President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Oct. 9, 2006 warned top envoys of the Tokyo Donor Conference that he wouldn’t stop naval action to thwart LTTE attempts to smuggle in arms, ammunition and equipment. The President asserted that the effort to resume direct talks with the LTTE was no reason for him to turn a blind eye to theLTTE’s arms smuggling operations. He was meeting the then US Ambassador Robert Blake, EU Ambassador Julian Wilson, Japanese envoy Kiyoshi Araki and Norwegian Ambassador Hans Brattskar at Temple Trees. The then German Ambassador Juergen Weerth, too, attended the meeting as Germany held the rotating EU presidency at that time.
President Rajapaksa said that the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) wouldn’t be an obstacle to naval action directed at LTTE ships carrying arms. When Ambassador Brattaskar told President Rajapaksa that the LTTE was concerned about continuing offensive military action by the GoSL, the President assured that he wouldn’t initiate offensive action, though he reserved the right to retaliate in case of LTTE aggression.
The meeting too place following the destruction by the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) and the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) of an LTTE vessel 120 nautical miles (225 km) off Kalmunai in the wake of the Norwegians pushing for an early resumption of talks between the GoSL and the LTTE, preferably in Oslo. The LTTE quit the negotiating table in April 2003, during the tenure of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Acting on intelligence provided by the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI), SLN chief, Vice Admiral (VA) Wasantha Karannagoda deployed SLNS Samudura (ex-US Coast Guard vessel Courageous) for a special mission. The vessel was commanded by the then Captain D.C. Gunawardene, currently based at SLN headquarters. In support of the SLN action off Sangamankanda, SLAF Kfirs, multi-role combat aircraft launched from Katunayake air base targeted the rogue vessel carrying artillery shells and ammunition. They were backed by Chinese built Fast Gun Boat (FGB) Ranajaya.
In the end FGB commanded by Commander T. G. M. Weerarathne moved closer to the LTTE vessel in spite of Sea Tigers firing 23 mm cannon at it. The rogue ship which didn’t fly a flag, went down at 4.30 p.m 120 miles east of Kalmunai. The LTTE lost 14 experienced men in that operation.
The SLN assigned 11 vessels, including two stand-by craft, though only SLNS Samudura and FGB Ranajaya took part in the actual battle. At the time of the confrontation, President Rajapaksa was in New York to attend the 61st United Nations General Assembly, his first visit to the UN in his capacity as President.
The destruction of the vessel was the first since VA Admiral Karannagoda succeeded VA Daya Sandagiri in September 2005 in the run-up to the presidential polls. Interestingly, it was the first major task undertaken by SLNS Samudura, the 210 feet long one-time US ship commissioned on April 21, 2005. With the success off Sangamankanda, VA Karannagoda was ready to revolutionise naval warfare.
The acquisition of a US Coast Guard vessel triggered controversy, with a section of the then Wickremesinghe’s administration finding fault with the move. In fact, the then Minister, Milinda Moragoda earned the displeasure of the LTTE for his role in the transaction. The then Defence Secretary, Austin Fernando asserted that the LTTE was offended by Minister Moragoda’s action. In an article captioned ‘The Peace Process and Security Issues’ in Feb 2006, Fernando said that the acquisition of a warship from the US had angered the LTTE, particularly when one of the GoSL negotiators was shown onboard the vessel. Fernando also said that the minister’s move could have been also interpreted as a morale booster for the armed forces in the wake of reports that the LTTE was engaged in arms smuggling during the CFA. Fernando pointed out that Moragoda’s role in the Indo-Lanka Defence Agreement, too, was a sensitive issue.
Admiral Karannagoda, now Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Japan said that local intelligence services had played a critical role in the SLN’s success on the high seas. Foreign intelligence, too, had also been of help, Sri Lanka’s most successful navy chief told The Island in a brief interview recently.
The soft spoken Karannagoda said that the operation conducted on Sept 17, 2006 was the third carried out in 2003 and 2006 by the SLN on the basis of intelligence provided by the DMI. Commenting on the destruction of LTTE ships, Koimer and Shoshin on March 10, 2003 and June 14, 2003, respectively, Admiral Karannagoda thanked the then DMI chief Brigadier Kapila Hendarawithana for alerting the SLN of the LTTE move, hence paving the way for two successful hits. Karannagoda executed both operations as the COMEAST (senior SLN officer in charge of the eastern theatre). An irate Karannagoda said that during his stint at COMEAST, he could have targeted another LTTE vessel if not for a section of the media revealing SLN operation in advance. Intelligence as regards that operation, too, had come from the DMI, Admiral Karannnagoda said.
Karannagoda said that the March 10, 2003 operation targeting Koimer almost had gone awry due to the failure on the part of SLNS Sayura to go all out against the LTTE ship. The SLN’s largest ship was given the task, though additional vessels were deployed for the mission. “We had solid intelligence courtesy DMI. The LTTE vessel made a desperate bid to get away, though finally we managed to get it,” he said, adding that deployment of additional vessels thwarted the LTTE attempt to escape.
During the confrontation on June 14, too, Fast Missile Vessel (FMV) SLNS Nandimitra spearheading the operation, struggled to achieve its objective. SLNS ‘Nandimithra’ and SLNS Suranimala were two FMVs acquired from Israel in the early 1990s. A second vessel accompanying Shoshin managed to escape during the confrontation. The former navy chief said that deployment of vessels in support of SLNS Sayura as SLNS Nandimithra had prevented terrorists from exploiting the SLN’s weaknesses. According to him, hunting down rouge ships was an extremely difficult task, in view of the Sea Tigers capability to spring surprises.
Ambassador Karannagoda said that the exposure of a planned SLN operation in the early part of 2003 had caused irreparable damage. He attributed the failure the government’s failure to acquire intelligence as regards the LTTE’s ship movements from June 14, 2003 hit to the revelation made by a section of the media of an impending SLN operation. The SLN could have destroyed at least four LTTE ships in 2003 and 2006 on the basis of intelligence made available by the DMI alone, if the Task Force assigned for June 14, 2003 operation had destroyed both ships and the media had refrained from publishing sensitive information, which compelled the LTTE to cancel one shipment, probably between March and June 2003.
At the time of June 14, 2003 operation, the then navy chief, VA Sandagiri was away in Hawaii. Ambassador Karannagoda said that he contacted VA Sandagiri and was told to take appropriate action. In the wake of controversy over the sinking of ‘Koimer’ and the information leak, the then Army chief, Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle had directed Brigadier Hendarawithana to pass on information regarding ‘Shoshin’ direct to Trinconamlee-based Rear Admiral Karannagoda. “We discussed the operation. Every effort was made to prevent an information leak.” A grateful Karannagoda said that a messenger from the DMI had brought a photograph of ‘Shoshin’ and another craft, which was being towed by the larger vessel. “The messenger came by road. As soon as receiving intelligence from the DMI, we planned the operation taking into consideration all aspects, though I wasn’t bothered by the CFA. The CFA was not applicable to sea. As far as the sea was concerned, we had our Rules of Engagement (RoE), and I acted accordingly.”
Karannagoda revealed that he had received telephone calls from both Defence Secretary Austin Fernando and Defence Minister Tilak Marapone, during the engagement with the SLN, and ‘Shoshin’. “I explained my position and justified my action as the CFA wasn’t applicable at sea. When they called me, ‘Shoshin’ was sinking and nothing could have been done to save it, though the LTTE was trying desperately to compel the GoSL to stop naval action.”
Responding to a query, Karannagoda lashed out at those who had turned a blind eye to the LTTE strategy. Those critical of the SLN for taking the initiative never bothered to ask why the LTTE continued to enhance its firepower if it was genuinely interested in a negotiated settlement, he said, noting that the international community, particularly those supportive of the LTTE never raised their voice against the LTTE.
Karannagoda recalled that at the time the SLN destroyed an LTTE ship on Sept 17, 2006, the CFA was in force. The Norwegians were making a desperate effort to kick start negotiations in the wake of talks between the GoSL and the LTTE in Geneva in the early part of 2006. He said: “Consequent to the Sept. 17 confrontation, we knew the LTTE was going to make a fresh attempt to smuggle in armaments. Their attempt to sink ‘Pearl Cruise’ carrying 700 officers and men in May 2006 revealed their determination to undertake a major offensive. We knew we were going to be busy on the high seas as intelligence services gradually uncovered a massive LTTE operation to replenish its arsenal.”
Joint Intelligence success
Admiral Karannagoda said that the DMI, SIS, NIB and SLN Intelligence provided information for the SLN to go after three LTTE ships. Acting on their analysis, the SLN destroyed ‘Kyoi’ 365 nautical miles (675 km) south of Dondra on Feb 28, 2007. The vessel was carrying 152 mm, 130 mm and 122 mm artillery rounds and 120 mm mortars. Among the LTTE cadres killed were five self-styled lieutenants.
On March 18, 2007, the SLN destroyed two more ships 825 nautical miles (1525 km ) south east of Arugambay. It was the single biggest success for the SLN up to that time. The SLN estimated that the LTTE lost at least 24 experienced cadres during the battle.
The SLN received critical foreign Intelligence support to destroy four LTTE ships on Sept. 10, 11 and Oct. 7, 2007. Local intelligence services hadn’t been involved in operations directed at the last four LTTE ships.
While the SLN’s aging fleet was on the offensive on the high seas, a major effort was launched to strengthen the service. Karannagoda said that the SLN had to expand rapidly to meet additional responsibilities on the ground as well as to man new platforms. It was in line with the GoSL policy to bolster the strength of all three armed forces, to meet the LTTE’s conventional military threat on many fronts.
During Karanagoda’s tenure, the SLN increased its strength to 55,000 officers and men from 28,000. Although the LTTE tracked down Karannagoda since 2005, terrorists found it difficult to target him as he was staying at navy headquarters. According to him, the SIS asserted that he was high on the LTTE’s hit list. “They found it difficult to get close to me since I lived in the Naval HQ compound itself. Therefore, my movements were difficult to track.”
The only service chief to die in an LTTE suicide attack was VA Clancy Fernando. An LTTE suicide cadre riding a motor cycle bomb rammed VA Fernando’s car as he was on his way to office on Nov. 16, 1992.
The LTTE almost succeeded in assassinating Sri Lanka’s army commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka on April 25, 2006 at the onset of eelam war IV. Had the LTTE succeeded in killing Gen. Fonseka and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa on Dec. 1, 2006, the war would have taken a different turn.
Karannagoda said that the SLN was grateful for foreign intelligence support to go after four LTTE ships, including its largest floating warehouse sunk 2,600 km south of Dondra head on the morning of Oct 7, 2007. The operation involved SLNS Sayura and SLNS Sagara (both acquired from India), FMV Suranimala and two logistic vessels, A 520 and A 521. The LTTE subsequently blew up A 520 anchored on the eastern edge of Ashraff jetty at the Trincomalee harbour on May 10, 2008, a few hours before the first PC poll got underway in the Eastern Province. The SLN tracked down those involved in the attack, except one, who was in the LTTE-held area at that time. An LTTE diver managed to blast the vessel with four limpet mines each weighing 32 kgs, though his companion failed in his task. The SLN recovered his body, along with four unexploded limpet mines, also weighing 32 kgs each.
Except for the Sept. 17, 2006 operation off Sangamankanda, the then Captain T. J. L. Sinniah commanded the Task Forces deployed for all other operations targeting the remaining seven ships. After the conclusion of the conflict, Sinniah retired with the rank of Commodore and joined the US Embassy in Colombo.