Lanka’s key arms supplier, Tigers’ principal provider of weapons

China, one of Sri Lanka’s major suppliers of armaments had been the LTTE’s principal provider of weapons which enabled the group to wage war on the lines of a conventional Army.

The Chinese firm, Norinco had sold millions of USD worth of armaments, ranging from T-56 assault rifles to 14.5 mm air defence guns on North Korean and Eritrean end-user certificates-the documents needed to purchase armaments legally. The LTTE had obtained them through bribery, a Sri Lankan official told The Island adding that Chinese officials couldn’t have been unaware of the arrangement. The Chinese arsenal included artillery pieces and mortars responsible for thousands of deaths and casualties in the Army.

Although Sri Lanka knew of the LTTE secretly taking delivery of Chinese armaments for some time, the LTTE’s heavy dependence on the Chinese weapons came to light as the Sri Lankan Army fought its way into the LTTE heartland east of the A9 in and around the Puthukudirippu, Udayarkattu area.

When did the LTTE start ordering Chinese armaments? Some believe that the LTTE placed its first order shortly after Sri Lanka and the LTTE agreed on a ceasefire. But the possibility of the LTTE receiving Chinese arms even before the ceasefire agreement couldn’t be ruled out.

The Island learns that the government of Japan had investigated the North Korean link in the LTTE arms supply chain. Japanese investigators had visited Colombo and met with senior defence officials in their efforts to establish a possible North Korean link though NK had denied facilitating arms shipments.

Among the Chinese weapons recovered by the Army on the Vanni front, east of A9 road at the last stages of the offensive, were four barrelled mobile anti-aircraft guns which were also used against advancing ground forces with devastating success.

How much did the LTTE pay for the Chinese armaments and who arranged international money transfers? Although the LTTE had collapsed last May, an international ring of financiers who had facilitated procurement of arms not only of Chinese origin but from many other parts of the world is believed to be intact. LTTE money transfers couldn’t have gone unnoticed by international intelligence agencies as it involved transactions worth millions of USD, perhaps over a time frame spanning a decade.

The LTTE had captured a sizeable quantity of arms, including armoured personnel carriers, patrol boats and a few artillery pieces from the Sri Lankan armed forces over a period of time though there hadn’t been any major seizure of arms since 2001. The LTTE had also captured many 14.5 and 23 mm weapons mounted on Navy vessels, particularly Fast Attack Craft (FACs) blasted in suicide attacks.

Operation Varuna Kirana launched in May 2001 to block the LTTE sea supply route heading towards Chalai and Mullaitivu on the north-eastern coast had failed to achieve its primary objective. Although, the Navy destroyed two ships off Mullaitivu on March 10 and June 14, 2003 during Admiral Daya Sandagiri’s tenure as the Commander of the Navy, the LTTE had succeeded in bringing in large stocks of arms until the Navy struck off Kalmunai on September 17, 2006.

Under the then Navy chief Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda’s leadership, the Navy destroyed seven LTTE ships and over a dozen trawlers on the north-eastern and Mannar seas, thereby causing heavy damage to the LTTE supply line.

Interrogation of LTTE cadres arrested by the Maldivian Coast Guard in May 2007 while transferring armaments from an LTTE ship to northern Sri Lanka, too, helped Sri Lanka’s efforts against the LTTE. The destroyed LTTE vessels had carried large stocks of 152 mm, 130 mm and 122 mm artillery rounds and a range of other armaments, including electronic warfare equipment, communication sets, high powered OBMs, water scooters, radars and geographical positioning systems. All ammunition onboard the ships are believed to be of Chinese origin though there could have been equipment from several other sources, too, on what Karannagoda called floating warehouses of the LTTE.

The LTTE had also brought in sizeable quantities of arms and ammunition through the Gulf of Mannar route though India periodically intercepted LTTE boats. But interestingly, India never gave the Sri Lankan Navy access to LTTE terrorists arrested on their side of the international maritime boundary though Sri Lanka sought to question them. Despite the Navy’s success during the Eelam war IV on the high seas and the Gulf of Mannar, the LTTE had made desperate attempts to bring in supplies.

The capture of a 17-metre-long wave rider class LTTE attack craft (Indumathie) following a confrontation between the Navy and the Sea Tigers off Thalaiadi on the north-eastern coast on June 19, 2007 established the availability of Chinese weapons to mount on fighting craft. The Navy found five weapons-all of Chinese make, one 14.5mm and four 7.62 mm mounted on the vessel powered by four 250 horse powered OBMs, a US Gamin GPS and four other communication sets for boat-to-boat and boat to shore communication. The captured boat is believed to be among many craft built at an Indonesian boat yard though the LTTE subsequently set up facilities in the Vanni to built wave rider class craft and a range of other vessels, including submersibles.

Recently the Navy received access to all types of Sea Tiger assets captured by the Army on the Vanni front. An SLN team had inspected the entire range of vessels some of which had been recovered by Army divers. An officer told The Island that a Soviet era torpedo had been among the LTTE assets now in the army’s hands. Although the LTTE apparently had no use of it, the group had bought it believing that it could be of some use.

Although vast quantities of arms and equipment had been brought in ships and transferred to trawlers, the LTTE had also ordered container loads of warlike supplies during the CFA. An undisclosed number of 40-foot containers had been brought through the port of Colombo and moved overland across Omanthai entry/exit point. The Army recovered several dozens of containers, including a command and control post during the last stages of the battles on the Vanni east front. The previous UNF government had paid duty for state of the art communication equipment imported by the LTTE as part of its overall expansion which allowed it to set up live satellite broadcasts to Europe and several other parts of the world.

A bungled attempt to procure a range of armaments, including surface-to-air SA 18 missiles during Eelam war IV revealed the direct involvement of Indonesian and Singaporeans in the arms procurement operations. The US crippled the LTTE network and its investigation revealed that the LTTE planned to take delivery of arms on the high seas and part of the payments was to be made through a Malaysian bank.

Although the LTTE had fired first generation surface to air missiles at SLAF aircraft with devastating success, acquisition of anti-missile system and jets had made LTTE missiles obsolete hence the attempt to purchase SA 18, also of Russian origin.

 (Continued tomorrow)

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