IF the Sri Lanka Navy's firings on Tamil Nadu fishermen got a lot of column space in newspapers in February and March, the spotlight was also on the uncovering of a network involved in smuggling iron ball bearings, aluminium ingots, explosives, chemicals and metal rings for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka.
The centrepiece of the seizures was a fibre-glass boat captured by the Coast Guard off Point Calimere on February 13. The boat had all the telltale evidence of an LTTE suicide mission - a jacket filled with explosives, an AK-56 assault rifle, 124 rounds of ammunition, five hand-grenades, drums filled with liquid chemicals, a satellite phone and a hand-held Global Positioning System. It was camouflaged to give an impression that it was transporting rice and coconuts.
What shocked the Coast Guard, the Tamil Nadu Police and the Intelligence personnel who interrogated the five men (four Sri Lankan Tamils and one belonging to Tamil Nadu) on board was the revelation that the boat was lined with trinitrotoluene explosives. The boat was later destroyed in mid-sea. The Coast Guard vessel intercepted the boat after a radar picked up signals.
The "Q" branch of the State Police made a number of seizures, which included several tonnes of iron ball bearings meant for use in landmines, in January, February and March, revealing an LTTE network that extended to Kerala and Maharashtra. What also came to light was the operation of a hawala network in Chennai. Two members of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam have been arrested on charges of conducting hawala transactions.
A fallout of the arms seizures was the Coast Guard's decision to train the police personnel of the Tamil Nadu's Coastal Security Group in patrolling the shallow waters of the Palk Strait.
In a press note on March 9, D. Mukherjee, Director-General of Police, Tamil Nadu, listed the seizures made separately by the "Q" branch police and the Coast Guard. On March 6 and 7, the "Q" branch arrested Arulselvan and Raghulan, both Sri Lankan Tamils. On information provided by Raghulan, 4.5 tonnes of iron ball bearings were seized at Perambalur. The seizures were made at a soap-making unit, whose owner Ramesh Kumar surrendered to the police on March 21. Two other Sri Lankan Tamils, Pradheepan and Bageerathan, were arrested in Chennai. Further investigation led to the arrest of Bargath alias Idayatullah of Mannady, Chennai, who allegedly took part in the hawala transactions.
On January 23, the "Q" branch police conducted raids in Chennai and Tuticorin, and seized 7.5 tonnes of iron ball bearings destined for Sri Lanka. Twelve people, including five Sri Lankan Tamils, were arrested. On February 12, the Indian Navy personnel seized 92 bags of aluminium bars and metal rings from a boat off Dhanushkodi. Police investigation resulted in the seizure of 1.5 tonnes of aluminium bars and a mini-van. Eleven persons were arrested. On February 14, the Indian Navy seized a country boat with 2,700 kg of aluminium bars contained in 126 bags off Dhanushkodi.
Mukherjee said: "Strict action is being taken and will continue to be taken, irrespective of the political party or organisation they belong to, against those who extend support to the LTTE directly or those who clandestinely provide [it] financial and material support."
Inspector-General Rajendra Singh, Commander, Coast Guard Region, East, said on March 21 that the Coast Guard and the Coastal Security Group would jointly "ensure that the coast of Tamil Nadu is well protected".T.S. Subramanian