Searched and secured | Sunday Observer

Searched and secured

Responding to a call at Ampara a young Inspector in his early thirties was ready to defuse an explosive. He had previously neutralized many such devices. As he carefully bent over the dangerous device it violently exploded, killing him on the spot. This man died on the birthday of his little daughter, who was waiting for her father’s phone call. Inspector Jayawardene at that time (1999) was the OIC of the bomb disposal squad. He is one of many heroes who silently served the motherland in her darkest chapter of insurgency. Today, we walk about and enjoy freedom and reap the fruits of peace. Yet, the story of the Search and Bomb disposal wing has a history laden with struggle, triumph and sacrifice. It is a story known only to a few. During 1984, when the tentacles of terrorism were gradually spreading in the North and East, the newly formed Special Task Force was engaging in foot patrols in identified areas. On September1, the terrorists exploded their first landmine on this route.

Search parties

This was a turning point in their filed tactics and also presented a new challenge to the STF. Plans were put in place to do systematic route clearance by advance search parties. Subsequently, there were two other explosions in the Eastern Province which claimed the lives of Inspector Weerathunga and Mahasamjah.

One of the pioneers of counter terrorism in Sri Lanka at that time was Inspector Nimal Lewke (later retired as DIG/ Commandant). Together with the British SAS the Srilankan police commandos had to streamline their search techniques as they worked close to crowded border villages with innocent civilians.

To get a better understanding of this perilous era I met up with Superintendent of Police, Athula Daulagala. He recalled his days as a young Sub-Inspector on route clearing duties and the danger that haunted them on a daily basis. There was one major incident that was a springboard for the formation of the Search Wing and BD Team.

In August 1987, the DJVP orchestrated a grenade attack on Parliament, while President J.R.Jayawardene was present. The explosion claimed the life of one MP. There was mayhem. When Parliament convened a few days later the first issue raised unanimously was the need for an organized search wing that could also deal with explosives.

Thus, the massive challenge fell directly on the STF. The first such search was done by IP Patrick Edema (later retired as SSP) .To this very day, they proudly continue their extensive and thorough search of Parliament. SP Daulaugala remembers a meeting many years ago chaired by ASP Nimal Lewke. He had highlighted the urgent need for a” hook and line” disarming set. ASP Lewke then directed IP Daulugala to make such a device using local material, and gave him a mere 600 rupees.

So, that was the initial investment in the earliest form of bomb disposal. The device was made and performed well to the delight of everyone. Since that humble outcome, today, the CTBD teams use high tech equipment used in western nations.

Their skill levels are of international standard. SP Daulagala thankfully remembers the training given to him by the Israel Police.

He has travelled to Russia, Italy, Germany and Beijing as a security consultant for major events, including the Olympics. When searching people one has to have an ability to recognize faces of wanted criminals in a crowd (this has a link to the fusion gyrus area of the brain that is linked to facial recognition).

Almost froze

I walked into the training room of the Explosives Branch. I met IP Nadinjaya and SI Bandara. The history of explosive powder dates back to 9th Century, China. The first crude form of gunpowder was mixed with potassium nitrate, sulfur and charcoal (carbon). Nitroglycerin was made in 1847.

During World War 1 artillery shells carried TNT (trinitrotoluene) and RDX (Nitramide) was widely used in World War 2.They showed me an array of grenades. Next, they handed me a defused claymore mine. As I held this heavy device in my hands for the first time, I felt a cold chill.

When he told me the velocity of detonation I almost froze. It reminded me of the risk faced by the bomb technician. SI Bandara takes two plastic bottles that are full of a substance that resembles normal milk powder. These are the most deadly bomb making ingredients, C4 and Ammonium. The C4 is soft to the touch like marshmallows. Just 10 grams of this substance can blow you to death. C4 due to its “malleable” texture can be moulded into any shape.

The criminal mind has an evil creative angle and can hide explosives in almost any device including a fountain pen, sports trophy and soft teddy bear. These samples were shown to me. New forms of “sheet” explosives that are paper thin can be kept in a book or even mailed as a letter.

Low explosives burn rapidly (deflagrate) and high explosives detonate. As a schoolboy two decades ago, I remember seeing the red van of the bomb squad speeding past traffic with sirens wailing. I finally got a chance to meet the men who were part of its crew. I met another two veterans ASP V.G.D.Samaranayke and Chief Inspector K.G. Nishantha, who is the present OIC.

These two officers have defused hundreds of IEDs (improvised explosive devices). ASP Samaranayake points out that an IED can be made in any design, colour and method of activation which only the person who built it knows.

The present Director of CTBD is SP Patrick Silva. The crews also rely on the use of specially trained German Shepherds, Labradors and Melinois dogs that have a high degree of scent. In certain foreign countries law enforcement agencies have begun training mongoose for this task as this agile animal can climb into tight spaces.

Today, the role of the CTBD wing remains vital for the safety of the nation, even though we enjoy peace. It is these men who facilitated the safety of VIPS at events such as CHOGM and the Pope’s visit. Today, they follow the global trend of Anti-Sabotage search. It thus becomes imperative for all Sri Lankans to firmly sustain peace. 

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