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Tamilnation > Struggle for Tamil Eelam > Conflict Resolution - Tamil Eelam - Sri Lanka > Norwegian Peace Initiative > Tsunami & Aftermath > Sri Lanka Rejects U.S. Rescue Fleet - Plans to put a Marine expeditionary unit ashore on Sri Lanka put on hold
Sri Lanka Rejects U.S. Rescue Fleet
Plans to put a Marine expeditionary unit ashore on Sri Lanka put on hold
4 January 2005
|Down in the hull of the USS Bonhomme Richard everything is ready
to go. There are tractors and trucks and three huge landing craft.
There’s water purifying equipment, tarpaulins and wood beams for
building temporary shelters.
And there are more than 1,300 Marines ready to take it all ashore and get to work.
But – even for a strictly humanitarian mission – in the political minefield of southern Asia, getting American boots on the ground is a delicate concept.
The first helicopter flights off the 40,000 ton amphibious assault ship began relief operations today, flying to the city of Medan on Indonesia’s tsunami-struck island of Sumatra, where more than 100,000 people are feared dead and a million or more are homeless after the catastrophic quake and tsunami.
Plans to put a Marine expeditionary unit ashore on Sri Lanka with heavy equipment, however, have been put on hold.
After being informed that Colombo was scaling down its request for help, the Bonhomme Richard and another US warship cancelled plans to spearhead relief efforts off Sri Lanka’s coast and have instead joined the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and its battle group off Sumatra.
The landing ship Mount Rushmore, carrying a smaller contingent of Marines, will travel on to Sri Lanka alone. It was expected to cross the Indian Ocean by the weekend. An advance party of seven Marines arrived in the southern town of Galle today.
Though no firm plans had been set, due to the uncertainty of the situation, the Marines had hoped to put more than 1,000 troops ashore in Sri Lanka to help clear roads and build shelters for refugees.
The Bonhomme Richard, carrying more than 1,300 Marines, has three hovercraft capable of putting the troops ashore by the hundred on almost any kind of beach.
All are fully loaded and ready to go.
But for the time being, that capability will not be used. Instead, the ship’s helicopters will continue ferrying supplies to and from the regional airports where they have been piling up, and taking them out to the more remote places where they are needed.
Part of the reason is clearly political.
Sri Lanka has long been embroiled in a civil war with the Tamil Tiger rebel group, and the area of operations in Sumatra’s Aceh province is also highly sensitive. Due to a long-standing insurgency, Aceh had been restricted to foreigners.
Jakarta was quick to open Aceh because it needed the help, but the image of large numbers of Marines pouring ashore would be politically sensitive to the predominantly Muslim nation.
Washington, meanwhile, has been keen to display the humanitarian capabilities of its military.
All told, about 20 military ships and more than 10,000 Marines and sailors have been mobilised for the relief operation, which is the largest the US military has conducted in Asia since the Vietnam War ended in 1975 and possibly its biggest humanitarian mission ever. Air Force C-130 cargo planes have been flying sorties out of the Vietnam-era bomber base in Utapao, southern Thailand.
With Sri Lanka no longer on its itinerary, the Bonhomme Richard was expected to take its position off southern Sumatra, while the Lincoln battle group would remain in the more heavily populated north.
The extent of death and damage in south Sumatra is not yet well known, and one of the Marines’ first priorities was to conduct reconnaissance missions to determine what areas needed the most help.
The military’s helicopter operations have been key to easing aid bottlenecks and getting supplies out to the harder-to-access areas. But the Marines had hoped to put troops on the ground to provide badly needed manpower for clearing roads and airfields and for building shelters for refugees.