9th February, 2003 Volume 9, Issue 30

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SPOTLIGHT

Navy, LTTE stand-off throws peace talks into a spin

By Frederica Jansz in Batticaloa  

Mere hours before the government and the LTTE were to sit down to a fifth round of negotiations in Berlin, a standoff between the navy and the Tigers in Sri Lanka threw the talks into a spin but back room diplomacy in Berlin, Germany helped avert a crisis to keep the peace process on track.

At around 4.45 p.m. in Berlin (9.45 p.m. SLT) Minister Milinda Moragoda who had just arrived at the Berlin Intercontinental from London after a meeting with British Minister for Overseas Development, 

Claire Short was informed by Colombo that the navy had detected an LTTE boat and trawler at Iranaitivu, an island close to Delft Island in the Jaffna peninsula and that they had searched the boat and found nothing, but was refused permission by the LTTE to search the trawler under the threat of suicide.

Moragoda was told that the boat was towing the trawler and the entire exercise appeared suspicious.

Moragoda then instructed Ambassador Bernard Goonetilleke the director general of the Peace Secretariat who was also present to immediately telephone Defence Secretary Austin Fernando who was at the time in his room at the Intercontinental in Berlin. Fernando was in the midst of a personal crisis. Having lost his baggage en route he was trying to sort out the problem when Goonetilleke telephoned. He said the Minister wanted him to come to the lobby straightaway and no sooner he rushed down, Moragoda quickly explained that two LTTE boats had been detected in Sri Lanka's northern waters and that the navy was seeking permission to search the trawler on the suspicion it may be carrying weapons.

Fernando then telephoned Chief of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) in Colombo, Trond Furuhovde for details. Furuhovde had told Fernando the SLMM was checking on the matter and would search the trawler if necessary. Fernando had responded, asserting the government too had a right to search the boats under the terms and conditions of the ceasefire agreement and that the navy should be allowed to board the LTTE trawler.

Furuhovde, who was monitoring the situation in Delft responded saying he did not think this would be possible, having already been informed that the Tigers had refused permission to the navy under the threat of suicide.

Sensing a deadlock, Fernando told Furuhovde that LTTE Chief Negotiator Dr. Anton Balasingham was expected at the hotel any moment and that he would discuss the crisis with him.

At that moment Balasingham together with his wife Adele, Karuna and Thamilchelvam walked into the ground floor of the Intercontinental in Berlin.

Wasting no time Moragoda walked upto the LTTE team and told Balasingham briefly what had transpired and asked Fernando to quickly explain what was happening in Sri Lanka and insisted the navy be allowed the right to search the trawler according to the terms and conditions of the ceasefire agreement.

Balasingham unaware

Balasingham was unaware of the entire incident and had responded saying he had to first speak with the Wanni based, Commander of the Sea Tigers, 'Soosai.'

In the meantime, Austin Fernando telephoned Defence Minister Tilak Marapone in Colombo. Marapone had responded saying the navy had a right to search the boats according to the terms of the ceasefire agreement.

While tensions ran high, Anton Balasingham together with Eric Solheim, Vidar Helgessen and Milinda Moragoda went into the hotel coffee shop called the L. A. Caf‚ on the ground floor. Ordering a snack they urgently discussed how it would be possible to resolve the stand-off and not in any way break the peace talks scheduled to begin the next day.

Austin Fernando continued to insist that the government had a right to check the boats. He was backed by Tilak Marapone in Sri Lanka who had information by this time that the cadres in the trawler being towed were acting in a highly agitated and suspicious manner.

Finally Milinda Moragoda and Anton Balasingham decided on a compromise formula. This being that representatives of the SLMM would check the trawler while the navy stood by. Austin Fernando agreed and conveyed the message to Tilak Marapone. Moragoda told Balasingham it should not be taken as a precedent since the navy had the right in all such circumstances to search the boats but in the interest of sustaining the ceasefire on this one occasion a compromise was possible. That was the position Thursday night and all concerned assumed the issue was resolved satisfactorily.

The matter however did not end there. At around 5 a.m. Berlin time, Moragoda received an urgent telephone call from Marapone saying that the SLMM monitors had found a 22mm dismantled anti aircraft gun, two boxes of ammunition, an AK 47 rifle, and 3 grenades aboard the trawler.

Be produced in court

In the meantime Eric Solheim also contacted Austin Fernando, who urgently telephoned the Navy Commander, Daya Sandagiri. The Navy Chief had told Fernando that the SLMM monitors had also found some communication equipment on board the trawler.

Marapone had meanwhile told Moragoda that in terms of the ceasefire agreement the government would have to place the trawler in government custody as well as arrest the LTTE cadres on board and produce them before court.

It was decided to take the trawler to nearby Kurikaduwan, which is the closest naval detachment to Iranaitivu and hand over the LTTE cadres to the SLMM. This solution had been proposed by Trond Furuhovde.

Austin Fernando had once more pointed out the government had to work according to its legal framework and as such the government would need to hold the LTTE cadres from the trawler and produce them in court. Moragoda proposed that at least one cadre be produced in court to assert the writ of the government.

While these discussions and counter arguments were going on at the Intercontinental Hotel in Berlin, the drama unfolded on the high seas in Sri Lanka's northern waters.

One of the LTTE cadres on board the trawler pulled on a suicide jacket and shouted at the two SLMM representatives and a female Tamil translator to jump overboard. Hastily complying, the two monitors and translator jumped for their lives into the ocean. Within minutes the cadres began to set fire to the boat while the navy shouted for them to stop - the cadre blew himself up. The explosion instantly killed the other two cadres as well. Vivid explosions followed,  proving there were explosives aboard the trawler. The news was immediately conveyed to Berlin.

Panic

Meantime the situation in Berlin was reaching panic proportions as the negotiators struggled to reach a compromise on the issue, Norwegian peace brokers, Vidar Helgessen and Eric Solheim moved fast urging the two sides to keep a cool head and issue statements on the crisis reiterating the peace talks would continue. It was also pointed out to Balasingham that the LTTE had not complied with the agreement reached in Berlin leading to the suicide of its cadres.

Moragoda had then suggested that it would be in the best interest of both sides if a joint statement was issued rather than two separate statements. It was thereafter decided the Norwegians would issue a statement on behalf of the two parties.

A carefully worded statement was prepared stating that there had been a breakdown in communication between the LTTE's northern commander and the cadres on board the trawler, which resulted in the unfortunate incident, but that the negotiations between the government and the LTTE would continue as both sides are committed to finding a peaceful solution. (See box for full statement)

In Sri Lanka, the navy was placed on high alert with strict instructions not to aggravate the situation and act calmly. Balasingham in Berlin also worked the phones instructing his counterparts in Sri Lanka to stay calm.

The drama began in Sri Lanka around 4 p.m. on Thursday, February 6, when a navy fast attack craft patrolling the northern waters intercepted an LTTE boat towing a trawler. The commander of the naval craft informed  Northern Commander, Rear Admiral Nandana Tuduwewatte of the detection.

Tuduwewatte immediately instructed another naval boat to pick up an SLMM monitor and take him to the intercepted boat.

Arriving at Iranaitivu the naval personnel and SLMM requested permission from the LTTE to board the LTTE boats. There were 10 male cadres and two female cadres dressed in civvies on the first boat. The Tigers refused permission saying only the SLMM representative would be allowed aboard.

Climbing on board, the SLMM monitor searched the boat, but found nothing and gave the 'all clear.' The navy informed Tuduwewatte who ordered for this boat to be released but insisted the trawler, which the first boat was towing, be also searched.

There were three male cadres also in civvies on the trawler. They too insisted that only the SLMM monitors would be allowed aboard refusing point blank to allow any navy personnel near.

The single SLMM monitor got on board the trawler and searched it and gave the all clear. When informed, Tuduwewatte was not satisfied. He instructed his men to tell the SLMM monitor to look more carefully as there were more hiding places on a trawler than on a normal boat.

The SLMM representative asked for assistance saying the task was too big for him to handle alone. Another navy boat was summoned by Tuduwewatte and a second SLMM monitor was taken to Iranaitivu. The second monitor carried communication equipment with him so he could immediately convey his findings to the SLMM office in Colombo.

Weapons haul

In the meantime the navy hierarchy was also awaiting a decision to be taken on the matter in Berlin. After hours of haggling, on Friday morning the two SLMM monitors together with a female Tamil translator boarded the trawler and carried out a more thorough search.

This time they detected the weapons haul which included an anti aircraft gun, ammunition and grenades concealed under the floorboard of the trawler. Tuduwewatte when informed ordered his men to take all the explosives and weapons aboard the naval craft including the three LTTE cadres. Tuduwewatte meanwhile sought further instructions from the Navy Commander in Colombo who in turn was seeking instructions from Berlin.

At 12.45 p.m.on Friday, a  LTTE cadre suddenly shouted to the SLMM monitors and the female Tamil translator to jump overboard while he at the same moment donned a suicide jacket.

The cadres then proceeded to set fire to the vessel while navy personnel shouted at them to stop.

In a matter of minutes the cadre with the suicide jacket pulled the device on the suicide jacket, killing himself and his two colleagues on the spot.

The trawler began to sink while the navy personnel frantically sought instructions from Tuduwewatte having rescued the two SLMM monitors and Tamil translator from the water.

A senior naval officer on Friday evening told The Sunday Leader the navy would be sending in naval divers to try and gather available evidence from the sunken trawler.

While the boat drama was taking place in northern waters, Colombo and Berlin, President Chandrika Kumaratunga was quick to fish in the troubled waters. She telephoned defence Minister Tilak Marapone and demanded a full briefing on what was going on and then spoke direct to the Navy Commander.

In an unusual show of efficiency, first thing on Friday morning she dispatched two letters, one to the Defence Minister and the other to the Navy Commander. In her letter to the Navy Commander the President pointed out that since the MOU was signed almost one year ago, at least on three other earlier occasions the navy had intercepted boats and the LTTE had refused to allow a full search of them and authorities in Colombo had instructed the navy to free the boats.

Then Kumaratunga gave two direct orders as Commander in Chief of the armed forces to the Navy Commander.

1.To take into custody all weapons and ammunition and all military sensitive items on board the vessel.

2. In view of the ongoing efforts at negotiations by the government and the LTTE the LTTE cadres may be released after obtaining from them a written agreement that they will not carry out such tasks in the future.

In her letter to Defence Minister Tilak Marapone she once again stressed on the earlier incidents and said, "it about time that the government of Sri Lanka demonstrated serious interest in peace and ending the war in a durable manner."

President orders LTTE boat with arms and ammunition be taken into custody

President Chandrika Kumaratunga directed Navy Commander Daya Sandagiri to take into custody the boats and all weapons/ammunition and military sensitive equipment after the navy arrested an LTTE trawler carrying weapons in the sea near Delft Island. The directive came after  lengthy discussions the President had with the Minister of Defence and the Navy Chief.

The Presidential directive said, "From your report it is clear that the LTTE boat carried dangerous weapons. The fact that they refused for many hours to agree that the navy board and search the boat that was apprehended and then after much persuasion agreed that one SLMM monitor should board the boat, was already cause for suspicion. When the boat was boarded I understand that there were no weapons on the boat. The weapons were found under the floor boards of the boat."

Referring to the incident as a complete contravention of the laws of the country as well as the ceasefire agreement the President said that this was the fourth time since the signing of the agreement that the navy had apprehended LTTE boats carrying weapons or suspected of carrying weapons. She said she was aware that some of the authorities on previous occasions had instructed the navy to release the boats along with the arms and ammunition despite her specific instructions to the contrary.

"This is developing into a very serious situation. Your instructions regarding action to be taken on the present issue are as follows:

1.Take into custody all weapons/ammunition and military sensitive equipment together with the boats.

2. In view of the ongoing efforts at negotiations between the government and the LTTE, the LTTE cadres may be released after obtaining from them a written agreement that they will not engage in such activities in the future."

In a separate letter to Defence Minister Tilak Marapone, the President said, "As I discussed with you last evening, it is about time that the government of Sri Lanka demonstrated serious interest for peace and ending the war in a durable manner."

* * *

Statement by Norwegian facilitators

On February 7 an incident on a Sea Tiger vessel near the Delft Islands resulted in the tragic loss of three lives.

The situation leading up to the incident had been discussed between the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on February 6. On the evening of the same day, the parties agreed on a procedure to resolve the matter by asking the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) to conduct an inspection of the vessels involved to clarify the situation. Due to an apparent communication failure between the LTTE naval commander and the cadres on board one vessel, the crew members were not informed of the agreed procedure, and the cadres set fire to the vessel and took their own lives.

In cooperation with the SLMM, the parties will review existing procedures in order to avoid similar incidents in future.

The ongoing session of peace talks will continue as scheduled.

Both the government and the LTTE approved this press release by the Norwegian facilitators in Berlin.

* * *

Statement by Presidential  Secretariat

It has come to the attention of the President that there is public speculation on the incident where a LTTE boat was blown up near Delft Island lending currency to various interpretations.

The President is of the view that if not for the 18-hour delay in taking action despite her instructions the outcome may not have been so tragic.

In her letter to the Navy Commander, she also said, "From your report it is clear that the LTTE boat carried dangerous weapons. The fact that they refused for many hours to agree that the navy board and search the boat that was apprehended and after much persuasion agreed that one SLMM monitor should board the boat, was already cause for suspicion. When the boat was boarded I understand there were no weapons on the boat. The weapons were found under the floorboards of the boat."

The President is of the view that although only confidence building measures have been undertaken in almost one year of negotiations since the signing of the ceasefire agreement, the LTTE has consistently violated the agreement raising serious concerns about their credibility in the current negotiations.

 

 

 

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