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The Situation Report

1st March 1998

Heroic corporal saves officer in high seas human drama

By Iqbal Athas

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With their ears plas tered with cotton, four sailors from the Sri Lanka Navy, arrived at the Bandaranaike International Airport last Wednesday from Madras ending a two day long odyssey, the kind of which is usually enacted only in thriller films.

It was only last Sunday, just after the crack of dawn, the foursome were among a group of 20 sailors who together with five crewmen boarded "Valampuri," a passenger ferry, from the docks of Sri Lanka Navy's Eastern Command at Trincomalee.

After extensive repairs in Galle and later at Trincomalee, the Navy was escorting "Valampuri" to be handed over to the Road Development Authority (RDA). They were to use the ferry to transport passengers from the Jaffna peninsula to the outlying islands.

But "Valampuri", which was among a convoy of vessels escorted by the Navy, was ambushed in the high seas, some 15 kilometres north east of Point Pedro. An LTTE boat powered by a 350 horsepower engine and heavily laden with explosives sped towards the ferry at 60 knots per hour. The boat exploded as it rammed the ferry. With only one engine working for many minutes, the skipper of the vessel radioed desperately for help. But moments later, "Valampuri" sank as the sailors on board scattered in the high seas.

The foursome were among those who swam until they were spotted by a flotilla of Tamil Nadu fishing boats. Recognising them from their uniforms, the fishermen showed reluctance to rescue the Navy men. They have not been in the best of terms with personnel from the Navy who patrol the Palk Straits - the Indian Ocean waters that divide India and Sri Lanka. They alleged harassment from the Navy. Navy officials in turn accused the fishermen of poaching in Sri Lankan waters. At least for one fisherman harvesting prawns in the area, the sight was too much for his conscience to ignore.

He took the four Navy men into his boat and took them to the South Indian coastal town of Nagapatnam. There he handed them to the authorities. The men were first treated for burst ear drums and were later moved to Madras to be handed over to the Sri Lanka Deputy High Commissioner's office.

Even before the DHC's office arranged for their return to Colombo, the men spent considerable time on the telephone talking to senior officials at Navy Headquarters. They were recounting the sequence of events that led to the high sea disaster. A further debrief of the four commenced upon their return to Colombo.

Yesterday, Navy Headquarters received reports that the bodies of two persons, believed to be sailors, had been washed ashore in another south Indian coastal town. The Sri Lanka Deputy High Commissioner's office has been asked to verify these reports. If it is established that they are Sri Lanka Navy personnel, DHC officials will cremate their bodies and fly the ashes to Colombo. Like some of the other unidentified bodies found late this week and cremated, the ashes will be deposited in the tomb of the unknown sailor.

How many were exactly killed in the high sea incident will never be known. It has come to light that contrary to standing orders, some soldiers and sailors, had boarded the convoy without registering their names. Naval authorities were busy yesterday looking for circumstantial evidence including issues of rations to determine the number.

Navy Commander, Vice Admiral Cecil Tissera named a four member Court of Inquiry to probe the incident, one which has serious security implications. The team headed by Rear Admiral Daya Sandagiri began its probe on Friday from the Navy's base "Uttara" in Kankesanthurai.

With the ongoing "Operation Jaya Sikurui" (Victory Assured) to open a Main Supply Route to the Jaffna peninsula limping along towards the tenth month, the life line to the peninsula now remains only through air and sea.

The Sri Lanka Air Force, some of whose top brass face serious allegations of corruption, mismanagement and irresponsibility, has not been able to cope with the traffic requirements to Jaffna peninsula. In the past months, troops returning to Colombo (and thereafter to their home towns) on leave have had to kick their heels at the Ratmalana airport until they were accommodated in SLAF flights. On one occasion, the number exceeded 3,000 soldiers. During this period, troops wanting to return home had to spend days and nights in tents near the Palaly airfield awaiting their flights.

The Sri Lanka Navy came to the rescue. Troops were moved to Trincomalee by road and later travelled in Navy convoys to Jaffna. And now, it is these convoys that are coming under increasing threat from the LTTE's naval arm, Sea Tigers. Security forces officials who listened to radio intercepts of LTTE transmissions for many hours during last Sunday's incident heard Sea Tiger leader, Soosai conducting the operation. Piecing together the sequence of events, they had no doubt the Sea Tigers had greater designs.

There is a lot of finger pointing at one another in the Navy and even the defence establishment over the incident. Since a Court of Inquiry is already focusing attention on all these aspects, one has to await its findings to determine what exactly went wrong. Some say the convoy scattered so much that vessels escorting them found it difficult to provide cover. Others said escort vessels were inadequate. Yet others argued that there had been inadequate co-ordination, a feature that apparently plagued the movement of most convoys. There were also reports that the convoy went ahead despite a request by a senior officer to delay it due to logistical reasons.

It was past 7 a.m. last Sunday when the convoys moved out some 20 miles eastwards into the seas off Trincomalee. There was the Landing Craft "Pabbatha" with 83 soldiers on board. There were also two armoured personnel carriers. They were being returned to the north after being brought down for display during the Golden Jubilee independence celebrations on February 4.

The "Shakthi", a Chinese built Landing Ship Tank (LST) had nearly 500 soldiers and a load of explosives on board. Navy officials at the Eastern Command headquarters in Trincomalee had decided to send 20 sailors on board "Valampuri", which would otherwise have travelled without passengers. There were five crew members on board.

For a good part of the day, the journey was uneventful. Escorting the three vessels were three Israeli built fast attack craft and a gun boat. Shortly after 2 p.m., what the Navy officials call COC was taking place.

COC or Change of Operational Control meant troops of the Eastern Naval Command were handing over the convoy to be escorted by craft from the Northern Naval Command. The line of delineation is just north of Chundikulam, which is not far off from the coastal Sea Tiger strongholds of Chalai and Mullaitivu.

With the change of operational control executed, the convoy moved. This time they were said to be only some five miles off the coast and were headed towards the waters off Point Pedro.

Even as they moved, a small Naval detachment at Vettilaikerny, saw on their radar screen the movement of six to seven boats. They were located at a point south of Chundikulam and appeared headed in a northerly direction. Navy officials said a base in the Jaffna peninsula also spotted a cluster of suspected LTTE boats in the waters off Point Pedro.

The Dvoras were alerted. One of them is said to have engaged a group of seven boats, hitting two of them. That was after nightfall. The convoy travelling some five miles off the coast and cut in to proceed towards Point Pedro when the explosive laden boat rammed "Valampuri." Moments later, a similar fate befell the LCM "Pabbatha" scattering the 83 soldiers on board and sinking the two armoured personnel carriers.

Security officials, both in Colombo and in Jaffna, were shocked at the incident but heaved a sigh of relief that "Shakthi" had not faced any attack. With nearly 500 men on board and a stack of explosives, that would have meant total disaster.

Navy Commander Vice Admiral Cecil Tissera flew to Jaffna. Together with the Security Force Commander there, Major General Lionel Balagalle, they visited the injured survivors at the Palaly Hospital and saw rescue operations under way.

Rescue work early Monday morning saw human drama which roused the emotions of many military officials. A Navy officer who had injuries both to his head and legs was struggling to keep himself afloat but found it difficult. He was going down when a young, diminutive Corporal, who was himself injured, rushed to his assistance. "You can't help me. You are hurt. Save yourself and leave me alone," shouted the young officer.

But the young Corporal ignored the warning and helped the Navy officer to remain afloat until the two were picked up. The rest of the drama was enacted at the Military Hospital. The Navy officer, who had recovered enough to walk, went to the Army Wing of the hospital looking for the young corporal. After a long search, he found him. They hugged each other. With tears flowing down, the Navy officer thanked the corporal for saving his life.

In every military encounter in the 16 year old separatist war, heroes emerge in large numbers. But their gallantry and heroism is not known to their fellow countrymen. That is not only because the media are not allowed access to the battle areas (with the exception of conducted tours) but also due to their due share of publicity being usurped by those who want to build up an image for themselves. That includes the inept and the corrupt who hide behind the heroism of the gallant troops to usurp prime time on radio, television and the front pages of the newspapers. Be it a battlefield visit or the conduct of an operation, they are so timed to suit the deadlines of news bulletins and print schedules. No wonder their egos get badly bruised at any other reportage.

This has undoubtedly been one of the contributory factors to recruitment drives for troops or amnesty appeals to deserters do not bring forth the desired results. Whilst the public are provided a different perception of the war through deadlines and statistics that speak of one success story after another, the role of the soldier is ignored. One hardly sees any act of gallantry or heroism on their part except for rare occasions like the one concerning the soldier who earned the plaudit Hasalaka Veeraya for his exceptional act.

Search operations for those missing after last Sunday's incident in the high seas are still under way. Rescue vessels in the waters off Point Pedro were messaging the Director of Naval Operations at Navy Headquarters, Rear Admiral H.R. Amaraweera, of the discovery of bodies. Ten bodies were discovered last Thursday but the authorities found they were badly decomposed. Navy officials said these bodies will be cremated and their ashes interred in the tomb of the unknown sailor.

The gun battle last week should not diminish a string of successes the Sri Lanka Navy has had in the past several months. The increased demands placed on the Navy in view of constraints the Air Force is facing has necessitated increased resources. The Navy has just floated a tender for the purchase of three ships and is undergoing an ambitious modernisation programme.

Whilst the main thrust of the war, the ground operations to open the main supply route has lost its momentum and is struggling to regain its initiative, the support to it by the Navy and Air Force is under increasing pressure in what is turning out to be a war of attrition. The attack on the Naval convoy is further confirmation, if indeed there needs to be any, that the LTTE strategy is to attempt to contain the Army offensive in the Wanni and to destroy the fire support, logistics and maneuverability afforded to the ground forces by the other two services. That is to destroy their equipment and so reduce their operational capability.

That strategy in addition to the military advantages also confers other fall out benefits to the LTTE by way of applying politico-economic pressure on the Government. In this way it could stultify the Government's aims on both the north and the south.

In the north by disrupting its rehabilitation efforts and the democratisation programmes. In the south it could strain the Government's political programmes and its overall credibility.

It is a war on all fronts. The military confrontation is only one facet. As important to the LTTE political aim is the attention on the economy of the country. The final aim of all guerrillas is to destroy the political and economic will of a country to the extent that it will acquiesce to the demands.

In this context the re-equipment and replacement of equipment to the forces require serious consideration. In the recent weeks all three services have announced the need to modernise and re-equip. Modern equipment by itself will not necessarily improve military capabilities. Indeed over sophistication can contribute to ineffectiveness as much as the lack of equipment.

The need is therefore for task oriented equipment which is complementary to the joint services in their tactical and strategic roles.

The evaluation of the best suited equipment for the needs of the security forces, both operational and cost effective, in the immediate and long term, is a task that should be undertaken by a joint team of service, Governmental and technical specialists. Ad hoc procurement as stop gap measures will not contribute to military effectiveness or financial control.

The Presidential Committee of Inquiry that probed the crash of 16 SLAF aircraft within two years has commented on the follies of ad hoc and unplanned procurements often on the recommendations of one individual. Apart from the probable unsuitability of such equipment, the questionable procedure leaves room for abuse.

Wars attract arms peddlers who not only will endeavour to sell any junk but in doing so will have no scruples of how they do it. Unplanned procurements without laid down procedures will not contribute to military effectiveness. Rather they will only lead to corruption and inefficiency. That is not the way to win wars.

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