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State of shock

Print edition : Apr 20, 2007 T+T-

The LTTE scores a psychological victory over the government with its March 26 air strike on a Sri Lanka Air Force base.

B. MURALIDHAR REDDY in Colombo

"THE borders of Sri Lanka are Point Pedro and Devinuwara in the north and south, Batticaloa and Colombo in the East and West. The terrorists are attempting to shoot their way into the heart of Sri Lanka through the borders of what they call Eelam. If we do not occupy the border, the border will come to us. We intend to act before they succeed," thus spoke President J.R. Jayewardene on February 20, 1985, in his speech at the opening session of Sri Lanka's Parliament.

Exactly 22 years, one month and six days later, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) took the aerial route to bomb the main Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) base at Katunayake, near the only international airport the island-nation has, located 30 kilometres away from Colombo, the national capital, presumably from the territory under its control in the north.

One of the most spectacular psy-ops (psychological operations) ever undertaken by a terrorist outfit, it proved Jayewardene right in terms of the psychological convulsions it triggered within and outside Sri Lanka. What is even more significant is the fact that the daredevil operation was staged just when the Mahinda Rajapaksa government launched an all-out offensive against the conventional guerilla strike capabilities of the Tigers.

The post-mortem of the March 26 strike by experts has revealed that there is nothing extraordinary in the Tiger venture. It is now acknowledged that the Tigers had acquired some air capabilities by March 2005 and were at it for nine long years. The astonishing aspect is the failure of the Sri Lanka state to intercept the mission at any point. That an aircraft or two could take off from jungles far away from the outside world, travel at least 400 km, bomb the main air base and sneak back to the original destination after being in the air space for at least two hours, is a telling commentary on the defence preparedness of Colombo.

As if the blow dealt by the Tigers was not enough, the international community compounded the woes of the government with its deafening silence. There were no takers for the all-out efforts made by the Rajapaksa regime to market the strike as a `regional and international threat'.

On the contrary, the few nuanced and muted reactions that came from various parts of the globe seem to lay the blame on the obsessive focus of Sri Lanka on its military strategy in its bid to tame the Tigers. The observation of India's Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon at the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit's curtain-raiser news conference best reflected the world sentiment. "I think we are very concerned about the escalation of violence in Sri Lanka in the last few weeks. The incident you mentioned is one of a part of a pattern of escalating violence we have seen. The humanitarian consequences of that really worry us, when we see internally displaced people, over 100,000 of them," he said in response to a pointed question on the implications of the newly acquired Tiger `air power'. The rest of the reactions varied from a call for immediate cessation of hostilities to a return to the negotiating table for a political resolution of the two-and-half-decade-old ethnic conflict.

At the bottom of the world concern or apathy, whichever way one might look at it, lies the conflict between Colombo and the rest of the world on the way to deal with the volatile security situation on the one hand and to redress the grievances of the minorities, including Tamils on the other. Sri Lanka is convinced that there will be neither peace nor development in the country unless the military capability of the Tigers is neutralised.

A senior Sri Lankan Defence Ministry official, who held a two-hour-long no-holds-barred interaction with foreign correspondents based in Colombo days before the Tiger air strike, was candid. The official said: "We have no hesitation in admitting that the government has launched a proactive offensive against the LTTE and is determined to take out of the military assets of the Tigers wherever they exist. Yes, it is in violation of the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA), which has been violated over 4,000 times. So what if it is run over a couple of times more? This is war on terrorism and we are not ready to spare our punches against an outfit, which has been allowed to grow unchecked for two decades because of a lack of political will. Of course, there are costs, political and economic, but how long can we shun the inevitable? We are confident that people will bear it for the unity and territorial integrity of the country. Look at the United States and the blanket support of people to its war on global terrorism."

However, the world thinks differently. It is the conviction of the international community that while the military might of the Tigers must be met squarely, the government cannot be oblivious to the human costs and the urgent need for a political package on power-sharing and devolution. This is the message that has echoed vis-a-vis the Sri Lanka situation virtually from every part of the world.

The conduct of the government since the Tigers came, bombed and vanished, bears ample testimony to its state of shock. The top-most priority of the government hours after the strike was to hunt for a scapegoat and that came in the form of the `inferior and non-functional' radar gifted by India.

This was the crux of the briefing provided to an all-party conference convened by the President on March 27. The authorities who gave an account of the sequence of events conveniently skipped the fact that the two Indian radars had remained switched off on the day of the Tiger air strike. Colombo deemed it necessary to raise the subject with New Delhi.

By all accounts, it was a heated exchange behind the diplomatic curtains. New Delhi tried to emphasise the point that the radars gifted to Colombo were exactly the same as those used by India for its own air defence. Besides, India said it was an operational error and not a system problem. Though 24 engineers were required to operate the radar at its optimum level, Colombo was equipped with only four engineers, India pointed out.

Reminders by India to depute engineers for training went unheeded on the grounds that the forces were overstretched. However, Sri Lanka was not convinced and it decided to go public (through its standard practice of leaking news to a section of the media on condition of anonymity) about its pique.

The English daily The Island carried a banner story on March 28 quoting an unnamed senior Defence Ministry official that the `defective' Indian radar was responsible for the Tiger air adventure. It further said that New Delhi had thrust the radar on Colombo though the latter was in favour of a 3-D modern version from China.

The ideologues of the government's strategic affairs also went ballistic. Dayan Jayatilleka, who represented the government at the Human Rights Council in Geneva as a Special Envoy, wrote: "Let us have some perspective here. Dramatic and skilful as it is, the Air Tiger attack was successful in psychological and symbolic terms, not in material ones.

"The fundamental lessons of the Tiger air raid are quite the opposite of those that will be drawn by the appeasers and their patrons in the West. These elements will say that the raid proves that a military victory over the LTTE is impossible and that only a peaceful negotiated settlement is feasible. I would argue the exact opposite. The air raid demonstrates the utter impossibility of peaceful coexistence between a militarised Tiger-controlled territory and the Sri Lankan state.

"The Tiger air force was the product of the Ranil Wickremesinghe-Eric Solheim CFA. It is the same CFA that Britain's Tony Blair wants us to go back to. Such a restoration of the CFA would only enable the LTTE to build up its fledgling air arm into an even more dangerous parallel air force. It would be suicidal for Sri Lanka to re-enter such a trap."

He further said that radars and multi-barrelled cannon or heavy machine guns such as the Russian ZSU 234 and 235 (or their newer generation) would have to be purchased urgently to boost air defence, while air defence alertness training and consciousness had to be imparted.

The Island, in its editorial, lamented Sri Lanka, a small country, is caught between an elephant (India) and a dragon (China) and counselled the government to steer clear of the power games of big countries and focus only on what is best in the national interest. The daily's Sinhala version, Divina, went one step further and complained that the last good `gift' from India to Sri Lanka was 2005 years ago in the form of Buddhism and everything else that followed was `awful'!

Voices that questioned the tendency of the establishment to put the blame on others for all the ills of society were lost in the wilderness. Sunday Leader, an English weekly that is critical of the government, in its editorial titled `Air terror and comedy of error', said:

"Not since that fateful Easter Sunday in World War II, April 5, 1942, has Sri Lanka been bombed by air as happened last Sunday night. The LTTE, pushed to the brink in the Eastern Province by advancing Security Forces, made maximum use of the element of surprise to stage a dramatic strike using only the available moonlight to guide them on their mission.

"True to form, they came out with the most outlandish suggestions - that the 2002 Cease Fire Agreement was to blame for all this; that it was because sections of the media and a disgruntled ex-Minister spilt the beans on the money transactions that have taken place recently in the purchase of MiG jets, and arguably the most ridiculous - that at least this time (unlike in 2001), the air base was not, mercifully, infiltrated on the ground.

"This is akin to the current joke in India, where the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi is being blamed for the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 because otherwise, Bangladesh would not have beaten India at the World Cup. The facts are something else."

Strangely, the government neither confirmed nor denied all the conspiracy theories and the claim that neighbourhood muscle-flexing resulted in Katunayake-II. Till date, the Island report stands unquestioned though in effect it amounts to multiple golden self-goals by the government.

Besides all that might have happened or not happened in the past, the crux of the report is that Sri Lanka has no effective air defence system, its skies are not safe, airlines can enter its air space at their own risk, and `big brother' India micro-manages its affairs. For a country that earns 23 per cent of its foreign exchange from tourism and 30 per cent from its migrant workers spread all over the world and is engaged in an undeclared war, the propositions are preposterous.

The bizarre drama in the corridors of power in Colombo did not end there. A day before the President was to travel to New Delhi (on April 2) to mobilise support for the fight against the LTTE, the state-owned English weekly Sunday Observer carried a story with a banner headline on the government's plan to hold a referendum soon to obtain the opinion of the people on whether or not it should continue with the much-battered Norway-brokered CFA of 2002. Once again, the government chose to maintain silence on the report.

What are the motives of the LTTE in the timing and venue of the demonstration of its `air capabilities'? Under tremendous pressure from the Sri Lankan military in the east as seen in the recent string of defeats, the Tigers needed to show something dramatic to boost the morale of its cadre and the diaspora that funds it. They have as good as admitted that this was the objective of their mission.

On April 1, the LTTE's political affairs head S.P. Thamilchelvan claimed that the strike on the SLAF was a "clear message to the Sri Lankan state, to end the sustained bombardment of the Tamil homeland. Within the last six months alone, the SLAF has carried out at least two sorties every other day for more than 90 days".

"Colombo, mindful that a military defeat of the Tigers was not possible, is keen to drag other countries to fight the inhuman war against the Tamils," Thamilchelvan said. He alleged that Colombo's agenda of distancing the Tigers from the international community by projecting the LTTE as a "threat to regional or international players will not work".

How far have the Tigers succeeded in their mission? The verdict is mixed. It has managed a psychological success but certainly not a military one.

A brief reconstruction of the events on the fateful hours of March 25/26, gleaned from reports of Jane's Defence Weekly's Colombo writer Iqbal Athas and other sources by Frontline, supports this opinion. Just before midnight on March 25, commandos on duty at the police Special Task Force (STF) detachment in Ganeshapuram, between Vavuniya and Mannar, heard the roar of engines overhead. The Chief Inspector promptly telephoned the SLAF base in Vavuniya to alert them and he was then connected to the Operations Room of the SLAF headquarters in Colombo. He also alerted the STF headquarters in Colombo.

SLAF bases in Anuradhapura and Vavuniya went into action. They switched off all the lights. So did the Army installations and the police in Vavuniya. The only exceptions were lights inside buildings. Additional sentries were moved to guard the outer perimeter and vital points. In Colombo, checks were made whether any international flights were operating at that time over Wanni skies.

At 12-45 a.m., three loud explosions rocked the SLAF's main base at Katunayake. It is separated from the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) only by the runway, used both by military and civilian aircraft. Some wondered whether a mortar attack was under way. Others thought Tiger guerillas had infiltrated the air base for a second time. The first time was in July 2001.

At the SLAF air base in Katunayake, it became clear there was no guerilla intrusion through the ground. An airman opened anti-aircraft gunfire into the sky. There was no night target acquisition capability either. In the melee, the aircraft escaped after dropping three bombs on the zinc-sheet-covered building that housed the Aeronautical Engineering Wing. Three died and 16 were injured.

The military claimed there was no damage to any aircraft. The Air Tiger bombs were clearly meant for the Kfir and MiG-27 squadrons that were near the spot where the bombs fell. Technicians had sought and obtained permission from the SLAF Directorate of Operations to shut down the base from March 19 to 25 to service and repair the Indian radars.

Confirmation that two light aircraft of the Air Tiger wing were used in the attack came from the Air Traffic Controllers at the BIA. By then, they were heading in a north-westerly direction towards Wanni.

The SLAF headquarters and its air base in Vavuniya began tracking the fleeing Air Tiger aircraft. Some 20 minutes later, the SLAF put into action a Chinese-built K-8 jet trainer, which has night-flying capability, to intercept them.

On March 26 morning, Kfir jets pounded several areas near Mannar and north of it on the suspicion that the light aircraft landed somewhere in that area. Though the LTTE had constructed a 1.2-kilometre runway in Iranamadu, capable of even landing a C-130 Hercules transport plane, senior Air Force officials are doubtful whether the two light aircraft took off from there. Iranamadu is located in the Kilinochchi district west of the A-9 Jaffna-Kandy highway. The Commander of the Sri Lanka Air Force, Air Marshal Roshan Goonetilleke, has appointed a three-member court of inquiry to probe the attack. The mandate of the Commission is to identify lapses, if any, in the Air Force and recommend corrective measures.

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