The Medin Poya moon light last Sunday re flected on the calm blue waters, lighting up the night sky. It seemed as if the eastern seas were floodlit.
The mild blowing blended harmoniously with the gentle waves to create an ambience that has earned for Trincomalee and its environs a unique reputation the world over, both during war and in times of peace.
In the centuries before, the Portuguese were ousted in bitter battles by the Dutch. Later the Dutch gave way to the British.
During World War II, Trincomalee, with one of the world's deepest natural harbours was a British Naval base. Japanese planes bombed the place during that time.
For nine years after Sri Lanka received independence, the British naval base remained there. It was the late S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, who saw the unfurling of the Union Jack on October 15, 1957. His Government took control of the place.
For some years thereafter, the north-eastern port city attracted trade and tourism. War would be a thing of the past, one would have then thought.
But two decades ago, Trincomalee became the Achilles heel of sub continental geopolitics that gave birth to a separatist insurgency in Sri Lanka. Today, it is the perceived capital of Thamil Eelam, the separate homeland the LTTE has been waging war for the past 15 1/2 years, to set up.
As the curtain has begun to fall on the 20th century and a new millennium is about to dawn, Trincomalee portends to remain a battleground for years to come. This time, not between the foreign contenders who ousted each other, but among Sri Lankans themselves.
Since it was evicted from the Jaffna peninsula two years ago, the LTTE has developed its maritime capability by training and equipping its naval arm, the Sea Tigers. Specialised "commando" units called "Black Sea Tigers" have been set up. Naval radars seized from Mullaitivu (in July, 1996) and Nagathevanthurai (Pooneryn defence complex in November, 1993) have been put to use together with naval craft seized during various attacks.
In the past months, in the seas off Chalai (north of Mullaitivu), which boasts of a major base, boat loads of Sea Tigers have carried out mock attacks on floating targets, practised casualty evacuation and a variety of other chores under the watchful eyes of their leader, Soosai. It is the Sea Tigers who have been unloading and transporting into mainland the military hardware arriving in ships in the high seas off the eastern coast.
In a hitherto unprecedented move, the LTTE decided to put to test its naval strength by taking on a Navy flotilla deep in the high seas. That was a feat the LTTE had not tried before. It was a carefully calculated move.
The skies over the high seas off Trincomalee have been the focal point of attention for Sri Lankans after the SLAF Mi 24 helicopter gunship went missing on March 19. More on that later. This was the seventh SLAF loss in the first three months of this year.
The SLAF fleet was grounded after the incident. The repercussions caused by the SLAF losses and debacles were continuing to have their adverse effect. Needless to say that the LTTE was conscious of this fact when it planned to engage the Navy several miles outside the shore. It was aware that aerial support would not be available.
This is how the LTTE's new battle of the high seas began.
After a day long journey from Galle, SLNS Parakramabahu, a large gun boat, had weighed anchor mid stream, a kilometre east of the Trincomalee harbour. The sun was beginning to set and radio traffic from the gun boat was heavy. It was contacting the Eastern Naval Command Headquarters and other naval craft in the Dockyard.
Commander Nawan Tennekoon (OTC - Officer Technical Command), the commanding officer of Parakramabahu, was to lead a flotilla of Naval craft to the north.
Two gun boats, SLNS Jagatha (Commanded by Lt. Commander C.H. Liyanage) and SLNS Ranadheera (Commanded by Lt. Commander S. Rozairo) sailed out of the Inner Harbour to join Parakramabahu. Accompanying them were four Israeli-built Dvora fast attack craft - P 460, P 452, P 441 and P 422.
Commander, Northern Naval Area (Comnorth), Rear Admiral D.W.S. Sandagiri, had a task ready in the north and was awaiting the arrival of the flotilla.
It was past 6 p.m. when the three gun boats and four Dvoras set off on their mission. At first, their journey was into the high seas in an easterly course. Hours later, they changed course and were north bound cruising along some 20 nautical miles away from the shore. For hours the journey was uneventful and Monday had dawned.
Around 1.30 a.m. the main body of the Navy flotilla, the three gun boats, were off the shores of Mullaitivu. A voice on board SLNS Jagatha's radio crackled. If the radio talk previously was routine and light hearted, the tone this time was serious. The message was clear two groups of boats, four to five in each, were speeding in their direction.
The four Dvoras which were trailing the main body also heard the message but they were some distance away.
Among the approaching LTTE boats were radar equipped water jets (seized from the Navy), long boats which Navy personnel call "the bus" (for its capacity to carry bigger loads) and smaller boats heavily laden with explosives and manned only by two to three suicide cadre.
Men aboard SLNS Parakramabahu took on the flotilla of Tiger boats heading in their general direction. They began disgorging their arsenal rocket launchers, the two 37 mm guns and the two 14.5 mm guns. A boat with suicide cadres burst into a ball of flames. Gunfire from an approaching boat hit Able Seaman G.A.K. Dimbulatenna who was manning a 37 mm gun, killing him on the spot.
By then, the Dvoras had increased speed. The first to arrive at the scene directed fire at the second group of Tiger boats which were heading towards the rear of the main body. Another boat with suicide cadres exploded in flames. The remaining three Dvoras had arrived and a pitched gun battle began.
The main body of three gun boats with a lethal cargo, headed further towards the deep sea thus allowing more manoeuvrability to the Dvoras. During the next two hours, as a fierce sea battle continued, what began some 20 nautical miles off shore had shifted to 30 nautical miles.
The gun boats joined the Dvoras in pounding the advancing LTTE boats.
Some LTTE boats were withdrawing with their dead and injured. Others that were hit by gun fire were set alight. Some tilted and sank. Tiger cadres jumped into the sea in panic and were picked up by other boats. Some boats that left the area towards Mullaitivu, re-grouped and returned later with the others to continue the battle. But bombs from the Naval convoy were raining on them.
By this time, seven Navy personnel who were injured needed urgent medical attention. A radio message went out from Parakramabahu to Comnorth for help. Two Dvoras - P 440 and P 443 - were immediately diverted from the north on a casevac (casualty evacuation) mission. Like the initial attack on the main body, two groups of boats numbering four to five each were now heading towards the two Dvoras. . One of them fired sinking a boat whilst the other succeeded in evacuating the casualties.
It was past 3.30 a.m. and the battle was taking a decisive turn.
The Dvoras were continuing to pound the LTTE boats. One of the Dvoras was hit by gunfire and was disabled. It lost engine control. The remaining Dvoras advanced whilst firing their way through. Dawn was breaking and the LTTE boats made a hasty retreat towards Mullaitivu. The Dovras chased them upto three miles from the coast.
Senior Navy officials said LTTE boats unloaded their dead and injured along the Mullaitivu coast. The injured were transported in tractors to the hinterland for medical treatment while the boats that were berthed were quickly withdrawn to be concealed inland. This went on whilst some of the LTTE leaders watched.
The Naval convoy, now six Dvoras and three gun boats, sailed back to the Dockyard. When they arrived there around 11 am , Monday hundreds of sailors and senior officers were on hand to greet them.
There was elation all round and the hand shakes among officers reflected the rising emotions. "It was easily our best moment of glory. Never have I been so proud of myself and the Navy," one senior officer told me in a voice choked with emotion.
Two of the injured were rushed from Trincomalee to Anuradhapura for medical treatment. The rest were treated at the Navy Hospital.
Besides the Dvora which lost engine control, another had developed a mechanical problem. All the Naval craft bore bullet holes. The two Dvoras tasked for casevac returned on Monday afternoon to the north together with SLNS Parakramabahu.
How did the LTTE know that a Naval flotilla was on a secret mission? Navy officials believe they would have been spotted from LTTE observation posts in the southern coast of the harbour, from Kattaiparichchan to Foul Point areas dominated by the LTTE. "Anyone having a pair of binoculars could discern our movements," one of them said. He added "For nearly eight weeks or more, the Navy had not run a convoy. This was the first one. They have been waiting for it."
It was only on Monday afternoon that the Operational Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence broke the news of the battle in the high seas. A press release which gave the details said "... at least 80 to 100 terrorists were killed and 50 to 70 wounded during the confrontation .."
However, intercepts of LTTE radio transmissions on Wednesday revealed 30 LTTE cadres had died and eight Tiger boats were destroyed.
Independent verification of these claims was difficult. In the past, the OP HQ of the MOD is known to give high enemy casualties. So much so it prompted remarks that if the figures were added, it would not only exceed LTTE strength but amount to a sizable part of the population of the Jaffna peninsula. That is during the entire duration of the separatist war.
Even if unreliable body counts were not used as an infallible indicator of success, it does not deny to the Navy every bit of the credit it deserves. During the so-called "Eelam War Three", this is the first time it has single handedly (without air and shore based support) responded to a major enemy onslaught. The incident came barely a month after a new leadership has taken charge of the Navy Vice Admiral Cecil Tissera as Commander and Rear Admiral D.K. Dassanayake as Chief of Staff.
As the battle in the high seas erupted, as is the standard practice, Naval authorities sought aerial support from the Sri Lanka Air Force. But the SLAF aircraft had remained grounded after its Mi 24 helicopter gunship went missing on March 19.
For the SLAF, beset by debacles and aircraft losses, the problems seem to be never ending.
It was only last Tuesday (March 25) another Russian built AN 32 transport aircraft figured in an incident. It was on a training mission in the morning. The first effort at take off was aborted. On the second effort, with maximum thrust, the aircraft had been airborne. The Training Instructors suspected a snag and wanted to check it out. When they made a landing to do so, a tyre burst.
Investigations are under way to ascertain whether the defect was the result of brake bind or caused by any other problem. This AN 32 is now grounded until repairs are effected.
A day before this incident occurred, an SLAF Chinese built Y 12 aircraft flying from Ratmalana to Minneriya had its windscreen badly damaged. A bird hit the windscreen and fell into the cockpit. The bird was dead by then.
Contrary to earlier expectations, the body of a crew member of the Mi 24 surfaced in the South Indian coast of Nagapatnam last Wednesday, just a week after the armour plated gunship went missing in the high seas, some four kilometres off the coast of Mullaitivu.
Tamil Nadu authorities last Thursday informed the Sri Lanka Deputy High Commissioner, Suhith Gautamadasa, of the find. According to Mr. Gautamadasa, the Tamil Nadu authorities have informed him that the body was that of a person wearing Sri Lanka Air Force uniform. He possessed an SLAF Identity Card and carried some Sri Lanka currency in his shirt pocket.
Mr. Gautamadasa informed the Ministry of Defence and the Sri Lanka Air Force. The identity card bore the name P.D. Aruna Shantha.
SLAF sources told me that he was a Leading Aircraftsman and was a Gunner assigned to the missing MI 24.
The discovery of Aruna Shantha's body put paid to fears that the MI 24 would have been hijacked by the LTTE. However, some high ranking SLAF officials continue to insist that enemy action may have been the cause for the loss of the Mi 24. However, what they are not sure is whether it was direct enemy action (like shooting down the Mi 24) or indirect like sabotage through infiltration.
The former is being ruled out since there was no evidence of any floating debris if the Mi 24 was shot down. The latter theory is being pursued.
The Commander of the Air Force, Air Marshal Oliver Ranasinghe, met with his senior officials early this week to discuss the likelihood of sabotage from within the institution itself. This was while some SLAF personnel were placed under open arrest in their respective camps until checks against them are carried out.
With seven aircraft losses worth millions of rupees in the first three months of this year (not to mention the loss of valuable lives), the SLAF's debacles have begun to have a devastating effect on the war effort.
It was earlier the Army and now the Navy which has begun to feel the pinch.
An impartial investigation to identify the causes for the debacles and losses has become imperative.
A delay will not only put more lives in jeopardy and cost colossal amounts in money but will also lead to serious setbacks to Government's war efforts.
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