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Wullar watchers twiddle thumbs
- Marine commandos deployed to guard lake left without brief after truce push

New Delhi, March 13: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's peace offensive in Kashmir has claimed an unlikely victim ' an elite special forces unit of the navy called the Marine Commandos (Marcos) whose main task has been to deny militants access to the picturesque Wullar lake, 35 km northwest of Srinagar.

The highly skilled Marine Commandos are currently without a brief in counter-insurgency operations.

The Marcos was deployed for the Wullar under Operation Rakshak in 1995 and has remained there since. The last serious encounter in the Wullar was a little more than two years ago, in 2002.

The longest and most important operational task since the force was founded in 1987 has been to control infiltration through the Jhelum river and through the 65 sq km freshwater Wullar lake.

But the multi-tiered defence of the Line of Control and diplomatic initiatives have led to a drop in infiltration and in violence in the Bandipore hills surrounding the Wullar.

So next week, the parent body of the Marcos at the naval headquarters ' the Directorate of Special Operations and Diving ' will tie up with the Archaeological Survey of India to organise a seminar on marine archaeology.

Expert navy divers have, meanwhile, been dabbling in maritime explorations off the coast of Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu.

Among the latest assignments for the Marcos has been a deployment in Sri Lanka to clear the Galle harbour after the December 26 tsunami, for which they earned Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga's praise.

When Manmohan Singh decided to reduce troops in Kashmir in November, defence headquarters was asked to work out how the military presence could be reduced without leaving holes in the counter-insurgency grid.

Naval headquarters was asked if the detachment of the Marcos that has been posted close to Bandipore to secure the Wullar can be redeployed out of Kashmir.

The Marcos withdrawing from the Wullar would also make a pretty picture of de-escalating tensions in Kashmir and the move would be used by New Delhi to convey its seriousness and a step towards de-militarising the troubled state.

After consultations within, naval headquarters was told by its Directorate of Special Operations and Diving that the withdrawal from the Wullar would hamper training. It argued that the Marcos should continue to patrol the lake and even be seconded to army units to keep the detachment busy.

Maintaining a force like the Marcos for any military is a challenging task because of the high level of skills that is involved. The force can operate from the air, parachute, dive, climb mountains and is trained in surveillance, intelligence gathering and stealth offence. The demands on the Marcos make it compulsory for the commandos to continuously gain operational experience.

The Marcos detachment at the Wullar has about 32 commandos. The personnel are rotated every six months after gaining valuable training.

The commandos are a distinctive breed, often called the jal murgi (water hens) and crocodiles (for their amphibious capabilities).

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