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Despair in the air

Print edition : Nov 16, 2007 T+T-

The LTTEs Anuradhapura attack was in reality a suicide operation by an organisation on the run.

in ColomboA Sri Lankan

IT was the proverbial calm before the storm. For nearly four months before the October 22 pre-dawn ground and aerial attack on the Anuradhapura airbase in the North Central Province by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the silence from the LTTE side was deafening. Every single political, diplomatic and military observer of Sri Lanka was puzzled by the paralysis that had gripped the LTTE, particularly when the military was marching over it left, right and centre. However, everyone knew that the lull would not last long.

And then the retaliation came in a form and manner not anticipated by anyone. There are two aspects military and political to the first-ever combined ground (suicide squad) and aerial operation mounted by the Tigers on the airbase located in the most revered city of the majority Sinhalese community in the island nation. Though the attack was not a spectacular one from the military point of view, notwithstanding the months of meticulous planning that must have preceded it and the effortless manner in which a 21-member suicide squad penetrated the heart of the Sinhala territory, politically it was a major blow to the Mahinda Rajapaksa government.

With the strike, the Tigers have scored a huge psychological victory over the government, at least in the short term. For the time being, the government has been forced to stop trumpeting its impressive military victories against the LTTE in the past several months. The Anuradhapura operation has exposed the vulnerabilities of the government on too many fronts. Little wonder that the Opposition is baying for blood and has mounted a campaign seeking the head of the Defence Secretary, Gothabaya Rajapaksa, who happens to be the Presidents brother.

The LTTE desperately needed an Anuradhapura-type attack to boost the morale of its cadre. There is little doubt that a pro-active, aggressive and relentless campaign by the Sri Lankan military for over a year has literally pushed the Tigers into their safe havens in the Vanni jungles. Since its ouster from the east in August, the terrorist organisation has failed to conduct any military operation of significance anywhere in the country. That is despite the fissures within the Karuna group and the general unrest in the east among the minorities. Contrary to apprehensions from several quarters, Colombo has been safe.

According to the Sri Lankan Navy, the LTTE has lost all of its 10 ships, ferrying supplies from various clandestine sources, in one-sided sea battles. Eight of these losses were in 2007 while the other two ships were sunk in the far-away waters of Indonesia. According to estimates, which are not contested by the LTTE, 200 of its cadre were killed in the past one month. For the first time in years, the Sri Lankan Army made territorial gains in the north by capturing a Tiger base in Mannar.

In over two and a half decades of its existence, the Tigers have never been pursued so vigorously by the Sri Lankan forces. The loss of the east deprived the LTTE of the benefit of new recruits as cannon fodder for ground battles along the Forward Defence Lines (FDLs) while the Sri Lankan Navys successful sea operations meant denial of vital supplies. Besides, thanks to a coordinated campaign by Colombo and the international community, a number of important functionaries of the organisation were on the run in different parts of the world.

It is against this backdrop that the Anuradhapura operation is seen as an act of desperation. The attack, leaving at least eight military helicopters destroyed and 14 soldiers dead, was in reality a suicide operation. The modus operandi was typical of the LTTE. A 21-member suicide squad, in two formations, was let loose on the airbase, wrecking everything in sight. Two light aircraft of the nascent Tiger Air Force, which surfaced 70 minutes after the suicide offensive, appear to have been of mere symbolic significance. It was the fifth aerial foray since the Tigers made their debut in the skies in March 2007 targeting the airbase at Katunayaka near the only international airport of the country; and the first after the Sri Lanka government put in place a revamped air defence system.

There have been questions and theories galore about the capabilities of the new air wing of the LTTE after Sri Lanka claimed to have to put in place a new air defence system. It is very clear now that the LTTE decided to fly its aircraft over the Anuradhapura airbase after making absolutely sure that its suicide squad was in command of the base and there was no chance of its aircraft getting hit. Going by the accounts of the Sri Lanka military, the radar did detect the approaching enemy aircraft and a helicopter from the neighbouring Vavuniya airbase was dispatched to intercept them in the air.

It appears that the Sri Lanka Air Force helicopter meant to interdict the Tiger aircraft went down in friendly fire. Such was the confusion prevailing in and around the airbase that the soldiers seem to have mistaken their own aircraft as that of the enemy and fired on it. Having overpowered the sentry points as well as other troops in the airbase, the LTTE suicide squad had the run of the entire base and was giving a running commentary of the operation through its sophisticated communication equipment to LTTE handlers in Vanni. In effect, the squad was in charge of the base for nearly seven hours.

Politically and strategically, the government and the military bungled up in the pre- as well as the post-attack phases. Both have to answer a number of troubling questions. Although the new radar detected the intruding aircraft, the LTTE squad was able to operate in the airspace for at least 30 minutes and return to its base. After the first four air strikes by the Tigers in March and April, the government claimed to have installed a foolproof air defence system and announced to the world that its skies were safe.

This was evident when the government chose to lift the ban on night flying from and to the Katunayaka airport just a few weeks ago. Now the Sri Lanka Air Force says that some parts of the island nations airspace are not secure. It is an incredible explanation: Anuradhapura is not some airbase along the coast but lies right in the heart of the country. The flying time from Anuradhapura to Katunayaka could be just about 20 minutes. Even assuming that the helicopter deployed to chase the LTTE aircraft crashed due to a technical snag, the military needs to explain how the ground defence system failed.

More important, what explains the failure of the armed forces to detect the infiltration of a large suicide squad right into the compound of a vital airbase? The military was not even aware of the size of the suicide squad until the LTTE chose to go public with not just the number but with the faces of the fighters in their last group photograph with chief Velupillai Prabakaran. The squad must have sneaked into the town at least a few days before the operation and waited in a safe house without being detected by anyone.

The government blundered beyond belief in the dissemination of information, too. For 52 hours after the operation, it kept saying that only four aircraft were lost. In contrast, even as the battle was in progress, the LTTE put out a statement announcing the destruction of eight aircraft and also each and every detail about them. It was only after the Opposition United National Party claimed in Parliament that 18 aircraft were destroyed in the operation and accused the government of suppressing the truth that Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremenayake conceded that eight aircraft were lost. Ironically, barring two paragraphs, his statement was a carbon copy of the Tiger statement put out on the morning of October 22.

The whole truth about what actually happened at the airbase might never be known. According to Iqbal Athas, a well-known defence analyst and contributor to Janes Defense Weekly, the damages in the attack were much more serious than believed. On the basis of his investigations, Athas claimed that all but three of the 27 aircraft in the base were either destroyed or damaged and that the number of the suicide squad cadre was 27 and not 21, as claimed by the LTTE, or 20, as claimed by the military.

The LTTE operation has once again brought to the fore the serious deficiencies in Sri Lankas intelligence machinery as well as the capability of the armed forces in securing the airspace, even against threats by a nascent air wing such as the LTTEs. It once again highlights the importance of capturing the hearts and minds of the people if the military strategy is to succeed.