The killing spree

Print edition : July 18, 2003

The body of Nimal Thabrew, officer-in-charge of the Police Intelligence Gathering Unit, who was killed by the LTTE in Colombo on June 23. - ANURUDDHA LOKUHAPUARACHCHI /REUTERS

THE widespread condemnation of the killing of Thambirajah Subathiran alias Robert, the deputy leader of the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), in Jaffna on June 14 led many people to believe that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) would end its killing spree in northeastern Sri Lanka. Such expectations were belied when it continued with the assassination campaign, notching up three more victims within 10 days of Robert's murder. While two of those killed were former Tamil militants, the third marked a significant departure from the LTTE's usual pattern.

For the first time during the 14-month-old ceasefire, the Tigers targeted a Sinhala police officer. The 40-year-old Nimal Thabrew, officer-in-charge of the Police Intelligence Gathering Unit (IGU) at Dehiwela to the south of Colombo, was shot dead on June 23 while he was sleeping in the police barracks in broad daylight by 25-year-old Sellathurai Kirubakaran alias Madan of Mulliawalai in Mullaitheevu district.

The assassin was a double agent. He had been functioning as a police informant for nearly three years and hence enjoyed unfettered access to the police station premises. Thabrew had personally recruited him some years ago and had procured him employment in a commercial aquarium. Thabrew had been on night duty and was sleeping in the barracks when Kirubakaran walked up to him and shot him twice in the head at point-blank range.

In what may well be a remarkable development in the annals of the anti-terrorism operations in Sri Lanka, the Tiger assassin was caught alive within minutes. Alerted by gunfire, policemen at Dehiwela gave chase to Madan who had fled from the scene of the killing in a hijacked autorickshaw. When the police caught up with him at a point near the Dehiwela zoo, Madan, in typical Tiger fashion, attempted to consume cyanide. However, the police succeeded in grabbing the capsule before he could swallow its entire contents. Madan was taken to hospital and from there to the police station. He was produced in court later and remanded for two weeks. Since a ceasefire is in force between the government and the LTTE, he was not charged, as was usual, under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).

The killing of Thabrew was significant in the sense that the LTTE had not gone after any Sinhala officer, of the police or the armed forces, in the south after the ceasefire came into effect on February 23, 2002. It had killed some Tamils in Colombo and its suburbs, mainly ex-militants from groups opposing the LTTE, alleged police informants and Army intelligence operatives. These killings, though they involved violation of the ceasefire agreement, had been glossed over to some extent by the United National Front government as the victims were all Tamils.

The killing of Thabrew, however, was perceived in a different light. He had been garnering a lot of information lately about the LTTE presence in Colombo and its suburbs. The ensuing outcry indicates that the murder has shattered the complacency. The apprehension of Madan was another breakthrough. Subsequent interrogation of the assailant has shed much light on the LTTE's motives and modus operandi in Colombo.

There was another killing on the same day that Thabrew was killed. Kumarasamy Kumarathasan (36), father of two, was killed at about 6-45 p.m. at Veeramunai in Amparai district of eastern Sri Lanka. Unknown assassins in a three-wheeler stopped his motorcycle when he was returning home after work and shot him dead. Kumarathasan was a former member of the EPRLF (Varathar faction) and was known as Kannan then. The EPRLF split into two and the faction led by Suresh Premachandran has aligned itself with the Tamil National Alliance while the one led by former North-East Chief Minister Varadarajaperumal remains independent. Only the latter, known as the Varathar faction, is being targeted by the LTTE.

The third killing was that of the Eelam People's Democratic Party's (EPDP) senior member Ponniah Ramachandran (42), in Batticaloa on June 15. Ramachandran, father of three, was returning home after work when two young men on bicycles shot him dead on the Kalladi-Thiruchenthoor road. Seven bullets were recovered from his body. A grenade was also thrown at him.

This killing, though horrendous in nature, did not receive adequate publicity because it happened a day after Robert's murder. Robert's murder drew greater attention to an ongoing phenomenon of killings in the Tamil areas and even in Colombo after the implementation of the ceasefire, in which at least 38 persons have been killed. Several people have been injured, shot, stabbed or hacked by swords. Many have gone missing and are presumed dead. The attackers in all these cases had political reasons.

Almost all the victims were either members or former members of the EPRLF or the EPDP. The majority, however, were active members of the EPRLF and the EPDP. Among those killed were two Pradeshiya Sabha chairmen, a deputy chairman, several local authority members and ex-members.

It is common knowledge in the Tamil areas that the killers in all the cases belonged to the LTTE. One shooting in Batticaloa was done by the local Tiger leader, Sivakumar, in the presence of a police officer. In another instance, two LTTE members were identified in the inquest. In another development in Batticaloa, a Tiger operative, Sathiyaraj, was arrested and later remanded in connection with the murder of EPRLF leader Navasooriam. The LTTE organised mass protests demanding his release. Later two Sinhala policemen were abducted by the Tigers. The LTTE's eastern commander `Col.' Karuna has said that the two will be returned only if Sathiyaraj was released.

Such killings in the government-controlled areas of the North-East were made easy for the LTTE by two factors in the ceasefire agreement. The first is that all non-LTTE groups in the North-East have been disarmed - even deprived of weapons for self-defence - as per the terms of the ceasefire. The second is that the LTTE has been given unrestricted access to areas controlled by the government in order to engage in political work. This has rendered the non-Tiger groups extremely vulnerable while the LTTE brazenly flouts the ceasefire terms. The LTTE had earlier asked these groups to vacate the Tamil areas.

The LTTE, however, denies responsibility for these killings and points out spuriously, that all the incidents took place in government-controlled areas. When the Norway-led Monitoring Commission broaches the subject, the LTTE's political wing head, S.P. Thamilchelvan, evades giving direct answers.

When these issues were raised at the Thailand talks, the LTTE's chief negotiator, Anton Balasingham, disclaimed responsibility and announced that all Tamil parties could function democratically in the North-East.

SRI LANKAN President Chandrika Kumaratunga has expressed concern about these killings and recommended that some arms be returned to the non-LTTE groups for self-defence. The Ranil Wickremasinghe government has not done that. However, it has extended some police protection to the offices of these parties.

The systematic campaign of killings, assault and abduction against members of non-Tiger political groups is arguably the single greatest violation of the ceasefire. Sadly, this unfolding human tragedy has not received the sympathetic attention it deserves. The tendency has been to tolerate all these violations as long as the Tigers do not break the ceasefire and commence fighting the Sri Lankan Army.

This places the non-Tiger groups in an unenviable position. In desperation, they are pleading with the international community to pressure the Tigers to desist from targeting them.

But countries such as Norway, the facilitator for the LTTE-government talks, for instance, are treading warily because they do not want to "upset" the LTTE . With no effective curbs, there seems very little chance of the LTTE discontinuing this killing spree in the near future.

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