The man who stood up for Sri Lanka

Lieutenant Commander Lalith Prasanna Edirisinghe decided to make the ultimate sacrifice to stop the big suicide boat going for the passenger ship.

This is a story that proves the charisma 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 one of these top of the line FACs, 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 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 whose lives depended on eachother.

On 11th May 2006, P 418 was assigned to patrol the seas off terrorists dominated coastline Chalai in the North-eastern coast of Sri Lanka. His crew comprised of 18 men, including one Signalman from Sri Lanka Army. His Third-In-Command, Sub Liuetenant Dinesh Harshjeewa Rathnayake was a batchtop cadet who was trained in Britannia Royal Naval College, Dratmouth UK. He was by his side when they sensed that the terrorists were up to something.

The terrorists, LTTE sea tigers were observed to be gathering off the coastline of Vettalaikerni, a fishing village at the coastline since mid afternoon by the patrolling FACs. They observed terrorists fibre glass boats fitted with medium calibre weapons 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. The suicide craft distinguishable from their features had been the most lethal weapon terrorists used and Navy have good experience in encountering them in earlier confrontations.

Since 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 was on the way from Trincomalee with 710 Service, Police personnel and few civilians. This vessel sails almost on daily basis, transporting Service personnel from Kankasanthurai to Trincomalee and back. The vessel was escorted by another two FACs and one Fast Gun Boat. They were about 25 miles from the terrorists gathering which by now has increased to 16 attack craft and 4 suicide boats.

FACs could only observe the gathering and report since attacking the terrorists boats at that close to shoreline could hurt innocent fishing folks of the fishing hamlets along the coastline. SL Navy men has to look after all Sri Lankans.

It was the terrorists that made the first move by speeding towards the passenger vessel. Having realised the gravity of the situation the four FACs singlehandedly decided to confront the terrorists 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’s never-to-operate-without suicide boats, the balance of power favoured the terrorists.

Undeterred men in blues took up their position, donned their body armours and allowed terrorists to come away from land. One of the FACs, P 497 commanded by Lieutenant Lakshitha Rathnathilake reported over the radio that whilst increasing to combat speed one of his main engines had stopped. Senior most officer on the scene. Commander Lalith Prasanna Edirisinghe who was just 1500m away from his troubled buddy 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 time for his buddy to get the engine re-started.

Having done the re-starting well under two minutes, Lakshitha Rathnathilake informed his superior officer, Lalith Edirisinghe that he is ready once again. By this time Lalith Edirisinghe has spotted the unusually big suicide boat coming out with the terrorists cluster. With his experience he knew what the big suicide boat was for.

Whilst Lakshitha Rathnathilake was pulling out, he observed that his senior officer was heading straight to this large suicide boatwhile avoiding several terrorists attack crafts. Before he could speak over the radio, there was a cracking in the communication set and with that a huge explosion was observed at some 1500m away from him. As the smoke cleared he could not see P 418, not even the wreck.

It was Lalith Edirisinghe, being the senior officer in the theatre of operation, took charge of the developing situation and decided to sacrifice his life and the 18 of his men in order to ensure that the Pearl Cruise with 710 lives is safe.

Although out numbered heavily; 20 terrorists boats against 4 FACs, the chances of terrorists slipping through the Navy boats was high. He had made the decision that saved the lives of 710 men at the risk of crew of FAC. His parting instructions to other two FACs was to engage and stop the terrorists dash to Pearl Cruise. And the two FACs did exactly that.

Many Lankan movie directors and actors have gladly and foolishly accepted foreign-funded opportunities to portray 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 over whelming numbers Ranjith Walgampaya & Lieutenant Arunashantha Wijayawardena blocked the advancing terrorists clusters by repeatedly engaging terrorists whilst mutually covering each other.

Sooner they heard the cracking voice informing that Lalith Edirisinghe’s boat had come under a suicide attack they altered to the explosion site in order to hit terrorists and recover own personnel if any is in water. However Lalith edirisinghe’s boat had sunk without a trace of any survivors. Quickly they focussed on their mission, although having experienced a devastating loss, time was not for grieving and lamenting, and the terrorists still could regroup and push for their target.

However terrorists seems to be reluctant to press further despite the presence of the three smaller suicide boats. Three remaining FACs placed a barrier line and waited to terrorists to advance but terrorists seems to be bewildered and unsure 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 Kankasanthurai port and Trincomalee. Air force has taken to wings and safety of Pearl Cruise was enhanced. The first priority was the passengers, and further offensive action with three FACs was considered tactically disadvantageous. However by the time passengers were safely disembarked at Kankasanthurai port, the terrorists had retreated to their stronghold on the coast. Retreating terrorists were repeatedly engaged by Air force causing fairly high casualty to terrorists.

Another remarkable story unfolded onboard the passenger vessel Pearl Cruise. The Naval officer acting as the Liaison Officer onboard 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 told over the radio. Then he placed the handful number of naval personnel of the security detail around the weather deck of the ferry without arousing suspicion of the passengers. No passenger knew about the unfolding situation outside and when the ferry was secured safely at the harbour just before they get down, the Officer, over the public address system onboard made the announcement that Navy had sacrificed 18 lives to save 710 lives and narrated the terrorists confrontation. It was reported that the passengers were stunned to hear the story and praised the men who gave not only their lives and their future, but also the future and the happiness of their loved ones, for them and also the Liaison Officer for his calmness and decision not to inform which obviously could have created a pandemonium onboard.



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