In the absence of an efficient system to move off-duty security forces and police personnel to and from the Jaffna peninsula, officers and men are undergoing tremendous hardships.
About 1,600 personnel were stranded at the strategic Palaly air base last Thursday (24). Some of them are believed to have been languishing there for several days.
The SLAF had operated only two flights to Palaly on Tuesday (22). There had been not a single flight on the following day. The Island learns that only a single Ukrainian built AN 32 had been available due to other transport aircraft being grounded for servicing. The SLAF acquired AN 32s in 1995. This was shortly after the LTTE shot down HS 748 Avros in April 1995. The AN 32 is currently the workhorse of the SLAF transport fleet.
`The absence of suitable transport is one of the primary reasons for desertions,` a junior officer asserted. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, he expressed serious concern over what he termed as the deteriorating standards in transporting men to and from the peninsula. `It`s a continuing nightmare,` he said, accusing the government of turning a blind eye to their plight. In fact successive governments had failed to meet this particular requirement, he said.
The government lost the A9 overland route to Jaffna in 1990 shortly after the LTTE resumed hostilities in the wake of the IPKF vacating Sri Lanka.
Since then SLAF operates flights between Ratmalana and Palaly, while SLN keeps Trincomalee-Kankesanturai sea supply route, which is considered the lifeline for forces deployed in the peninsula and the Jaffna Islands.
A cross section of officers interviewed by The Island wanted the government to formulate a plan to meet the urgent requirement.
While a colossal amount of foreign exchange is being squandered on luxury vehicles for politicians, officials and their henchmen and foreign jaunts, the forces are forced to experience untold misery, they said.
Although married officers and men are given priority with a week`s leave after a month, the unbelievably chaotic situation has ensured that the vast majority of men are denied home leave at decent intervals. In fact, most of them are given leave once in about three months, they said, emphasizing the difficulties faced by them when returning to their bases in the peninsula. The Island learns that troops languish for days at the Ratmalana transit camp before being airlifted to Palaly. And in some instances, troops are moved overland from Ratmalana to Trincomalee to be transported by sea. Unfortunately, in Trincomalee too, they are forced to suffer a few more days before being put on board a Jetliner which is capable of carrying about 3.200 personnel. Over the years the SLN movement has become one of the LTTE`s priority targets, a case in point is the Sea Tiger bid to ram a passenger ferry carrying 700 off duty personnel off Mullaitivu in May last year.
The government made an abortive bid to restore the Kandy-Jaffna road in 1997.
The SLAF has been also tasked with transporting fresh rations. As commanding officers and officers holding senior appointments are given priority, the ordinary men faced further delays. The sources said that a soldier who goes on leave takes about a month to come back.
The sources said unscrupulous gangs operate near transit camps. Men who languish at these points for days sometimes end up pawning their wrist watches, gold chains and bracelets. `Don`t forget that the vast majority come from the provinces and they have no option but to remain until they are transported.`