Lexis-Nexis It's All You Need To Know
March 7, 1998

Rebels in Sri Lanka Fight With Aid of Global Market in Light Arms

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    These are some of the weapons in the arsenal of the Tamil Tigers, the guerrilla army waging a bloody war for an independent state on the tiny island nation of Sri Lanka: surface-to-air missiles from Cambodia, assault rifles from Afghanistan, mortar shells from the former Yugoslavia and Zimbabwe, and 60 tons of explosives from Ukraine.

    Credit:The New York Times

    The Tigers are considered some of the more advanced and ruthless terrorists in the world. The Tigers' suicide bombers, wearing specially sewn body vests, are among the deadliest in the business. The cadre, including young boys and women, are so disciplined that if they are captured, they have pledged to kill themselves by taking cyanide capsules that they wear around their necks.

    The Tigers describe themselves as a liberation army, and for 15 years they have been fighting for the rights of the minority Tamils against the majority Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. The State Department officially labels the Tigers terrorists, and their ability to carry out suicide bombings like the one that killed 36 people Thursday in Colombo, the capital, reflects their remarkable success at acquiring explosives and weapons.

    A recent visit to Sri Lanka provided graphic insight into the Tigers' military procurement, and more broadly into the world's light arms trade: It revealed how easy it is to find weapons, pay for them with funds moved through major banks and move them across borders. It also underlined how ill prepared governments are at dealing with the traffic.

    Unlike the trade in heavy weapons like tanks, artillery and combat aircraft, the movement of small arms is neither monitored nor reported by governments. Nor are there treaties governing their proliferation and use, as there are for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

    Nor in most countries is it a crime to buy weapons to fight a battle in a foreign land. And yet, today's regional wars -- from the Balkans to Central Africa -- are waged primarily with small arms: assault rifles, mortars, grenade launchers and shoulder-fired missiles.

    "The Tigers are on the cutting edge of arms trafficking," said Rohan Gunaratna, a leading authority on the Tigers who is currently at the Center for the Study of International Terrorism at St. Andrews University in Edinburgh.

    Gunaratna, who has good access to Sri Lanka's intelligence services, said the Tamil Tigers have bought arms from dealers in Hong Kong, Singapore, Lebanon and Cyprus; from corrupt military officers in Thailand and Burma, and directly from governments, including Ukraine, Bulgaria and North Korea.

    These are the same venues where other insurgencies and terrorist groups shop. Favorite arms bazaars are the states of the former Soviet bloc, like Ukraine, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Kazakhstan, countries that are long on weapons and poorly paid officials, and short on cash and law enforcement. War zones gone quiet, like the former Yugoslavia, Cambodia, Afghanistan and Mozambique, are other places where arms traders look for wares.

    Most of these countries do not have the intelligence expertise, training or resources to monitor the illicit trafficking, nor does Sri Lanka. "We are dependent on others," said Kalynanda Godage, a retired Sri Lankan ambassador.

    But the United States does not monitor the Tamil Tigers either because they are not considered a threat to the United States or to American citizens in Sri Lanka. A senior official from another major Western country described as "negligible" the intelligence resources his country devotes to the Tigers, even though they raise large sums of money in the country.

    The head of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eemal is Vellupillai Prabhakaran, 43, a fisherman's son who has become one of the most effective guerrilla leaders of his time. The chief arms trader is Kumaran Padmanathan, a 43-year old university graduate.

    "That's the man they should start the manhunt for," said Godage, the retired diplomat. "He's the man who has made it possible for Prabhakaran to pursue this war." With several forged passports, and aliases, Padmanathan travels widely but his main bases of operation have been Singapore, Rangoon and Bangkok and more recently Johannesburg, according to Sri Lankan intelligence officials and diplomats from countries where he has surfaced.

    "He can pass off as any middle class Tamil," said a Tamil militant who knows Padmanathan from university days. A picture taken a couple of years ago shows Padmanathan, who is about 5'7", with black, curly hair, a thick mustache and glasses.

    Padmanathan has recently had bank accounts in London, Singapore, and Frankfurt, according to Sri Lanka and Western intelligence officials. Accounts belonging to other Tiger cadre have been found in Denmark, Sweden, Canada and Australia, they said.

    And the accounts are bulging. By some estimates the Tigers collect $1 million a month mostly from the Tamil diaspora in Canada, Britain, Switzerland and Australia. (Having been designated a terrorist organization, the Tamil Tigers arenot be allowed to raise money in America.) The Tigers also operate gasoline stations, restaurants and small shops around the world.

    The Sri Lankan government has also repeatedly charged that the Tigers' ships have hauled opium from Burma, but Western diplomats said there is no concrete evidence of this. More credible, Western officials say, are allegations that the Tigers have links with organized criminal groups in Russia, Lithuania, and Bulgaria.

    Flush with funds, the Tigers have picked up weapons from anywhere and everywhere. Assault rifles, grenade launchers, anti-tanks weapons and Russian-made surface-to-air missiles have, for example, been purchased in Cambodia. One batch of missiles was bought from corrupt Cambodian generals, the other, more recently, from the outlawed Khmer Rouge, Sri Lankan officials said.

    Early in this decade, according to a former member of the organization the Tigers acquired at least two American-made Stinger missiles one of the most deadly and accurate hand-fired missiles. They were from the consignment of Stingers that the Americans gave the Afghan mujaheddin rebels during their war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

    The CIA has tried unsuccessfully to buy back stingers to keep them out of the hands of the Tigers and other terriorist groups. But Sri Lankan intelligence officials believe that a few years ago, the Tigers bought more Stingers from the American-supplied stock.

    One of the Tigers' most recent deals reflects the mysterious nature of the arms trade.

    It began with the Sri Lankan government agreeing to buy 70,000 mortar shells from Zimbabwe Defense Industries. To fill the order, the African company turned to an Israeli arms company, LBG Military Supplies.

    But the 81mm mortars never reached Sri Lanka, or at least not the government.

    The ship carrying them disappeared last summer apparently highjacked by the Tigers -- or so its was first believed. Indeed, not long after the ship went missing, the United States embassy in Sri Lanka received a fax claiming that the Tigers had seized it on the high seas.

    But the fax did not have the tell-tale signs of the Tamil Tigers communiques, which whir over lines from its offices around the world. The Americans concluded it had not come from the Tigers, but American officials say they do not know who sent it.

    The mystery of the missing mortars has been played out in Sri Lanka in periodic installments in Sri Lanka's Sunday Times, written by an investigative journalist Iqbal Athas, who writes often about the war against the Tigers in a manner that angers the government; he has been verbally and physically attacked by both government officials and thugs because of his reporting.

    Athas' articles have provided the American and other embassies with information about the saga, but he has been unable to get to the bottom of it.

    The full truth will be known only if the head of LBG Military Supplies, Ben Tsouk, is ever brought to trial, said the chief executive officer for Zimbabwe Defense Industries, Col. T.J. Dube. "He is the only one who knows anything about everything," Dube said in an interview.

    Tsouk did not respond to several telephone calls to his office in Israel seeking comment. He has told Athas, the reporter, that he had no connection with the sale of the mortar shells.

    It was Tsouk, however, who loaded the mortars on the ship. "I have checked personally part of the containers," Tsouk said in a fax to Zimbabwe Defense Industries, a copy of which was provided to The New York Times.

    But they were not loaded in the Mozambique port of Beira, as has been widely reported in Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe. They were loaded in Rijeka, Croatia, Tsouk said in his fax to Zimbabwe Defense Industries.

    The Tigers did not have to highjack a ship to get the weapons. It turns out that they were loaded on to a ship the Tigers own, the Limasol, according to Mr. Athas, which Dube confirmed.

    If the Zimbabwe deal is the Tigers most ingenuous, the most deadly involves the purchase of explosives from the Ukraine.

    First, a Sri Lanka Tamil in Britain set up the Euro-Ukraine Consultancy Agency, with offices in Kiev and London. This company then negotiated with a state-owned Ukraine company, Rubezone Chemical Factory. The Tigers front company bought 10 tons of hexogen, a plastic explosive like Semtex, 50 tons of trinitrotoluol, or TNT, as well as a large quantity of electric timing caps and detonator cord. The deal also included 345 tons of cement, and a single seater sports plane, which was disassembled before being shipped.

    Payment for the explosives were made from a Citibank account in Singapore held by Padmanathan, the Tamil arms trader, and a Dresdner Bank account in Frankfurt, held in the name of another Tiger activist, according to the Sri Lankan investigation. Payment for the detonators and timing caps was from a Citibank account in Athens, which passed the money through a Citibank account in New York, according to the investigation.

    The Ukraine Council of Ministers, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs approved the sale. But it did not look beyond the documents provided. If it had, it would have discovered that the end-user certificate, ostensibly signed by the Bangladesh minister of defense, was a forgery.

    A spokesman for Ukraine's president, Leonid Kuchma, said in a written response to questions that the government had conducted no background checks "because the product was not for military use."

    The explosives were carried to the Tigers aboard the Swene, another Tamil Tiger ship, this one flying the Honduran flag.

    Using a fraction of the Ukraine explosives, a Tiger suicide team committed what the State Department described as the deadliest terrorist act of 1996. A truck packed with an estimated thousand pounds of explosives was detonated in front of the central bank, blowing out buildings for several blocks and killing 90 people.

    A few months later, the Tigers detonated bombs on a packed commuter train. Last October, another truck bomb in the heart of the city ripped through a hotel and was powerful enough to blow out the windows at the top of the 39th story World Trade Center.

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