The vessel bearing the name Sri Krishna ( registration number KFO 7339 ALP 2749) had set sail from Kollam (Quilon) in Kerala on March 7, Dassanayake said.
The Indian Coast Guard had last seen the vessel on March 12, near the India-Sri Lanka maritime boundary off Pamban near Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu. It reappeared on Wednesday May 16, south of the Maldives chain of islands. Trouble arose when it fired on a Maldivian fishing boat and invited the attention of the Maldivian Coast Guard vessel Huravee. After a 12-hour stand off, the trawler was sunk early on Thursday.
Four of the nine-member crew were captured, one surrendered, and four were killed, reports said. The man who surrendered was Simon Soza, the vessel's engineer, Dassanayake said. The others were apparently Tamils.
The suspicion that Sri Krishna was a gun-runner for the LTTE arose because of the kind of resistance the crew offered and also the explosions which could be heard as it sank. Reports said that the vessel, which started off as an innocent deep sea fishing trawler, was hijacked by the LTTE to do some gun-running for it.
There is a suspicion in diplomatic circles that the vessel was to rendezvous with an ocean going LTTE arms vessel in the high seas off south Maldives, and take on board a part of the lethal cargo for delivery in Sri Lanka. This could be the reason why the engineer of the vessel, the Malayali Simon Soza, had jumped ship and surrendered to the Maldivians, it is said.
However, the Maldivian authorities are reluctant to say, at this point of time at least, that the vessel was an LTTE gun runner.
"We are now treating this with caution, because the man (who surrendered) was speaking Malayalam and not Tamil," the chief Maldivian government spokesman, Mohammad Shareef, told Reuters on Thursday.
Diplomatic sources said that there could be a worry that tourism, the Maldivian economy's mainstay, may be badly hit if it is known the world over that the most peaceful and idyllic archipelago in the Indian Ocean has become a rendezvous for terrorists.
It is learnt that thorough investigations are going on in the Maldives, Sri Lanka and India to get to the bottom of the matter and nip any terrorist activity in the area in the bud. India, which has a strong and long standing relationship with the Maldives, does not want to see the Maldivian economy collapse on account of any terrorist activity.
Earlier in 1988, the Indian Navy had intercepted a vessel carrying Sri Lankan Tamil mercenaries who were trying to seize power from President Mohammad Gayoom and hand it over to some leaders of the opposition.
Sri Lankan view
The Sri Lankan media has already announced that that the vessel was an LTTE gun runner. The media and the government, are keen to show that the incident is another proof that the LTTE has been increasingly using South India to smuggle in arms for its operations in the Sri Lankan North-East.
Sri Lankan naval sources say that smuggling of war-like material from Tamil Nadu has increased in the past six months and cite instances in which the Tamil Nadu police and the Indian Coast Guard had captured such material and made some arrests. It is pointed out that the LTTE had killed non-cooperating Indian fishermen in March and had also abducted 12 persons, according to the Tamil Nadu Director General of Police D.Mukherji.
The LTTE, however, has denied any role in the killings and abductions of Tamil Nadu fishermen. And on the incident in the Maldives, its military spokesman Rasaiah Ilanthirayan said: "These guys are not ours."