|Footage filmed by the Tigers shows them firing on a
naval ship before it is struck by a suicide bomber
Al Jazeera has been given exclusive access to the Sri Lankan navy and as Tony Birtley, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Sri Lanka, reports, the conflict between the government and the Tamil Tigers has been particularly intense at sea.
Loaded with weaponry and capable of speeds of up to 70km an hour, the navy’s fight against the Sea Tigers – the Tamil Tigers’ naval arm – is spearheaded by its fast-attack craft.
Since last August, the Sri Lankan navy has claimed a number of successes, taking control of much of the area around Trincomalee, the site of its main naval base.
Rear Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe, commander of the Eastern Naval area, told Al Jazeera: “At present we have additional resources to counter them and are developing additional units as well as improving our capabilities.”
The fast-attack craft (known as FACs) are armed with canons, heavy machine guns and grenade launchers. The navy says it needs this arsenal when dealing with the Sea Tigers, which over the years has developed into a considerable fighting force.
Over the past year, the navy says it has sunk 10 of the Sea Tigers’ craft inflicting hundreds of casualties.
But the navy too has lost men and a number of boats of their own. More than hundred have been killed and their biggest threat is from waterborne suicide bombers.
The Sea Tiger’s suicide craft are almost impossible to detect. They are dark, sit low in the water and cannot be detected by radar. The only way for the Sri Lankan navy to find them is through heat-detecting systems, but even then they travel at such speed that they are very difficult to shoot at.
The boats, packed with explosives, are modelled on an American stealth bomber, but a more recent development is a human torpedo craft designed especially for suicide attacks.
Footage filmed by the Tigers shows them opening fire on a naval ship and damaging it before it is struck by a suicide bomber.
Dias says that once a boat’s maneuverability is
Commander Sanjeewa Dias, a Sri Lankan navy chief, tells Al Jazeera: “If the attack boat hits [our ship] and our maneuverability is gone, then that’s it.
“Because then the suicide craft is going to come and ram you.”
The navy is desperate to cut off the Tigers’ supply lines from the sea, but although the navy stages searches of fishing boats, Sri Lanka has more than 2,800km of coastline and even focusing on the east coast, it is easy for supply boats to get through.
Samarasinghe told Al Jazeera the navy needed international help, saying the supply lines to the Tamils were “something the foreign countries and organistaions can prevent”.
For now, though, the waters around Sri Lanka are regularly the scene of death and destruction and for the region’s fishermen and the country’s economy, the conflict at sea has been a disaster.