RECENT VIOLENT INCIDENTS IN SRI LANKAN WATERS – PREVENTION OF FUTURE INCIDENTS
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The recent attacks on the Chinese trawler off Mullaittivu and the troops transport ship off Trincomalee are not only attacks against Chinese civilians and the Sri Lanka armed forces, but attacks aimed at destabilizing the Ceasefire and the Peace Process in Sri Lanka. Neither the Sri Lankan Government nor the leadership of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) benefit from such attacks taking place since they are undermining their credibility and endangering the progress the parties have made so far.
The Attack on the Chinese Trawler “Fu Yuan Ya 225” on March 20th 2003.
According to the survivors from the crew of the Chinese trawler, it was attacked by 3-8 unidentified fast moving boats with many engines at 04.00 on March 20th some 17 Nautical Miles off the Mullaittivu coast of East Sri Lanka. The boats were manned by civilian dressed males and females and some of the survivors have stated they believe the attackers were LTTE Sea Tigers. Shots from machinegun were fired against the trawler, without prior warning. Sounds of explosions were also heard, and at approximately 05.00 the trawler sank taking several crewmembers with it. From a military point of view SLMM would like to note that a powerful explosive charge is needed to sink a ship like the Chinese Trawler in only one hour. The survivors witnessed that the attackers were looking for survivors in the sea, shooting from close range at seamen in their life jackets. The Singhalese survivor claimed he heard the attackers shouting in Tamil language, while a Chinese survivor claimed not to have heard any voices at all from the attackers. The attackers left the scene around 05.30. After that, the survivors managed to get hold of a slightly damaged life raft, which they boarded and stayed onboard until another Chinese Trawler “Fu Yuan Ya 226”, from the same company rescued them at 14.00. The Crew on the trawler that was attacked consisted of 26 seamen (23 Chinese and 3 Singhalese). There were 9 survivors (8 Chinese and 1 Singhalese). The 17 missing crewmembers (15 Chinese and 2 Singhalese) are all presumed to be dead. So far 9 bodies have been found, some with bullet impacts and some had signs of having been exposed to detonation(s). Both these Chinese trawlers were registered in Colombo flying the Sri Lanka Flag and had permission from the Sri Lankan authorities to operate in the Exclusive Economic Zone of Sri Lanka. The sister trawler “Fu Yuan Ya 226” was too far from the incident to observe or notice the attack. After they rescued the nine survivors, they radio contacted their Sri Lankan agency, headed towards east for safety and were joined by a Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) vessel on March 21st at 07.00. When the incident occurred, SLMM had one monitor onboard an SLN vessel operating in the general area. The monitor came to the scene with an SLN vessel at 07.45 after which he met the survivors and stayed with them until they reached Trincomalee at 13.30, where they were taken to hospital for medical examination and treatment. The crew on “Fu Yuan Ya 226” stated to SLMM that a Sri Lanka Navy vessel had warned them not to go too close to land in this area. The crew also stated that after they picked up the survivors from the trawler that was attacked, that they did not use channel sixteen for radio contact, since they feared being attacked by either LTTE or Sri Lanka Navy.
The Sri Lanka Navy denies any kind of involvement in the incident. The SLN states that at the time of the incident they had six vessels operating in the area 6-10 Nautical Miles off the coast of Mullaittivu, forming a sort of a barrier off the Mullaittivu coast. This operational concept of SLN is aimed at monitoring movements of LTTE vessels and prevent smuggling activities.
The Sea Tigers of LTTE deny any kind of involvement in the incident. The Sea Tigers state that none of their cadres were in the area that particular night and furthermore that their cadres never operate individually and are always under strict control. The Sea Tigers also state that the Sri Lanka Navy is positioned permanently around 6 Nautical Miles off the coast and that the Navy always monitors every movement of Sea Tigers when they are on sea. The Sea Tigers state that since the attack on the Chinese trawler took place 17 Nautical Miles off the coast, they would not have been able to go to the scene without the Sri Lanka Navy knowing about it.
SLMM bases its rulings on international verification or non-contradictory information given by both Parties. SLMM will not rule against the Government of Sri Lanka or the LTTE and make one party responsible for any attack without sufficient evidence. Even though the survivors from “Fu Yuan Yu 225” and some of the crewmembers of trawler 226 have stated that they believe that LTTE committed the attack, SLMM has not found any evidence proving their statement. SLMM considers the incident as a serious crime and as a terrorist act, and strongly condemns the attack resulting in the loss of 17 lives. SLMM extends its condolences to the families of those whose lives were lost.
The attack on the troops transport ship, “Lanka Muditha” on March 31st 2003.
The Lanka Mudhita, a ship transporting troops belonging to the Government forces was, according to the SLN, approached by 3-4 dinghies, or small boats, 10-12 Nautical Miles off Pigeon Island, near Trincomalee, around 19.00 on March 31st. One or two dinghies opened fire at the transport ship with small arms resulting in at least two servicemen being wounded. The troops onboard the ship returned fire and sunk one dinghy, while the other small boats disappeared into the night. An SLMM Monitor was onboard an SLN vessel in the area but did not witness the incident. The SLN suspects that LTTE is responsible for the attack. The LTTE has denied any involvement in the attack and has raised its concerns about it with SLMM. SLMM will in the coming days inquire into this incident and seek further information from both the Government forces and the LTTE. Given the intelligence and the extensive knowledge that the two parties have in this area and the proximity of fishing vessels to this incident it is highly unlikely that the parties are not in a position to acquire further information about who is responsible for this attack.
To prevent future incidents at sea that could threaten the stability of the Ceasefire the parties agreed at the last Peace Talks in Japan, to work out effective arrangements for the operation of their naval units. SLMM will deliver initial proposals for such measures to the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE leadership in the coming days. The parties and SLMM will work on these proposals in the next three weeks with the aim of coming to an agreement in a scheduled meeting between the Government, LTTE, SLMM and the representative of the Royal Norwegian Government on April 24th. Both the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE leadership have claimed that they are not involved in the abovementioned incidents. At this moment, SLMM does not make a direct connection between these two attacks, as they are clearly very different from each other. At this moment SLMM does not have sufficient proof to be able to make one of the parties responsible. However, it is important to underline that lack of proof does not rule out the possibility that one of the parties is in fact responsible. Furthermore, SLMM cannot rule out the possibility that armed elements – not recognized by the parties – are operating in the Government or LTTE controlled areas. SLMM wants to state very clearly that it is not pointing at specific political parties or groups known to the Government and LTTE at this time. In fact, representatives of both the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE have stated very clearly to SLMM that they “do not know of anyone in Sri Lanka, except the SLN and the LTTE, that is capable of conducting an attack like the one that was made on the Chinese trawler.” In this context it is worth noting historical experience of post-conflict situations where extremist individuals break away from the peaceful course set out by their responsible leadership. The Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE leadership share the responsibility of identifying such elements in order to protect the Ceasefire and thus strengthen the prospects for lasting peace, security and prosperity for all the people in Sri Lanka.