Tissa Ravindra Perera, in The Nation, 8 July 2012
Last week, the international Tamil Eelam movement attempted to raise their heads at the Vavuniya prison, where a number of LTTE terrorist suspects are being held. The operation was to hold some prison officers hostage and take full control of the prison. The prison premises located on a 40-perch land was taken under the control of the LTTE suspects, who were being given instructions over digital phones by the international LTTE leaders. While the operation was in progress, some members of a political party in the South were also in contact with the LTTE suspects over the phone. By now, the entire prison was under the control of the LTTE prisoners.
There were a total of 198 prisoners – 170 Tamils, most were LTTE sympathizers – in this prison and among them 32 LTTE suspects. The 11 LTTE suspects who were leading the operation including Shashi and Wimalruben were LTTE fighters who had held the rank of Lt. Colonel before their defeat.
Saravanapavan taken out: The LTTE suspects started their operation by starting a protest against the transfer of one of their colleagues, Saravanapavan, to the Boossa detention camp in the South. Their demand was to get their colleague back to the Vavuniya prison. When the protest began, only 10 prison officers were on duty. According to the roster, only 10 officers should be on duty at any one shift.
The LTTE sat inside the prison in protest and refused even to attend courts. Next they broke out of their wards and came towards the prison gate taking three prison officers hostage. With this move, the LTTE suspect began speaking over their satellite phones with the international LTTE leaders. When the entire prison was under the control of the LTTE suspects, the Vavuniya Magistrate went up to the prison gates with an attorney who was appearing for the suspects. But they refused to budge. The attorney advised the Magistrate to give their demands.
Orders to free the officers: While the drama was taking a dangerous turn on June 28, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa ordered the Inspector General of Police (IGP) N.K. Illangakoon to get the prison officers freed. By now, the officials had information that the LTTE suspects were with hand bombs, but the prison offices were afraid to go into the prison wards and inspect them. The reason was that the prison premises had not been checked for one and a half years, it was under the control of its inmates. They realized it was too late to do anything about it.
Sequel to the order given by the Defence Secretary, Minister of Prison Reforms Chandrasiri Gajdheera, Ministry Secretary A. Dissanayake, Commissioner General of Prisons P.W. Kodippili arrived at Anuradhpura on the morning of June 29. They stayed the night in Anuradhapura and discussed the strategy of taking back control of the prison and freeing the officers held hostage. While this was going on, they got in touch with the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) and asked the TID to jam the wavelengths of the satellite phones that the terrorist suspects were using to communicate with the international Tiger leaders. Accordingly, a jammer was brought to a location near the prison.
Police Special Task arrives: IGP Illangakoon also arrived in Vavuniya and directed the STF commandant DIG Chandrasiri Ranawana to start the operation to free the officers and take back control of the prison. Ranawana directed ASP Sylvester Wijesinghe, the head of Special Weapons Tactics Group, to leave Kalutara and arrive at Vavuniya with the STF Trincomalee District Commandant Nihal Gunaratna. In addition, another specialist anti-terrorist operation leader from Colombo was also asked to join in. Each officer brought a force of 40 members and arrived in Vavuniya. SP Gunaratna by now had deployed his small group around the prison. He had secretly got his men to go up tall buildings around the prison and also to climb the prison walls secretly and remain in their positions observing the scene.
By 4.00 a.m. ASP Sylvester also arrived with his small group. The STF commandant of Vavuniya SP Ayasha Karunaratna and ASP Roy Sumanawardhana also arrived with the motorcycle group and additional forces. The STF commandant Ranawana formulated plans to face any situation, as they had information that the LTTE suspect prisoners had hand bombs. The STF men were given strict instructions to use minimum force.
The two STF ASPs did another reconnaissance around the prison for the second time. They were able to ascertain that four prisoners were guarding the prison gate after putting padlocks from the inside.
Next the DIG North Gamini de Silva came and gave the STF group whatever help needed and discussed the latest situation. Electric steel cutting equipment, a backhoe, ambulances, water bowsers, special tall ladders were brought to the spot. The plan was to cut the steel frame door of the prison, and if that was not possible, to break the prison wall with the backhoe.
Operation kick starts: The operation was to take place at 12.00 noon and everything was ready. The STF group of SP Gunaratna was to climb the walls of the prison using ladders and lower themselves into the prison grounds with ropes. The STF men were now within 100 meters of the prison wall. Sylvester’s group was to take the main prison gate and Gunaratna’s group was to get into the prison over the prison walls.
Meanwhile, Minister Gajadheera had given instructions to beef up the security of the Magazine Prison, Colombo where LTTE suspects were kept. A mother of an LTTE suspect, who had given information about the STF operation to LTTE suspects in the prison, was also arrested at the same time. Two attorneys appearing for the LTTE suspect, who were video filming the scenes outside were held by the STF and their mobile phones and cameras were seized. Now it became impossible for the LTTE suspects to get any information about the STF operation that was taking place. When the two STF ASPs came to observe the main prison gate, they saw that the padlocks put on the gate were taken out and the main gate was open. Though it was dangerous to move in alone, the two STF ASPs went into the prison through the main gate. ASP Sylvester ordered his men to storm the prison precincts and before the suspects could understand what was happening, the STF men were inside the prison in their numbers. The STF men continued to lob teargas into the premises as they were storming it.
The LTTE suspects had become aggressive, throwing stones and poles at the STF men who had entered the premises, but the STF men started combing the prison and within a few seconds, were able to find one of the prison officers who was held hostage.
The next step was to take full control of the prison held by the LTTE suspects. By now ASP Sylvester was taking control of the ground floor. Most prisoners who had been subjected to teargas were running upstairs. But by now Shashi and the hardcore leaders of the revolt arrested. The LTTE suspects could not grasp the situation and were huddled together and STF men arrested them.
The STF was able to see stocks of dry rations sufficient for three months stacked inside the prison, and water needed for three was also stored. The STF also seized 54 telephones including satellite phones and digital phones hidden in the prison. All LTTE suspects were immediately taken out and transferred to the Anuradhapura prison.
The prison is currently closed with no inmates in it, and the officers responsible for negligence have been transferred out. About six LTTE suspects were wounded during the operation and were admitted to the Mahara Prison hospital. Nimalaruben, who was among the wounded and had severe kidney ailment, became very ill during this week and died in the prison hospital.
The international LTTE movement could not achieve their objective though they led the protest due to the dedication and efficiency of the STF, who were able to wrest control of the prison from the hardcore LTTE suspects with none killed.