Dusk was setting in last Monday when men from "Uttara," the Navy Detachment at Kankesanthurai, boarded the North Korean cargo vessel "Mo Ran Bong", which had just ended a ten day stint unloading general cargo at Point Pedro.
In the absence of a Ports Authority apparatus, Uttara is tasked with performing that role for merchant shipping operating in and out of the Jaffna peninsula, from the ports at Kankesanthurai for Government cargo and Point Pedro for cargo consigned to the private trade.
As is customary, they checked the vessel and handed over the Clearance Certificate to Captain, Han Il Chun. That was the go ahead for the vessel to depart. Barely an hour later "Mo Ran Bong" set sail to Colombo.
If the grey and red painted vessel followed standing instructions of the Sri Lanka Navy by sailing some 30 nautical miles off the coast during its 40 hour journey from Colombo to Point Pedro, on its return, for some unexplained reason, it chose a short cut.
Neither the Navy men nor the crew of 38 realised that the short cut was going to be a journey into disaster.
It was past 8.30 p.m. Tuesday night when the radio at Uttara crackled. An excited voice came on channel 16, the international radio frequency for merchant shipping and exhorted "...KKS Port Control .... KKS Port Control.. ..This is Mo Ran Bong..."
The radio operator at Uttara responded. "...This is KKS Port Control ... go ahead ...."
The voice went on "....KKS Port Control... I see two suspicious boats following me...."
Uttara replied "...Roger....what is your location ?.... Are they fishing boats or terrorist boats ?..."
Voice: "... Not known. The boats are suspicious. They are indicating with torch and weapons to divert course ....."
With those words there was a blackout of communications.
Almost at the same time, the Navy Unit attached to the coastal Army base at Vettilaikerny spotted a blip on their radar screen. They realised that a vessel was moving some four nautical miles off their shores. That seemed unusual. Could the LTTE be attempting to unload some arms or contraband, they wondered.
Navy personnel there promptly alerted Elara, Sri Lanka Navy's largest base, located at Karainagar - Northern Naval Area. Men at the Operations Room went into action. They made radio calls and learnt from Uttara that "Mo Ran Bong" had departed earlier that evening.
Radio Operators at "Uttara" repeated their calls to "Mo Ran Bong". It was past 10 p.m. After several attempts their call was answered.
"Uttara" asked "........what is wrong? Is there a problem ?....." A heavily Tamil accented voice pretending to respond as a crew member declared "....we have some engine trouble..." Then the radio went dead.
By then, heavily armed Sea Tigers in two boat loads, at least eight in each, that followed the cargo vessel had ordered it to divert course. One of them had a hand held transceiver through which he gave orders to travel towards the waters off the shores of Chundikulam. When there was no response, a Tiger guerrilla on the same boat as the man who gave orders opened fire.
The Fourth Officer, 54 year old Sin Gwang Ho, who was on the deck fell dead. Captain Chun immediately ordered his men to obey the commands of the Sea Tigers.
At the Elara Base, Commander Northern Naval Area (Comnorth), Rear Admiral Daya Sandagiri, found that Naval craft in the area had already been deployed on some urgent tasks. He radioed Comeast, Rear Admiral A.H.M. Razeek, at the Dockyard in Trincomalee to seek help.
By that time, a Navy convoy of Dvoras and gun boats from the Eastern Command, that was escorting cargo vessels to the north was in the general area. They were ordered to observe. They reported that the cargo vessel had anchored off Chundikulam.
As dawn broke on Tuesday, "Mo Ran Bong" lay anchored just a mile off Mullaitivu. By then news reached worldwide that the LTTE had seized a North Korean cargo vessel, killed one of its crew members and taken hostage 37 others.
On Thursday, ICRC officials took delivery of the body of the Fourth Officer, Mr Sin. Whilst holding the remaining crew, LTTE cadres beached "Mo Ran Bong" closer to the shores of Mullaitivu and began ripping off its fixtures including the radio communication sets, radar and other equipment. They also siphoned off fuel, lubricants and looted the supplies.
The stripping of heavy communication and electronic surveillance equipment from a ship and transporting it to shore by boat is no easy task. Furthermore, the siphoning of fuel and other supplies poses problems of equal magnitude. It is perplexing as to why the boat shuttle from ship to shore transporting these materials and their subsequent transportation from shore to LTTE bases were not interdicted by aerial attacks by the Sri Lanka Air Force.
The grey and red painted North Korean cargo vessel was built in December, 1979. With twin decks, it has a cargo capacity of 2500 tons and a speed of 12 knots. Together with two other cargo vessels - MV "Ocean Success" and MV "Atlantic Reefer II", they were ferrying cargo from Colombo to the private trade in Jaffna. They have been chartered on their behalf by the Commissioner General of Essential Services (CGES).
A week before the "Mo Ran Bong" incident, Sea Tigers had set fire to "MV Missen", a passenger ferry chartered by the Resettlement and Rehabilitation Authority of North (RRAN) to transport displaced persons and passengers from Mannar to Point Pedro. The LTTE seized its nine member crew. Two Indonesians, the Captain and the Chief Engineer, were released but the rest who are locals, still remain in custody.
The first sign that the LTTE had stepped up an economic offensive against the Government came when Sea Tigers triggered off an under water explosion ripping off the hull of the Greek cargo vessel "Athena" on May 29 (SITUATION REPORT June 1).
The vessel with 42,000 metric tons of Argentenian wheat worth 10 million US dollars (Rs 570 million) had weighed anchor at Back Bay, outer area of the Trincomalee Port for ten days awaiting its turn to unload at the Prima Flour Milling Complex when the incident occurred.
If this attack raised serious security concerns in international shipping companies dealing with Sri Lanka, the time it took for "Athena" to unload its cargo, was another factor they were sure to exploit. "Athena" began unloading its consignment of wheat only at 6.30 p.m. on Wednesday, July 9 - exactly 42 days after it was damaged by the bomb explosion.
Security constraints have also compelled the Ministry of Defence to order that Trincomalee bound cargo vessels arriving ahead of schedule from foreign ports should weigh anchor at Galle. They are allowed in Trincomalee only 24 hours ahead of their unloading schedule.
In the past years, even without a direct attack on ships, international shipping concerns and insurance companies raised their fares on the grounds that the security situation in Sri Lanka involved serious risk.
The attack on MV Missen has halted the RRAN's movement of displaced persons. And now, the attack on 'Mo Ran Bong' has brought to a halt to the movement of cargo vessels to the north. Needless to say, any future movement of cargo or passenger vessel would neccessitate armed escort, a heavy strain on the already over burdened Navy.
The Sri Lanka Navy responded cautiously about a rescue effort on Mo Ran Bong. Memories of the Iris Moana episode on August 28, 1995, were still fresh in their minds.
On that fateful day, the LTTE seized the passenger vessel and took into custody 121 passengers and seven crew members. (Situation Report September 3, 1995).
The Navy mounted a rescue effort with four gunboats and the offshore patrol vessel' Jayasagara.' A Super Dvora (463) and a Dvora Gunboat (456) sank when they were hit by fire. It later came to be known that the LTTE had attacked the two gun boats with the Czechoslovak built Main Battle Tank (MBT) they seized when they attacked the Pooneryn Defence Complex in November, 1983.
The LTTE has dubbed the month of July as "Black July" for two main reasons - the anniversary of the 1983 ethnic violence and the death of its first Black Tiger cadre in 1987. As reported in these columns last week, the LTTE carries out attacks during this month to "commemorate" the "Black July".
The "Black Tiger" week appears to have gained added significance this year. It has been marked by LTTE actions not only in the battlefield but also on the economic and political fronts. If Maritime shipping interests became targets on the economic front, politically the LTTE chose to assassinate TULF MP, Arunachalam Thangathurai.
Venturing out to take on economic and political targets whilst militarily attempting to forestall "Operation Jaya Sikurui" seemed to indicate that LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, has many things in store.
Conscious not to be out manoeuvred by any fresh counter attacks or surprise diversions, both the Deputy Minister of Defence, General Anuruddha Ratwatte and his military planners are busy not only revising operational plans but also chalking out areas where immediate personnel changes should be effected. It is only after these are completed that "Operation Jaya Sikurui", stalled since the second counter attack on June 24, will resume.
On Thursday, Brigadier H.G.N. Padmasiri was named the new Military Secretary. He succeeds Brigadier Nihal Marambe, who will continue as Deputy General Officer Commanding the 55 Division.
Brigadier Padmasiri was earlier Commander of the 13 Brigade in Galle (Boosa) and was only posted last week to command a Brigade in the 53 Division in Jaffna. This posting order was cancelled and he was named the new Military Secretary.
By the second counter attack during his "Operation Do or Die", Prabhakaran has stalled not only the advance of troops but also the link up at Puliyankulam for the past 19 days. But General Ratwatte told Parliament last Thursday that the operation "will continue until the forces reach Kilinochchi."
One of the factors that has had a bearing on the conduct of "Operation Jaya Sikurui" is the problem of deserters. For obvious reasons one cannot discuss numbers related to the operation itself. But statistics maintained by the Army Headquarters put the total number of deserters at over 20,000. Eight months ago, the Army announced that 13,000 deserters had returned. But a substantial number from the latter had also deserted again.
It was just a week ago that Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Rohan De S. Daluwatte, issued a much publicised order to arrest deserters and declared that they would be Court Martialled under the Army Ordinance. Acting on this directive, a special Court Martial on July 3 sentenced a soldier to three years rigorous imprisonment. Jailors at the Welikada Prison took charge of the man.
But last Thursday, the Government announced another amnesty to deserters effective till July 21. As Military Spokesman and Director Media, Brigadier Sarath Munasinghe, was making the announcement of the amnesty to the media at the weekly news briefing, Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Daluwatte was presiding at a conference of some 35 top officers at the conference room of the Army Headquarters on the subject of the new amnesty offer.
If he ordered the court martial last week, he was telling officers including Regimental Commanders, Principal Staff Officers and selected Area Commanders that all facilities should be provided to deserters and they should be treated well. During the two hour discussion, Lt. Gen. Daluwatte also explained matters relating to the issue of weapons and even uniforms to deserters who return.
This indeed is a strange interpretation to laid-down disciplinary enactments not to say of the time honoured Code of Conduct and discipline that prevails in the Army. Why is this unprecedented need for velvet glove treatment to military offenders, particularly after ordering tough action against them the week before?
I reported in these columns last week that a three member Court of Inquiry headed by Deputy Overall Operations commander, Major General E.H. Samaratunga, would probe the two counter attacks on "Operation Jaya Sikurui." Army Headquarters has had second thoughts. His team will only probe the first counter attack (on June 11) on the Thandikulam-Nochchimodai defences.
Army Headquarters has appointed a second Court of Inquiry headed by Major General Srilal Weerasuriya, Deputy Chief of Staff, to inquire into the second counter attack on the defences of the 55 Division north of Omanthai on June 24. Other members of this Court are Major General Jaliya Nammuni, Commandant, Sri Lanka Army Volunteer Force (SLAVF) and Brigadier Jayantha Ranaweera, Director, Personnel Administration (DPA).
Whereas "Operation Jaya Sikurui" is at a standstill, the LTTE has been active over a widespread area of operations. Their activities in the past fortnight have extended from an attack on "MV Missen" on the west coast to "Mo Ran Bong" on the east.
In addition they have maintained probing attacks on troops engaged in the ongoing military operation as well as on softer targets. They have resorted to their time tested political terrorism by assassinating TULF MP, Arunachalam Thangathurai.
These cannot be regarded as sporadic, isolated actions. On the contrary, in the trend of LTTE planning of their actions, these are coordinated and intended to send a message.
The attacks on the three ships is a clear signal that the LTTE will continue to obstruct the rehabilitation process. This, even if it means hardships to the population by way of food shortages, restriction of personal liberties, freedom of movement to and from the peninsula.
The political assasination of Mr. Thangathurai is a clear re-iteration that the LTTE will not brook any political competition whether they be from their ex political patron or from their comrade in arms now not with them.
Whilst executing that broad strategy, the LTTE are also obviously retaining a reserve clout to attack the Jaya Sikurui advance to Kilinochchi as indeed they have demonstrated on two occasions. In the manner shown, the LTTE strategy at this phase of the conflict appears to be emerging though it is too early to view it clearly.
The LTTE plans seem to be targeted to keep security forces deployed over the widest possible area to deny them the advantage of concentrating on re-opening the Vavuniya-Kilinochchi axis. The LTTE are well positioned to execute such a strategy by their location in the hitherto unpenetrated One Four Base area and the Mullaitivu-Wanni in addition to the ascendant position in the eastern province. The Sea Tigers who from the time of withdrawal from Jaffna peninsula in the face of "Operation Riviresa" have maintained a relatively low profile except for their role in over running the Mullaitivu Military Base.
It is apparent that the Sea Tigers are now flexing their muscles on the west coast in a limited way but more strongly in their favourite operational zone in the east, south of Chundikulam. Here they are ideally placed to interfere with the maritime security forces lines of communication between Trincomalee and Kankesanthurai.
On the security forces side, the stalling of "Operation Jaya Sikurui" raises some questions regarding its validity. That not in terms of strategy per se but rather with regard to its objectivity in relation to resources available and other security commitments in the overall war effort.
The reality of the situation appears to be that the two body blows by the LTTE counter attacks has jolted the "Operation Jaya Sikurui" effort. The Tigers certainly have not been able to recoup the advantages gained by the military in the 62 days of "Operation Jaya Sikurui.
Though the LTTE has not been able to reverse security forces gains, it does appear that they have perhaps forced a revision of operational aims from its fuller objective, at least for the moment.
It has to be recognised that the security forces have been stretched to its maximum to maintain force levels for offensive operations whilst at the same time containing the large areas regained from LTTE control in the last 1 1/2 years. In addition to maintaining vigillance on civilian, economic and security related targets from LTTE attacks outside the operational area also swallows a considerable number of troops. These are the security realities a State is confronted with when engaged in combatting a militancy.
The security forces, and I dare say, the Government have by and large responded to those multifarious responsibilities successfully. This is a tribute to the dedication and commitment of our security forces.
It is in that background that force levels were designated for "Operation Jaya Sikurui." A difficult task with the limited resources available to the security forces. Yet, that should not detract military planners and more importantly their political bosses from balancing the military effort vis a vis political exigencies-within the limits of resources available. To stretch resources beyond limits is to expose weaknesses.
That is exactly the classical guerrilla trap. It is guerrilla doctrinaire to yield so that the security forces will stretch themselves and expose vulnerable targets.
Without doubt, the Vavuniya - Kilinochchi link up has its military values. But the political advantages outweigh these. There is no doubt that the nature of the war being political, as indeed all wars are, that the final solution should be a political one in which the military effort is tailored to political objectives.
In balancing those requirements each facet assumes a priority depending on several factors one of which is development of resources.
In the context of the overall gains made by the security forces in the past two years and the deployment required to maintain the regained territory to win over the population, it is questionable whether the security forces possess the resources for the Vavuniya-Kilinochchi advance.
The advance had to be halted to re-organise after nearly 20 kilometres underscores the argument on the need to balance a military effort and political expediency.
To over emphasise one is to disrupt the delicate balance, which can only be determined to the success of the desired outcome.
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