The arrested crew feigned total ignorance about the cargo they had loaded, repeatedly telling their interrogators they had no clue about what the boxes contained. The accused were asked some searching questions. What was the size of boxes? Did they receive any specific instruction to keep some boxes in sunlight, away from fire and some wrapped in polythene and away from water? Explosives have to be kept away from fire and ammunition from water. Where were the boxes lying when they were loaded? Were they lying hidden somewhere or were these loaded mid-sea? Who supervised the loading operation?
It was only after several days’ grilling could it be reasonably established that Tong Nova had brought an arsenal of arms which might have been transferred to the Sea Tigers’ speedboats before the vessel was seized.
The LTTE’s biggest arms consignment, and perhaps the biggest-ever obtained by any terrorist organisation in the world, was yet to arrive. The consignments brought by Sunbird and Golden Bird were peanuts compared to that brought by M V Swanee in August 1994. The vessel, which originated in the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Nikolayev , carried 50 tons of TNT and 10 tons of RDX explosives.
In keeping with the usual LTTE tactics, the vessel’s name was changed by the time it approached Jaffna . The Sea Tigers swung into action, offloading the cargo mid-sea and transferring it to some of the numerous jungle bases the LTTE has for the purpose. The end-user certificate for the shipment had been purportedly signed by Bangladesh ’s defence secretary. The consignment, arranged by a Dhaka-based front company of the LTTE, was required by the Bangladesh military, the end-user certificate said. M V Swaneewas actually the Golden Bird.
Yet another arms consignment of the LTTE was brought in the Bay of Bengal in January 1993, but it proved to be the biggest maritime disaster for the Tigers. The 80-feet-long 100-ton capacity MV Yahata left France in October 1992. It was flying the Honduran flag. The Tigers changed its name as it reached the Bay of Bengal . They did not undertake any elaborate method, and simply painted over the first and last alphabet of “Yahata”, so it read, M VAhat.
RAW received a tip-off of an LTTE ship setting sail for Jaffna with a cargo of arms and ammunition. After Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, it had begun using submarines to monitor traffic at particular ports in south-east Asia where LTTE vessels docked regularly. The day the ship left the Thai port of Phuket , RAW had point-specific intelligence about the consignment. The Indian navy intercepted it on January 13, 1993, about 700 kms off Madras harbour. LTTE’s key man, Kittu alias Krishnakumar Sathasivam, the former Jafna commander and later the Tigers’ London-based international spokesman, was commanding the ship.
The Tigers kept dumping explosives into the sea during the three-day journey from the high seas to Madras harbour. Indian navy personnel, who were escorting M V Ahat, were helpless bystanders. The Tigers threatened to explode the ship if the Indian navy were to do something drastic. MV Ahat was finally blown up by Kittu when it was about ten kms away from the Madras harbour. There were 18 people on board. Nine of them, who tried to escape just before the ship was detonated, were arrested. Three charred bodies were found on the deck of the vessel. Six bodies could not be traced at all.
More than Rs 10 crore were spent on investigation and salvage operation which yielded nothing. A Tamil Nadu court acquitted all nine accused in the case in 1996 for lack of evidence. The court also directed the authorities to bear the expenses for sending the acquitted back to Honduras at government expense.
Several questions arise which defy answer.
* Could there be a link between Rajiv’s assassination and LTTE’s multi-million dollar arms shipments.
* Was Rajiv killed by the LTTE and the LTTE alone? Was it the brain behind the assassination or just the hand ?
* Was LTTE supremo Prabhakaran so naive as to kill Rajiv Gandhi in India and risk a crackdown which was inevitable or did he do it on behalf of some individuals or powers for money?
* Were the arms shipments a remuneration of the LTTE for killing Rajiv -the Sunbird an advance payment and subsequent shipments the next instalments ?
* If the LTTE had paid for these, how had it arranged the money for such massive consignments, particularly after being battered by the Sri Lankan government and the IPKF for over three years?
* How were the shipments procured? For whom had the enduser certificates been obtained and by who?
* The LTTE had not received any major arms consignment since 1986. During its armed conflict with the IPKF, the LTTE had been pushed to the wall and denuded of all weaponry and ammunition. Ironically, while the IPKF was engaged in a full-scale war with the LTTE, the guerillas were using grenades made in India . A grenade manufacturing factory making supplies to the LTTE was smashed in Coimbatore , Tamil Nadu, in 1989. This clearly proved that the guerillas were not getting arms from anywhere. How they became so rich to purchase several shiploads of arms and explosives, remains a mystery. But what does not is that the stature and strength of the Tigers had increased internationally after Rajiv’s assassination. Was there a connection between the murder and the emergence of the LTTE as the deadliest terrorist outfit in the world?
* Why did the LTTE need so much arsenal when the IPKF had already pulled out and the new government of president Premadasa was having peace talks with the Tigers ?
* Was there any link between the LTTE and Premadasa, who himself became a victim of a Tiger suicide bomber on May 1, 1993? If so, could it have a bearing on Rajiv’s assassination?
Imagine this scenario.
Rajiv Gandhi is on a come-back trail. Certain vested interests within India and abroad don’t want it. But they are all respectable people and are constantly under public and media gaze. So they need an expert agency which can carry out the assassination. Why not an Indian or foreign terrorist outfit which has a known enmity against Rajiv Gandhi? The LTTE fits the bill, but so do several terrorist outfits from Punjab, Kashmir and north-eastern India .
But before they strike a deal with anyone, they need cover -- somebody who can negotiate with the terrorists and keep in touch with them at a regular basis. A prominent jet-setter with pretensions of being a religious figure is willing to be the middle-man between the real conspirators and executioners.
Enter international arms dealers and drug traffickers at this stage. They open their coffers in lieu of political patronage and other material benefits which come as a by-product. Secret accounts in Switzerland and dubious banks as the now-collapsed Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) are used to finance the operation. The LTTE is promised an uninterrupted weapons supply for doing the job. The LTTE is tasked. Perhaps other outfits also were, but the Tigers struck first.
This may not be pure fiction.
*The writer is a Firstpost columnist who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets @Kishkindha