Aerial retaliation

Published : Nov 21, 2008 00:00 IST

The Kelani-Tissa power station in Colombo on October 29, the day after it was bombed.-BUDDHIKA WEERASINGHE/REUTERS

The Kelani-Tissa power station in Colombo on October 29, the day after it was bombed.-BUDDHIKA WEERASINGHE/REUTERS

WHILE lights and sparklers lit up North India as it celebrated Diwali on October 28, Colombo witnessed fireworks of another kind. Chaos and confusion gripped the Sri Lankan capital as the militarys rapid fire rent the air for 15 minutes in the high-security zone housing the Presidential Office, the main harbour and several five-star hotels. The military was targeting a light-wing aircraft belonging to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that had managed to enter the airspace from the rebel-held Wanni region. The aircraft, which was detected on the radar, dropped two improvised bombs on the Kelani-Tissa power station on the outskirts of Colombo. An hour earlier, the rebel aircraft dropped three bombs on the Thallady military camp in Mannar district. The authorities had switched off power for a couple of hours as a matter of abundant caution, and so the launch of anti-aircraft fire into a dark, moonless sky presented a frightening spectacle.

Two days after the serious security lapse, it was not clear whether the same aircraft dropped the bombs at both the locations or whether two aircraft were used. TamilNet, a pro-LTTE website, said: This time, the TAF [TamilEelam Air Force] bombers have carried out a long-range bombing mission, carrying out bombardments on two targets. The military has neither confirmed nor contradicted the claim. The obvious question on every mind is how the rebel aircraft managed to travel all the way from Wanni to Mannar and the national capital, penetrate the airspace and sneak back without being intercepted. The question assumed particular significance as the Sri Lankan government is supposed to have strengthened its air defence system with radars gifted by India after the LTTE demonstrated its air capability for the first time in March 2007.

In a matter-of-fact statement, the Defence Ministry maintained that the LTTE aerial bombing caused minor damage to the power station. Nearly 75 per cent of the countrys power distribution is handled through the Kelani-Tissa power plant. Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) officials said that a cooler connected to the gas turbine power generator caught fire, which was extinguished immediately. A CEB employee at the plant died of a heart attack triggered by shock.

The Ministry said that before the aerial raid in Colombo, three bombs were dropped on the Thallady military camp at around 10.20 p.m. No major damage was caused. A soldier sustained injuries in the incident, the Ministry said. An aviation official at the Katunayake International Airport near Colombo said two passenger aircraft were diverted to Chennai.

The [rebel] aircraft would have travelled at least 600 kilometres both ways and remained in the airspace for at least 90 minutes. It is a mystery as to how and why the military failed to bring it down. It is a case of system collapse, a defence analyst told this correspondent. The English-language daily Island, quoting an unnamed defence official, said the radar systems had detected the LTTE aircraft over Colombo but failed to zero in on them. There was some problem with locking on, it quoted the official as saying. The official told the paper that he suspected that the Tiger aircraft had been coated with some kind of paint to minimise heat emission. Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa told the paper that Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) fighter jets took off from their base in a vain bid to intercept the Tiger aircraft.

TamilNet said: The airstrike was carried out on the target in Colombo, after attacking the Thallady garrison of the Sri Lankan forces in Mannar, inflicting heavy damage to the Thallady base, which functions as the rear station for the Sri Lankan military operation on Wanni from the Mannar front. It further claimed that the SLAF aircraft were using para lights in their search mission over Wanni. Civilian sources said the Tiger aircraft flew back to Wanni over Mannar, TamilNet maintained.

Going by unofficial military accounts provided to the media, two light-wing aircraft of the LTTE had taken off from Iranamadu and headed towards Mannar and Colombo. The Armys 57th Division, which operates on the front lines, had detected the two aircraft on its radars and informed Colombo. The Air Force then deployed F7, MI24 and PT6 aircraft to bring down the rebel plane. The LTTE aircraft dropped two bombs on Thallady. Two buildings in the camp were damaged slightly. The military believes that multi-barrel rocket launchers and artillery stored in the location could have been the target. The Army then launched artillery and multi-barrel fire towards Iranamadu while the Air Force pounded the location where the LTTE airstrip is believed to be located.

According to the unofficial version, the second LTTE aircraft headed towards Colombo. Power in the city was shut down, and air defence systems were activated in the areas adjoining the Parliament building and other key locations. The Air Force tracked the LTTE plane from Mannar to Colombo. Anti-aircraft fire was directed towards the aircraft from several locations including the harbour, the Air Force spokesperson said. The Navy was on standby.

The October 28 episode raises some disturbing questions about the defence preparedness of Sri Lanka at a time when its armed forces are engaged in an all-out war against the Tigers. It is true that the TAF has proved to be no more than a morale-booster for the beleaguered LTTE, but the military cannot escape responsibility for its repeated failures to deal with the LTTEs aerial attacks.

B. Muralidhar Reddy
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