LTTE allays shipping fears

[TamilNet, Friday, 12 September 1997, 00:00 GMT]
On Thursday, the LTTE allayed international concern over its recent attack on a cargo ship. The Tigers said their destruction of the ship, the 'MV Cordiality', which had been hired by the Sri Lankan government, was intended to prevent the stripping of the Tamil people's mineral resources. The Tigers said that the attack should not be considered 'prejudicial to international trade or shipping'.

The LTTE said in a press communique yesterday that their troops had attacked and destroyed the Chinese-crewed, Panamanian registered cargo ship as it was being used to move Ilmenite ore from the (traditional Tamil) Pulmoddai area for sale abroad.

map_pulmoddai.gifOn 9 September, the 'MV Cordiality' was completing the loading of an estimated 15 million dollars worth of Ilmenite off the Pulmoddai coast, as Sri Lankan Special Forces troops and Sri Lankan navy gunboats provided protection.

LTTE commandos from the Leopard Brigade and Sea Tiger units launched an attack on the flotilla. Firing RPGs and heavy machine guns, the Sea Tiger boats punched through the Sri Lankan naval screen, allowing the Leopard commandos to board the cargo ship.

At least 3 Sri Lankan navy boats were sunk in the assault, according to the LTTE reports (which were privately confirmed by Sri Lankan officers). One navy boat was captured by the Sea Tigers.

The Tiger boarding party captured the cargo ship after bitter hand-to-hand fighting with Sri Lankan commandos on board. The Tigers had blasted the vessel with explosives.

At least 15 Sri Lankan commandos were killed in the furious fire-fight, along with some of the Chinese crew and locally hired labourers who got caught in the cross-fire on board. Most of the crew and hired hands jumped overboard, swimming to safety, but a handful are still unaccounted for.

The LTTE said they "deeply regret that these lives [of the labourers and crew] were lost in this manner", but said that "a war rages on the sea and on the land".

The Sri Lankan military claimed they had fought back and sunk several LTTE boats and killed an 'estimated' 25 Tigers. However, other reports said that the heavily armed Dvora-class craft of the SLN had fled the area, leaving the ship's defenders to fend for themselves. The LTTE said they suffered no casualties.


Pulmoddai has one of the richest deposits of Titanium ore in the world. The sands in the area contain ilmenite and rutile, raw materials for manufacturing Titanium Dioxide.

Almost 5 million tons of ilmenite are known to be in the region, which can theoretically be mined at the rate of 150,000 tons a year. In addition, rutile and zircon can be mined at the rates of 10,000 tons and 6,000 tons respectively.

However, in practice, Sri Lanka can only produce 50,000 tons of ilmenite and 3000 tons of rutile annually. 70,000 tons of crude zircon are exported, mainly as over 200,000 tons were stockpiled when the Sri Lankan government lost its ability to refine it when an LTTE assault cut off supplies of fresh water.

The port at Pulmoddai is said to be vulnerable to weather, and can be used by shipping only between April and October. Any foreign ships moving mineral sands have heavy Sri Lankan naval escort.

The Sri Lankan government's main customers for Ilmenite are Ishihara Sangyo Kaisha Ltd. (Japan), ACI (US), Derby & Co (British), Currumbin Minerals Ltd. (Australia), and Rare Earth's Ltd. (India's state-owned firm).

Pulmoddai is part of the traditional Tamil homelands, located between Mullaitivu and Trincomalee. Its mineral sands are particularly valuable (see box), making the region strategically important to the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE.

The Sri Lankan government has embarked on a strategic project to secure the area. A large Sinhala colony was established in the nearby Manal Aru region (since given a Sinhala name, Weli Oya) by driving out the Tamils living there. There is a significant Sri Lankan military presence in the Weli Oya area and in the villages around Pulmoddai.

The LTTE has persistently frustrated the Sri Lankan government's attempts to secure the Pulmoddai region. Tiger commandos launch repeated harassment raids in the area, hitting the heavily defended police stations and army patrols.

The Ilmenite is a valuable source of foreign revenue for the Sri Lankan government, and the LTTE have said they intend to prevent the 'plundering' of the Tamil region's wealth by the Sri Lankan government, particularly as the proceeds are being used to arm the predominantly Sinhalese Sri Lankan army.

The LTTE hit another cargo vessel, the 'MV Princess Wave' last August. A large explosion caused by a sea mine or an underwater charge ripped a hole in the vessel as it was loading Ilmenite of Pulmoddai.

The LTTE statement issued yesterday explained their reasons for the two attacks, and said that the Sri Lankan government had ignored the warning served by the first strike. The Tigers also said that the attack "should not be construed as an act of hostility directed towards any particular trade or shipping organisation".

The Tiger statement is clearly intended at blunting Sri Lankan government efforts to rope in the international community's support by projecting the LTTE as a threat to general shipping in the region.

LTTE operations in the proximity of Pulmoddai
  • 28 January 96
    SLA camp is overrun and 14 soldiers killed.

  • 14 February 96
    LTTE command detonated mine injures 9 SLA soldiers.

  • 25 March 96
    SLA patrol is ambushed and 15 soldiers are killed.

  • 09 August 96
    Sri Lankan hired cargo ship 'MV Princess Wave' is badly damaged by underwater blast.

  • 09 October 96
    LTTE unit overruns a Sri Lankan police post, killing 5 armed policemen.

  • 27 April 97
    SLA patrol is ambushed and 22 soldiers are killed, six wounded survive.

  • 18 June 97
    SLA patrol is ambushed and 25 soldiers are killed.

  • 09 September 97
    Sri Lankan hired cargo ship 'MV Cordiality' is destroyed and 15 soldiers killed.


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