Situation Report

`14th January 2001

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Furore at the top over mobile jamming systems deal

If there was a relative lull in the battlefields of the north, there was much activity in the defence establishment in Colombo this week. 

A key development was a directive by the Ministry of Defence to the Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle, to conduct a full investigation into what appeared to be a peculiar procurement deal.

In August last year, the Sri Lanka Army placed an order with a firm in the United States to purchase Mobile Jamming Systems.

This was after the Ministry of Defence gave approval to an Army request that the systems were required to jam Tiger guerrilla radio transmissions.

On August 30, last year, the Army remitted by telegraphic transfer to the US firm 30 per cent of the cost of the Mobile Jamming Systems. The amount involved was Rs. 35 million for the systems which cost Rs. 116 million. In terms of conditions laid down in the Letter of Credit, the supplier was to have delivered the jammer systems to the Army by December 15, 2000.

When Army officials found that the jammers had not arrived, the US firm was called upon to explain. They had asked for 150 more days thus contravening the agreement to deliver the product before December 15, last year. 

But a more shocking development was to come when a representative from the jammer systems manufacturer arrived in Colombo last month. At a conference at the Army Headquarters on December 19, he told senior Army officials that they had no contract to supply the Army with any jammer system. 

It then became clear that the order to procure the Mobile Jamming Systems had been placed with a supplier and not the manufacturer direct. Now the Army is in a dilemma not only over procuring the jamming systems but on how to recover the Rs. 35 million remitted to the supplier by telegraphic transfer. 

The situation has been further confounded with a senior Army official writing to the Commercial Attache of the United States Embassy in Colombo. He has asked the Commercial Attache to bring the transaction to the notice of the State Department and to assist in persuading the supplier to transfer the money remitted to the manufacturer of the Jamming Systems. That remittance, the official has said, should be made to the United Kingdom branch of the manufacturer. 

It has now transpired that the Army officer in question had written the letter to the Commercial Attache of the US Embassy without the approval of the Army Commander or the Ministry of Defence. The Sunday Times learns that the officer in question has been called upon to explain his action, which is said to be a violation of Financial Regulations. 

Army Headquarters is also investigating the role of the local agent of the supplier who successfully secured the deal.

This development comes as top level changes are expected at Army Headquarters in the coming weeks. Early this week, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, as Minister of Defence, signed the acceptance of the retirement papers of Major General Janaka Perera, Chief of Staff. He will retire on January 31 when he reaches 55 years. 

Contrary to reports that Maj. Gen. Perera's retirement is sudden, it was only last year that President Kumaratunga, granted an extension of his service upon reaching the maximum of three years in the rank. This was from April 15, 2000 to January 31, 2001. Such extensions are allowed by the Ministry of Defence upon a signed request by the claimants until they reach their retirement age. 

Due to succeed Maj. Gen. Perera as Chief of Staff is Major General Neil Dias, currently the Deputy Chief of Staff. He is due to retire on April 12, this year. The next in line for succession is Major General Lohan Gunawardena, who last month received an year's extension of his term upon reaching the maximum of three years in the rank he is now holding. Changes in several other postings are also expected. 

Another area where there has been hectic activity is in the Sri Lanka Navy. Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri, has had the unenviable task of acclimatising himself with many subjects to which he was not privy when he was Chief of Staff. Main among them were a string of procurements and the Navy's plans to establish an Air Wing. 

It has now transpired that the Government would have to invest on more patrol craft if it is to put to use the recently acquired Indian built Offshore Patrol Vessel. The OPV, now named SLNS Sayura, is said to be too big to operate alone in seas bordering operational areas.

It is the same vessel on which Indian built Chetak helicopters are to be based. Pilots and crew for them are now being trained in India.

The Navy is now likely to seek the assistance of the Sri Lanka Air Force in the operation of the Air Wing. This is particularly in view of the enormous operational costs involved. It has been pointed out that the training of a pilot would cost the Navy Rs. 13 million and developing infrastructure facilities including landing zones, repair bays, maintenance facilities would be an additional financial burden. Moreover, it will also duplicate the facilities now available with the Sri Lanka Air Force. 

The SLAF is now undergoing a modernisation programme which has enhanced its aerial capability. Last month it acquired an additional fleet of Mig 27 bombers and Mi-24 helicopter gunships. 

According to State intelligence agencies, one of the areas where the LTTE is preparing to arm itself is to counter the aerial capability of the SLAF, a factor which is causing them grave concern. These agencies have also warned of an impending shipment of military hardware.

These and other reports have convinced Government leaders that whilst offering a unilateral month long cease-fire, the LTTE was both re-grouping and re-arming. 

Hence, the Government's insistence that a cease-fire would be considered only when talks proper begin. 

Trawlers converted for trafficking humans 

The Sri Lanka Navy last week received a tip off that a trawler, possibly navigated by a Russian, was headed for Italy with human cargo.

Naval patrols in the seas off Colombo were alerted and a Dvora patrol craft found a 52 foot long trawler outside the Colombo harbour. Three persons described as crew members and four others said to be passengers were rounded up by the Navy and later handed over to the Customs. Also seized were 300,000 Italian lira, Italian work permits, 12,000 litres of diesel in containers, 3,000 litres in the tank and dry rations to last a month.

Navy personnel found that the two cargo holds of the trawler, which is the size of a Dvora patrol craft, capable of carrying ten tons in each, had been modified. Folding bunk beds had been fitted.

Customs seized the Italian currency but re-leased those taken into custody and the boat. Navy sources say the seizure of the trawler in the high seas would have led to the arrest of Sri Lankans heading illegally for Italy.

The fact that the trawler was found outside the Port premises has revealed it was making preparations for departure. 

They say some trawlers made at least one journey a month and were being operated by powerful cartels in Colombo.

They charged sums ranging from Rs. 300,000 or more for a journey from Colombo to southern Italy, a place where the illegal Sri Lankan immigrants has risen to over 5,000. The Italian authorities turn a blind eye to their presence unless the illegals transgress the law and are arrested for various offences. 

Most of the Sri Lankans are engaged as workers in factories whilst females find employment as domestic aides.

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