A troubled course

Print edition : April 11, 2003

The sinking of an LTTE ship by the Sri Lankan Navy on March 10 points to the volatility of the situation despite the peace process.

THE Ceasefire Agreement between the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) suffered a major jolt on March 10 when an LTTE ship allegedly ferrying arms was destroyed by the Sri Lankan Navy. The incident was crucial: for the first time since the ceasefire came into force on February 23 last year, a Tiger ship had been destroyed by the Navy.

There have been several incidents of friction between the government forces and the LTTE in the recent past, but none as serious as this one. During a period when both sides have continued with the peace process and participated in the Norway-facilitated sixth round of talks in Japan from March 18 to 21, there is no doubt that the incident has caused a negative impact capable of disrupting the negotiations - unless urgent damage control measures were employed.

Predictably, the incident triggered conflicting and mutually recriminatory versions about what exactly took place in the high seas. The "official" version according to direct and indirect government sources provided one account, while the "unofficial" version related by both LTTE chief negotiator and political adviser Anton Balasingham and the head of its political wing, S.P. Thamilchelvan, had a contrary opinion. Expectations that the situation would be clarified by the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) led by Norway were belied as the Scandinavian peace monitors played it safe by sticking to observations based on acknowledged facts instead of pronouncing judgmental opinion.

While the SLMM report was not very forthcoming, different media reports reflecting both sides provided some illuminating particulars. While some of the details appeared to be partisan, it was possible, with the aid of other informed sources, to piece together a credible account.

THE Sri Lankan authorities received information from a credible source about the movement of a Tiger ship ferrying arms towards the coast of Mullaitivu district in northeastern Sri Lanka. Similiar information had been received in December last year too but the Navy had been unable to detect the vessel. This time the Naval Commander, Daya Sandagiri, moved to Trincomalee along with his senior officials and coordinated an elaborate marine search that began at nightfall on March 9.

The biggest ship in the Sri Lankan naval fleet, SLNS Sayura, sighted the suspect vessel around 7-45 a.m. the following morning. (This advanced offshore patrol vessel - AOPV - was purchased from India a few years ago. It was of the Sukhanya class frigate type, and was known as Sarayu earlier. The patrol ship had 135 personnel on board and was commanded by Capt. Ruwan Perera.)

The suspect LTTE vessel was reportedly a tanker weighing approximately 700 tonnes, 8 metres wide and 61 metres long. It had 11 crew members on board. According to the Navy, it flew no flag and upon being questioned replied that it was carrying cargo from "Kenya to Bangladesh". The crew refused to let the Navy personnel board the vessel.

Soon, four other naval vessels - two Dvora gunboats and two fast-attack craft - reached the scene. They were SLNS Udara, SLNS Pradeepa, FACP 474 and P 494. After a tense stand-off lasting a few hours, fighting erupted at 10-15 a.m. The firefight apparently lasted about 15 minutes, as the 12.7 mm guns on the Tiger ship were no match for the 40-mm Bofors guns with a 6,000-metre range on board the Sayura. FACP 474 and P 494 also closed in and started firing.

The suspect ship was on fire. By 10-30 a.m. it started listing on the starboard side, and by 11-30 a.m. it began to sink. It went completely under at 3-10 p.m. None of the crew members survived. The Navy made a film of the last 15 minutes of its sinking, which showed the ship's markings. According to one account, it was m.v. Koimar while another said it was m.v. Koel.

It has been the LTTE's practice to alter the markings on its ships. A ship carrying prominent Tiger leader Sathasivampillai Krishnakumar alias Kittu was apprehended by the Indian Navy in January 1993. Kittu and eight other Tigers committed suicide after sending the captain and crew of the ship away. That ship too had confusing names such as m.v. Yahata and m.v. Ahat.

In the latest incident, the LTTE claimed that the ship belonged to its merchant naval fleet and that it was carrying legitimate cargo elsewhere and was not bringing arms into the country. It also alleged that the incident took place 220 nautical miles from the coast, that is, in international waters. The Tigers said they were relying on the SLMM to resolve the standoff.

The Navy, on the other hand, said the ship had no identifiable markings and was carrying warlike material. Moreover, the crew of the suspect ship opened fire on the naval vessel and then tried to move away. Four naval personnel were injured and there were about 30 fresh marks of .50 half inch bullets fired on the Sayura by the 12 mm and 7 mm guns on Koimar/Koel. Also, the incident had taken place 195 miles from the coast, within the 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Sri Lanka.

The LTTE leadership, however, alleged that the Navy's high-handed act was aimed at wrecking the peace process. Balasingham initially said the ship was carrying "fuel" and not arms. The Tigers charged the Sri Lankan forces with two legal violations. One, the incident had taken place in international waters and hence the Sri Lankan Navy had no right to take action in terms of laws governing the sea. Secondly, the LTTE cited provisions 1.2 and 1.3 of the Ceasefire Agreement.

Provision 1.2 says: "Neither Party shall engage in any offensive military operation. This require the total cessation of all military action and includes, but is not limited to, such acts as: a) The firing of direct and indirect weapons, armed raids, ambushes, assassinations, abductions, destruction of civilian or military property, sabotage, suicide missions and activities by deep penetration units; b) Aerial bombardment; c) Offensive naval operations."

Provision 1.3 says: "The Sri Lankan armed forces shall continue to perform their legitimate task of safeguarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka without engaging in offensive operations against the LTTE." Emphasising the last point, the Tigers claimed that the naval action constituted a violation of the ceasefire agreement.

The Navy, however, maintained that the incident had occurred within the waters of Sri Lanka and not in international waters. In any event, the Navy asserted that it had a right of hot pursuit. Also, the LTTE ship had violated the ceasefire agreement and was carrying "warlike materials". This created an "extraordinary situation" warranting vigilant action concerning "their legitimate task of safeguarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka". Moreover, it was only retaliating in defence as the Tiger vessel had fired first.

In a significant gesture, the government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, long accused by the Opposition of mollycoddling the Tigers, took a firm stand on the issue. Defence Minister Tilak Marapane, in a well-publicised reply to Thamilchelvan's complaint, was emphatic that the Navy had discharged its duty correctly. The government's chief negotiator and Constitutional Affairs Minister Gamini Lakshman Peiris endorsed this position at the weekly Cabinet briefing.

While the Navy may or may not have been in the wrong in exercising its rights, it soon became apparent that the LTTE too was not coming "clean" on the issue. The Tigers were unable to furnish categorical answers to elementary questions relating to the name of the ship that was sunk; the date and place of its registration; the names of the crew members and whether they possessed certificates required by international shipping conventions; the flag it was flying; and most important, the nature of the cargo. Had the LTTE been able to provide precise information on these aspects, its claim of being the "aggrieved party" would have carried more credibility.

The Tigers organised massive demonstrations to mourn the dead persons but at least initially failed to reveal their identities.

Given the anger and indignation among the Tiger hierarchy, one theory gaining currency is that the LTTE leader in charge of arms acquisition, Kumaran Pathmanathan Shanmugam alias KP aka "Kannadippathan", was on board. K.P., the head of the LTTE's euphemistically termed "Overseas Purchases" department, was indispensable to the movement. Operating under several passports, K.P. has been responsible for systematically and regularly replenishing the LTTE's arsenal through "purchases" made in "overseas" arms bazaars. He is on the wanted list of Interpol.

Balasingham, however, denied that K.P. had died. He said that some senior and experienced members of the Sea Tigers division of the LTTE had been killed. "It is the loss of those on board the ship rather than the loss of the ship itself that is worrying," said Balasingham at a press conference in Kilinochchi. He refused to divulge details of the cargo on board. The admission that at least three senior Sea Tiger leaders were killed showed the gravity of the LTTE's loss but eroded the credibility of its assertion that the ship was a merchant vessel.

There were reports in some Colombo newspapers that the ship was carrying armaments including ten 130 mm guns. This, however, did not seem credible as 130 mm guns are quite heavy with the barrel itself weighing about 6 tonnes. It would have been impossible to offload those guns into LTTE trawlers as is usually done in mid-sea operations.

There were, however, reports in some pro-LTTE Tamil newspapers published abroad that aeronautical equipment and spare parts were part of the cargo in the sunken ship. The reports also said that some of those killed were physical science graduates of Jaffna University sent to Western countries to obtain pilot training and also qualify in aeronautical engineering. If these reports are correct it would mean that the personnel and cargo were connected to the LTTE's nascent air wing known as "Vaan Puligal" (Air Tigers). It was also said that the ship's skipper Vijayan was a favourite of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabakaran.

The LTTE displayed much anger over the incident. Balasingham told the BBC that there was pressure within the Tiger ranks to boycott the talks in Japan. Prabakaran deliberately avoided meeting with visiting Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgesson saying that he was busy with a central committee meeting.

ANALYSTS have pointed out that the sea remains an area of potential conflict because the original Ceasefire Agreement draft failed to incorporate specific guidelines in this respect. The compromise arrived at was to let the general provision about the Sri Lankan armed forces having the right to "perform their legitimate task of safeguarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka from external aggression" remain in the agreement.

This has led to several incidents of friction at sea. It has been argued that the need of the hour is to draw up satisfactory procedures governing maritime movement. Only this could prevent a collapse of the ceasefire, it was felt. The sixth round of talks was expected to address this aspect.

There was speculation that the report of the SLMM on the incident would be utilised by both sides to blame the other. There was the expectation that the report would indict one side or the other as being responsible for the crisis. The monitors, however, faulted both sides on some points, but scrupulously avoided a comprehensive judgmental stance. In fact, the SLMM report was unclear, raising more questions than providing answers.

On the crucial question of the ship's sinking, the SLMM observed: "It still remains unexplained what actually caused the ship to sink." It said that as neither the government nor the Tigers had proved its version, "holding only one party responsible for this incident is not possible". It had "no proof if the cargo of the vessel was warlike material, like the government had stated, or diesel as the LTTE stated".

The monitors said that the versions that the Navy gave were contradictory. For instance, on being "asked why the SLMM was not informed and a monitor called to the scene", naval officers "stated that they did not know it was an LTTE vessel, but were only informed about a suspicious gun-running vessel".

This contradicts the initial press release from the government, which had said that the action was taken after receiving "credible information that an LTTE vessel carrying war-like material was approaching the Mullaitivu coast".

The SLMM, however, was critical of both sides for their failure to inform the monitors on time. "Both parties had enough time to inform the SLMM and to request it to take immediate action on this matter before the situation escalated and the actual confrontation took place,'' the monitors said. But, they added, "regrettably neither of the parties informed the SLMM until it was too late to prevent the clash". This was "disappointing" as both the parties had set up the SLMM "to conduct impartial verification, inquiries into alleged violations and to assist them in the settlement of any dispute that might arise".

Although the peace talks will continue, the incident and the postures of both sides illustrate that the situation can be quite volatile. Instead of trying to establish mutual confidence, the warring sides remain as estranged as ever. The focus is on scoring brownie points over the letter of the Ceasefire Agreement being violated or not, while its spirit has been irredeemably harmed.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor