Sri Lanka’s defence authorities have made a chilling discovery that the seized Avant Garde floating armoury had sailed close to the strategically sensitive Indian islet of Minicoy with illegal weapons.
The controversial vessel which was boarded by Sri Lanka’s navy in early October and now the subject of several investigations is known to have travelled from the Red Sea to Sri Lanka in violation of international maritime laws.
Since the Avant Garde vessel was flying the Sri Lankan flag it is the responsibility of the Sri Lankan state if the vessel is engaged in activities that are inimical to the interest of its neighbours.
The vessel moving so close to the sensitive Minicoy island has raised fresh concerns about the intentions of the journey with a cargo of what is so far suspected to be a gun running operation.
The authorities have found that the vessel had switched off its GPS location recording instruments, but the available evidence suggests it had strayed into Indian waters while travelling across the Maldives.
Coincidentally, the vessel was also passing through the Maldivian archipelago at a time when an explosion ripped through the speed boat of President Abdulla Yameen on September 28.
President Yameen was unhurt, but his wife, a body guard and an employee of his office were wounded. The country’s vice president Ahmed Adeeb has been arrested in connection with the assassination plot.
Earlier, the Maldivian defence minister was arrested in January soon after the Avant Garde’s first floating armoury was seized by police in Galle raising similar questions of motive of the private security firm which received patronage from the former defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.
The then defence minister of Maldives Mohamed Nazim was accused of smuggling weapons into the country in a bid to topple President Yameen. Nazim has been jailed for 11 years.
Nazim has been a close associate of Avant Garde chief retired Sri Lanka army major Nissanka Senadhipathi.
Nazim had appointed Senadhipathi as the international maritime advisor to the Maldives soon after the then Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed was forced to step down in a mutiny where Nazim played a leading role.
Senadhipathi’s connections with the Maldives’ regime were mentioned on his website till recently, but it is no longer touted after Nazim was jailed for trying to topple the current president.
This is what Senadhipathi’s official CV said on his web site earlier in relation to the Maldives:
“As the Chairman of AGMS, Major Nissanka Senadhipathi was appointed as an Advisor on Maritime Intelligence to the Minister of Defence and National Security of the Republic of Maldives since 20th August 2012 to advice the Hon. Minister of Defence and National Security to be apprised on all matters pertaining to maritime intelligence, including shipping activities prejudicial to the Republic of Maldives.”
Sri Lanka’s defence authorities were highly concerned after tracking the movements of the Avant Garde vessel that it was sailing so close to Minicoy with a lethal cargo of over 800 automatic weapons.
Official papers on board said it could carry only three rifles with three sea marshals.
Even with the defence ministry’s “approval” given after the Avant garde vesel was seized by the Navy in early October by an officer, whose conduct is now under investigation, the vessel could not carry more than 100 guns and 60,000 rounds of ammunition.
However, it had 816 guns and over 202,674 rounds of ammunition.
Fifty nine weapons could be listed as “definitely illegal” as their serial numbers had been defaced or completely obliterated, the authorities said.
Indian naval chiefs have repeatedly warned Sri Lanka of a threat to security in the Indian Ocean region by allowing private armed groups such as Avant Garde to operate without proper monitoring.
Several Western nations have also raised concerns about Avant Garde operations following suspicion that weapons used in criminal activity in European capitals had been traced to the Sri Lankan military.
Given that the Tamil Tigers had stolen large amounts of weapons from Sri Lankan security forces in the decades-long war, some government weapons could have got into terrorist groups via the Tigers, officials said.
However, alarm bells started ringing after the navy discovered that the Avant Garde vessel had nearly 59 automatic rifles with their serial numbers obliterated to eliminate any possibility of tracking the weapons back to their source.
Just before the Avant Garde vessel was intercepted, India and Sri Lanka had agreed on the danger of such vessels.
Sri Lanka had even agreed to address Indian concerns of unregulated private maritime security companies operating from Sri Lanka and in the neighbourhood.
The defence authorities have found that the Avant Garde vessel had travelled to Sri Lanka without legal documents and the “journey was illegal.”
The defence ministry view is that obtaining authority at the end of the journey could not give any legal cover if the ship had been checked or challenged by a naval force of another country, including that of India.
If such a situation occurred, it would have brought “serious discredit and danger” to Sri Lanka as the country of flag for the Avant Garde vessel. Forensic experts are due to board the vessel on Monday at the Galle port. (Courtesy: Economy Next)