Sri Lanka’s security forces have engaged in many battles and armed confrontations during the long war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The military defeat of the LTTE in May 2009 brought an end to the conflict. Thereafter for ten years, the country has been experiencing peace and relative tranquillity. The armed forces too were confined to barracks most of the time as there was no enemy to combat. The Easter Sunday suicide bomber attacks on Churches and Hotels on April 21st shattered this blissful situation. Sri Lanka was in peril and once again the sacred duty of guarding the nation beckoned to the armed forces after the guns of the tigers were silenced a decade ago.
A trilateral combination comprising the Police, the Special Task Force (STF) Commandos and the Army have now commenced a series of operations to counter the threat posed by a group of Sri Lankan Muslims operating under the aegis and label of the former Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) now re-branded as the Islamic State (IS) which is currently headed by Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi.
The firing went on for about three and a half hours from 7.30 p.m. to 11 P.m.
fifteen bodies consisting of six men, six children and three women were found amidst the wreckage
One came outside & threw a bundle of 5,000 notes in the air As the currency notes scattered the youth shouted out
The combined security operations have generally been of three types namely “Raid and arrest”, “Search and seize” and “Cordon off and apprehend”.
In a significant departure from these activities, a section of the armed forces of Sri Lanka was called upon to engage in a firefight against armed terrorists last week. This incident in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka was perhaps the first armed confrontation to occur in the country after the war against the Tigers ended.
On the night of Friday, April 26th an armed contingent consisting of the Army, Police and STF surrounded a house at Sainthamaruthu in the Eastern Amparai District where some “strangers” from elsewhere were staying.
Their behaviour had aroused suspicion among Sainthamaruthu residents. The security forces opened fire after being fired upon by some occupants of the house. After exchanges of fire by both sides, reports of three successive explosions were heard. When the security forces entered the premises at daybreak, fifteen bodies consisting of six men, six children and three women were found amidst the wreckage caused by the explosions. An injured woman and child were rescued and hospitalized. It was later discovered that they were the wife and daughter of Mohammed Hashim Mohammed Zahran -the key figure behind the Easter Sunday attacks in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa. There were no casualties among the security forces.
Cooperation and Support
The most important aspect of the Sainthamaruthu confrontation was the cooperation and support extended by the people of the area.
Initially, the Police were alerted to the presence of suspicious strangers in the house by local residents themselves. There have been many other instances too in recent times where peace-loving Muslims have passed information to the authorities about fellow Muslims suspected of being involved or connected to the organizations responsible for the Easter Sunday carnage.
It is only a minuscule minority of Sri Lanka’s 2.2 million Muslims who were or are supportive of violence. An overwhelming number of Muslims are horrified at the terrorist violence unleashed in their name and in the name of Islam. Thus the authorities are getting a lot of information about Islamic State (IS) activity in Sri Lanka. It is against this backdrop that the circumstances leading to the skirmish in Sainthamaruthu must be viewed.
Sainthamaruthu is an eastern province town about 372 Km from Colombo and 42 Km away from Batticaloa. It falls within the Amparai District and is part of the Kalmunai electoral district as well as the Kalmunai Municipality. In recent times the people of Sainthamaruthu have been demanding “Separation” from the Kalmunai municipality. They want to have their own independent urban council. This is churning many waves in Eastern Muslim politics.
Sainthamaruthu was one of the many places badly affected by the Tsunami of December 26, 2004. Many lost their dwellings and were displaced. Former minister of Housing and construction Ferial Ashraff made strenuous efforts while she was in office to initiate housing projects for the Tsunami-affected people.
One such project was implemented in Sainthamaruthu with funds from Venezuela. The agreement regarding this project was signed by Dr Luis Raul Montell, Minister Counsellor of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in Sri Lanka on behalf of the Venezuela government and Saliya Wickramasuriya, Chief Operating Officer of Reconstruction and Development Agency (RADA) on behalf of the government of Sri Lanka.
In total 400 houses were built in the Savalakadai area of Sainthamaruthu West with Venezuela’s aid amounting to 620 million rupees. Since Venezuela is officially called the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, the newly constructed settlement was named “Bolivarian Village”.
On Thursday, April 18th 2019, one of the houses in “Bolivarian Village” was taken on rent by a man through the services of a house “broker”. The house was on a narrow lane opposite a large drain. The man driving a luxury vehicle claimed to be a telecommunications engineer from Kattankudy situated 37 KM away from Sainthamaruthu in the Batticaloa District. He showed an identity card which said his name was Mohammed Niyaz and that he was born in 1982. The rent for the house was fixed at 5,000 Rupees per month. The man who called himself Mohammed Niyaz took the house for a period of ten months and paid 50,000 rupees cash up front. He also gave the house broker Rs. 5,000 as brokerage.
Two days later on Saturday, April 20th, the man returned with four more people comprising a man, woman and two children. The man told the house owner that his family would be staying there while he himself would be travelling around.
On the following Sunday which was Easter Day, the whole country was rocked by the explosive attacks on three Churches and three Five-Star Hotels.
Sainthamaruthu too was caught up by the shock waves. Meanwhile, the house owner found more and more people being transported to the rented house by night. He also saw a car and a van parked. He surmised that about 15 to 20 persons were staying in the House.
The house owner was puzzled but neither worried nor suspicious. He paid a visit to the residence and met with the man called Niyaz.
When the House owner pointed out that more than fifteen people were staying in the house instead of the original five persons, Niyaz retorted curtly by saying how many people stayed in the house should not be of any concern to the house owner as he had now relinquished control over the house by renting it out for ten months.
”What we do is our business. So don’t try to interfere” he said in Tamil. Niyaz also warned the house owner in ominous tones that pursuing this topic further or discussing it with anyone else would not be a good thing (Nallathillai).
The rebuffed house owner went away in a perturbed state of mind. He kept mulling over quietly about what had happened but was somewhat hesitant to act further. Anxiety over the occupants began to gnaw his thoughts. His indecision ended on April 26th after the Friday noon prayers. The house owner saw two people residing at his house in the Sainthamaruthu Jumma Mosque. Both appeared to be tough persons. When the house owner tried to approach them after prayers both men ignored him and walked away to their vehicle. This conduct upset the house owner considerably.
Sainthamaruthu Jumma Mosque
By this time some others in the neighbourhood had also observed the strangers in the house. After Mosque prayers were over some of them asked the house owner who they were and he replied:
“I rented it to an engineer from Kattankudy”.
This reply sparked off suspicion in the mind of a retired schoolmaster.
“Kaathaankudi Aatkal Thaan Kunduvedippukkup Pinnaley endru Solraanga. Idhaaley Naanga Pirachinai Varaamap Paarkka Vaenum” (They say some persons from Kattankudy are behind the bomb explosions. We must see that there is no problem by this) he said in Tamil.
Thereafter the house owner and others met with the trustees in charge of the Sainthamaruthu Jumma Mosque and aired their suspicion.
The Mosque authorities took a serious view of what had happened. They, in turn, contacted the Village officer or “Grama Niladhari” in charge of Bolivarian village. It was decided that a four-member delegation comprising the House owner, a Mosque trustee, the Grama Niladhari and the retired schoolmaster pay a “friendly” visit to the house in the evening and seek clarification.
As arranged the quartet of concerned Sainthamaruthu residents paid a visit to the house given on rent in the evening.
The reception was hostile. When the Mosque trustee and Grama Niladhari introduced themselves as having come on a cordial visit, the occupants of the house did not invite them inside as is customary.
The four Sainthamaruthu residents were told bluntly that they were not welcome. It was reiterated that the number of people occupying the house was none of their business as rent had been paid in advance. The visitors were also asked not to harass them and to go away.
At this point, a young man came out with something which seemed like a firearm in his hand. He threatened in Tamil “Neenga Thiruppith thiruppi vandhaal Nadakkiradhu Vaerai” (If you keep on coming here again and again something different may happen). He was quickly yanked inside by others and it was not possible to ascertain whether the object was a firearm or not. As the crestfallen Sainthamaruthu residents left there was a loud shout “Ini Orutharum Ingay Varakkoodaathu”( Hereafter, no one should come here).
The friendly Ralahamy
The Sainthamaruthu residents were now thoroughly upset and began discussing what to do next. They were in two minds as to whether they should contact the Police or not. They were also unsure whether the object they saw was a firearm or not. Finally, they decided to go to the Police. At this point of time, they came across a Policeman in uniform on the Main Street. This officer hailing from Bandarawela was a Traffic Policeman who was outgoing and friendly.
He was known to most people in Sainthamaruthu and popular among residents. When the Policeman was told of what had happened the friendly “Ralahamy” who was returning home from work said he would accompany them to the house in question and make inquiries in an “unofficial” capacity.
The quintet approached the “problematic” House with the Policeman walking a few paces ahead and the others following behind. Even as the Policeman got near the house a bearded youth emerged with an automatic weapon and fired a few shots in the air.
He then pointed the gun at the officer and fired. It missed the guardian of law and order. The Policeman jumped into the drain and crawled away speedily to safety. The other four ran away in fear. The situation had taken a dangerous turn.
The Policeman alerted the Kalmunai Police Station. Earlier two Terrorist safehouses had been detected in Sammaanthurai and Ninthavoor. It was determined correctly by the Police that the Sainthamaruthu house was also a terrorist safe house. Moreover, reports of gunfire made the situation potentially dangerous,
A contingent of armed security personnel consisting of the Army, STF and Police were hastily deployed in the Sainthamaruthu region. The greater part of the security personnel was from the Sri Lankan Army.
The Amparai District is manned by the 24 Division. Initially raised in 2009 as Task Force – 3 for combat in the Vanni, it was upgraded as a full-fledged Division in 2013. 24th Division is the “youngest” Division in the Sri Lankan Army.
Troops from 241 and 242 Brigades of the 24 division were transported in the Kalmunai- Savalakkadai – Sainthamarudhu – Maalihaikkaadu areas. The 24 division General Officer Commanding (GOC), Major -General Mahinda Mudalige personally assumed operational command.
Even as the armed forces were getting ready for a combat the people of the area got excited by reports of the gunfire. Many people were curious and started converging near the house. Without realizing the dangers involved the crowd of onlookers began to increase in the vicinity.
Suddenly one man emerged from the house and fired shots in the air. The crowd started dispersing rapidly. Then a car with some people left the premises speedily. It was not possible to see how many or who were in the vehicle.
Bundle of 5000 Rupee Notes
One of the youths also came outside the house and threw a bundle of 5,000 rupee notes in the air. As the currency notes scattered the youth shouted out “Aday! Engalaik Kaattikkoduthavanugaley. Inthak Kaasaich Chappungadaa. Naangal Ungalukkaahaththaandaa Saahappoahiroam” (Hey! Those who betrayed us, Chew on this money. We are going to die for all of you). He then went back inside the house. It seemed that the occupants were getting ready to face death.
Now, the security personnel got into action. The area was cordoned off and blockades set up at key points.
Even as the security personnel moved in, the people of the area got into a panic. Many started fleeing from the area. There was a frantic hullabaloo. People were running away helter-skelter in all directions. Some made their getaways in vehicles. It was then that a tragic accident occurred. A family of four was fleeing in a three-wheeler driven by the husband. Security personnel got suspicious and ordered him to stop. But the frightened driver did not. The vehicle was fired upon. Sadly the wife, 21-year-old Fathima Azriya was killed. The husband is hospitalized with serious injuries. The two children with minor injuries are also in Hospital. The security personnel moved in and took up positions around the area where the house was located. Remaining residents in the vicinity were evacuated and relocated to M.S. Kariyapper Maha Vidyalayam School in Sainthamarudhu. Soon, the number of people seeking refuge in Kariapper College started increasing. By morning it had topped 1,400. Food, water and other refreshments were provided by the Sainthamaruthu and Maalihaikkaadu Jumma Mosques.
After security forces got into position by 7. 20 p.m. the occupants of the house were asked via a loud hailer to surrender. The response was defiant gunfire. A gun battle then ensued with both sides firing intermittently. There was no intensive firefight. Only sporadic gunfire. The firing went on for about three and a half hours from 7.30 p.m. to 11. P.m.
Somewhere in-between this period, reports of three explosions were heard. Two loud reports were heard one after the other while the third followed a little later. The security personnel, however, maintained their fire. When it seemed apparent that the firing from the house had ceased, the troops were ordered to stop firing at 11 p.m.
Still, soldiers remained on alert but found no visible sign of movement. The security forces mounting vigil through the dark night cautiously entered the premises shortly after first light at dawn.
Packets of dates and watermelon
There was an eerie silence. What they found inside dazed the security troops. One youth was found lying dead outside the house. He had been shot in the head. A damaged van was also found. The house was wrecked inside by the explosions. There was a massive crater on the floor. Packets of dates and several rinds of watermelon were seen on a table remaining intact. Several footwear including children’s slippers were scattered on the floor. There was debris all over. Some materials used to assemble explosive devices were also found. Shattered remnants of firearms and computers were discovered. Two T-56 Guns were also found. There were also five white dresses and a receipt for the purchase of nine dresses. The receipt for 29,020 rupees was from a Textile shop in Giriulla. Further inquiries revealed that three women in Black Abayas had bought the dresses. Since Muslim women do not usually wear such dresses it is suspected that the dresses may have been purchased to facilitate woman suicide bombers. As only five dresses were discovered at Sainthamaruthu, sleuths are now grappling with the thought of where the other four dresses could be. What was most shocking to troops was the sight of fifteen dead bodies -some mangled – inside the house.
The bodies were of six men, three women and six children. Apparently, explosives had been triggered off to commit mass suicide and homicide. One injured woman and one injured child were rescued from the wreckage and admitted to the Amparai Hospital.
Both were pronounced out of danger. It was later discovered that the woman was none other than the wife of Zahran Hashim alias Al Ubaida the key individual behind the Easter Sunday attacks. Zahran’s wife Abdul Cader Fathima Hadiya is from Kekunugolla in the Kurunegala District. The girl who survived is their four-year-old daughter Ruzaniya.
Zahran’s Family Members Dead
Furthermore, officials now believe that many of the people killed in the macabre, self -inflicted explosions were members of Zahran’s family. It is suspected that Zahran’s parents and brothers Zain and Rilwan along with their families are among those killed. If this assessment is proved correct the three women killed are Zahran’s mother Sameema and sisters in law Afrin and Nafha.
Afrin is the wife of Zahran’s second younger brother Zain and Nafha the wife of third younger brother Rilwan.
The six children found dead are the offspring of the three brothers and spouses. This includes Zahran’s eight-year-old son too. Zahran’s father Hayath is also among the dead. The six men found dead are therefore Zahran’s father, two brothers and three other youths. It is suspected that Zahran’sister Yasira and her husband Rishad along with their son may have escaped with some others in the car that exited the house premises shortly before the armed confrontation.
The belief that Zahran’s father and brothers were killed was further strengthened or confirmed by the release of a video clip via the internet by the terrorists shortly before they died. The video clip shows three men seated who were identified as the brothers and father of Zahran. Rilwan sitting between brother Zain and father Hayath proclaims that they are fighting the Holy War or “Jihad”.
Rilwan says “We will destroy these non-believers to protect this land, and therefore we need to do jihad. We need to teach a proper lesson to these non-believers who have been destroying Muslims” Rilwan goes on to say that they were surrounded by “Kafirs” (non-believers or infidels) and that they fought hard until the last. Since their ammunition had run out and the Kafir enemies were closing in, they were going to self -explode soon. Among those about to attain martyrdom are family members of other Shahids (Muslim martyrs).
He says the Jihad will continue and exhorts all Muslims to fight. The clip ends with resounding Takbir proclamation of Allahu Akbar (God is Great or God is the greatest) voiced by all three men. In a cruel irony, the cries of kids could be heard in the background as their fathers got ready to murder their children.
Aamaq News Agency of IS
The Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the Sainthamaruthu confrontation and mass suicide through its Aamaq news agency. The IS said three of their fighters “opened fire with automatic weapons” and “after exhausting their ammunition, detonated on them their explosive belts.”
The IS said their nom de guerre were Abu Hammad, Abu Sufyan and Abu al-Qa’qa. The IS statement also carried a photograph of two men before an IS flag, one carrying a Chinese variant of the Kalashnikov rifle and another smiling. They are Zahran and Rilwan. The photo had been taken earlier.
The IS saying three of their members fought and died also raised the question of who the three were. There were six men found dead. But only three are being “celebrated” by the IS. Who then are the three? Are they Zahran’s father and two brothers or the three other youths who were there or a mixture from both groups? According to security circles, three men stood outside and engaged in combat at first. Then two went inside leaving only one outside. It is expected that the security forces may be able to piece together what had exactly happened in due course.
The IS had also claimed in its statement that they had killed 17 members of the security forces in the Sainthamaruthu skirmish. This, however, has been denied by the armed forces. Independent verification by journalists also revealed that there were no casualties among the security forces. The IS was, therefore, making a false claim.
Piyal Nishantha de Silva
The IS claim had an interesting echo in Sri Lanka. UPFA (Pohottuwa) Kalutara District MP Piyal Nishantha de Silva appearing in a live show on Swarnavahini TV claimed 11 soldiers were killed at Sainthamaruthu and that he was saying so with full responsibility.
The military refuted it strongly. Thereafter the MP was to be questioned by the Police and possibly penalized under emergency laws for spreading false information. Piyal Nishantha is now reported ‘Missing’ and the grapevine buzzes that he has sought ‘refuge’ in the official residence of a leading VVIP of the Opposition.
This then is the story of the Sainthamaruthu skirmish. After ten years of relative peace, the Sri Lankan armed forces have engaged in a confrontation with armed enemies again. The Sainthamaruthu skirmish has forcefully driven home three points. The first is that the armed forces are capable of successfully combating security threats to the country and her people. The second is that the Islamic State (IS) is a destructive outfit that gloats over the inhuman spectacle of fathers and husbands murdering their innocent children and wives in the name of their warped beliefs. The third is that the Muslim people of Sri Lanka strongly deplore the violence being perpetrated in their name by a dangerously misguided few and will readily cooperate with all efforts to bring the offenders to justice.
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org