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The Kaithady Explosion that Rocked the LTTE on Valentine’s Day

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Prabakaran and his Commanders

The 14th of February 1987 remains an explosive date in the  annals of contemporary military history. A well-laid plan by the LTTE –  known popularly as the ‘Tigers’ – to attack the Navatkuli Army Camp on  Valentine’s Day went awry, due to the accidental explosion that killed  43 and injured 51 persons

Prabakaran wanted his cadres to re-draw plans and attack  Navatkuli again. But while preparations were in progress, the soldiers  expanded the camp area further by taking over the Andriesz factory and  the Thamby Walavu Coconut grove. The water problem faced by the Army was  solved.    

  • The H-hour struck. The water bowser was substituted, and then filled with water at Kaithady, but the Tigers found to their dismay that in spite of their elaborate preparations, they had neglected one aspect. They had not tried filling their duplicate bowser with water, prior to the actual switching of both. When the water was filled, the outer pipes of the explosive laden bowser began leaking 
  • When Ponnamman reached the scene he found the pipes leaking. He and Ranjan decided to fix it with a blow torch welder. The welding began on the outside, while the explosives were in the secret compartment on the inside. Curdles, Vasu, Paran and others also gathered around those engaged in welding. The time was between 5.20 and 5.25 pm. Suddenly, there was a powerful blast! The bowser exploded. The explosion expected at Navatkuli went off by accident in Kaithady. All hell broke loose! 
  • The exact reason for the explosion is unknown even today  although it is surmised that the heat generated by the welding process  may have been the cause. The armed forces became aware of the situation,  and a helicopter assault was launched on the withdrawing cadres 

“The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry,” penned the Scottish bard, Robert Burns in his poem, “To A Mouse”. This truth was brought home in an explosive manner to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), 37 years ago, when a massive explosion rocked the Kaithady area in the Thenmaratchi division of the Jaffna peninsula.
A well-laid plan by the LTTE – known popularly as the ‘Tigers’ – to attack the Navatkuli Army Camp on Valentine’s Day went awry due to the  accidental explosion that killed 43 and injured 51 persons. 14 February 1987 remains an explosive date in the annals of contemporary military history, and is worthy of being recounted as its 34thanniversary draws near.


What happened then was this:


The war between the Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE was continuing. LTTE leader, Veluppillai Prabhakaran gave the slip to Indian authorities, and clandestinely returned to Jaffna from Tamil Nadu, on 5 January 1987. To mark his return, the Tiger supremo wanted his men to expedite a bold attack being planned against a Sri Lankan Army camp in the North.


Navatkuli Camp


The army camp at Navatkuli was set up in the 1984-85 period along the Jaffna-Kandy road near the lagoon. It had around 300 to 400 security personnel. The Ceygma Company factory which specialised in manufacturing water pumps and pipes had been acquired by the state for this purpose. 
 At the time the camp was set up, the military installation was not self-sufficient in drinking water. If premises belonging to the adjoining Andriesz Seafood Processing Factory or the adjacent “Thamby Walavu” coconut grove had also been acquired, then drinking water could have been available, but it was not done initially.
Instead, a Tamil civilian from the neighbouring village, Kaithadi was contracted to supply water to the camp. This man would haul a water bowser attached to his tractor every morning and evening, and fill it up with good drinking water at a well in Kaithady. He would then deliver it routinely to the Navatkuli camp.


Thileepan alias “Curdles”


The LTTE commander for Jaffna district in 1987 was Sathasivampillai Krishnakumar alias ‘Kittu’. The Thenmaratchi divisional area commander was Thileepan alias ‘Curdles’ a.k.a. ‘Curdy.’ Curdles was entrusted with the task of preparing a feasibility study on attacking the Kaithady camp. He was in the process of planning the attack when the LTTE supremo, Velupillai Prabakharan relocated to Jaffna from India. 
Prabakharan was very keen that the hitherto “defensive” war should be transformed to “offensive” status. So he instructed Kittu to prioritise the attack on Navatkuli. Since the Navatkuli-Kaithady areas were part of Thenmaratchy, and therefore technically under Curdles, Kittu ordered him to draw up the initial plan of action. Later, it was personally streamlined by Kittu.
The LTTE obtained maps and plans of the Ceygma factory premises from a construction contracting firm in Jaffna, and made elaborate plans including the setting up of a model replica. Also heavy reconnaissance known in LTTE parlance as ‘rekki’ was also conducted. Since LTTE sentries were posted around the camp earlier, the presence of LTTE ‘rekki’ scouts did not arouse the suspicion of the army camp.


Water Bowser Driver


Another unexpected bonanza to the Tigers was the willing cooperation of the water bowser driver. The man was apparently an ardent Tamil nationalist and a genuine supporter of the Tigers.
He was prepared to go to any length to help the LTTE and proved to be a useful accomplice. Through his assistance, the LTTE photographed the water bowser in minute detail and started work on the project. It was decided to build an exact replica of the water bowser at a secret site in Meesalai.
Ranjan, a non-LTTE civilian engineer who had collaborated earlier with ‘Ideas Vasu’ on an aircraft project was in charge. He was assisted by Yogaratnam Kugan alias ‘Ponnamman’ in this respect. Although Ponnamman was then technically the Mullaitheevu district commander, Prabakharan personally assigned Ponnamman also known as ‘Atputhanto’ to work on this project. The duplicate water bowser was to have a false bottom in which explosives were to be placed. Since the army sentries had got used to the reliable tractor driver and his water bowser, intensive search was not anticipated. 


Explosive-laden Bowser


The plan was to substitute the explosive-laden bowser for the original with the connivance of the driver. To avoid suspicion, the duplicate bowser was constructed almost as an exact replica of the original with the appropriate shade of blue paint, water marks, signs of corrosion, etc.
The day of attack was scheduled for Feb 14th 1987, a Saturday. In those days, the LTTE had a penchant to launch major attacks on a numerological basis. The 5th, 14th and 23rd were ‘good days’ while the 8th, 17th and 26th were ‘bad days’. The duplicate bowser was surreptitiously transported in the early hours of the 13th, a Friday, to a granary at Kaithady. 
There the false bottom was loaded with explosives along with proportionate booster charges. This was personally undertaken by Ponnamman, the resident LTTE expert at that time in explosive technology. The plan was for the driver to bring the original bowser to this granary, where it would be substituted with the explosive laden duplicate bowser filled with water, and taken to the Navatkuli camp. The attack was to begin with the explosion of the water bowser between 5.30pm and 6pm.
In the meantime, the carefully drawn up attack plan was being executed with exact precision by the Tigers. Cadres from all over the Jaffna peninsula and Mannar were transported on 13th night in small groups to abandoned houses at Navatkuli. They were ordered to remain hidden throughout daylight on the 14th.


Action Plan


The action plan was drawn up with meticulous detail. The driver was to enter the camp with the water bowser, and then walk away towards the toilet without attracting attention. When he reached a safe distance, the explosion was to be triggered off through remote control. In case the remote did not work, a timer too had been fitted on, as a precautionary measure. 
The LTTE spokesman of the time, Rahim was stationed at the top of the adjoining Andriesz factory air-conditioning plant. It was a vantage point to obtain a bird’s eye view of what was happening in the camp. When the driver was clear, Rahim was to signal another senior cadre, Ravi who was to press the plunger. Once Ravi triggered the explosion at Rahim’s signal, the attack was to commence.
It was expected that the whole Navatkuli camp would be thrown into confusion and disarray by the explosion. A group led by Uthaman was to assault the gates with the extensive use of “Bangalore Torpedoes’. Uthaman’s group would clear frontal defensive mines.
Four sandbag laden trucks with mounted fire-arms were to penetrate the outer defences and enter the camp frontally from different points. Each truck was at the vanguard of four different Tiger groups on foot. The four groups were led by Curdles, Johnny, Soosai and Paran respectively.
At that time, Curdles was LTTE leader of the Thenmaratchi division, Johnny – the Valigamam division, Soosai – the Vadamaratchi division, and Paran – the deputy-leader of Prabakharan’s body guard squad. Each leader was perched on each of the advancing trucks.
Two groups led by Vasu and Kutti Sri were to conduct mortar fire from two directions. Veeman was in charge of the group assigned to provide covering fire with small arms. 
Six groups led by Ravi, Malaravan, Mathan, Rahim, Kandeepan and Mayooran respectively were to breach the defences at six points on three sides and enter the camp fighting.
A cut-out to prevent military reinforcements by air was established towards the Ariyalai direction under the command of Daniel. This cut-out was equipped with 50 calibre guns then the most powerful in the LTTE arsenal.
180 LTTE guerrillas comprising assault and support cadres were to be involved in the operation. The operational headquarters was at a house near the Kaithady-Kopay road. The person in charge was Kunju, the deputy leader of the Thenmaratchi area, but Kittu the overall Jaffna commander also stationed himself there. Prabakharan was at Valvettithurai then.


Leaking Pipes


The H-hour struck. The water bowser was substituted, and then filled with water at Kaithady, but the Tigers found to their dismay that in spite of their elaborate preparations, they had neglected one aspect. They had not tried filling their duplicate bowser with water, prior to the actual switching of both. When the water was filled, the outer pipes of the explosive laden bowser began leaking.
News of the leaking pipes did not reach all the leaders and group leaders, as only an uncommon frequency was used to inform Ponnamman and Ranjan the engineer. They raced to the scene in a pick-up vehicle. Three other Tiger leaders Vasu, Curdles and Paran also heard about the leaking pipes and proceeded to Kaithady with some of their cadres.
As was customary LTTE battle practice, a separate frequency was being used in the combat zone. Kittu also was using it. Some walkie-talkies had switched frequencies while others had not. That is why some leaders heard about the leaking pipes and others did not. 
The others did not know what was happening, and were waiting in their positions for the signal to attack. Rahim for example had detained the evening shift employees at Andriesz factory in a safe place, so that they would not get caught up in the attack. Residents of Navatkuli who strayed into the combat zone were also detained in this manner.


Blow-torch Welder


When Ponnamman reached the scene he found the pipes leaking. He and Ranjan decided to fix it with a blow torch welder. The welding began on the outside, while the explosives were in the secret compartment on the inside. Curdles, Vasu, Paran and others also gathered around those engaged in welding. 
The time was between 5.20 and 5.25 pm. Suddenly there was a powerful blast! The bowser exploded. The explosion expected at Navatkuli went off by accident in Kaithady. All hell broke loose!


43 Killed,51 Injured


12 LTTE cadres and 31 civilians were killed. 51 persons comprising civilians and LTTE cadres were injured. Those waiting at the Navatkuli battle-front heard the explosion report and wondered what happened. The explosion was powerful enough to rattle the windows of the Kailasapathy Hall at the Jaffna University at Thirunelveli. 
The exact reason for the explosion is unknown even today although it is surmised that the heat generated by the welding process may have been the cause.
Among those killed were Lt. Col. Kugan alias ‘Ponnamman’ – the Mullaitheevu commander and a favourite of Prabakharan. The Thenmaratchy leader, Major Curdles was also killed. Sudhagaran alias ‘Vasu’ – known as ‘Ideas Vasu’ – was also killed. Apart from Capt. Vasu, Lt. Paran and Lt. Siddarthan – the younger brother of Sornalingam alias ‘Shankar’, the Chief of the Air-Tigers wing – was also killed. Among the civilians killed were Ranjan the engineer and the water bowser driver.
The body of Ponnamman was blown to bits and nothing was recovered. Curdles was identified by parts of a belt. Vasu was identified through a piece of an identity card. 
Curdles had a premonition that he was going to die in the Navatkuli attack. He left behind a letter written to Kittu. He had also made entries in his diary to that effect. But Curdles never expected death by explosion, and it is said that the hard-boiled Kittu cried when reading Curdy’s last epistle.
Aruna, another senior leader was despatched with the unenviable task of breaking the news to the LTTE supremo, Prabakharan in Valvettithurai. Kittu who visited the scene of the explosion almost broke down, and it was left to Radha another senior leader to call off the operation. Couriers were dispatched to the attack groups who began withdrawing.
The armed forces became aware of the situation and a helicopter assault was launched on the withdrawing cadres. The LTTE retaliated with ground to air fire.
Prabakaran wanted his cadres to re-draw plans and attack Navatkuli again. But while preparations were in progress, the soldiers expanded the camp area further by taking over the Andriesz factory and the Thamby Walavu Coconut grove. The water problem faced by the Army was solved.
Separate funerals and Jaffna-wide memorial meetings were conducted in honour of the dead persons. The LTTE was the darling of the Jaffna masses then, and all Jaffna overtly mourned the victims of the Kaithady bowser explosion.


Conversations with Tigers


I conclude by stating that most of the information used in this article was obtained through conversations with ex-Jaffna LTTE commander Kittu and three other ex-tigers involved in the abortive Kaithady operation. 
D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com

 


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