LTTE stand-off throws peace talks into a spin
Frederica Jansz in Batticaloa
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.
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
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
was told that the boat was towing the trawler and the entire exercise
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.
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
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.
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.
that moment Balasingham together with his wife Adele, Karuna and
Thamilchelvam walked into the ground floor of the Intercontinental in
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
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.'
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
produced in court
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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
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
immediately instructed another naval boat to pick up an SLMM monitor and
take him to the intercepted boat.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
cadres then proceeded to set fire to the vessel while navy personnel
shouted at them to stop.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
Kumaratunga gave two direct orders as Commander in Chief of the armed
forces to the Navy Commander.
take into custody all weapons and ammunition and all military sensitive
items on board the vessel.
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.
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."
orders LTTE boat with arms and ammunition be taken into custody
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
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."
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.
is developing into a very serious situation. Your instructions
regarding action to be taken on the present issue are as follows:
into custody all weapons/ammunition and military sensitive
equipment together with the boats.
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."
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."
* * *
by Norwegian facilitators
February 7 an incident on a Sea Tiger vessel near the Delft
Islands resulted in the tragic loss of three lives.
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.
cooperation with the SLMM, the parties will review existing
procedures in order to avoid similar incidents in future.
ongoing session of peace talks will continue as scheduled.
the government and the LTTE approved this press release by the
Norwegian facilitators in Berlin.
by Presidential Secretariat
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.
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.
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."
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.