Sri Lankan fishermen caught between navy and rebels
Sat July 15, 2006 20:32 EDT .
Associated Press Writer
KALPITIYA, Sri Lanka (AP) _ Sailing from this strategic Sri Lankan naval base, heavily armed patrols keep a round-the-clock vigil for gunboats manned by Tamil Tiger rebels.
As straightforward as such a task might seem, rarely is something so simple in Sri Lanka, a tropical island off India's coast that for more than two decades has been gripped by a conflict between insurgents from the Tamil minority and the government dominated by the Sinhalese majority.
On the fishing grounds off northern Sri Lanka _ the Tamil heartland _ the navy accuses the Tigers of using fishermen as cover. And as violence has spiked over the past four months, so have accusations that the navy is are killing innocent Tamil fisherman.
The navy insists its sailors are careful not to shoot at innocents working in the fishing industry.
But the Sea Tigers, as the rebels' naval arm is known, ``mingle with the fishermen and carry out attacks against us or try to sneak past this base,'' said Lt. Commander Jagath Premaratne, who is head of the Kalpitiya naval base in northwestern Sri Lanka.
``We have to retaliate for those attacks,'' he told journalists who recently visited the base on a trip arranged by the navy.
He cited a June 28 clash in which navy vessels repulsed a guerrilla attack and sank two rebel boats, according to the military and Tigers. One rebel fighter and five sailors were killed.
``In this instance _ they came in a boat forcibly taken from fishermen,'' Premaratne said, explaining that the navy had, in an effort to avoid attacking fishermen, allotted specific numbers to all fishing boats in the area. The Tigers, he said, were using one of the numbered boats.
One fisherman near the base, set on the tip of a peninsula dominated by a 315-year-old fort built by Dutch colonialists, backed up the navy's allegation.
``We fear that Tigers would take our boats by force,'' said 32-year-old Sandya Kumar.
But the rebels deny stealing boats and accuse the army of killing dozens of fisherman in recent months. In one incident last month, the Navy said it sank a rebel boat near a strategic northern harbor, but families of two ordinary fishermen, Thevamani Arul, 24, and Krishnapillai Chandramohan, 28, accuse the navy of sinking the men's boat and either arresting or killing them.
``I believe that my son has been arrested by the navy,'' said Arul's 59-year-old mother, Sundaralimgam Arulai
Sri Lanka has 113 small islands or islets that provide cover for rebel boats _ a fact the navy finds increasingly frustrating as the number of sea clashes rises amid wider violence that many fear is pushing the country back to full-scale war.
Discrimination against the 3.2 million Tamils, most of whom are Hindu, led the Tigers to take up arms in 1983. The resulting war on this tropical island of 19 million people _ nearly three-quarters of them Buddhist Sinhalese _ left more than 65,000 people dead before a 2002 cease-fire.
But the truce is on the verge of collapse after four months of violence that has killed some 700 people, more than half of them civilians, according to a team from the Nordic countries responsible for monitoring the cease-fire.
Premaratne warned that the area off the Kalpitiya naval base ``is the sea route (the Tigers) could use to attack key economic targets,'' such as the busy port in Colombo, the capital, which lies 140 kilometers (86 miles) south of here.
Last month, police arrested three suspected rebels armed with floating mines near this base. Authorities say they may have been headed to mine Colombo's harbor. The violence has scared many people from going to areas around military bases, leaving those in the fishing trade struggling to make ends meet.
``We are now in a very helpless situation,'' said fisherman Keerthi Jayakody, explaining that wholesalers won't come to the area to buy his catch.
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Published: Sun Jul 16 00:39:40 EDT 2006