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The man who stood up for Sri Lanka

This is a story that proves the worth of the men in blues – the officers and men of the Sri Lanka Navy’s premier fighting force, the Fourth Fast Attack Craft (FAC) Flotilla which is based in Trincomalee.

One of the officers who was commanding a top of the line FAC was Lieutenant Commander Ediripulige Lalith Prasanna Edirisinghe. A seemingly calm & quiet character, married and with two very young children, he had all the reasons to live rather than risking his life in a highly demanding environment where national security has gone to dogs due to foreign advice and pressure made possible by corruption, incompetence and lack of action by the authorities.

Being the Officer-In-Command of P 418, a Colombo Dockyard built FAC, he was responsible for the lives of 18 men. His decision was sure to affect the fate of the other FACs. They all depended on each other.

On May 11, 2006, P 418 was assigned to patrol the seas off the terrorists dominated coastline of Chalai in the North-eastern coast of Sri Lanka. His crew comprised 18 men including one signalman from Sri Lanka Army. His Third-In-Command, Sub Lieutenant Dinesh Harshajeewa Ratnayake was a top-of-the-batch cadet who was trained in Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, UK. He was by his commander’s side when they sensed that the terrorists were up to something.

Sea Tigers

The Sea Tigers were observed by the patrolling FACs to be gathering off the coastline of Vettilaikerni, a fishing village at the coastline since mid afternoon. They observed terrorist fibre glass boats fitted with medium calibre and lethal weapons gathering very close to the coastline about 50-100 meters from the shoreline and also the presence of at least four suicide craft. These, distinguishable from their features, had been the most lethal weapon the terrorists used and the Navy has good experience in encountering them in earlier confrontations.

Since the terrorists’ intentions were hostile, the patrolling FACs requested re-enforcements and another two FACs arrived at the location. Having assessed the tactical picture they decided to form a barrier at a distance of 5 nautical miles from land since passenger vessel Pearl Cruise 11 was on the way from Trincomalee with 710 services and police personnel and few civilians on board. This vessel sails almost on a daily basis, transporting servicemen from Kankesanturai to Trincomalee and back.

The ferry was escorted by another two FACs and one Fast Gun Boat. They were about 25 miles from the terrorists gathering which by now had increased to 16 attack craft and 4 suicide boats.

FACs could only observe the grouping and report since attacking the terrorist boats that close to the shoreline could hurt innocent fishing folks of the hamlets along the coast. The SLN has to look after all Sri Lankans.

The terrorists made the first move by speeding towards the passenger ferry. Having realised the gravity of the situation the four FACs single- handedly decided to confront the Sea Tigers without waiting for further re-enforcements.

Against overwhelming numbers of terrorist boats fitted with wide variety of weapons such as 23mm, 14.5mm and supported by terrorists’ ubiquious suicide boats, the balance of power favoured the Tigers.

Undeterred, the men in blues took up their position, donned their body armour and allowed terrorists to approach from land. One of the FACs, P 497 commanded by Lieutenant Lakshitha Ratnatilake reported over the radio that whilst revving up to combat speed, one of his main engines had stopped.

Outstanding officer qualities

The most senior officer on the scene, Commander Edirisinghe who was just 1,500m away from his mate promptly responded and manoeuvred his craft between the approaching cluster of terrorist boats and the troubled P 497. Proving his valour and outstanding officer qualities, he engaged the terrorists cluster in order to give his mate time to get the engine re-started.

Having succeeded in getting his engine going in less than two minutes, Ratnatilake informed his superior officer, Lalith Edirisinghe, that he was ready for action once again. By this time Edirisinghe had spotted an unusually big suicide boat emerging from the terrorists cluster. With his experience he knew what the big suicide boat was meant to do.

Whilst Ratnatilake was pulling out, he observed that his senior officer was heading straight for this large suicide boat dodging several terrorists attack craft. Before he could speak over the radio, there was a crackling in the communication set and a huge explosion was observed some 1,500m away from him. As the smoke cleared he could not see P 418 – not even its pieces.

It was Lalith Edirisinghe, being the senior officer in the theatre of operation, who grasped the developing situation and decided to sacrifice his life and those of 18 of his men in order to ensure that the Pearl Cruise 11 with 710 on board was safe.

Although outnumbered heavily, 20 terrorists boats against 4 FACs, the chances of terrorists slipping through the SLN cordon was high. He had made the decision that saved the lives of the men on the ferry at the risk of crew of FAC. His parting instructions to other two FACs was to engage and stop the terrorists’ dash towards the Pearl Cruise 11. And the two FACs did exactly that.

Many Lankan movie directors and actors have gladly and foolishly accepted foreign-funded opportunities to portray the nation’s defence force heroes as useless cowards in many movies. The statement of the SLMM representative onboard P 421, Mr. Lars Bleymann commending the outstanding performances of Lieutenant Ranjith Walgampaya and his crew is a living testimony to the fighting bravery of the men in blues.

Undeterred by overwhelming numbers Ranjith Walgampaya & Lieutenant Arunashantha Wijayawardena blocked the advancing terrorists clusters by repeatedly engaging terrorists whilst mutually covering each other.

Sooner they heard the on the radio that Lalith Edirisinghe’s boat had come under a suicide attack they altered course to the explosion site in order to hit the terrorists and rescue their own men, if any had survived, in the water.

However Edirisinghe’s boat had sunk without a trace of any survivors. Quickly they focussed on their immediate mission despite the devastating loss. There was no time for grieving and lamenting. The terrorists still could regroup and push for their target.

However terrorists seemed reluctant to press further despite the presence of the three smaller suicide boats. Three remaining FACs placed a barrier between the coast and the ferry and waited for the terrorists to advance. But the attackers seemed bewildered and unsure of what to do after losing the large suicide boat which was to hit the passenger ship.

Meantime further reinforcements were speeding to the area from Kankesanturai and Trincomalee. SLAF fighters were airborne and safety of Pearl Cruise 11 was enhanced with air cover. The first priority was the passengers and further offensive action by the three FACs was considered tactically disadvantageous. However by the time passengers were safely disembarked at Kankesanturai port, the terrorists had retreated to their stronghold on the coast. They were repeatedly engaged by the Air force causing fairly high casualties to the sea-borne terrorist flotilla.

Another remarkable story unfolded onboard the Pearl Cruise 11. The naval liaison officer on board was listening to all the communication over the radio and he quickly closed the air tight doors so the passengers could not hear what was coming over the radio.

Then he placed the handful of naval personnel of the security detail on the weather deck of the ferry without arousing suspicion of the passengers. No passenger knew about the unfolding situation externally until the ferry was berthed safely in harbour.

Just before they disembarked, an officer speaking over the public address system announced that the Navy had sacrificed 18 lives to save 710 passengers on the ferry and narrated details of the drama at sea. The passengers were stunned to hear the story and could only grieve for the brave men who sacrificed their lives to ensure that those on board the ferry would live.

They were full of praise for the naval liaison officer on board Pearl Cruise 11 who prevented pandemonium on board for his resolve not to make the passengers privy to what appeared to be an impending suicide attack on the ferry. A cool head and sensible appreciation of the situation evoked the proper response. -Island


May 28, 2006 - Posted by | Media Journalism, News and politics, South Asia, World News

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