Feature Article

Sri Lanka Navy plants explosives in Historic Waters

[TamilNet, Wednesday, 23 January 2008, 16:47 GMT]
Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) has planted underwater mines between Kachchatheevu and Neduntheevu (Delft Island) endangering the lives of Tamil Nadu fishermen according to reports in the Indian media Wednesday. Consequently, 12 fishermen from Rameswaram (Raameasvaram) in Tamil Nadu were taken into custody by the SLN Monday when they attempted to exercise their traditional fishing rights in Kachchatheevu. "In a shameless show of solidarity with the SLN which has violated the international convention, the Indian Navy has also arrested 60 fishermen from Rameswaram in the last two days," said a fishermen society representative in Rameswaram.

Kachchatheevu Map
Satellite image showing the location of Kachchatheevu [Image courtesy: NASA, Visible Earth, Legend by TamilNet]

According to Indian media reports, the SLN had sent a fax message to the Indian Navy office at Rameswaram informing them that sea mines had been laid along the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL). SLN had wanted the Indian Navy "to warn Tamil Nadu fishermen" against entering the sea between Kachchatheevu and Neduntheevu.

Commodore Phillip Van Haltren, Naval Officer In-Charge, Tamil Nadu had told The Hindu Tuesday that he had received the communication from the SLN on the installation of the underwater "defence system." "The message implied there will be serious consequences if fishing boats from Tamil Nadu or elsewhere come in contact with the explosives planted in the water. Hence, the seriousness of the warning message has been immediately sent to the authorities concerned. The fishermen will have to keep away from the danger zone," Mr. Haltren added.

According to Tamil Nadu state fisheries department officials, SLN on Tuesday had arrested 12 Indian fishermen for allegedly nearing Kachchatheevu and seized three boats used by them. The fishermen were later remanded to police custody by the Judicial Magistrate at Oorkaval near Kankesanthurai in Sri Lanka, the officials said.

Meanwhile, the Indian Navy also took into custody 48 fishermen from Rameswaram who had attempted to cross to the Sri Lankan waters on Tuesday and handed them over to the Tamil Nadu Fisheries department officials. On Monday, 12 fishermen from Rameswaram had been arrested by the Indian Navy when they had tried to access Kachchatheevu island.

Officials in Tamil Nadu have reportedly said that planting underwater mines was against international maritime rules and could only prove to be fatal to the fishermen. They also admitted that it was not possible for lay fishermen to identify the IMBL or distinguish between Indian and Sri Lankan waters.

Fishermen groups from Tamil Nadu have expressed concern that the LTTE had all the latest gadgets to detect and escape the mines whereas only they would be hurt. They felt that the move was to prevent Indian fishermen from entering Sri Lankan waters and asked the Indian Coast Guard and Navy officials to take appropriate steps to get the mines removed.

Cutting across the political divide, Tamil Nadu leaders have stressed the need for India to take back Kachchatheevu from Sri Lanka in order to safeguard Tamil fishermen.

Kachchatheevu, which was long an island of contention between India and Sri Lanka, became a part of Sri Lanka through an agreement concluded in 1974, on the boundary of Historic Waters between the two countries.

It was agreed by both the countries that fishermen from Tamil Nadu would be allowed access to Kachatheevu Island for rest, for drying of nets and to offer prayers in the local St.Anthony's Church. Indian fishermen have repeatedly asserted that their traditional fishing rights should be respected.

During her tenure as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa – known for her staunch anti-LTTE posturing – had demanded taking of Kachchatheevu island perpetual lease to put an end to the problem of SLN attacking Indian fishermen. She wrote to the Indian prime minister in January 2006 seeking a long term and permanent solution to the 'burning issue of violence against the poor fishermen of Tamil Nadu in the Gulf of Mannar'.

'Such indiscriminate and murderous attacks on the fishermen, who venture into the sea in search of their livelihood is against all canons of natural justice and violates their human rights. The Centre must find a final and lasting solution to the problem since it involves the question of traditional rights of fishermen', her letter said.

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