Tigers target sea bridge

[TamilNet, Friday, 11 July 1997, 23:59 GMT]
The LTTE confirmed yesterday that they had detained a Sri Lankan supply ship off the Jaffna peninsula on Monday and had taken it to Mullaitivu. The Tigers also said that one of the 38 North Korean crewmen was killed when the ship ignored orders to stop and was fired on. This second attack on a Sri Lankan supply ship within a week could indicate that having drastically reduced Sri Lankans' aerial supply capability, the Tigers are now turning their attention to the sea lines.

The LTTE said yesterday that the 'MV Moranghong' had unloaded supplies at Kankesanthurai harbour on the Jaffna peninsula and was returning to Colombo when it was stopped by the LTTE's naval forces. An LTTE official told TamilNet that the surrounded ship seemed to be stopping having been ordered to heave to. However, the vessel had suddenly tried to make a break for the open sea. A Sea Tiger boat had then fired a short burst to force the ship to stop. It was later found that one of the crew had died.

The Sea Tiger boats escorted the ship to Alampil where it is currently at anchor. The LTTE then contacted the Red Cross (ICRC) to hand over the remaining crewmen and the body of the dead sailor. The ICRC informed the press that it had received the body and was arranging for the body to be handed over to the the ship's owners, said to be Monsell International Ltd. The LTTE said that arrangements had been made to hand over the 37 crewmen as well.

Last week, Sea Tiger boats stopped another Sri Lankan supply ship that had started to ply between Mannar and Jaffna. The Sri Lankan government says that having taken the crew off the empty ship, the Tigers had incinerated it. Last Friday, the LTTE handed over 2 Indonesian crewmen to the ICRC, but not commented on the government claims.

The Sri Lankan government also claims that the ship was intended to move Tamil refugees who wish to return to Jaffna, and that the Tigers burnt the ship to prevent this. However, close observers of the Sri Lankan conflict would be aware that tens of thousands of Tamils are being kept in detention camps in Vavuniya and Trincomalee. The United States Committee for Refugees (USCR) visited a few of these camps and has been critical of conditions there. The USCR has also said that refugees are apprehensive about returning to Jaffna.

The Tigers say the Mannar ferry was being used to move Sri Lankan soldiers to and from the Jaffna peninsula. Earlier this year, the Sri Lankan army occupied the Vavuniya-Mannar road, enabling it to move men and supplies to Mannar by road and then onto Jaffna by sea.

The estimated 40,000 Sinhalese troops on the Jaffna peninsula are dependent on aerial and naval supply lines, as the land route from the south to the peninsula is under LTTE control. Though the Sri Lankan government piously claims that food for civilians and refugees are being moved in the ships plying between Jaffna and the south, it does not say how it manages to rotate the troops in Jaffna or how it keeps them supplied.

To keep the Jaffna garrison supplied, the SLAF had to use 4 An-32 aircraft, each flying 4 sorties per day. Most of the SLAF's Antonovs were destroyed in the past few months, either by LTTE ground fire, pilot error or poor maintenance. A limited service is being provided by private aircraft, but with each aircraft only seating a few dozen troops, it is of limited value. In addition, Lion Air, a private US firm that was hiring out An-32s to the SLAF has abruptly pulled out of its Sri Lankan operation recently.

The SLAF's transport helicopters are not capable of supporting the air bridge, either. Few are flying and these are needed elsewhere. In addition, a fully loaded Mi-17 was shot down last year as it flew over the peninsula, killing 39 troops. Transport helicopter pilots have shown a reluctance to fly into areas where the LTTE is known to have a presence. In one incident last year, a Sri Lankan army officer forced an SLAF chopper to fly in support of his ground troops by holding a pistol to the pilot's head.

The virtual severance of the air bridge has forced the Sri Lankans to rely on supply ships for fresh troops and supplies. The large SLA bases at Palay, Elephant Pass and Kilinochchi expend an inordinate amount of artillery shells, firing indiscriminately into the surrounding areas. The LTTE is running an intense guerrilla campaign on the Jaffna peninsula. The SLA is therefore using ammunition at a rate that could not be sustained without the naval supply line.

It is also well known that large numbers of Sri Lankan troops occupying Jaffna are unable to take leave from the garrison due to the shortage of transport from the peninsula. Any available seats on SLAF aircraft are snapped up by senior officers. To be able to rotate fresh troops into the peninsula makes the sea lines vital.

The Sri Lankan navy has been escorting supply ships on their voyages to and from the peninsula. However, the navy has also lost several gunboats over the past year, and many of its craft are permanently assigned to harbour protection duty, which is forcing many Sri Lankan supply ships to sail without escort. In some cases, the Indian navy has provided protection for Sri Lankan supply vessels shuttling between Trincomalee and Jaffna.

Last year, an LTTE central committee member, Mr. Lawrence Thilakar said that the Tigers would target Sri Lankan supply lines within and outside the country. From recent events it would appear that the LTTE's Air-Wing have completed their part of this strategy and the Sea Tigers have begun theirs.

The LTTE intensified its campaign for independence following the island wide pogrom against Tamils in July 1983. Over 50,000 Tamil civilians have been killed in the government's attempts to crush the Tamil struggle. In the 1977 elections, the Tamil people of the island voted overwhelmingly for parties supporting independence from Sri Lanka.


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