The coastline around the KKS harbour. The damaged Cement Corporation complex is on the right. The Dialog mobile phone tower rises high behind the COMNORTH's (Commander, Northern Naval Area) office.

KKS: cracking under the truce
It is well past noon. Heavy rains lash out. Dark clouds build a curtain around. Visibility is zero. The Sri Lanka Navy's Fast Personnel Carrier (FPC) - A 543 - with a complement of 300 officers and men from the Army and the Navy had cut through the Indian Ocean waters for over four hours at high speed. Suddenly skipper Lt. Cmdr. Janaka Ruwanpathirana reduces throttle almost bringing the vessel to a halt.

Sailors who stand outside the bridge on the port (left) and starboard (right) sides move their hands, an all clear signal to tread cautiously. The skipper who watches the motions through the window acknowledges with his head. He slowly increases throttle and we move at snail's pace. The fear is not over enemy activity. It is over fishing craft and superstition. Some fishermen believe crossing the path of a naval craft is good luck and enhances catch. But for the Navy, a head on collision would be a mid sea disaster.

A four and half hour voyage with cameraman Ishara S. Kodikara in the FPC, together with the troops, is about to end. We had set off from the Dockyard in Trincomalee, home for the Navy's Eastern Command in the morning. Moving away some 11 miles from the coast, the voyage northwards was at high speed until the heavy downpour. But that lasted only some ten minutes. Soon bright sunshine melts away the dark clouds. The coastline gradually surfaces.

The Kankesanthurai harbour, once the bustling commercial port of the Jaffna peninsula, holds out a grim picture. Like some of the ruins around the area, a residue of Portuguese rule, other landmarks of more recent times have joined the past. Main among them is the KKS harbour itself. The jetty, repaired with limestone rock when the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was in Sri Lanka for nearly three years since July, 1987, is fast melting away. A large concrete structure that stood at the edge of the pier and served as a watch tower is no more. It is under water. The concrete floor of the pier had begun to crack and tilt at many points, the result of strong waves washing away the limestone rock below. That is the state of the premier port in the peninsula. It is the headquarters of the Navy's Northern Command, the nerve centre from which all naval operations were carried out during the height of the separatist war in the peninsula. With fears that a war is now becoming inevitable, this port may again become the nerve centre if it happens. In such an event, coping with an enemy that has achieved greater military sophistication in the past 30 months will indeed be a challenge to the Navy.

The FPC moves cautiously in the inner harbour to dock in only one of three berths available in the pier. Others have been washed away or broken down. Fast Attack Craft (FAC), which play an important role in security operations and in preventing poaching in the territorial waters, are berthed alongside floating steel barges moored to the decaying pier. Other areas inside the harbour are a large graveyard of wrecks. Among them ships, patrol craft, tugs, Surveillance and Command ships.

On August 16, 1994, female Black Sea Tiger cadres carried out their first attack on a naval vessel inside the KKS harbour. It was the ship A 516, a one time merchant vessel; it was used as a Surveillance and Command ship together with a fleet of smaller trawlers. Its wreckage lies on its side, half under water. Two loud explosions that hit the ship also sank the tug "Dheera".

In another incident on July 16, 1995, Sea Tigers attacked SLNS Edithara, a former roll-on-roll-off merchant vessel that was also used as a Surveillance and Command ship. Its decaying wreckage lies next to A 516. Providing the backdrop to these modern day ruins is the one time KKS cement complex. The scars of battle, pock marks on the wall caused by mortars and the cracked roofs from artillery attacks, are all round.

The only modern day edifice since the ceasefire on February 22, 2002, at the KKS harbour is a large tower of the Dialog mobile phone network. Ringing mobile phones, some carried even by soldiers and sailors, reminds one of that company's motto - the future tomorrow. The towers that dot the controlled areas in the peninsula have no doubt revolutionised communications and brought the future today to the people there. If there is no war and the battle lines between the armed forces and the Tiger guerrillas exist, there is no barrier to those on one side of the divide to talk to those on the other.

The phones reach out to a considerable part of the areas held by guerrillas. As a result, internet and other related services are at one's finger tip be it in the "controlled" or "uncontrolled" zones - a historic first in the near two decades of war. At sea in a Navy boat a few kilometres off the waters of Kilaly, my mobile phone rang. The quality of the conversation was much better than a call in the City of Colombo.

In military terms what is strikingly clear is that nothing much has changed for the Navy in the peninsula since the ceasefire. That is to either enhance their operational capabilities or the environment in which they operate. If lack of resources like patrol craft has restricted expanded roles at sea, they have been tasked with a greater land based role.

"We have undertaken a land based role in areas where the Army is not present. Our dominating these areas has prevented both infiltration and induction of weapons," said Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri, Commander of the Navy. He said this exposure has given his men a new experience and helped them interact with the public of the areas they serve. A land based role for the Navy was first assigned to them in 1997 during "Operation Jaya Sikurui." It led to the creation of a North Central Command area.

The Northern Naval Area Command of the Navy stretches from Mullaitivu in the east to Talaimannar in the west, a coastal stretch of 120 nautical miles. "Besides dominating these areas, our peacetime operations are manifold," says Rear Admiral Dayananda Dharmapriya, COMNORTH. Curbing poaching in territorial waters, protecting Point Pedro and KKS harbour, aiding civil points, dominating "liberated" areas and the outlying islands, are some of the tasks, he said.

Hundreds of trawlers seized from Tamil Nadu fishermen after they were found poaching in Sri Lankan territorial waters lay in far corners inside the harbour. Some have rotted and are partly sunk. Others are in good shape but the Navy cannot move them out until a determination by the Courts, a time consuming process during which more will become non operational.

If the Navy's peace time roles continue uninterrupted in the peninsula, it is abundantly clear that since the ceasefire successive Governments have paid scant attention to military aspects. It was only last week The Sunday Times (Situation Report) revealed details of the threat posed to the Trincomalee harbour, the life line for some 40,000 troops and policemen in the Jaffna peninsula. Barring fresh vegetables, fish or meat that are airlifted, all other food supplies are moved by sea from Trincomalee to KKS. So are the bulk of troops departing or entering the peninsula on leave. This threat came from the artillery and mortar positions in the LTTE camps that had come up after the ceasefire.

In the Jaffna peninsula, a different threat that will cripple the working of the security establishment exists. Until the ceasefire came into effect, fuel supplies to the peninsula were moved by sea under naval escort. It went either from Colombo or Trincomalee in tankers which the Government obtained on tender.

The practice was done away with by the previous United National Front (UNF) Government. Instead the state owned Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) called for tenders to move them by road transport, an exercise for which the blessings of the Tiger guerrillas was essential. That is because the bowsers carrying the fuel had to traverse through Alpha Nine (A-9) highway. An applicant from the north won the tender and has since been moving the fuel to the north, including the security establishments there, only by road.

In awarding the fuel transport tender to a person in the north, it has now come to light, that the previous UNF Government was indirectly supporting the "LTTE economy." The quotation from the tenderer for moving the fuel included LTTE "taxes" for every litre of petrol, diesel and other items. The practice continues even today.The worry for the security establishment now is greater. They say if a confrontation shuts down Alpha Nine highway, the movement of fuel will come to a halt. That would mean the security establishments in the peninsula would have to resort to using stockpiles that are meant for limited periods. What would happen thereafter? A resort to the previous practice of moving fuel by sea would be a time consuming process. Tenders would have to be called for and tankers hired from abroad.

This worrying situation comes in the backdrop of intelligence reports that guerrilla fighting cadres were entering the peninsula in large numbers. They need not infiltrate through security forces held areas any more. They are allowed to come into "controlled" areas to carry out political work in terms of the Ceasefire Agreement. They need not carry radio sets either for communicating with their leaders is now much easier via mobile phones.

Intelligence sources say some 1,500 cadres had passed through entry/exit points into the peninsula after registering themselves. But another 500 to 750 whom they describe as "sleeping cadres" had come under different names or by passing official channels.

Like many of the other issues that portend serious danger to national security interests, the defence establishment has done little or nothing to study the subject of fuel supplies to the north in a contingency situation. This is despite the defence portfolio being taken away from the UNF Government on November 4, last year by President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga on the grounds that the security situation was fast "deteriorating."

With Commander Janaka Nishantha, Commanding Officer of SLNS Walagamba, we toured many an area dominated by the Navy. They included Mandaitivu, Kayts, Velanai, Pungudutivu, Columbuthurai and Kurikattuvan. Driving along the lonely but picturesque road to Araly Point, we are slowed down by flocks of wild partridges. We reach a memorial in remembrance of the late Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa, Maj. Gen. Wijaya Wimalaratne, Rear Admiral Mohan Jayamaha and party.

They were killed by a land mine explosion at this spot on August 8, 1992. Commander Nishantha had only weeks earlier put a stop to moves by a group to use the surrounding area as a garbage dump. We find that a column in the middle of the memorial had been fired at. Colour photographs of those who were killed, embedded on a wall, have been plucked out. The Navy officer had taken a personal effort to effect repairs and light up the area with a generator during nights. He wants to complete it before the 12th anniversary this month.

Choppy seas force the skipper of the FPC, Lt. Cmdr. Kapila Ubeysekera, on our return to keep to some six or seven miles from the coast. Like during the voyage to KKS, on our return Navy men go through a routine drill as they pass the coastline where Sea Tigers move around. They don body armour and are on the ready moving the machine guns mounted outside the bridge to thwart any possible enemy activity.

Rear Admiral Upali Ranaweera, Commander, Eastern Naval Area, said most soldiers and sailors clamour to travel to KKS in the Fast Passenger Carrier. Not surprising at all. The service it offers could be likened to Business Class in an airline. The seats are as comfortable and wider than those in a business class. They would recline to any angle at the pull of a metal stick.

As the vessel set sail with the officers on the upper deck and soldiers in the lower, escorted by a DVORA fast attack craft, television sets come alive. Programmes begin with a welcome and passenger safety advisory. Then come films and televised musical shows. Midway, just off the shores of Tiger guerrilla held Mullaitivu fruit drinks in satchets are served.

Besides the Navy's FPC, a private operator also runs a vessel to carry troops from Trincomalee to KKS and vice versa. But this exercise is not popular for most troops complain it is uncomfortable and painful for a six hour voyage. What is more, the troops had to be carried in a tug to the vessel anchored at mid sea and be transferred. Recently, members of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) who accompany every run refused to go in this private vessel operated by a local company with powerful political connections. They feared it was not sea worthy and tilted precariously with the full load of 400 passengers.

This protest is yet to prompt a response from the Ministry of Defence and the service continues. Amidst hardships and lack of resources, that is how life goes on for one of the country's cherished security organisations, the Sri Lanka Navy.

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