Trinco tinderbox
Peace process moves into make or break stage

From a distance they looked like four coconuts floating close to each other. Only within a few feet away from the shore were their faces, heavily daubed with camouflage cream and their heads covered with labancas (knitted headwear), became noticeable.

When they stood up on the beach, the white frothy waves sweeping past their boots, a fuller picture emerged. It seemed like a scene from a war movie. There were four tall men in black, clutching assault rifles (with grenade launchers) or light machine guns. Diving fins hung on long cords around their necks like garlands.

Taking cover behind thickets and rock, the men advanced towards their perceived target. One moved ahead with his American built M16 assault rifle on the ready whilst others followed. Their heads moved from one side to another with their prowling eyes closely observing the surroundings. Soon heavy gunfire erupted. The target was accomplished.

The scene was enacted, just before sunset, on the shores of a secluded cove in the Dockyard in Trincomalee, home for Sri Lanka Navy's Eastern Command. Moments earlier, the four were dropped off from an inflated dinghy in the deep blue sea some 500 metres away. They swam, each with kit weighing some 30 kilos, concealing under water everything except their heads, to reach the shore. Besides personal weapons, there was also a light anti tank missile in its original casing in one's kit.

The four men from the Navy's Special Boat Squadron (SBS) were demonstrating an insertion. After a sea borne landing, that was how they moved unobtrusively to attack a land based target. This elite unit, the Navy's equivalent of commandos in the Army, have remained in obscurity over the years. If they made their debut as a small group during an assault to capture areas lost during the Pooneryn military disaster in 1993, the SBS played a limited role in "Operation Jaya Sikurui." Their men blasted bridges and causeways to deny the enemy its use during this abortive offensive, the worst in Sri Lanka's military history.

If these were just limited roles from a small but elite group, the SBS has come of age. "They are now a fully fledged arm of the Navy," said its commander, Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri. They are as good as any of their counterparts in other parts of the world, he said.

Seated on chairs on the beach with Commodore Jayanath Colombage, Deputy Commander of the Eastern Naval Area and cameraman Ishara S. Kodikara, barely an hour before nightfall, I watched men from the SBS show off many of their skills. The location was a secluded and heavily secured area in the Dockyard guarded day and night by armed, black clad SBS men.

"We need to maintain secrecy about our identities and what we do," said the Commanding Officer of the SBS. He agreed to speak only on grounds of anonymity. He said recruitment for SBS was totally voluntary. "On an average, if there are 400 applicants, only 80 succeeded. Of that number, in the course of training, which is arduous, a further 40 would drop out," he added. Among the criteria for selection was one's ability to run two miles at one stretch, swim 400 metres and pass an IQ test.

The SBS motto is "Fortune favours the brave." And those men who emerge through the rigorous training are experts in playing infantry roles, maritime warfare, diving, amphibious operations, marksmanship, explosive handling, parachute jumping and close quarter combat among others, the Commanding Officer said.

In another demonstration, four men in black, heads covered and armed with Israeli built Uzi sub machine guns, staged a hostage rescue operation. They stormed their way into a makeshift house. A live firing exercise got under way. The manoeuvres they engaged in was marked by clockwork precision. In yet another, a boat load of black clad men, carrying arms is dropped off in the sea for a land based assault.

Later after the mission is accomplished, they return to sea to float in a row, each some 20 feet away from the other and barely noticeable. It is only when the dinghy with an outboard motor closes in could one see them dart towards a rubber looping held by a colleague on board. They clasp this contraption, resembling the inflated tube of a tyre and jump on board as the dinghy speeds past non stop. Here again, in clockwork precision, the men get on board with their weapons to make a hurried exit from the scene.

Like these highly trained men from the SBS, most Navy personnel at the Dockyard, which overlooks one of the world's deepest natural harbours, have been going through their paces in the past 30 months. That is after the previous United National Front (UNF) Government entered into a Ceasefire Agreement with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on February 22, 2002.

Like their compatriots, the Army and the Air Force, the Sri Lanka Navy too has been hit by many shortcomings. During peace times successive governments have ignored the need to maintain the armed forces on a higher level of battle preparedness. They have tended to divert expenditure needed for this purpose into developmental activity. As a result, leave alone the urgent need for spares or day to day requirements, acquisition of modern state of the art equipment to cope with new threat perceptions has been denied to them. It is under these restricted circumstances that the armed services are making the best of what is available.

But, there seems a strange paradox in this situation for the Navy. Just across the deep waters that form the Trincomalee Harbour, their one time arch enemy, the Tiger guerrillas are stepping up their own preparations. The fact that this activity began over a year or more and the former UNF administration chose to ignore it is no secret.

The Sunday Times (Situation Report - August 2, 2003) in a report titled "Tiger trap for Trinco siege" exclusively revealed details of the gradual transformation of the landscape around Trincomalee, particularly the harbour. The report revealed how Tiger guerrillas have opened up new military camps, re-occupied ones they abandoned and set up a string of satellite camps around bases that existed.

Newly recruited cadres, the report revealed, have been trained and moved in. New weaponry and communications equipment had been widely distributed. The report was accompanied by a detailed map giving both the LTTE military installations as well as those of the armed forces.

An immediate outcome of this disclosure then was a directive by the UNF leadership to investigate how The Sunday Times acquired the details, particularly the markings made on the map. Then Defence Secretary, Austin Fernando, who probed the matter later, determined the map had been formulated by The Sunday Times on the basis of information obtained. Needless to say the threat to Trincomalee was one of the major issues that prompted President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga to take over the defence portfolio (together with Interior and Media) on November 4, last year.

But since March, this year, advanced preparations by Tiger guerrillas have begun to worry the authorities. Cameraman Kodikara and I saw how these preparations have fallen into place. This was after the Ministry of Defence cleared a request by The Sunday Times.

As an Inshore Patrol Craft (IPC) speeds its way southwards from the Dockyard, the coastline near the Mutur Jetty becomes gradually visible. Some 12 minutes later we reach the Jetty area and veer eastwards, almost hugging the coast along the southern rim. Barely have we moved a few hundred metres off the shores held both by the Army and the Navy, the landscape changes.

Catamarans and mechanised fishing boats lay beached. There are fisherman's huts with nets put out for cleaning as we pass Sampur area. Suddenly through the binoculars I see a group of guerrilla cadres emerging from a thicket. At least two have weapons in their hands. They run to the edge of the shore, weapons aimed at the IPC. It is presumably a warning to keep away or face gunfire.The IPC moves away from the shore. A while later we are back on track.

Nearby lay a bunker. As we move along, more bunkers appear at odd intervals. Some are located in lonely areas, just outside thick outgrowth, where no fishing vessels are present. At one point, just adjoining a fisherman's hut, lay another cadjan thatched structure. An LTTE flag is hoisted on a pole above the roof. The line of bunkers that faces the harbour mouth extends a few kilometres up to Foul Point. In one place, near a bunker, two large crates lay stacked one on top of the other. It was difficult to spot what types of weapons have been positioned in the bunkers or small patches of cleared jungles behind them.

The Army had dominated these stretches until the launch of “Operation Jaya Sikurui” (Victory Assured) in May 1997. They were forced to abandon them after more troops were required to conduct the operation along the Alpha Nine (A-9) highway that ran through the Wanni.

But a more disturbing picture of what these developments portend emerges in Colombo. The Sunday Times learnt from intelligence channels that Tiger guerrilla camps deep inside, behind some of these bunkers (see map on this page) posed a grave threat. Artillery and mortars there (130 mm and 122 mm) were positioned towards the harbour. In addition they believe there are 81 mm mortar positions near the bunkers along the coastline from Sampur towards Foul Point.

What does all this mean for the Navy? In the event of a confrontation, the Tiger guerrillas can immobilise the Trincomalee Harbour in just a matter of minutes. Firing artillery or mortars into the harbour mouth area will mean no vessel can either enter or leave the Trincomalee Port. That will mean naval vessels will be trapped in the Dockyard.

Even after the ceasefire, the importance of Trincomalee has continued as both a naval, political and economic centre. It still remains the life line for some 40,000 troops and policemen deployed in the Jaffna peninsula. It is only a few hundreds who travel in and out of the peninsula by aircraft daily.

The bulk moves about by ship from Trincomalee after traversing along the main Alpha Eight (A-8) highway. Military supplies and provisions for their sustenance barring fresh vegetables, meat or fish, take the same route. Hence, crippling Trincomalee Harbour can be fatal to troops in the peninsula.

The dangers posed by the new developments have not been lost on the UPFA Government of President Kumaratunga. In late March, she ordered troops to evict the guerrillas from the positions they had taken up. An Army column moved into the area but was later ordered to withdraw for fears that any confrontation may eventually lead to Eelam War 4.

During many sessions of the National Security Council thereafter, the new build up came in for close scrutiny. But the UPFA leadership were on the horns of a dilemma - any action to reverse the situation would have to be taken bearing in mind the need to ensure the peace process is not disrupted. That in reality meant the issue had to be resolved without recourse to any military action.

In fact, Defence Secretary Cyril Herath raised issue over the matter during his regular meetings with the Head of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), Gen. (retd.) Trond Furuhovde. The SLMM made clear the matter was beyond them. Unlike in the North, "controlled" or "uncontrolled" areas in the East were not defined. Hence, the issue had to be raised with the Norwegian facilitators.

Concerns over the new developments exacerbated after an incident in the seas off Sampur last month. A Naval craft with an SLMM representative on board was fired at some 1200 metres off the shores of Sampur. The SLMM raised issue with the LTTE only to be told that the firing was not intentional. There was a training camp for guerrilla cadres in the Sampur area and live firing practices had been going on.

On May 21, this year, Defence Secretary Herath chaired a top level conference at his Ministry. Armed forces chiefs who attended the meeting were of the view that the LTTE should be requested to move their positions at least three kilometres inland from the shores. This was not only because of the threat they posed to the country's premier naval establishment but also to merchant shipping that was increasing in view of development activity in the North and East.

Though the Government wants to raise issue over the matter with the Norwegian facilitators, it is now clear they would have to wait. An urgent priority has overshadowed all other events. That is the future of the 30 month old ceasefire and the Ceasefire Agreement itself. This dangerous situation was underscored this week by the Secretary General of the Peace Secretariat Jayantha Dhanapala during a briefing to senior Army officers at the Eastern Command Headquarters in Minneriya. He said the CFA was in jeopardy but emphasised that the Government was firmly committed to upholding it.

Norway's Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgessen arrives in Colombo today. Together with Ambassador Hans Brattskar they will fly tomorrow to Kilinochchi to meet LTTE leaders in a strong bid to ensure the ceasefire remains intact. On Tuesday they are due to brief President Kumaratunga on the guerrilla response.

Both sides, no doubt, have repeatedly made public pronouncements of their commitment to uphold the CFA. Yet, a war psychosis has begun to develop and a premier state intelligence agency has said so to the Government.

The coming weeks therefore will show whether the two sides are on a slippery slope towards war or not. But one thing remains clear in the meantime. The UPFA can no longer continue to blame only the previous UNF regime for all the ills and a "deteriorating security situation." They would have to take the greater part of the responsibility.

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