Peace process moves into make
or break stage
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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,
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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