on peace and diplomacy
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
A Defence analyst noted that a diplomatic tussle between Sri
Lanka and the US is in the offing and must be averted for
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
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
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