women and children had reached the navy during 2007 and 2008. The escapees included 486 men, 267 women and 262 children.
As the LTTE gradually retreated on the Vanni front in the face of army offensive, the Sea Tigers lost their capacity to transfer boats between the north-western and north-eastern coasts on special vehicles. The army and SLAF jets as well as No 9 attack helicopter squadron accounted for many LTTE craft in the northern theatre.
Credit should go to all navy officers and men who braved tremendous odds to meet the daunting LTTE challenge. Those who commanded ships, maintained communications and defuse monster sea mines in the seas are heroes who this country cannot forget.