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    South Asia
     Sep 14, 2007
Sri Lanka's Tigers take a big hit
By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - If Tharmalingam Shanmughan alias Kumaran Pathmanathan was indeed detained in Bangkok on Monday evening, then the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have reason for alarm.

Kumaran Pathmanathan (or "KP" as he is widely known) has been in charge of the LTTE's international arms-procurement network and was allegedly involved in the 1991 assassination of

former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. If he is in Thai custody as reported in the media and claimed by Indian and Sri Lankan officials, then the LTTE has suffered a deadly blow - one from which it will find it difficult to recover for a long time.

Reports of his arrest were generated by an allegation on Tuesday on the Sri Lankan Defense Ministry website (www.defence.lk) that "reliable sources from Thailand reveal that LTTE's chief for cross-border terrorist activities, Kumaran Padmanadan, alias 'KP', has been arrested in Bangkok".

However, Thai officials have denied arresting KP.

"I've checked with related police bureaus - the Immigration Police, the Metropolitan Police and the Special Branch. There has been no report of a Tiger rebel arrested in Bangkok," national police spokesman Lieutenant-General Ronnarong Youngyuen told Reuters news agency. "If we'd arrested him, we would have made good publicity out of it."

A Colombo-datelined report in the Indian daily Hindustan Times cited Indian and Sri Lankan officials as saying that KP might not have been arrested, but he could have been detained. It quotes D R Kaarthikeyan, the head of the special investigating team that probed Gandhi's assassination, as saying: "It is certain that a person answering to the description of Kumaran Padmanathan has been detained by the Thai authorities."

At a press conference in New Delhi on Wednesday, the director of India's Central Bureau of Investigation "declined to use the term 'arrest', which is a legal act, and preferred to use 'detention' instead".

Even as official confirmation of KP's arrest or detention was yet to come, government officials in India and Sri Lanka were dreaming of his extradition.

KP is the second-most-wanted person - after LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran - in Sri Lanka. He is wanted in India for his alleged role in Gandhi's assassination, for which he reportedly provided the explosive belt used by the suicide bomber and the gun that Sivarasan, the LTTE operative who oversaw Gandhi's killing, used to kill himself to evade capture in Bangalore.

KP's extradition would, of course, enable Sri Lanka and India to bring him to justice. More important, he could provide insight into the LTTE's international network, information that they have been desperately seeking for more than two decades.

KP, now 52, built the LTTE's formidable international arms and shipping network. If Prabhakaran was the brain behind the organization's military strategy, it is KP who was responsible for arming it. He equipped the Tigers with state-of-the-art military hardware and ensured that it was shipped back to Sri Lanka. The LTTE's weapons-procurement wing is in fact called the "KP department".

Unlike other Tamil militant groups that depended on India for arms in the mid-1980s, the LTTE - wary of Indian pressure - developed its own multiple, international sources for funding and arms right from the start.

"It was KP who made LTTE International Inc happen," recalled a retired operative of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India's external intelligence agency, which was involved in the arming and training of Sri Lankan Tamil militants between 1984 and 1987.

"One of the earliest arms purchases KP organized was with an Australian arms dealer in 1984. By 1985-86, he was negotiating the purchase of ships, which would in the years to come be used for commercial purposes as well as gun-running," the ex-RAW official told Asia Times Online.

Within years of starting the network, KP had an efficient international network to provide the Tigers with the deadliest modern arms.

KP was allegedly based in Thailand and Cambodia, but he has operated in dozens of countries. A few years ago, Indian intelligence sources claimed he was receiving medical treatment in Oslo. They alleged that KP, who is on Interpol's most-wanted list, was being given "sanctuary" in Norway, which brokered a ceasefire in the Sri Lankan conflict. Norway claimed it was unaware of his whereabouts.

KP's multiple identities, numerous passports and extensive contacts with people in positions of power have helped him slip across borders with ease and evade Interpol's international manhunt.

Close on the heels of KP's reported arrest or detention in Bangkok was more good news for Colombo.

On Tuesday, the Sri Lanka Navy sank three LTTE "arms-carrying ships" in the high seas southeast of Sri Lanka. According to the navy's media spokesman, Commander D K P Dassanayake, the LTTE ships were carrying large stocks of military hardware, a bullet-proof vehicle for the LTTE chief, spare parts for three light aircraft, one high-speed boat, fuel and ammunition. Navy commander Rear Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda told the media that with the sinking of the war vessels, nine out of 10 ships believed to be owned by the LTTE have been destroyed.

If KP was indeed detained, then the arms consignment the Sri Lanka Navy sank would have been among the last he dispatched to Jaffna, and his capture would be similar in magnitude to the setback the LTTE suffered in 2004 when its eastern commander, Vinayagamurthy Muralitharan, alias "Colonel Karuna", quit the organization and formed a rival outfit.

Since his defection, Karuna, who set up the Tamileela Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (Tamileela People's Liberation Tigers), has proved to be more than a thorn in the LTTE's flesh. By emerging as the voice of the eastern Tamils, he has dealt a deadly blow to the LTTE's claims to being representative of all of Sri Lanka's Tamils. Karuna is said to be receiving protection from the Sri Lankan armed forces and is helping them hunt down and identify LTTE cadres in the Eastern Province. Karuna's exit from the LTTE has weakened the organization immensely.

Over the past year, the LTTE has suffered a series of military reverses in the Eastern Province. It was driven out of Sampur and Maavil Aru in Trincomalee district last September, the first instance of territory transfer since the signing of the ceasefire agreement between the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE in 2002. Then Vaharai and other bases such as Thoppigala fell, clearing the way for the LTTE's eviction from the east this July. The LTTE's loss of the Eastern Province has been attributed in part to Karuna's exit.

If Karuna's exit resulted in the LTTE suffering reverses in the Eastern Province, "KP's arrest could severely undermine the LTTE's arms procurement, as he is likely to sing under questioning", the ex-RAW operative said. "He will reveal at least some of his contacts and the network that he has built for the LTTE."

KP is a close confidant of the LTTE chief. He discusses arms deals directly with Prabhakaran. The arms-procurement process, like much of the LTTE's other operations, is highly centralized. Several operatives might be involved in the purchase and transport of weapons, but it is a select few who are involved in finalizing the deals.

"The arrest of the procurement chief in such a centralized operation is an immeasurable loss to the LTTE," the ex-RAW operative said.

Rejecting reports of KP's arrest, an LTTE sympathizer in Colombo told Asia Times Online that this is not the first time that the governments of India and Sri Lanka "were engaging in such propagation of lies". Several times over the past two decades, including after the 2004 tsunami, media reports quoted government officials who claimed that the LTTE chief was dead. "The reported arrest of KP is just another instance of false propaganda. It is mere wishful thinking," he said.

Sri Lankan and Indian officials will be hugely embarrassed should it turn out that KP is still a free man, but until Thai authorities confirm his status, they will keep their fingers crossed.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.

(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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