Tigers tried to poison Premadasa before May Day assassination



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Continued from Feb. 3 PART II


By Shamindra Ferdinando


The elite Special Task Force (STF) had once suggested to President Ranasinghe Premadasa to use an open mini-moke as a key part of its strategy to thwart a possible LTTE suicide attempt on the UNP leader’s life. But the President had dismissed the move, emphasizing his intention to go ahead with his routine. "The President expected those responsible for his safety and security to meet the LTTE’s challenge. But the STF strongly felt that the President shouldn’t mingle with crowds on May Day 1993. We believed a mini-moke should have been used at least for May Day," one-time STF Commandant, Senior DIG Nimal Lewke told The Island.


At the time of the assassination, Lewke had been the senior officer in charge of the STF deployed in the East, though he was in Colombo on the day of the hit.


Lewke said that Commandant Lionel Karunasena did everything possible within his command to protect Premadasa. Karunasena had urged the President to avoid crowds, though there hadn’t been specific information with regard to an attempt on the President’s life. "Unfortunately, we failed to convince the President of the LTTE threat. In hindsight, the LTTE could have targeted the President at some other location on a different day."


The President took the LTTE threat lightly. Lewke recalled how about a week before his assassination, the President directed the police not to deploy men at his Ambanpola estate during his regular visits there. After seeing a group of policemen on the road, while he was on his way from the estate to the nearby heli-pad, the President had inquired from SSP Vitharana (now retired), who was accompying him about the presence of the police. When explained that they always brought in additional strength during the President’s regular visits there, the President ordered that practice should be stopped forthwith. That was President Premadasa’s last visit to the Ambanpola estate.


"In spite of failing to convince the President to avoid crowds, we were confident of protecting him. Ours were definitely some of the best VIP security personnel in the world. A key element in our strategy was having the best among the President’s close protection team."


Lewke said that close protection teams (ring-around) were changed every six hours to ensure fresh and alert men. As Kulaweerasingham Weerakumar alias Illango alias Babu approached the President, Chief Inspector Upali Silva had been in charge of the close-protection team. There couldn’t have been a better man responsible for the President’s security. His unit was to be relieved at 1 a.m. by another squad, led by Inspector Lalith Daulagala. Babu triggered the blast at 12.48 p.m.


Lewke said that he was at the National Hospital when Upali was rushed in. "The blast smashed Upali’s left hand. He also received head injuries. But what really surprised us at that time was Upali had drawn his personal weapon out of the holster using the left hand. He was rated as one of the most brilliant marksmen we had in the STF. He is lightning fast, sometimes his magazine change is not visible to the naked eye and some people used to think that he does not do a magazine change when we do advanced firing training. One wonders, considering the injuries to left hand, and the fact that he had drawn the gun, he would have noticed the assassin approaching the President and as a trained bodyguard he would have made an attempt, with his left hand to pull the VVIP away from the advancing assassin and simultaneously drew the weapon. Had Upali noticed the assassin a few seconds before, he could have shot dead the killer."


Lewke said that the recovery of a precious ring worn by the President at the time of the assassination was recovered and handed over to STF stores along with the President’s wrist watch as he said in the first part of the interview wasn’t correct. Those who moved the President’s body from the scene of the blast to the police morgue retrieved the wrist watch. The day following the assassination, the President’s family inquired about a very expensive ring with a large precious stone, which the President was wearing at the time of his death. "When I visited the STF Headquarters on May 2 morning, there was a pandemonium as to what had happened to the ring. We were embarrassed. The failure to locate the missing ring would have been a slur. "


"We identified the Sergeant who had moved the body to the morgue and the STF Land Rover used for that purpose. But as the Sergeant couldn’t be located, the STF searched the Land Rover. To our relief, we found the ring under the carpet and it was duly handed over to the family."


Later, it was revealed that Commandant Karunasena’s life was saved as he was standing just behind ASP Sarath Mahinda, who died in the blast. Another person who escaped was SSP Sarvanandan who was walking with the President in close proximity, but the President directed him a few seconds before the blast to go and control a section of the crowd that emerged from a side road. That saved his life and it was believed that Sarvanandan was in Canada at present, as he migrated a few years ago.


Subsequently, it transpired that Premadasa’s assassin, a resident of Karaveddi, Jaffna had come to the notice of the National Intelligence Bureau (NIB).


As the assassin had been close to the President’s valet, he had an opportunity to move with the targeted bodyguards, Lewke said. In fact, the CID, a couple of months before the assassination, had received information to the effect that the LTTE would make an attempt to poison the President. The President never ate outside. He always carried his food and even when airborne, had his dinner between 6 and 6.30 p.m. A background check could have established the relationship between the President’s valet and the man from Karaveddi, he said.


The President sometimes used to pinch those on his close protection team when people were stopped from approaching him. The President felt that security shouldn’t interfere with routine, whatever the circumstances.


Lewke pointed out the LTTE adopted similar tactics to target General Sarath Fonseka in April 2005 at army headquarters. The LTTE used the General’s cook to gain entry into army headquarters and the rest is history.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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