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Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the ‘Piththala Handiya’ explosive attack

2016-05-14 00:00:52
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By D.B.S.Jeyaraj

Former Sri Lankan Army Commander  Sarath Fonseka came out with a bombshell statement some days ago in Parliament. The ex-army chief now a Cabinet minister in the Sirisena – Wickremesinghe Government accused his erstwhile comrade -at - arms and former Secretary of Defence  Gotabhaya Rajapaksa of having “stage managed” an assassination attempt on himself nearly ten years ago in order to win sympathy for his family; the Rajapaksas. 

 

Fonseka who was serving as army commander at that time was referring to the incident on December 1st 2006 when a suicide bomber belonging to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) tried to ram an explosive laden three-wheeler into the vehicle in which the defence secretary was travelling in.
A news report  about  Fonseka’s allegation appearing in the English newspaper”Daily News” stated as follows:


“Sri Lanka’s former army chief told Parliament Tuesday that a bomb blast apparently targeting former president Mahinda Rajapakse’s brother 10 years ago was an “inside job” to win sympathy for the then-ruling family.Sarath Fonseka, now a government legislator, said the December 2006 bomb attack blamed on the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels had been stage-managed by the president’s brother Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, then the defence secretary.“No terrorist will set off a suicide bomb 25 metres away from the intended target,” Fonseka told Parliament during a debate on scaling down military security granted to the former strongman.”


“The government has said it is removing troops in Rajapakse’s bodyguard contingent and replacing them with police commandos as part of a policy of relieving the military from civilian security duties.”
“Gotabhaya escaped the 2006 bombing in Colombo unhurt but it killed two members of his military convoy.Soon after the attack, the government asked peace broker Norway to halt all contacts with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Colombo withdrew from a truce and eventually crushed the rebels by May 2009.”


Sarath Fonseka’s  remarks  about the  allegedly bogus assassination attempt on Gotabhaya   Rajapaksa and the removal of military security for former President Mahinda Rajapaksa triggered off  a  storm of protests from the group of United Peoples Freedom Alliance(UPFA) MP’s known as the “Joint Opposition”in Parliament. A heated exchange of views between Govt and opposition ranks erupted into a brawl  causing one MP to be hospitalised. Two Parliamentarians who engaged in fisticuffs were  censured  in the form of a week’s suspension.

 

The attack bears all the hallmarks of an operation by the LTTE,” the US embassy in Colombo said in a statement.” Once again, we  call on the LTTE to renounce terrorism, to give up violence and join in negotiating a peaceful solution to Sri Lanka’s conflict.”

 


Some days after Sarath Fonseka’s allegation  against him, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa  presented  himself before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry to Investigate and Inquire into Serious Acts of Fraud and Corruption (PRECIFAC) to give a statement  in the  on - going inquiry about Rakna Arakshaka Lanka Ltd. When media personnel at the venue  questioned  Gotabhaya, he dismissed them lightly in a reply laced with tinges of  humour. The “Daily Mirror” had a front page news story about Gotabhaya’s response in which the newspaper quoted Gotabhaya as having said: ‘I should be thrashed for making him the army commander’. 


It is against this backdrop that this column  focuses attention upon the assassination attempt on former Defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa by the (LTTE) on December 1st 2006. 


The suicide killer or Black Tiger  attack  in which Gotabhaya Rajapaksa escaped miraculously sent shock  waves throughout the country at that time. The assassination attempt  in which two security personnel were killed was extensively reported by the national and international media. Now that Sri Lanka’s one and only field marshal has re-kindled interest in the incident this column   seeks to re-visit the  attack that occurred almost a decade ago.

 


Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa
Mahinda  Rajapaksa was first  elected as President of Sri Lanka in November 2005. His younger brother Nandasena Gotabhaya  Rajapaksa came down from the USA where he was residing to work for his elder brother at the elections. Gotabhaya who was holding the rank of Lt. Colonel in the Army had quit his job after 20 years  of service and migrated to the US with his family in 1991. His  wife’s family members were already resident in that country. Gotabhaya belonged to the fourth intake of  officer cadets trained entirely in Sri Lanka.  Gotabhaya  born in 1949 joined the army in 1971 .He retired in 1991 after  commanding at one time the 1st  Gajaba Regiment.


After assuming office Mahinda appointed his younger brother  Gota as the Secretary of Defence, Public Safety and Law and Order. Gotabhaya in turn was instrumental in getting his old schoolmate and ex– army colleague Sarath Fonseka appointed  as army commander after easing out the serving army chief Shantha Kottegoda as ambassador to Brazil. Despite the Oslo facilitated ceasefire with the (LTTE)being in force the war began to escalate. Both sides were to be blamed for this. A triumvirate comprising President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Army Commander Sarath Fonseka  provided political, administrative and military leadership respectively in prosecuting the war against the LTTE.


Tiger Intelligence Chief, “Pottu Ammaan” began targeting Mahinda,Gota and Sarath for obvious reasons. The LTTE drew first blood when a woman suicide bomber infiltrated the military headquarters in Colombo and exploded herself  in a bid to kill Sarath Fonseka. Though seriously injured the tough army commander  survived the attack that took place in April 2006. Fonseka was however out of action for some months  while making  a  remarkable  physical recovery from injuries sustained in the attack. Despite Fonseka’s absence the defence secretary filled the void by rising to the occasion. The experience  he had had as a soldier in Sri Lanka as well as the influence he enjoyed as the President’s sibling helped Gotabhaya Rajapaksa carry out his duties efficiently. It was widely acknowledged then that the defence secretary was  planning, coordinating and overseeing the on-going war effort against the Tigers.This naturally energised the LTTE into expediting efforts to eliminate Gotabhaya. The overall responsibility of assassinating him was delegated by Pottu Ammaan to his senior deputy “Kapil Ammaan”. Several plots were hatched. 


Finally one of the assassination plans was executed on  Friday December 1st 2006. The LTTE had done its reconnaissance and found a pattern in  the defence secretary’s movements. He used to take one of two routes alternately  when he set out to work from his  official residence in the mornings.Whenever he set out  from home, officers  in charge of Gotabhaya’s security would  station themselves  at key junctions  along the route.Traffic would be stopped in advance  for Gotabhaya’s motorcade to proceed smoothly along the road without hindrance or delay. These arrangements  by themselves  provided an early inkling to anyone observing traffic movements that a VVIP was soon going to motor down the road.  A far more serious flaw in this practice was  that  of traffic being allowed on the other side of the road. While  traffic was   stopped on one side of the road, vehicles were allowed to proceed in the opposite direction on the other side of the road. 


The LTTE exploited this loophole and put its action plan into practice on Dec 1st.  A bomb weighing 25 kilos was fitted on to a trishaw.  Anticipating that the defence secretary was going to proceed along the route in question,  the  “Black Tiger” suicide  assassin of the LTTE positioned his explosive laden three-wheeler on the opposite side of the road that  Gotabhaya was to travel along. 

 


Anagarika Dharmapala Mawatha
Gotabhaya Rajapakse was on his way to “Temple Trees” for the National Security Council meeting that morning.  His brother President Rajapaksa had returned from India the previous day. Gota’s  nine-vehicle motorcade proceeded along  Anagarika Dharmapala Mawatha (Turret Road) towards Galle Road.The convoy had to cross Sir James Peiris Mawatha at the Greenpath area junction known as “Pithala Handiya” where artisans sold handicrafts made of brass  on the pavement.The traffic was stopped by Special Forces personnel in charge of Rajapaksa’s security for the motorcade to pass when a red three-wheeler bearing the number WP – GH 0617 cut in  from the other side ram into the motorcade. However the three wheeler driver found it difficult to get close to the motorcade because of the heavy traffic on  his side.

 

Finally one of the assassination plans was executed on  Friday December 1st 2006. The LTTE had done its reconnaissance and found a pattern in  the defence secretary’s movements

 


The assassin then manouevred the three-wheeler and moved in. The escort Defender jeep in front of Rajapakse’s bullet-proof BMW vehicle collided with the three-wheeler and an explosion occurred at 10.39 am. It is not clear as to  whether the explosion was triggered off by the impact of the collision or whether the assassin detonated the bomb deliberately.The  attack  occurred on Dharmapala Mawatha near the Citibank building. The spot was within sight of a school and the roads were used frequently by VIP’s.


The explosion hit the Special Force outrider riding alongside Rajapaksa’s vehicle both the motor cyclist, Lance Corporal Wijeratne of Kurunegala and the Jeep driver Lance Corporal Piyasiri of Galle were killed along with the suicide bomber in the explosion.The Defender jeep and motor cycle bearing the brunt of the explosion was a Godsend to Gotabhaya’s BMW vehicle that minimised force of the blast.


The bonnet, headlights, tyres and windscreen of Gota  Rajapaksa’s vehicle were damaged in the attack. The driver too sustained minor injuries. But both Rajapaksa and his personal bodyguard seated in the front seat were unhurt.Rajapaksa seated in the left side backseat was thrown to the right side due to the explosion. He was apparently dazed and lay still on the back seat.Some glass splinters had grazed him slightly. His right eyebrow was cut-a few, drops of blood were seen on his shirtsleeves and collar.

 

The suicide killer or Black Tiger  attack  in which Gotabhaya Rajapaksa escaped miraculously sent shock  waves throughout the country at that time

 


Even as his vehicle screeched to a halt the dazed Gota asked “ What happened?” in Sinhala.The defence secretary’s personal security officer H.D. Kapuhena  replied; “We are under attack,” and jumped over the seat to the rear. Kapuhena put his body armour over Rajapaksa’s torso and a gas mask over his  head.The explosion had caused the vehicle doors to jam and Kapuhena began shouting out to other security men in the convoy to open the doors  of the BMW.


A crowbar was brought and the doors broken open. Kapuhena put  Gotabhaya Rajapaksa into another Defender jeep that sped off towards Galle Road and thereafter to “Temple Trees”. Kapuhena and other security personnel fired shots rapidly in the air as the vehicle proceeded to clear the way. It terrified ordinary people in Kollupitiya who thought a gun battle was on between the security forces and some Tigers in Colombo. Several parents rushed to schools and took their children home.

 

President Mahinda Rajapaksa
Meanwhile  President  Mahinda Rajapaksa had been at an official discussion at “Temple Trees”   when he heard reports of an explosion. He had immediately rushed out of the room saying “ This is the time Gota is expected to be here. See what has happened.” When reports of an attack on Gotabhaya’s convoy reached Mahinda, he became frantic and was seen and heard shouting agitatedly on the telephone.


When Mahinda Rajapaksa  was informed that Gotabhaya was safe he  urged the security personnel to bring his brother to “Temple Trees” immediately.Security personnel cleared the way en route by firing rapidly in the air.


Mahinda was reportedly overjoyed when  Gotabhaya  arrived safe and sound at “Temple Trees”. After all the defence secretary was not merely a Government official, but also the favourite younger brother of the President.The proverbial saying about blood being thicker than water was very much evident as Mahinda embraced “Gota Malli” tightly and hugged him speechlessly for more than a minute.Those who saw the scene were touched at the sight of Mahinda’s moist eyes .Gotabhaya was smiling with relief as his brother clasped and kissed him. Mahinda recovered later to exclaim “They can’t kill you! You can’t be killed!” in Sinhala.


Gotabhaya’s wife Anoma  Rajapaksa was at a Seva Vanitha meeting being held at  the Sri Lanka Air Force  headquarters when the incident took place. After been informed about the attack, Anoma  rushed to “Temple Trees” and was greatly relieved to see her husband safe and unhurt.“God saved me,” Gota told “The Island” newspaper. “My bodyguards broke open the door and helped me out,” he said, adding, “Commandos reacted swiftly as they observed the vehicle coming towards the convoy.”
Several VIP”s including former  Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake and ex -  Western Province Governor Alavi Moulana rushed to congratulate Gotabhaya on his miraculous escape.The defence secretary then went to a hospital for a check up and went home and rest. . Several poojas were organised  throughout  the country to thank the Almighty for the miraculous escape of Gotabhaya Rajapakse.

 


Statement from “Temple Trees”
Before going home and taking rest, Gotabhaya issued a statement from “Temple Trees”itself. The text of his statement was as follows:

 

Several VIP”s including former  Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake and ex -  Western Province Governor Alavi Moulana rushed to congratulate Gotabhaya on his miraculous escape

 


“You may already be aware that through the blessings of good fortune, the LTTE terrorists failed in their attempt to take my life today. However contemptible their effort may be, I treat them with compassion and I take this opportunity to inform you that I am not ready to abandon the responsibility we have towards the country in the face of such cowardly attacks by the LTTE, and to reaffirm our commitment to the national need to defeat LTTE terrorism.


I wish to appeal to all our people and the international community to avoid any action that will demoralise and weaken the determination of our brave troops who are ready even to sacrifice of their lives to make real the President’s dream of building a new Sri Lanka, where all Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim people can live happily in peace and harmony.


Whatever obstructions we may face, I wish to emphasise that we will not deviate from the people’s desire to bring about permanent peace to the country, because peace is the primary need of the nation. I wish to express my gratitude to the brave soldiers who sacrificed their lives in the face of this attack; I wish speedy recovery to the members of the Security Forces and civilians who were injured in this attack; and thank my security personnel who faced up to the challenge of the assassins.
Finally, I wish to reiterate the truth that it will never be possible to defeat this great country through the bloody savagery of cowardly LTTE terrorists. As citizens, I request you to wish  courage and strength to the Security Forces who are your own brothers and sisters, and appreciate their efforts to protect you. I ask you to raise your voice for the cause of peace; to realise your expectations of a peaceful and harmonious Sri Lanka.”

 


LTTE Operation
The incident brought about an international outcry.The United States condemned the assassination bid and urged the LTTE to enter talks. “The attack bears all the hallmarks of an operation by the LTTE,” the US embassy in Colombo said in a statement.” Once again, we  call on the LTTE to renounce terrorism, to give up violence and join in negotiating a peaceful solution to Sri Lanka’s conflict,” it added.


The then British Prime Minister Tony Blair  also got in touch with the High Commissioner in Colombo, expressing condemnation of the attack and his sympathies for those killed and injured. Peace facilitator Norway also vehemently condemned the suicide attack on the defence secretary. Royal Norwegian Embassy spokesman Erik Nurnberg stated that Norway strongly denounces the attempt on the life of the defence secretary.”We condemn this attack in the strongest terms. Incidents like this have kept on happening. We want to make it clear that such attacks are not going to make it easier to find a solution to Sri Lanka’s problem,” he said.The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), which was monitoring the ceasefire agreement during that time, said it was deeply concerned over the attack.


Meanwhile security officers  had cordoned off  the area of explosion and stopped traffic till late into the night.Fire fighters were called in to douse the flames engulfing some vehicles after the explosion.Seventeen vehicles including two passenger buses were damaged. Eight of these were extensively damaged. The vehicles belonged to both security forces and civilians. 


Four people including the suicide bomber were killed in the incident. Two security officers and a civilian pedestrian were also killed.The civilians name was  not revealed  in media reports published at the time.The security personnel killed were a motor cycle rider travelling alongside Gotabhaya’s BMW vehicle. The other was the driver of the Defender jeep in front of the Rajapaksa vehicle The motor cyclist riding alongside Gotabaya’s vehicle was Lance Corporal PHP Wijerathne of the Sri Lanka Army service Corps. He was Arawwala, Mawattegama from Kurunegala who left behind his wife and child.The driver of the escort Defender jeep travelling in front of Rajapaksa’s vehicle killed was Lance Corporal. NK Piyasiri of the Gajaba Regiment. He was a native of Warakkendeniya, Neluwa in the Galle District.


Eighteen persons were injured in the incident. Of these thirteen were admitted to hospital. Eight were security men while five were civilians. Three of the injured were admitted to the Nawaloka Hospital and the others to Colombo National Hospital.


Among injured civilians were  the then Foreign Ministry Secretary HMGS Palihakkara and former Treasury Secretary Charitha Ratwatte. The injuries sustained by both were  of a minor nature. Both Palihakkara and Ratwatte were travelling separately at that time  and were not part of Gotabhaya’s motorcade. Palihakkara served as Governor of the Northern Province under the  current Sirisena- Wickremesinghe Govt. Charitha Ratwatte is currently a senior adviser to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

 


“Heard a  Big Bang and Saw Flames”
The statements of more than 20 eyewitnesses have also been recorded.Twenty-seven year old bus driver I.S Weerasekera, who worked on the 112 Kotahena-Maharagama route, said his bus had been stopped at the traffic lights by the Special Forces to make way for the defence secretary’s convoy when he suddenly heard a big bang and saw flames.“Suddenly I heard a huge blast and soon after saw clouds of smoke followed by blazes rising from under the mango tree. Then a bike in flames came hurling towards the bus. I ducked to avoid being hit, and the windscreen was shattered,” he added.


The severed head of the suicide killer was found in the back of a double cab about 25 metres away from the explosion.  Police also said that the mobile phone of the suicide bomber was now in police custody.It was also reported  in the aftermath of the incident that  the police had  taken into custody around 15 Tamils in Colombo for questioning.Police also announced then that the  registered owner three – wheeler had been traced. The owner was Anthony Bernard Christopher of Kadawatte. When further inquiries were conducted it was discovered that the three-wheeler had been recently sold to a man known as  Mohammed Latheef Mohammed Fareed who was staying at Modera for 300,000 rupees . It was found that  3 months rent in advance and  “key money”  amounting to 200,000 rupees had been paid by Fareed  to the Landlord for the Modera residence.


As investigations  progressed   it was discovered that MLM Fareed   though bearing a Muslim name and identity card was actually a Tamil named Balasingham Vijayakumar . He was a “Karumpuli” or Black Tiger assigned the task of blowing up an explosive laden vehicle and killing Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. The three-wheeler driver who blew up his explosive –laden vehicle and died in the process was none other than Balasingham Vijayakumar alias Mohammed Latheef Mohamed Fareed.


Subsequent probes also uncovered that a 25 kilo bomb used in the attack had been  transported by the LTTE in a vehicle belonging to the reputed international humanitarian organization CARE (Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere). The driver of  the CARE double–cab was Thambirajah Yogarajah an LTTE  intelligence operative working as a driver for CARE. The bomb had been concealed in the fuel tank of the vehicle. It was removed from the CARE vehicle at Wellawatte and then brought to Modera where it was fitted on to the three-wheeler.


Even as investigations continued it became crystal clear that the LTTE had set up an intricate network in Colombo and other key areas of the South to conduct attacks and assassinations. It appeared that the LTTE had utilised the opportunity provided by the Oslo facilitated ceasefire of 2002 to  infiltrate the South and establish this network.Even as the Sri Lankan state intensified efforts to uncover and dismantle this LTTE terror apparatus the Tigers continued  attacks in the South such as the assassination of Cabinet Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle. The  security authorities however  managed to destroy the LTTE network in the South  gradually. This included the arrest of a serving army colonel  and a police ASP;  both were Sinhalese.


Despite these successes  in dismantling the Tiger network in Colombo the most sought after prize continued to prove elusive. This was the ‘Mastermind” directing LTTE operations in the South. Though Pottu Ammaan, Kapil Ammaan and other LTTE intelligence wing leaders planned operations there had to be  someone “in the field” in overall charge of Tiger activity such as bomb attacks and assassinations. After relentless search the breakthrough came  in August 2009 , three months after the LTTE was militarily defeated in May 2009.

 


Selvaraja Kirupakaran Alias “Morris”
The mastermind directing LTTE operations was Selvaraja Kirupakaran alias Morris.Just as the LTTE three-wheeler assassin targeting Gotabhaya Rajapaksa  pretended to be a Muslim in Colombo, Kirubakaran alias Morris too lived in Colombo pretending to be a Muslim named Mohammed Nisthar. He had two residences - one in Kuppiyawatte and the other in Dematagoda. After scrutinising the movements of Morris for a while the Police TID closed in on the Tiger operative  when he was travelling on his scooter from Dematagoda towards Maradana. “Morris” swallowed cyanide capsules when he fell after his scooter collided with a police jeep. 


Police rushed Kirupakaran  alias Morris to the National Hospital where he was treated and pronounced out of danger after two days. Consequently Morris was interrogated intensively. He reportedly provided much information about  LTTE attacks in the South and admitted to being the mastermind bearing overall responsibility for executing them. These included the assassination attempts on both Sarath Fonseka and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Much of the info gleaned from Morris were of academic interest in the current context as the LTTE has been defeated conclusively in May 2009. Morris continues to be in custody. Recent moves by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Govt to release Morris as part of an exercise to release Tamil “political prisoners” ran into a storm of  widespread protest.


This then is the narration of the  attack on Gotabhaya Rajapaksa on December 1st 2006. It has been accepted both nationally and internationally for many years  that the LTTE had been responsible for the assassination attempt and that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had had a miraculous escape. Even Sarath Fonseka  did not challenge this  belief during his 2010 Presidential election campaign. Now after almost a decade the ex –army chief in his current avatar as a UNP Cabinet minister has levelled charges in Parliament that the bomb attack on Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was engineered by the ex–defence secretary himself.


There is no doubt that Sarath Fonseka was treated badly by the Rajapaksa regime for daring to challenge Mahinda Rajapaksa at the Presidential poll of 2010. He was jailed unfairly and stripped of his rank and honours. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Govt rectified the great injustice done to a brave national hero and restored him to his former glory. He was also made a Field Marshall and later a national list MP and Cabinet minister. The nation at large rejoiced when this happened.

 


Field Marshall Fonseka
It is however up to Sarath Fonseka himself to retain the respect and regard the nation has for him through  his conduct. Making  unsubstantiated allegations  of this nature against Gotabhaya Rajapaksa  or any other person is certainly not  to the credit of the Ambalangoda lion.Unless and until Sarath Fonseka provides incontrovertible proof  of his charges , Sri Lanka’s one and only Field Marshall would run the risk of  being condemned in the court of public opinion as a “loose cannon” seeking  to mislead Parliament and by extension the people of this country.


D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com