No request from Tigers to leave trawler, say monitors on board
Defence, SLMM differ over explosion

by Namini Wijedasa
The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) yesterday disputed an official defence ministry claim that LTTE cadres on board the fishing trawler which exploded on Friday had first requested SLMM members to jump overboard before setting it on fire.

"According to our monitors, there was no request or gesture to tell them to leave the boat," said Teitur Torkelsson, SLMM spokesman. "The boat was set on fire without them even knowing it at first."

It was not immediately clear why the defence ministry statement (released on Friday night) erred in its report of the incident. Even navy reports from the north observed that the ship was set alight while the monitors were on board.

The defence ministry statement said: "...the LTTE cadres on board requested SLMM members to jump overboard and the three LTTE cadres set fire to the trawler and committed suicide."

The two monitors, who reported to Colombo yesterday, had informed Head of Mission Trond Furuhovde that an LTTE cadre initially set fire to the back of the boat. The two monitors — who were waiting on board for further instructions — were ignorant of this development.

Subsequently, another cadre had started splashing kerosene on the rest of the boat with the intention of setting it alight.

"When one of the monitors tried to intervene, he saw that the boat was already on fire," Torkelsson recounted. The monitors jumped overboard and the explosions occurred while they were in the water. They were rescued by the navy.

"The explosion took place quite soon after they jumped into the water," Torkelsson said. "The boat was already on fire and it exploded when they were getting closer to the navy vessel." He said the monitors were in the sea for about 15 minutes.

The two men — both Norwegians — are expected to stay in Colombo for a few days before returning to Jaffna. Neither sustained injuries. They also revealed their translator had not been on the vessel, although initial reports from Jaffna claimed otherwise. She had been on the navy craft.

Meanwhile, the SLMM is likely to enforce strictly a rule that monitors desist from boarding LTTE vessels for inspections.

"We are likely to follow that more strictly in future because we sent our monitors on the ship and placed them at risk," Torkelsson said. He reiterated that the SLMM members had only boarded the vessel because a tense situation had developed, with LTTE cadres threatening to commit suicide if the navy carried out an inspection.

"We were trying to diffuse the situation," he explained.

The SLMM decided last July that their members will stop boarding LTTE vessels for inspections. This was after LTTE cadres detained two monitors, leading some defence officials to label it as an abduction. The cease-fire agreement which completes one year on February 22 binds both parties to protect the monitors and to ensure their security. The LTTE has, however, tested this clause twice.

The navy’s right to investigate vessels remains intact. But the sailors, in this instance, were faced with a tricky situation.

"We are the law enforcement in the sea," said a senior navy official in Jaffna. "But when these cadres don’t want the navy on their boat and threaten to commit suicide, what is the alternative left with us?"