Sunday, 26 May 2024
Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the “Pithala Handiya” explosive attack & Sarath Fonseka

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the “Pithala Handiya” explosive attack & Sarath Fonseka

Former Sri Lankan army commander Sarath Fonseka came out with a bombshell statement some days ago in Parliament.

The ex –army chief now a Cabinet minister in the Sirisena – Wickremesinghe Government accused his erstwhile comrade -at – arms and former Secretary of Defence Gotabhaya Rajapaksa of having “stage managed” an assassination attempt on himself nearly ten years ago in order to win sympathy for his family the Rajapaksas. Fonseka who was serving as army commander at that time was referring to the incident on December 1st 2006 in which a suicide bomber belonging to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) tried to ram an explosive laden three –wheeler into the vehicle in which Defence secretary Rajapaksa was travelling in.

A news report about Fonseka’s allegation appearing in the English newspaper”Daily News” stated as follows –

“Sri Lanka’s former army chief told parliament Tuesday that a bomb blast apparently targeting former president Mahinda Rajapakse’s brother 10 years ago was an “inside job” to win sympathy for the then-ruling family.Sarath Fonseka, now a government legislator, said the December 2006 bomb attack blamed on separatist Tamil Tiger rebels had been stage-managed by the president’s brother Gotabhaya Rajapakse, then the defence secretary.“No terrorist will set off a suicide bomb 25 meters away from the intended target,” Fonseka told parliament during a debate on scaling down military security granted to the former strongman leader”.

“The government has said it is removing troops in Rajapakse’s bodyguard and replacing them with police commandos as part of a policy of relieving the military from civilian security duties”.

“Gotabhaya escaped the 2006 bombing in Colombo unhurt but it killed two members of his military convoy.Soon after the attack, the government asked peacebroker Norway to halt all contacts with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Colombo withdrew from a truce and eventually crushed the rebels by May 2009”.

Sarath Fonseka’s remarks about the allegedly bogus assassination attempt on Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and the removal of military security for Ex – president Mahinda Rajapaksa triggered off a storm of protest from the group of United Peoples Freedom Alliance(UPFA) MP’s known as the “Joint Opposition”in Parliament. A heated exchange of views between Govt and opposition ranks erupted into a brawl causing one MP to be hospitalised. Two Parliamentarians who engaged in fisticuffs were censured in the form of a week’s suspension.

Some days after Sarath Fonseka’s allegation against him, Ex Def Secy Gotabhaya Rajapaksa presented himself before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry to Investigate and Inquire into Serious Acts of Fraud and Corruption (PRECIFAC) to give a statement in the on – going inquiry about Rakna Arakshaka Lanka Ltd. When media personnel at the venue questioned the ex – defence secy about the ex –army chief’s allegations Gotabhaya dismissed them lightly in a reply laced with tinges of humour. The “Daily Mirror” had a front page news story about Gotabhaya’s response in which the newspaper quoted Gotabhaya as having said” I should be thrashed for making him the army commander” when asked about Fonseka’s claim that Gotabhaya himself had engineered the suicide attack on his own convoy.

It is against this backdrop that this column focuses attention upon the assassination attempt on former Defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on December 1st 2006. The suicide killer or black tiger attack in which Gotabhaya Rajapaksa escaped miraculously sent shock waves throughout the country at that time. The assassination attempt in which two security personnel were killed was extensively reported by the national and international media. Now that Sri Lanka’s one and only field Marshall has re-kindled interest in the incident this column seeks to re-visit the attack that occurred almost a decade ago.

Nandasena Gotabhaya Rajapaksa

Mahinda Rajapaksa was first elected as President of Sri Lanka in November 2005. His younger brother Nandasena Gotabhaya Rajapaksa came down from the USA where he was residing to work for his elder brother at the elections. Gotabhaya who was holding the rank of Lt. Colonel in the Army had quit his job after 20 years of service and migrated to the US with his family in 1991. His wife’s family members were already resident in that country. Gotabhaya belonged to the fourth intake of officer cadets trained entirely in Sri Lanka. Gotabhaya was born in 1949 and joined the army in 1971 .He retired in 1991 after commanding at one time the 1st Gajaba Regiment(1GR).

After assuming office Mahinda appointed his younger brother Gota as the Secretary of Defence, Public Safety and Law and Order. Gotabhaya in turn was instrumental in getting his old schoolmate and ex – army colleague Sarath Fonseka appointed as Army commander after easing out the serving army chief Shantha Kottegoda as Ambassador to Brazil. Despite the Oslo facilitated ceasefire with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)being in force the war began to escalate. Both sides were to be blamed for this. A triumvirate comprising President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Army commander Sarath Fonseka provided political, administrative and military leadership respectively in prosecuting the war against the LTTE.

The tigers notably its dreaded intelligence chief “Pottu Ammaan” began targeting Mahinda,Gota and Sarath for obvious reasons. The LTTE drew first blood when a woman suicide bomber infiltrated the military headquarters in Colombo and exploded herself in a bid to kill Sarath Fonseka. Though seriously injured the tough army commander survived the attack that took place in April 2006. Fonseka was however out of action for some months while making a remarkable physical recovery from injuries sustained. Despite Fonseka’s absence the Defence secretary filled the void by rising to the occasion. The experience he had had as a soldier in Sri Lanka as well as the influence he enjoyed as the President’s sibling helped Gotabhaya Rajapaksa carry out his duties efficiently. It was widely acknowledged then that the Defence secretary was planning, coordinating and overseeing the on going war effort against the tigers.This naturally energized the LTTE into expediting efforts to eliminate the Defence secretary. The overall responsibility of assassinating Gotabhaya was delegated by Pottu Ammaan to his senior deputy “Kapil Ammaan”. Several plots were hatched.

Finally one of the assassination plans was executed on Friday December 1st 2006. The LTTE had done its “rekke” or reconnaissance and found a pattern in the Defence secretary’s movements. He used to take one of two routes alternately when he set out to work from his official residence in the mornings.Whenever he set out from home, officers in charge of Gotabhaya’s security would station themselves at key junctions along the route.Traffic would be stopped in advance for Gotabhaya’s motorcade to proceed smoothly along the road without hinderance or delay. These arrangements by themselves provided an early inkling to anyone observing traffic movements that a VVIP was soon going to motor down the road. A far more serious flaw in this practice was that of traffic being allowed on the other side of the road. While traffic was stopped on one side of the road, vehicles were allowed to proceed in the opposite direction on the other side of the road.

The LTTE exploited this loophole and put its action plan into practice on Dec 1st.. A bomb weighing 25 kilos was fitted on to a trishaw. Anticipating that the Defence secretary was going to proceed along the route in question, the “black tiger” suicide assassin of the LTTE positioned his explosive laden three-wheeler on the opposite side of the road that Gotabhaya was to travel along.

Anagarika Dharmapala Mawatte

Gotabhaya Rajapakse was on his way to “Temple Trees” for the National Security Council meeting that morning. His brother President Rajapakse had returned from India the previous day.Gota’s nine – vehicle motorcade was proceeded along Anagarika Dharmapala Mawatte (Turret Road) towards Galle road.The convoy had to cross Sir James Peiris Mawatte at the Greenpath area junction known as “Pithala Handiya” where artisans sold handicrafts made of brass on the pavement.The traffic was stopped by Special Forces personnel in charge of Rajapakse’s security for the motorcade to pass when a red three – wheeler bearing the number WP – GH 0617 tried to cut in from the other side and ram into the motorcade. The male auto – rickshaw driver found it difficult to get close because of the heavy traffic on his side.

GRThe assassin then manouevred himself between two civilian vehicles and moved in. The escort defender jeep in front of Rajapakse’s bullet – proof BMW vehicle collided with the three – wheeler when the explosion occurred at 10.39 am. It is not clear as to whether the explosion was triggered off by the impact of the collision with the jeep or whether the assassin detonated the bomb deliberately.The explosive attack occurred on Dharmapala Mawatte near the Citibank building. The spot was within sight of a school.Roads used frequently by VIP”s converge at the intersection where the attack took place.

The explosion hit the Special Force outrider riding abreast of Rajapakse’s vehicle on a pilot trailer motor cycle. The bike was thrown more than 20 metres away.Both the motor cyclist Lance cpl Wijeratne of Kurunegala and the Jeep driver Lance cpl. Piyasiri of Galle were killed along with the suicide bomber in the explosion.The defender Jeep and motor cycle bearing the brunt of the explosion was a Godsend to Gotabhaya’s BMW vehicle. The full force of the explosion was minimised to some extent.

The bonnet, headlights, tyres and windscreen of Gota Rajapakse’s vehicle were damaged by the blast. The driver too sustained minor injuries. But both Rajapakse and his personal bodyguard seated in the front seat were unhurt.Rajapakse seated in the left side of the vehicle’s backseat was thrown to the right side due to the explosion’s impact. He was apparently dazed and lay still on the back seat.Some glass splinters had grazed Rajapakse slightly. His right eyebrow was cut.A few, tiny drops of blood were seen on his shirtsleeves and collar.

Even as his vehicle screeched to a halt the dazed Gota asked “ What happened”? in Sinhala.The defence secretary’s Personal Security officer H.D. Kapuhena replied “We are under attack”.Seeing his boss’s situation Kapuhena jumped over the seat to the rear. Kapuhena put his body armour over Rajapakse’s torso and a gas mask over the defence secretary’s head.The explosion’s impact had caused the vehicle doors to be jammed. Kapuhena began shouting out that the doors should be opened when other security men in the convoy rushed to the BMW.

A crowbar was brought and the doors broken open. Kapuhena with his arms around Gotabhaya Rajapakse took him to another jeep and put him in. The defender then sped off towards Galle road. From there it went along Galle road towards “Temple Trees”.Kapuhena and other security personnel fired shots rapidly in the air as the vehicle proceeded to clear the way quickly. This in turn terrified ordinary people in Kollupitiya who thought a gun battle was on between the security forces and tigers in Colombo. Several parents rushed to schools and took their children home.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa

Meanwhile President Mahinda Rajapaksa had been at an official discussion at “Temple Trees” when he heard reports of an explosion. He had immediately rushed out of the room saying “ This is the time Gota is expected to be here. See what has happened”. When reports of an attack on Gotabhaya’s convoy reached him Mahinda was frantic with anxiety. He was seen and heard shouting agitatedly on the telephone.He was visibly upset.

When Mahinda Rajapaksa was informed that Gotabhaya was safe he urged the security personnel to bring his brother to “Temple Trees” immediately.Gotabhaya was put in a Defender jeep and whisked off to “Temple Trees” in a jiffy. Security personnel cleared the way enroute by firing rapidly in the air.

GR MRMahinda was reportedly overjoyed when Gotabhaya arrived safe and sound at “Temple Trees”.After all the Defence secretary was not merely a Government official alone but also the favourite younger brother of the President.The proverbial saying about blood being thicker than water was very much evident as Mahinda embraced “Gotha Malli” tightly and hugged him speechlessly for more than a minute.Those who saw the scene were touched at the sight of Mahinda’s moist eyes .Gotabhaya was smiling with relief as his brother clasped and kissed him. Mahinda recovered later to exclaim “They cant kill you. You cant be killed” in Sinhala.

Gotabhaya’s wife Anoma Rajapakse was at a Seva Vanitha meeting being held at the Sri Lanka Air Force headquarters when the incident happened at 10. 39 am. Upon being informed Anoma rushed to “Temple Trees” and was greatly relieved to see her husband safe and unhurt.“God saved me,” Gota told “The Island” newspaper within minutes of the blast;. “My bodyguards broke open the door and helped me out,” he said, adding, “Commandos reacted swiftly as they observed the vehicle coming towards the convoy.”

Several VIP”s including former Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake and ex – Western Province Governor Alavi Moulana rushed to congratulate Gotabhaya on his miraculous escape.The defence secy then went to a hospital for a check up and then went home. He was advised to rest and promptly went to sleep.Ms. Rajapakse told callers that her husband was sleeping and could not be disturbed. Several poojas were organized throughout the country to thank the almighty for the miraculous escape of Gotabhaya Rajapakse.

Statement From “Temple Trees”.

Before going home and taking rest, Gotabhaya issued a statement from “Temple Trees”itself. In that statement he reaffirmed his commitment to the national need of defeating the LTTE’s terrorism .The text of his statement was as follows:

“You may already be aware that through the blessings of good fortune, the LTTE terrorists failed in their attempt to take my life today. However contemptible their effort may be, I treat them with compassion.I take this opportunity to inform you that I am not ready to abandon the responsibility we have towards the country, in the face of such cowardly attacks by the LTTE, and to reaffirm our commitment to the national need to defeat the LTTE’s terrorism”.

“Far from abandoning our determination and commitment to defeat all efforts of the LTTE to achieve its bloodthirsty aims by grossly misleading the international community; in the face of attacks such as these, I would hesitate to even think of it.

I wish to appeal to all our people and the international community to avoid any action that will demoralize and weaken the determination our brave troops who are ready, at the sacrifice of their lives to make real the dream of His Excellency the President of building a new Sri Lanka, where all Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim people can live happily in peace and harmony”.

“Whatever obstructions we may face, I wish to emphasize that we should not deviate from the people’s desire to bring about a permanent peace to the country; because peace is the primary need of the nation. I wish to express my gratitude to the brave soldiers who sacrificed their lives in the face of this attack by assassins; I wish speedy recovery to the members of the Security Forces and civilians who were injured in this attack; and thank my security personnel who faced up to the challenge of the assassins”.

“Finally, I wish to reiterate before you the singular truth that it will never be possible to defeat this great country through the bloody savagery of the cowardly LTTE terrorists. As citizens, I request you to wish all necessary courage and strength to the Security Forces who are your own brothers and sisters, and appreciate the efforts taken by them to safeguard you. I ask you to raise your voice for the cause of peace, to realize your expectations of a peaceful and harmonious Sri Lanka.”

Operation By The LTTE

The explosive incident brought about an international outcry.The United States condemned the assassination bid and urged the LTTE to enter talks.”The attack bears all the hallmarks of an operation by the LTTE,” the US embassy in Colombo said in a statement.”We once again call on the LTTE to renounce terrorism, to give up violence and to join in negotiating a peaceful solution to Sri Lanka’s conflict,” it added.

The then British Prime Minister Tony Blair also got in touch with the High Commissioner in Colombo, expressing condemnation of the attack and his sympathies for those killed and injured. Peace facilitator Norway also vehemently condemned the suicide attack on the Defence Secretary.Royal Norwegian Embassy spokesman Erik Nurnberg stated that Norway strongly denounces the attempt on the life of the Defence Secretary.”We condemn this attack in the strongest terms. Incidents like this have kept on happening. We want to make it clear that such attacks are not going to make it easier to find a solution to Sri Lanka’s problem,” he said.The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), which was monitoring the ceasefire agreement during that period, said it was deeply concerned over the attack on the Defence Secretary.

Meanwhile security officers had cordoned off the area of explosion and stopped traffic in the area till late into the night.Fire fighters were called in to douse the flames engulfing some vehicles after the explosion.Seventeen vehicles including two passenger buses were damaged. Eight of these underwent extensive damage. The damaged vehicles belonged to both security forces and civilians.

Four people including the suicide killer were killed. In the incident. Two security officers and a civilian pedestrian were also killed.The civilians name was not revealed in media reports published at the time.The security personnel killed were a motor cycle rider travelling alongside Gotabhaya’s BMW vehicle. The other was the driver of the defender jeep in front of Rajapakse’s vehicle The killed motor cyclist riding alongside Gotabhaya’s vehicle was Lance Corporal PHP Wijerathne of the Sri Lanka Army service corps. Wijerathne hailing from Arawwala, Mawattegama in Kurunegala district left behind his wife and child.The driver of the escort Defender jeep travelling in front of Rajapakse’s vehicle killed was Lance cpl. NK Piyasiri of the Gajaba regiment. He was a native of Warakkendeniya , Neluwa in Galle district.

Eighteen persons were injured in the incident. Of these Thirteen were admitted to hospital. Eight were security men while five were civilians. Three of the injured were admitted to the Nawaloka Hospital and the others to Colombo National Hospital.

Among injured civilians were the then Foreign Ministry Secretary HMGS Palihakkara and former Treasury secretary Charitha Ratwatte. .The injuries sustained by both were of a minor nature. Both Palihakkara and Ratwatte were travelling separately at that time and were not part of Gotabhaya’s motorcade. Palihakkara served as Governor of the Northern Province under the current Sirisena- Wickremesinghe Govt. Charitha Ratwatte is currently a senior adviser to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

“Heard a Big Bang and Saw Flames”

The statements of more than 20 eyewitnesses at the explosion site have also been recorded.Twenty-seven year old bus driver I.S Weerasekera, who operated on the 112 Kotahena-Maharagama route, said his bus had been stopped at the traffic lights by the Special Forces to make way for the Defence Secretary’s convoy when he suddenly heard a big bang and saw flames.“Suddenly I heard a huge blast and soon after saw clouds of smoke followed by blazes rising from under the mango tree. Then a bike in flames came hurling towards the bus. I ducked to avoid being hit, and the windscreen was shattered”, he added.

The severed head of the suicide killer was found in the back of a doublecab about 25 metres way from the explosion. Police also said that the mobile phone of the suicide bomber was now in Police custody.It was also reported in the aftermath of the incident that the Police had taken into custody around 15 Tamils in Colombo for questioning.Police also announced then that the three – wheeler’s registered owner had been traced. The owner was Anthony Bernard Christopher of Kadawatte. When further inquiries were conducted it was discovered that the three-wheeler had been recently sold to a man known as Mohammed Latheef Mohammed Fareed for 300,000 rupees who was staying at Modera. It was found that 3 months rent in advance and “key money” amounting to 200,000 rupees had been paid by Fareed to the Landlord for the Modera residence.

As investigations progressed it was discovered that MLM Fareed though bearing a Muslim name and Identity Card was actually a Tamil named Balasingham Vijayakumar . He was a “Karumpuli” or Black tiger assigned the task of blowing up an explosive laden vehicle and killing Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. The Three-wheeler driver who blew up his explosive –laden vehicle and died in the process was none other than Balasingham Vijayakumar alias Mohammed Latheef Mohamed Fareed.

Subsequent probes also uncovered the fact that the 25 kilo bomb used in the attack had been transported from LTTE in a vehicle belonging to the reputed International Humanitarian organization CARE (Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere. The driver of the CARE double –cab was Thambirajah Yogarajah an LTTE intelligence operative working as a driver for the International NGO. The bomb had been concealed in the fuel tank of the vehicle. It was removed from the CARE vehicle at Wellawatte and then brought to Modera where it was fitted on to the three –wheeler.

Even as investigations continued it became crystal clear that the LTTE had set up an intricate network in Colombo and other key areas of the South to conduct attacks and assassinations. It appeared that the LTTE had utilised the opportunity provided by the Oslo facilitated ceasefire of 2002 to infiltrate the South and establish this network.Even as the Sri Lankan state intensified efforts to uncover and dismantle this LTTE terror apparatus the tigers continued with attacks in the South such as the assassination of cabinet minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle. The security authorities however managed to destroy the LTTE network in the South gradually. This included the arrest of a serving Colonel in the Army and an ASP in the Police. Both were Sinhalese.

Despite these successes in dismantling the tiger network in Colombo the most sought after prize continued to prove elusive. This was the ‘Mastermind” directing LTTE operations in the South. Though Pottu Ammaan, Kapil Ammaan and other LTTE intelligence wing leaders planned operations there had to be someone “in the field” in overall charge of tiger activity such as bomb attacks and assassinations in the South. After relentless search the breakthrough came in August 2009 , three months after the LTTE was militarily defeated in May 2009.

Selvaraja Kirupakaran Alias “Morris”

The mastermind directing LTTE operations was Selvaraja Kirupakaran alias Morris.Just as the LTTE three –wheeler assassin targeting Gotabhaya Rajapaksa pretended to be a Muslim in Colombo, Kirubakaran alias Morris too lived in Colombo pretending to be a Muslim named Mohammed Nisthar. He had two residences – one in Kuppiyawatte and the other in Dematagoda. After scrutinising the movements of Morris for a while the Police TID closed in on the tiger operative when he was travelling on his scooter from Dematagoda towards Maradana. “Morris” fell down from his scooter as the Police jeep collided and immediately swallowed two cyanide capsules.

Police rushed Kirupakaran alias Morris to the national Hospital where he was treated as an emergency case. He was pronounced out of danger after two days. Consequently Morris was interrogated intensively. He reportedly provided much information about LTTE attacks in the South and admitted to being the mastermind bearing overall responsibility for executing them. These included the assassination attempts on both Sarath Fonseka and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Much of the info gleaned from Morris were of academic interest in the current context as the LTTE has been defeated conclusively in May 2009. Morris continues to be in custody. Recent moves by the Sirisena – Wickremesinghe Govt to release Morris as part of an exercise to release so called Tamil “political prisoners” ran into a storm of widespread protest.

This then is the tale of the attack on Gotabhaya Rajapaksa on December 1st 2006. It has been accepted both nationally and internationally for many years that the LTTE had been responsible for the assassination attempt and that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had had a miraculous escape. Even Sarath Fonseka did not challenge this belief during his 2010 Presidential election campaign. Now after almost a decade the ex –army chief Sarath Fonseka in his current avatar as a UNP Cabinet minister has levelled charges in Parliament that the bomb attack on Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was engineered by the ex – defence secretary himself.

There is no doubt that Sarath Fonseka was treated very badly by the Rajapaksa regime for daring to challenge Mahinda Rajapaksa at the Presidential poll of 2010. He was jailed unfairly and stripped of his rank and honours. The Sirisena – Wickremesinghe Govt rectified the great injustice done to a brave national hero and restored him to his former glory. He was also made a Field Marshall and later a national list MP and Cabinet minister. The nation at large rejoiced when this happened.

SF0828131Field Marshall Fonseka

It is however up to Sarath Fonseka himself to retain the respect and regard the nation has for him through his conduct. Making unsubstantiated allegations of this nature against Gotabhaya Rajapaksa or any other person is certainly not to the credit of the Ambalangoda lion..Unless and until Sarath Fonseka provides incontrovertible proof of his charges, Sri Lanka’s one and only Field Marshall would run the risk of being condemned in the court of public opinion as a “loose cannon” seeking to mislead Parliament and by extension the people of this country.

(By D.B.S. Jeyaraj -

Last modified on Monday, 16 May 2016 10:06