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A new declaration of war

Print edition : Nov 01, 1997

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A new round of terrorist violence rocked Colombo on October 15 when terrorists suspected to belong to the LTTE set off a powerful vehicle-bomb in the city's commercial-political district. An on-the-spot report.

ON October 15, Sri Lanka's capital Colombo was rocked by a horrific vehicle-bomb explosion. The bomb claimed the lives of 18 persons, including eight terrorists. Soon after the blast, the terrorists who struck at the nerve centre of Colombo's commercial-political district, found themselves challenged by the elite units of the Sri Lankan military, including commandos. What followed was a day-long drama.

Colombo had been free of bombings for nearly 20 months when terror struck the World Trade Centre (WTC) at around 7.10 a.m. on a day that ironically happened to be a Buddhist holiday. In January 1996, suspected suicide bombers belonging to the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) blasted the buildings of the Central Bank of Ceylon (Frontline, February 23, 1996), not far from the WTC's twin towers. That bombing was followed by another bomb blast on a train a few weeks later.

As the thunderous sound of the bomb blast on October 15 reverberated across the city and beyond, I rushed to the scene with my thoughts going back to images of a daring Taliban air raid on Ahmad Shah Masood's Kabul (Frontline, November-December 1995) that I had witnessed. The decibel level of the Colombo blast was close to that of the Taliban air raid. As I learnt later, about 400 kg of explosives were used in Colombo's vehicle-bomb blast, while a 500-kg package of explosives was air-dropped by Taliban pilots over Kabul on that occasion.

Presently, Press Trust of India's correspondent K.J.M. Varma and I found ourselves taking cover near the site of the Colombo blast, even as visibly committed Sri Lankan military personnel engaged the terrorists. The troops, who belonged to an elite, anti-terrorist Quick Reaction Team, fought fierce gun battles with the terrorists who had fanned out on streets around the WTC complex soon after the blast.

With rumours that the terrorists - suspected suicide squads belonging to the LTTE - might use rocket-propelled guns, my thoughts once again went to the Taliban rocketing I had encountered in the past. More fighting of the urban guerrilla warfare variety, though, was presently taking place at a short distance from where I and a few other journalists, including Statesman correspondent Ravi Prasad and his wife Ranjitha, who works for Pakistan's Dawn, were present. My thoughts also went to the one-time killing fields of Karachi.

As a montage of action unfolded before us, Varma and I spoke to each other intermittently, even as we continued to take cover as and when required. We used our mobile phones to get eyewitness accounts from the occupants of the high-rise buildings in the area. I also made phone calls to The Hindu/Frontline photographer, Sriyantha Walpola, who had managed to position himself at another vantage point.

More memorable though, were the phone calls I received from people far and near, including a few calls from abroad, wanting to know what was happening on the scene. Unforgettable was the reflex reaction of a caller who hung up immediately on hearing the deafening sounds of a hail of gunfire.

We knew that four of the five retreating terrorists had taken shelter inside the building housing the state-controlled Daily News - Colombo's famous Lake House. An unspecified number of employees were trapped inside the building - potential victims of a possible hostage drama. Motorcycle-riding members of the Quick Reaction Team were moving in front of this new focal point, close to our positions. The troops kept issuing warnings to us and asked us to stay clear of the scene of actual fighting.

The body of a slain terrorist lay not far from us, while two suspects were being held by the troops at the outer perimeter of an imaginary circle with shifting front lines in this urban guerrilla battle. Varma managed to shout a question at one of the suspects, I was waved away by the troops from reaching their prize catch. Even as we took cover during one of the spells of staccato gunfire, the troops suddenly realised that one suspect was running away. It took them only a few seconds to overpower him.

By the time most of the journalists left the scene, some five hours after the gunfights began soon after the blast, the troops had secured almost the entire area except Lake House, which too was cleared by the evening. As Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga asserted at a press conference two days later, the Government's special emergency troops were certainly in control of the situation within minutes of the blast. Throughout my five-hour ringside view, it was clear that the guerrillas did not succeed in outsmarting the Quick Reaction Team that was obviously well-prepared.

However, there was no doubting the fact that the terrorists had breached the elaborate security cordons around the WTC complex with considerable ease. These cordons were erected after the Central Bank of Ceylon bombing in 1996.

Piecing together various eyewitness accounts and some snippets of official acknowledgments, the tragedy unfolded somewhat on these lines.

As the clock struck seven on a bright morning, terrorists, whose exact number remains a mystery, made their way unimpededly, by a lorry or some other vehicle, to a parking lot behind the WTC complex which was, incidentally, heavily guarded in the front. The thinly-guarded parking lot, belonging to an adjacent five-star hotel, apparently provided the terrorists easy access to the WTC.

Security staff at the entrance of the parking lot stopped the vehicle that was laden with bags of rice. These bags concealed high explosives of either the RDX or the C-4 variety. Some of the terrorists aboard the vehicle dismounted and gunned down the security guards as the driver drove past a blockade-railing that was lifted by another accomplice.

As the first gunshot sounds were heard, the staff of the nearest hotel whisked away 60-odd guests who were in the restaurant on the ground floor to the relative safety of the seafront close by. This alert action saved their lives, even as the explosion, which took place a few metres away from the WTC's rear side, ripped through the area. It was not immediately clear whether a timing or remote-control device was used.

It appeared that the driver, who was wearing a 'suicide jacket', had not blasted himself to trigger the bomb. That might explain why the vehicle was not rammed into the WTC's rear facade. In one sense, this probably accounted for a relatively lower level of destruction, compared to the Central Bank of Ceylon bombing that left over 90 dead and nearly 1,200 injured.

Although the LTTE did not claim responsibility for the latest carnage, Chandrika Kumaratunga said that preliminary investigations fully established its involvement in it. As the WTC's rear facade lay in ruins, extensive collateral damage was caused to at least two luxury hotels in the neighbourhood, while the President's Secretariat, the Bank of Ceylon and another hotel suffered considerable damage.

Even as the terrorists began to leave the scene after the blast, the Quick Reaction Team arrived. Air Force helicopters started circling overhead on reconnaissance work, even as the flames were put out with the help of Air Force and Navy units.

While the troops succeeded in target-killing some of the terrorists, one terrorist lobbed a grenade into the premises of a Buddhist shrine nearby, killing the high priest. The militants walked on the streets for a while before entering Lake House, obviously on the spur of the moment, and holed themselves up there for several hours.

Some Lake House employees appeared to have alerted the troops outside about the activities of the militants inside the building. This was possible only because the terrorists did not deploy the employees as a human shield in their standoff with the security forces. The military leadership, having been updated about the happenings inside Lake House, air-lifted commandos to the building. After the troops got the employees out unharmed, they stormed the premises in groups. During this operation, one commando lost his life, while two militants committed suicide and another was killed. With that, the day-long drama came to an end. It was evening.

Over 100 persons, including three Indians, who were staying in different hotels suffered injuries in the blast. One of them, Craig Polley, who was associated with the settlement of insurance claims in connection with the 1996 bombing, had a miraculous escape when large pieces of glass panes rained on him. When Karan Thapar, an Indian television producer, jocularly asked the hotel staff whether a coup was on, he was told that "unauthorised firing" was on and was asked to be careful.

Preliminary investigation by this correspondent revealed that new political-diplomatic cross-currents were at work. If the LTTE had really carried out the bombing, it was not seeking to wipe out some American military experts who were present in Colombo at the time. Even if some of them were actually staying at one of the affected hotels at the time, the LTTE is not known to waste its suicide-bombers to cause collateral damage, such as that inflicted on these hotels, in quest of direct targets.

The U.S. and other major Western powers have rediscovered Sri Lanka as a potential strategic state in the context of an emerging Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC). That, in part, explains the recent U.S. decision to proscribe the LTTE on grounds of disrupting peace and stability in South Asia. By capitalising on these trends, Chandrika Kumaratunga has been trying to bring international pressure on the LTTE by pleading with the major powers to ban it on their soils. She has not proposed any fresh talks with the LTTE for the present. She has merely reaffirmed her old offer of talking to the LTTE if it agrees to consider her political package for resolving the Tamil issue. In all, Chandrika Kumaratunga cannot ignore the fact that the recent bomb blast was a new declaration of war on the Sri Lankan state and its image as a potential haven for foreign investment and a rejuvenated tourist destination.

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