|Navy not instructed how to confront LTTE arms smugglers
By Our Defence Correspondent
Wednesdays clash off Vakarai in the Batticaloa district underlined the dangers of the situation, and the urgent need for the navy to formulate proper procedures and rules of engagement. Apart from the navy, the army and air force must also be instructed in what to do in situations where one shot by a nervous soldier, sailor, airman or Tiger cadre could very easily lead to the end of the entire peace process .
Naval incidents that have so far occurred during the ceasefire have underlined the glaring lack of a proper procedure. In Wednesdays incident, as with other incidents during the past two months of the ceasefire, naval officers in command of Dvora fast attack craft have been constantly referring matters to the Eastern Naval Headquarters in Trincomalee over radio, which in turn has been asking for instructions from Navy Headquarters in Colombo, who in turn have been consulting the Secretary of Defence, Minister of Defence, and the Prime Minister.
All this points to a glaring omission on the part of the Defence Ministry and the National Security Council, in not setting down guidelines.
It also points to the fact that Navy Headquarters has not been forceful enough in explaining to the government, the need for a proper policy and for the entire navy to be educated in what to do.
It is certainly a good thing that everyone up to the Prime Minister is kept informed of events as they unfold. But what is not good is that officers at the scene do not feel empowered enough to act, and their seniors feel that they need instructions from politicians before giving orders to battlefield commanders.
What the government and the navys top brass seem to have forgotten is the fact that their primary obligation is to safeguard the lives of the officers and sailors, more than the future of peace talks. While we in Colombo are enjoying the peace of the ceasefire, and the army and air force are less active due to a halting of operations, the navy is still very much at war. Every Dvora carries a dozen men, which means that a dozen lives are at risk in each confrontation.
So far, the only things that junior and senior officers at sea are sure of is that they are allowed to fire back if fired at by the Sea Tigers. On several occasions this has led to navy warships having to approach very close to Sea Tiger boats at sea, and being fired upon before opening fire. This happened in Wednesdays incident as well.
Given the fact that the Sea Tigers are using extremely heavy weapons, which the navy commander is on record as saying are more powerful than those used by the navy, and that a single hit could destroy or disable a Dvora, waiting to be fired on before firing is a foolhardy strategy indeed.
The problem is that officers are very concerned that opening fire first could literally end their careers, if it leads to the breakdown of the peace process, or even a serious incident.
Wednesdays incident was a vindication of the repeated exposes by this column in the past few months, where we have shown that the LTTE has increased its activities off the East Coast during the ceasefire. On April 21st, just two weeks ago, this column exclusively published "Tigers use ceasefire to bring in arms supplies through Southeast coast".
The fact that the two LTTE arms carrying trawlers on Wednesday were sailing in broad daylight off the Batticaloa coast also showed the utter contempt that the Sea Tigers have for the navys patrolling of the east coast, and for the ability of navy officers to act decisively.
The incident occurred when a Dvora on patrol spotted two trawlers and challenged them. The trawlers attempted to flee towards the coast, but with the gunboats gaining ground, the crew of one trawler had blown up their own vessel. The other trawler had escaped into a fleet of fishing boats that was nearby, and when the Dvoras attempted to pursue it, other LTTE craft had emerged from among the trawlers and opened fire. The navy craft fired back and destroyed one Sea Tiger boat.
There were no casualties on the naval side. The second arms carrying trawler escaped. It is not clear how many Sea Tigers were killed.
On Thursday, in the presence of an official of the Norwegian-Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, the navy inspected the wreckage of the first trawler and recovered 15 boxes of 120 mm mortars, two boxes of 82 mm mortars and six rocket-propelled grenades.
During the ceasefires of 1989/90 and 1995, the LTTE carried out a comprehensive programme aimed at destroying government control of the Eastern Province when the ceasefire ended. It is quite clear that the same strategy is once again being carried out. It is time that the heads of the armed forces stopped burying their heads in the sand like ostriches and told the government that there needs to be a proper strategy to prevent this happening. Proper instructions need to be given and carried out. Otherwise, the result will be that the LTTE will see no reason to continue negotiating when they could very well take everything they want by force.
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