Defence / News Features

War on peace and diplomacy

Theories abound on the unprecedented attack by the LTTE on the diplomatic corps in Batticaloa on Tuesday which will be discussed in detail in this column. But before that it would be prudent to present the events as they unfolded to give our readers a better picture of the incident.
Exactly a week before the unprecedented attack on the diplomatic corps by the LTTE in Batticaloa, a meeting of the consultative committee on humanitarian assistance was convened by the Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe at the Defence Ministry. It was a tripartite meeting involving officials of the ministry, foreign missions and foreign agencies.

Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Acting Foreign Secretary T.B. Maduwegedera (in the absence of Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohonna who was overseas) were also present at this meeting attended by a number of officials and the diplomatic corps.
Careful attention was given to the availability of the diplomats and with their consent Tuesday February 27 was agreed upon for the field visit to the East. The issues that were to be discussed were resettling of internally displaced people in Vakarai, livelihood issues, IDP camp security issues and overall security, improvement of conditions at camps, needs of school children and women in camps, infrastructure development in Vakarai, humanitarian projects and so on.

Government Agents and other officials on the ground were informed of the impending visit to be prepared to discuss the issues in detail with facts and figures.
Written approval of the Defence Ministry with clearance was obtained. As the visit necessitated security, accordingly, the Defence Ministry informed the three forces and the police including the Special Task Force which took control of security over the area previously held by the 233 Brigade that was recently shifted to Vakarai.
DIG Eastern Range Lasantha Silva and STF Commandant DIG Nimal Lewke were informed and the two officers in turn informed Batticaloa Region SSP Maxi Procter and SSP Ranjith Perera of the STF respectively. The army, navy and air force were also alerted about the impending visit.

The Air Force set aside a 24-seater MI 27 for the main crew and a Bell 212 for officials and media personnel from the ministry while a fixed wing private plane belonging to Daya Aviation was chartered.
On Tuesday during the school rush hour added security was provided on the main road leading to the Race Course from where the diplomatic corps. was to board the chopper.
Barring the Head of the European Commission Delegation to Sri Lanka Julian Wilson and the Canadian Ambassador who dropped out, the rest of the diplomatic corps including US Ambassador Robert Blake, Italian Ambassador Pio Mariani, German Envoy, Juergen Weerth, French Ambassador Michel Lummaux, Japanese Ambassador Kiyosihi Araki and Minister Samarasinghe all gathered at the Race Course.

In addition there were 11 officers from the United Nations, including UN Resident Coordinator Fredrick Lyons, World Food Programme Country Director Jeff Taft Dick, UNICEF Representative Joanna Van Gerpen, Foreign Ministry Director Communications Ravinatha Aryasinghe and a security officer on board the 24-seater MI 17 that carried 23 passengers comprising the main crew on board. At 7:30 a.m. the chopper was airborne for the journey that took roughly 75 minutes.

The Bell 212 took a crew of officials from Colombo and a couple of journalists and picked up more people from Hingurakkoda on their way to Batticaloa.
The fixed wing aircraft landed at the Batticaloa air strip at 8.00 am. The signal tower of Batticaloa Air force base communicated with the chopper entering the air field. At about 8.20 a.m. the Air Force base again came under LTTE attack when the helicopter was about to land.
Even before the diplomats had boarded the chopper, the LTTE had fired mortar and artillery for several hours from around 5:00 a.m at the Sri Lanka Air Force base in Batticaloa at which the MI 17 with the main crew was originally to land.

An emergency meeting was held in Batticaloa by DIG Lasantha Silva, SSP Maxi Procter and SSP Ranjith Perera. Colombo was also informed of the situation. A decision was taken by the three police officers to direct the pilot to land the chopper with the main crew at the Webber Stadium which is over two kilometers away from the original landing site. As the Weber Stadium came under the police in terms of security control, the SLAF had to decide on where to land with clearance from the ground, which it did receive.
The vehicles were rushed to the Webber Stadium with SSP Procter also at hand to ensure the security of the VVIPs. The MI 17 landed at 8:40 a.m. The first to get off the chopper was the U.S. Ambassador Blake, followed by the UN Resident Coordinator Lyons followed by Minister Samarasinghe and the Italian Ambassador Mariani, Japanese Ambassador Araki.

The Minister immediately went down and so did a few others while some diplomats ran and took cover behind the vehicles that were parked. Italian Ambassador Mariani, US Envoy Blake, UN resident representative Lyons, SSP Procter himself and eight others were injured in the attack. A school boy, two Air force personnel, two Police personnel including the SSP and three Special Task Force personnel were injured due the attack.
Before the entire crew disembarked, several rounds of mortar shells hit the ground giving a huge sound and raising the dust. A prompt decision was taken by the pilot, Squadron Leader Anurudha Bandara to lift the chopper which could also be targeted with the rest of crew on board. Almost the entire UN delegation of 11 people was still on board prompting a harsh statement by the UN Secretary General Banki Moon.

Some of the crew already half way down the gangway saw shrapnel flying in all directions and scampered back to the chopper in which the staff from many UN agencies were still to disembark. The chopper veered north of Batticaloa and later landed at Valaichennai.
The vehicles quickly loaded the diplomats and sped off to the Batticaloa police station for added security. Italian Ambasador Mariani along with the rest who were injured were rushed to the Government-run Batticaloa Hospital under the charge of Dr. K. Muruganandan. Mariani was treated for a shrapnel injury to the head and discharged less than two hours later. (Procter who was treated there has been sent to the Colombo General Hospital as the seriousness of his injuries needed further treatment).

The entire crew regrouped and was brought back to Colombo after some anxious moments and landed at the Air Force grounds where journalists thronged them for statements.
“We believe there should be negotiations at the end but this attack is not encouraging,” French Ambassador Lummaux told journalists. German Ambassador Weerth said they consider this a serious attack that could have created a huge disaster.

While several diplomats from missions that are generally slow to condemn the LTTE and name it, strongly criticized the Tigers following the unprecedented attack. US Ambassador Blake decided to remain quiet.
UN chief Moon condemned the attack but urged both sides in the conflict to halt the bloodshed and resume talks.
“The attack was in total disregard for the lives of civilians, humanitarian workers, Government officials, and the international community,” said Michele Montas, a UN spokesperson in New York.
The US Embassy, which normally makes bold statements condemning the LTTE for its attacks, this time, in an unusually brief statement, said Ambassador Blake was all right.
The US Embassy wants to get at the bottom of the whole episode before making any statements to the media. The US believes that the LTTE was responsible for the attack but wanted to ascertain 100 per cent that it was not provoked.

That the LTTE is a ruthless terrorist organization the US has established without an iota of doubt. That the LTTE could have very well targeted the diplomats is also not doubted given the history of the LTTE which fearlessly killed a former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1993 and only last year tried to assassinate the Pakistani High Commissioner Mohamed Wali Bashir.
While the US Embassy would want to establish the motive for the attack, it is trying to figure out whether it was provoked for whatever reason.

One theory doing its round is the LTTE was cheesed off with the international community particularly the US for its recent actions in USA and Canada and its stepped up military support to the Sri Lankan Government.
Also, the LTTE would have wanted to convey a message to the diplomatic missions not to mess around with the organization. But, fearing the consequences of its dastardly act, the LTTE went out of the way to blame it on the government for exposing the VVIPs.
“Simple diplomacy could have avoided the unfortunate incident and condemned the childish action of the Sri Lankan military,” the LTTE said in a statement.
Both sides the LTTE and the Government want to get maximum mileage out of the attack little realizing the damage they are doing by the statements they are making.
The LTTE claim that it did not know that the diplomats were on board this chopper was the most blatant lie as a town hall meeting was announced almost a week back. The LTTE claim only serves to undermine the intelligence of the diplomatic community. Defence analysts feel while the LTTE deliberately targeted the diplomats. The motives could range from warning them and also to place the government which has boasting of a cleared east in an awkward situation by putting the diplomats at risk. In fact in the LTTE statements, the government’s negligence comes out clearly.

The US would like to ascertain whether there was actually negligence on the part of the government in affording protection to these head of missions and whether one reason for failing to take precautions was to put the LTTE on a sticky wicket vis-à-vis the important countries these ambassadors represent.
Why couldn’t the chopper have been directed to say Vakarai which is not within the reach of the LTTE’s artillery and mortar positions? Several Government delegations carrying VVIPs to the east several times landed in Vakarai safely, it is argued. In fact,the VVIPs on Tuesday were scheduled to proceed to Vakarai by air after an meeting at the Batticaloa Kachcheri.
Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama in an initial reaction from China said he regretted the situation “foreign diplomats were subjected to in our county.” Cutting short his visit to China he arrived in Colombo on Thursday and invited the UN staff and the foreign diplomats concerned, but Ambassador Blake decided to stay away.
A Defence analyst noted that a diplomatic tussle between Sri Lanka and the US is in the offing and must be averted for obvious reasons.

Bogollagama said while the LTTE may wish to confuse the world that they were not aware of the presence of diplomats on that flight, it is clear that this was a pre-mediated and deliberate attack aimed at harming members of the diplomatic community,” He observed that Public notice of the visit had been given for over a week and given the number of embassies and international agencies involved, the mortar attack took place immediately after the main party consisting of the Minister and Ambassadors had disembarked from the helicopter.
He said the mortar fire was well directed and executed and even corrections made in the targeting, which is possible, only if the fall of mortars was being closely observed and the presence of foreign nationals was evident to any observer.

Following this attack four foreign missions have wanted the security to their offices in Colombo beefed up. Minister Samarasinghe, who headed the delegation of diplomats and UN officials, has requested for the full sequence of events from the defence ministry and is yet to receive the report.
The Defence Ministry is preparing a comprehensive report to be tabled at the National Security Council meeting with the commander in chief President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the chair. President Rajapksa was on an official visit to China at the time the attack took place.
The Foreign Minister called on the international community to take effective measures to eliminate fund raising and weapon procurement by the LTTE in their respective countries and to help apprehend those supporting such activity in keeping with international obligations.

This was exactly what Ambassador Blake said the very next day after the incident. He answering questions at a previously –arranged Rotary lunch at Cinnamond Grand. Blake said his country would do everything possible to prevent the LTTE from collecting arms and raising funds in the United States.
A day after this attack on the diplomatic corps, Blake admitting that the US failed in Iraq and Vietnam, said you cannot defeat terrorism and the only way is through dialogue and negotiations.
Noting that President Mahinda Rajapaksa had a comfortable majority in parliament and the chief opposition UNP was also willing to support the government he said the government must come up with a set of proposals for a political solution.

He said it is more than 30 years and a political solution is yet to come about in Sri Lanka and the failure to find a solution was preventing the country from benefiting economically. He also cautioned that other problems were in store in the east by allowing other armed groups from becoming strong in the East.
The Sri Lanka Air Force responded to the mortar attack by the LTTE on the diplomatic corps by attacking bases in the eastern region including Vavunitivu from where the mortars were fired. The LTTE launched the attack from Kannankudah west of Vavunativu in Batticaloa.

Of all the theories that abound on the motive of last Tuesday’s attack, the most plausible appears to be to deprive the region once held by the Tigers of any development. The attack, the LTTE feels, would scare off the international community that thought stability was there in the East. The LTTE which held sway over Sampur and Vakarai and other areas in the east and the north failed to develop them even during five years of peace and so much of international good will by preventing SIRHN getting off the ground.