The Marine battle over ‘MV Pearl Cruise II’: An Overview

By D.B.S. Jeyaraj

The marine battle over “MV Pearl Cruise II” is over and the troop ship carrying 710 security personnnel has docked safely at Kankesanthurai (KKS) . The consequences of the attack launched by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) against the naval vessel are continuing still. One such result is the decision by the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission to suspend all naval monitoring activity until further notice.

It all began when a naval flotilla escorting the personnel – carrier ship to KKS from Trincomalee came under heavy attack by a sea tigers unit. The sea battle resulted in the destruction of two “Dvoras” and the deaths of at least twenty – one persons from both the Navy and tigers.

The MV “Pearl cruise II” is a merchant vessel now used by the navy to transport men and materials by sea. The ship had started off from Trincomalee at dawn with 710 security personnel on board. These included a number of army and air force personnel in addition to navy sailors.

The bulk of the men were security personnel returning from home to duty. Most of them were in civilian dress and were unarmed. The “pearl cruise II ” was provided security by six Fast attack craft and one gun boat.

The LTTE through its alert intellige network became aware of the ” Pearl Cruise II” starting out from Trinco.On the morning of May 11th the LTTE had sent an urgent letter to the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission. The letter signed by Political commissar Suppiah Paramu Thamilselvan was curt and precise.

” We have on several occasions verbally informed you to refrain from boarding Sri Lankan Naval vessels. We have also given this request in writing to you twice so far. This is the third request from us to you to refrain from boarding Sri Lankan Naval vessels. Sri Lankan Navy is entering the sea adjoining the land in our control and disrupting the fishing activities of the people. It is also disturbing the LTTE exercises in doing so. If Sri Lankan Navy disrupts our activities we will definitely retaliate. SLMM monitors are used by the Sri Lankan Navy as human shields in order to continue with these disruptions. We urge you for the last time not to be on board Sri Lankan Naval vessels until further notice from us. If you chose to ignore our warning and request, we are not responsible for the consequences. Please take this as the last warning to you to not board Sri Lankan Naval vessels” it said.

The LTTE had sent two letters in similiar vein to the SLMM. The third missive issued a last warning. Apparently the SLMM had no inkling of the serious intent behind that warning. Subsequent events were to prove that the letter sent on May 11th by the tigers had a definite purpose.

The naval flotilla was in Northern waters off the coast of Vadamaratchy East when a fleet of eighteen Sea tiger and black sea tiger boats started out from the Chundikkulam – Challai sea tiger base. They approached the naval convoy from the rear.

The sea tiger boats were equipped with 20 mm, 23 mm and .50 calibre guns. They also had powerful outboard motors affixed to the boats. This enabled them to move really fast. It is estimated that they were sailing at 30 – 35 knots top speed.

Two FAC ships and the gunboat were sailing ahead of the personnel carrier. Four “Dvoras” were following behind. The three vessels in front had gone too far ahead when the tigers struck .

The four Dvoras reportedly sped up and offered resistance to the LTTE. All four were modelled on Israeli proto-types and assembled in Colombo dockyards The vessels were P- 418, P – 420. P- 421, and P – 497 respectively.They were commanded by Lt Cmdr Edirisinghe (P – 418), Lt Cndr Wijewardene (P- 420), Lt. Walgampaya (P – 421 ) and Lt. Rathnatilleke (P – 497 ) respectively.

The “Pearl Cruise II” remained virtually isolated when the sea skirmish began. P – 418 and P – 420 were in the vanguard and bore the brunt of marine combat against the sea tigers.

The sea battle ensued at a point about 30 nautical miles to the South – East of Point Pedro. The time was around 4. 30 to 4.35 pm.

There were two Scandinavian ceasefire monitors accompanying the convoy. One was Ilkka Happlina the head of Trincomalee SLMM division who was on the “Pearl Cruise II”. The other was Jaffna SLMM division deputy head Lars Bleymann who was on the P – 421 Dvora. Both vessels were flying the SLMM flag to indicate that monitors were aboard.

Lars Bleymann had a satellite phone. He was in touch with SLMM headquarters relaying news of the attack. He was also worried about the safety of Happlina and himself.

Meanwhile some sea tiger boats tried to surround the lone personnel carrier vessel at mid sea. Though the tigers could have destroyed and sunk the ship the objective seemed to be that of seizing the vessel with its crew and passengers.A stand – off at sea was on.

The fact that the ship had a ceasefire monitor from Finland on board may also have contributed towards the tiger’s reluctance to attack the ship forcefully. Six of the LTTE boats were packed with explosives and manned by black sea tigers. Ramming the suicide boats into the ship would have been simple. Yet it was not done.

With the four Dvora fast attack craft vessels engaging the sea tigers at sea the tide turned. The passenger ferry was instructed to sail on through international waters towards Indian waters. The three vessels that had gone ahead were also asked to turn back and follow the passenger ferry. Two Dvoras on patrol in North – Western waters near Neduntheevu or Delft were also instructed to turn around to help their beleaguered comrades

The SLMM headquarters in Colombo was furious at the threat to its members. Oslo too was angered. Massive pressure was exerted on the LTTE in Kilinochchi and abroad. The tigers were pressurised to call off its boats and let the “Pearl Cruiser” proceed safely.

Ms Helen Olafsdottir, spokesperson of the monitoring mission told media later that they (SLMM) contacted the Kilinochchi-based LTTE leadership immediately after the Sea Tigers triggered the clash off the Mullaitivu coast.

“We urged them to cease the offensive and reminded them of the presence of Nordic naval monitors on board two vessels,” she said. “They asked us to get them out.”

Meanwhile the personnel carrier was moving away fast towards Indian waters. The “MV Pearl Cruise II” crossed the International Maritime Boundaty Line and reached Indian sanctuary.

At this point of time a desperate Government in Colombo contacted New Delhi urgently. Indian assistance was requested to rescue the ship from LTTE clutches and escort it to KKS or Trincomalee.

According to informed diplomatic sources India was prepared to provide security to Galle but not to Trinco or KKS due to the possibility of getting drawn into possible conflict. New Delhi while ready to help Colombo out was not ready to risk its personnel or get dragged into unnecessary confrontation with the LTTE.

India however said that if the LTTE entered Indian waters in pursuit of the passenger ferry their navy and possibly air force would retaliate against the tigers. Such an eventuality never arose because the LTTE never were in hot pursuit.

An Indian coast guard ship came close to the “MV Pearl Cruise II” ready to provide assistance and protection. Indian Navy and Air Force were also alerted but not deployed due to the tigers giving up pursuit.

It is possible that the LTTE did not pursue the ship due to several reasons. The tiger boats were engaged in combat. The LTTE had no intention of getting into Indian waters and possibly confront the Indian navy or coast guard. There was also the reluctance to attack a passenger ship with unarmed personnel and a truce monitor on board.

Later tiger political chief Thamilselvan was to tell SLMM head Ulf Henricsson in Kilinochchi that the LTTE had let the “MV Pearl cruise II” escape because a Scandinavian monitor was aboard.

India has been reticent about the role it played in the episode. Just as New Delhi contacted Colombo telephonically to urge protection of Tamil civilians in Trincomalee India was now playing a quiet role in protecting the unarmed security personnel.

When journalists contacted Indian Defence ministry sources for information about the incident no details were forthcoming. It was admitted “off the record” that a Sri Lankan ship in trouble had got into Indian waters and that an Indian coast guard ship had provided assistance. The Indian NDTV said later that the Lankan ship had been escorted safely by India to a Sri Lankan port.

Meanwhile the raging sea battle was ending after nearly 80 to 90 minutes. The Lankan air force too got into the act in the final phase by sending Mi 24 helicopter gunships. The Mi 24 copters were of little utilitarian value as it was now dusk and the battle virtually over. The LTTE boats were returning to base in Chundikulam – Chalai.

T he personnel carrier had reached international waters with an Indian coast guard vessel close by and a naval ship looming on the horizon. The Lankan air force helicopters were trying to inflict damage. Norway and the SLMM was exerting strong pressure. The tigers had put two Dvoras out of action. At least one tiger boat was hit. So the LTTE called off the sea – borne operation and withdrew.

The personnel carrier ship which reached Indian waters remained at sea for a while. Indian ships stood guard. Meanwhile Colombo had started reprisal bombing and shelling on LTTE controlled areas in the North and East. It appeared that tiger fighting was over for the day.

The SLMM also obtained guarantes from the LTTE that the “Pearl cruise II” will not be targetted when returning.According to informed diplomatic sources Indian ships provided “quiet cover” to the Lankan ship to reach Lankan waters off the Jaffna peninsula .

The personnel carrier first tried to reach Trincomalee during night but thereafter the ship proceeded towards KKS. The plans were changed because tigers had assured the SLMM that it would not be harmed.The “Pearl Cruise II” arrived at about 1, 30 pm on May 12th morning near KKS.

The navy suffered the destruction of one Dvora. P- 418 was sunk by the tigers. It is said that the vessel commanded by Prasanna Edirisinghe had put up a heroic fight. It was responsible for hitting a tiger boat and staving off the sea tigers for quite some time. This enabled the passenger ferry with 710 men to escape.

P- 418 had fifteen crew and another officer Lt. Ratnaike aboard in addition to Edirisenghe. All seventeen were killed. Six navy boats conducted searches and after 36 hours recovered seven bodies.

P – 420 commanded by Wijewardene was also badly damaged. At one point it was thiought that the boat was about to sink. An airborne “casevac” (Casualty evacuation) mission was undertaken near Point Pedro to rescue captain and crew. The Dvora however did not sink and was towed back to KKS. It is extensively damaged and would require much refurbishing to be “ship shape” again.

P – 497 was also damaged but remains sea worthy. P – 421 that had a monitor aboard has some minor damage. Two sailors on board were injured. The injuries on the other two ships are not known.

The LTTE says it has lost four tigers while two were injured. Three of the killed tigers were women . All four killed were promoted posthumously by the LTTE. Their rank, nom de guerre , real names and hometowns are –

1. Lt. Col Pulichelvi – Jenita Pushparaja – Point Pedro.

2. Lt. Col Anbuvili – Amuthasumana Nageswaran – Aaliyawalai.

3. Lt. Col . Kaviyalagi – Shanthini Pedurupillai – Manatkadu (vadamaratchy east)

4. Major. Mathiyalagan – Kanthan Jesurajah – Kayts

Given the ferocity of the sea battle it does seem unbelievable that the LTTE losses were so little. Yet the divers searching for navy bodies have found the rear section of a tiger boat. It had four powerful outboard motors affixed . Traces of any other tiger casualties – if any – are yet to be found.

The SLMM says the LTTE atacked the convoy without provocation. The tigers say the ship encroached on the waters where they were engaged in training exercises. With two monitors on board two vessels that came under attack the SLMM will naturally rely on their eye witness accounts than tiger explanations.

According to knowledgeable Tamil sources the LTTE was suspicious that the personnel carrier was coming towards the peninsula to enhance the security forces strength. With the security forces transporting men and material under curfew to Nagar Kovil frontline from Palaly the LTTE feared a massive onslaught on Vettilaikerny and then Elephant pass.

It was in a way a pre- emptive strike by the tigers rationalise these sources.Though the tigers could have sunk the passenger ferry through its suicide boats the LTTE had refrained from doing so to try and capture the troops alive and also because the Finnish monitor was aboard they say.

The Sri Lankan authorities are saying that about five to eight LTTE boats were destroyed and more than fifty tigers were killed. The count is based on the assumption that ten to fifteen tigers on each boat.

At the same time Colombo also says the boats surrounding the ships were all suicide boats and that the sunk Dvora was rammed into by a tiger boat. A suicide boat with packed explosives does not have more than two black tigers on board. So the arithmetic seems to be faulty.

It appears that many sections of the national and international media are accepting the “official” version from Colombo. News reports say that more than five tiger boats were destroyed and at least fifty LTTE men were killed. Some reports even speak about a “mass funeral”.

There is also a conscious effort by sections of the media to glorify the sacrifices made by the naval personnel in fighting the tigers. The heroism displayed by some if not all navy men deserve praise. The commander of P – 421 Lt. Walgampaya has been openly commended by the monitor aboard the vessel.

The LTTE despite its victory in the sea battle has lost badly in political terms. It stands accused of flagrantly violating the ceasefire. The USA and EU have condemned tiger recklesness.

The tigers have incurred the wrath of the SLMM. It’s actions has brought about shelling and bombing in the North – East for which no international condemnstion is forthcoming.

Meanwhile the LTTE is embrioled in controversy about its rights to sea. The SLMM has also suspended naval monitoring until further notice.

The LTTE may have won the sea battle but it is fast losing the propaganda war with actions such as these. []

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