Are LTTE Sea Tigers Getting Impatient?

Dr. Vijay Sakhuja

The fragile truce, effective from February 23, 2002, between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE was finally shattered after the Tamil Tiger rebels blew up a Sri Lankan navy Dvora class gunboat outside Trincomalee harbour on January 5, 2006. The suicide attack was the work of an LTTE owned explosives-packed fishing boat that rammed into the naval vessel resulting in 13 sailors missing and presumed dead. Earlier, three sailors aboard a smaller naval patrol craft were killed more than two weeks ago in a sea battle with rebels off the northwestern town of Mannar. The attack off Trincomalee was similar to the April 1995 incident in which the LTTE had infiltrated the tightly guarded naval base in Trincomalee and destroyed two craft that were anchored there.

There have been several such incidents involving the Sri Lankan Navy and the LTTE gunboats and both sides have lost vessels. In particular the Sri Lankan Navy has lost about half of its force to the high-speed gunboats of the LTTE. In the ensuing conflict dynamics, the LTTE has been seeking a formal recognition of the Sea Tigers on par with the Sri Lankan Navy.

Early this month, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa had summoned his military commanders amidst rising fears of a return to war. There were reports that a LTTE ship with a large quantity of weapons and ammunition was operating off Mullaittivu and the Sri Lankan Navy and Air Force had commenced tight surveillance to intercept the vessel. Assistance had also been sought from the Indian authorities to support the operations.

The LTTE’s arms and ammunitions supplies are generally carried onboard larger vessels that operate on the high sea. In order to discharge their cargo, the vessels come close the shore and wait for the arrival of the smaller boats/ launches. Gunboats escort these smaller vessels and explosive laden craft, manned by armed Sea Tigers. Thereafter, the cargo is transported to shore. In the event of detection by the Sri Lankan Navy, these vessels ram into the naval vessels. There have been several such incidents in the past. Sea areas off Mullaittivu are well known for such activity. The areas contiguous to Mullaittivu are known to be the strongholds of the LTTE and they are also the maritime approaches to the island. Besides, Mullaittivu, the Veruhal-Vaakharai coast has also been a safe ‘harbour’ for LTTE to transport its cadres, provisions, military hardware and supplies by boat from the northern coast of Mullaitheevu.

It is difficult to determine the precise number of ships, trawlers, and smaller vessels in the inventory of the LTTE fleet, but some estimates are possible. The fleet strength varies from twelve to fifteen ships that are 1000 to 1500 tons dwt. The LTTE shipping network has progressed fairly well. Despite setbacks in terms of interception /destruction by the Sri Lankan military, it has flourished and clearly shows that the LTTE leadership has continued to support it and use it to build its capabilities. According to a Lloyds estimate, the LTTE fleet has 11 vessels most of which are said to be well equipped and capable of trans-oceanic long distance sailing. These vessels have engaged in both legal and illegal maritime activities.

The Sri Lankan Navy has been involved in several engagements with LTTE ships. In one incident, MV Shoshin, a merchant ship used by the LTTE to transport arms, ammunition and diesel from South-East Asian countries to the Sri Lankan coast off Mullaittivu was sunk in 2003 by the navy. The second incident involved MV Koimar, an oil tanker with 11 crewmembers, was sunk by the navy around 240 nautical miles off the east coast of Sri Lanka. An independent shipping company supporting the LTTE financially operated the vessel.

Prabhakaran is reported have said, “ The security of Tamil Eelam is interlinked with that of its seas. It is only when we are strong on the seas, and break the dominance the enemy now has, that we will be able to retain the land areas we liberated and drive our enemies from our homeland”.

The LTTE has been under the watchful eyes of the Sri Lankan Air Force too. Air Force Commander Air Vice Marshall Donald Perera has expressed his intention to neutralizing the LTTE’s air power comprising of an airstrip at Iranamadu, in the rebel controlled area and the two light aircraft in their possession. A second airstrip is being built by the LTTE in a location within the area under their control in the Mullaitivu district.

Finally, the LTTE has used the ceasefire period gainfully and consolidated its capabilities. It is continuously building maritime capabilities and gaining control over the Sri Lankan seas particularly in waters off Mullaittivu and Batticaloa. The current attack on the Sri Lankan Navy vessels off Trincomalee appears to dilute the surveillance efforts of the Sri Lankan Navy off Mullaittivu to allow the LTTE to off load supply of arms and ammunition from its ship.

Author Note
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.