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The Situation Report

25th July 1999

Russian patrol craft for Sri Lanka Navy

By Iqbal Athas

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With a new millennium just five months away, one of the top priorities for the Government in the ongoing separatist war is to strengthen the Sri Lanka Navy now formally acknowledged as the nation's first line of defence.

Though belated, it has now dawned on the authorities that the international procurement capability is the main factor that has helped Tiger guerrillas wage a high intensity war. Coupled together with that long time reality have been the recent intelligence reports that LTTE had acquired and were still acquiring a variety of stand off weapons ones that can cause more damage to the security forces without the loss of large numbers of their own cadres.

If there has been a lull in confrontations between Sea Tigers and the Naval patrols in the eastern waters in the past weeks, that too during heightened security prompted by the annual "Black July" month, there was hectic activity at Naval Headquarters. Ignoring a high pitched campaign, suspected to be backed by a few Navy officials, alleging kick backs by senior Government officials, Navy Commander, Vice Admiral sent in a report to Defence Secretary, Chandrananda de Silva, about the purchase of Russian built patrol craft.

The report recommended early negotiations for the purchase of Russian Naval craft, particularly to beat down prices and to ascertain early availability. The Navy Chief's report was the result of a recommendations made by an official delegation that visited Russia last month.

The team was headed by E.S. Gunatilleke, former Additional Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and comprised Commodore Nandana Thuduwewatta, Director, Naval Operations, Commodore D.C.I. Kariyawasam, Director Naval Engineering and Captain A.V. Abeysena, Deputy Director of Navy's Electronic Branch and currently Deputy Commandant, Kotelawala Defence Academy.

The four member team was sent after the Russian Government made an offer to the Sri Lanka Ambassador in Russia, N. Sikkander. He is said to have hand carried the offer and handed it over to Defence Secretary de Silva. This was when Mr. Sikkander joined other Sri Lanka envoys abroad for consultations and briefings in Colombo. The Government to Government offer was forwarded for observations by Vice Admiral Tissera. He recommended that a team be sent without delay to Moscow to inspect the patrol crafts on offer and to ascertain their sea worthiness.

Russia's Federal State Unitary Enterprise "Rosvoorouzhenie" offered for sale to Sri Lanka five different types of patrol craft. They were:

1. "Molnia" Guided Missile Boat at a cost of US dollars 44.6 million dollars.

2. "Svetlyak" patrol boat at a cost of US dollars 18.3 milion.

3. "Bogomol" patrol boat at a cost of US dollars 13.1million.

4. "MIRAGE" patrol boat at a cost of US dollars 11.1 million US dollars.

5. "PAUK" patrol boat costing US dollars 20.9 million US dollars.

Defence Ministry sources said yesterday that purchases of two or at most three from the patrol boats offered would not be at the quoted prices. "We hope to negotiate to bring down the prices further," these sources said. According to the sources, the Russian offer is "comprehensive" with maintenance documentation in English and Russian teams arriving to train Navy personnel.

A final decision to procure the Russian patrol boats would mean the Government will abandon plans to procure two Multi Purpose Naval Vessels (MPVs) for which tenders were called and a Technical Evaluation Committee short listed suppliers. The departure of the official team to Russia with no finality being reached on the short listed tenderers caused a furore. High ranking Navy officials have identified some middle level officials were among those behind a campaign alleging irregularities. They argued that the official team's departure to Russia had come after Cabinet Appointed Tender Board (CATB) decided to "inspect the ships/ shipyards" of the short listed tenderers recommended by the Technical Evaluation Committee.

But a high ranking Defence Ministry source countered the argument. "It's usual for unsuccessful tenderers or other interested parties to raise cries. It is perfectly within the Government's legal right to procure what is best at a reasonable price," the source said. "We will make public the saving that accrue and thus demonstrate the transparency of the deal," the source added.

The Official team and Vice Admiral Tissera met Defence Secretary, Chandrananda de Silva, last week to further discuss matters relating to the purchase of the patrol crafts. It was decided to invite a delegation from Rosvoorouzhnie to Colombo for further talks for the purchase of these patrol crafts.

Though top priority is being given for the development of the Sri Lanka Navy, the Ministry of Defence is at the same time acting with greater caution to ensure the procurements made for them are suitable. The move has been prompted by questions over the suitability of some important procurements. One of them, it is pointed out, has been the purchase of a Hovercraft. It is now said to be idling since it has been found not suitable for use in Sri Lankan waters. The MoD has also found a few other costly procurements being not suitable.

These developments came in a week where, like in previous years, security precautions remained heightened in view of "Black July" month a month in which Tiger guerrillas commemorate a string of events. Main among them is the death of the first Black Tiger suicide cadre "Captain Millar" on July 5, 1987 and the killing of 13 soldiers on July 23, 1983, which led to the eruption of ethnic violence in 1983.

Fears of a possible attack or disruption of life in the Jaffna peninsula prompted military authorities there to step up security precautions. This was after intelligence reports that some senior Tiger guerrilla cadres were putting the rank and file through training with a sand model in the Pooneryn area. Subsequent reports spoke of civilians being told to vacate certain areas. Though unconfirmed, senior security officials were not taking chances. Particularly yesterday, with Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Srilal Weerasooriya and senior officials visiting Army installations in the north.

In the Wanni and outlying areas, infiltrated Tiger guerrilla cadres continued small scale attacks. On Friday, three Special Forces soldiers were killed and another was wounded when they were ambushed and fired upon. The men were part of a group escorting a fuel convoy to Palampiddy Army camp. The incident occurred on the Madhu Road, a short distance away from the Madhu Church.

It came as both the LTTE and the Sri Lanka Army remained deadlocked over the issue of opening a Civilian Security Zone (CSZ) to facilitate the movement of civilians, NGOs and the movement of humanitarian supplies to uncontrolled areas in the Wanni.

Last Thursday, Security Forces Commander Wanni, Major General Lionel Balagalle, wrote to the LTTE through the ICRC offering a new SCZ one along the Mankulam-Thunnukai Road, 90 degrees to the west of A-9 Kandy-Jaffna highway. He said the Sri Lanka Army believes "this proposal will allay fears expressed by LTTE that the earlier proposal (to open a CSZ northwards from Mankulam) may encourage the Army to embark on a new adventure to move forward along the A-9 highway." He offered security guarantee to the proposed CSZ both during day and night.

Until yesterday, there was no response from the LTTE. There was speculation in Vavuniya yesterday that a response was being delayed since the LTTE had planned demonstrations in some European capitals to protest against what they call the Army's delay in opening up a route and the hardships it was causing to the people.

The situation has been further aggravated by an ICRC note both to the Army and the LTTE. The ICRC"s Head of Delegation in Sri Lanka pointed out that four patients in uncontrolled areas had died because they could not be brought to Vavuniya hospital for treatment. He also pointed out that drugs were very low and few essential drugs are not available any more.

Whilst awaiting an LTTE response to the latest offer of a CSZ through the Mankulam-Thunnukai road, the Sri Lanka Army has also proposed to the LTTE, through the ICRC, an interim measure to help patients needing urgent medical attention. The SLA has suggested that patients can be brought by boat from areas north of Viduthalthivu (known to be a Sea Tiger base) to the coastal village of Pallimunai in Mannar. They could be transported to Vavuniya hospital from there, the SLA has said.

However, there has been no formal response from the LTTE to the proposal too.

The week also saw Army Headquarters rolling out the red carpet to welcome a high ranking American military official.

Rays of the morning sun on the grounds over looking Army Headquarters was too much for Kandula last Wednesday morning.

As he stood, ahead of the rows of 48 smartly clad men from the Regiment of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (SLLI) clutching T-56 rifles, the heavy strain on his eyes was too much for the young elephant, the regimental mascot.

Whilst standing to attention, like his soldier colleagues behind, Kandula swayed to the sides to relieve his discomfort. His soldier mahout patted him and uttered a few commands to put him at ease.

True to his military training, Kandula froze in the rigid posture of a regimented soldier. It was 8.45 a.m. Wednesday. A staff car with star plates was closing in. Seated inside, clad in category "A" US Army uniform Bottle green pants and Pale Green shirt was Commanding General of the United States Army Pacific. Just behind, in his official car followed US Ambassador Shaun E Donnelly.

As Lt. Gen. Smith was received by Lt. Col. Amal Karunasekera, Commandant of the SLLI Regimental Centre, Kandula raised his trunk to say welcome. After a colourful guard of honour, Lt. Gen. Smith walked into the main Army Headquarters building. He exchanged salutes with Army commander, Lt. Gen. Srilal Weerasooriya, who in turn introduced his senior officers. After a brief ceremony that involved exchange of gifts at the Commander's office, they returned to the ground floor board room. There senior military commanders gave a briefing on the ongoing separatist war and later heard Lt. Gen. Smith's own views.

A short introduction and welcome speech by Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya saw Security Force Commander-Wanni, Major General Lionel Balagalle giving a brief on the security situation in his area. The focus was on the string of military operations conducted in the area and ongoing measures towards normalcy. That included pacification operations, supply of food, maintenance of various services including health and education.

Security Forces Commander Jaffna, Major General Lohan Gunawardena, gave a detailed account of the ground situation in his area, both in the Jaffna peninsula as well as the Elephant Pass-Paranthan sectors. He gave particulars on the development programmes under way, many with foreign assistance and an overview of the prevailing security situation. Brigadier Gamini Hettiaratchi, Commandant, Kotelawala Defence Academy followed with a brief speech that related to training and allied subjects. Major General Neil Dias, Commandant, Sri Lanka Army Volunteer Force gave a background brief on the origins of the separatist war.

In a near 15 minute speech, Lt. Gen. Smith pointed out that military action alone would not be sufficient in the campaign against guerrillas. The military should also get involved in civic action programmes, psychological operations and media relations. He appreciated the problems caused by lack of resources but advised the Army to keep going at it to alienate the Tamil public from the LTTE. He also underscored the need for more effective intelligence.

Lt. Gen. Smith praised the concept of joint military mechanisms as an effective one and said they functioned not only in the United States but also in several other democracies. He emphasised the need for harmonious interaction between the political and military establishment. It was incumbent on the military leaders to guide them in the best professional way.

Taking part in the meeting besides the speakers were Deputy Chief of Staff Major General Janaka Perera, Major General Sisira Wijesuriya, GOC 53 Division, Major General Sarath Munasinghe, GOC- 54 Division and Major General Susil Chandrapala, Commander, Operations Command, Colombo. Ambassador Donnelly and US Defence Attache, Frank Rindone were also present.

Lt. Gen. Smith was entertained to dinner by Deputy Defence Minister, Anuruddha Ratwatte, on Thursday night where service commanders and leading members of the security establishment were among those present. Conspicuous by his presence was the General Officer Commanding the Joint Operations Headquarters, General Rohan de S. Daluwatte. The latter had himself hosted Lt. Gen. Smith the previous night.

Lt. Gen. Smith assumed command of the United States Army, Pacific, Fort Schafter, Hawaii on October 20, last year. Before his promotion, as Major General he was Commanding General of the United States Southern European Task Force, Italy. He has served two separate stints in Vietnam, firstly as a rifle platoon leader and as the Reconnaisance Platoon Leader in the First Battalion (Airborne), 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. Later, he served in several other roles including infantry and mechanised divisions.

Lt. Gen. Smith arrived in Colombo last Tuesday by a military aircraft from Bangladesh on a three day visit a familiarisation tour of the region upon taking command. His predecessor, Lt. Gen. William Steele made a similar visit in 1996, also during a familiarisation tour of the region.

However, the visit drew considerable attention from the Colombo based diplomatic community. They were closely observing his engagements to ascertain whether there was an increase in the scope and content of US support for Sri Lanka in the military field.

Highly placed defence sources said the Government welcomed Lt. Gen.Smith's visit since that offered a high ranking US military official to gain a first hand knowledge about the ongoing separatist war. This was why commanders in operational areas were flown down to Colombo for the meeting. They were able to give a full overview of the existing ground situation. These sources said the meeting had added significance since the US has already listed the LTTE as a "terrorist" organisation and was using its legal machinery to counter them.

According to same sources, Lt. Gen. Smith also had a meeting with Defence Secretary, Chandrananda de Silva, where ongoing US assistance to improve professional skills of the Sri Lankan military figured. There were strong indications that the US Army will increase its support to help Sri Lanka to raise the professional standards of the security forces.

The United States, during the past three years, have been providing training assistance under a programme titled "Operation Balanced Style." Under this programme, the elite Green Berets and their Naval equivalent, the SEALS have been training Army and Navy commandos during joint exercises. The operational areas have been carefully avoided in the conduct of these training exercises with most of them being located in areas in the south.

In an unrelated development, the United States Army has just sold to Sri Lanka a fleet of trucks from one of its bases in South Korea.

As the last week in the "Black July" month nears, there has been a relative lull in Tiger guerrilla activity. But, the security establishment is taking no chances.

Last three days have seen increased checks in the City and suburbs after intelligence reports that a explosive laden lorry or coach had left Amparai for Colombo. The suspense over what the LTTE is upto, continues.

The Fifth Column

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