Terror at Katunayake

Print edition : August 04, 2001

The devastating and spectacular terrorist attack on Sri Lanka's biggest airbase and its international airport outside Colombo represents a body blow to the political establishment, the security forces, to the economy, and to the prospects for peace.

SINCE the time of the high-profile meeting between Norwegian peace facilitator Erik Solheim and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leader Velupillai Prabakaran last November, there had been a lull in terrorist strikes in Sri Lanka. In those nine months, the LTTE camp did not tire of pointing out that this was because it had agreed to a request by Solheim to refrain from such attacks in the interests of getting peace talks with the government off the ground.

A destroyed aircraft of Sri Lankan Airlines and the body of a bomber, on the tarmac of the Bandaranaike International Airport.-

As an aside, unlike other such groups the LTTE never claims responsibility for any attack, but this claim amounted to a tacit admission that it had carried out terrorist strikes earlier, and had the capability of doing so in the future.

With the peace process floundering on the issue of the LTTE demand that the ban on it be lifted, and over its resentment that the government had managed to sideline Solheim from the process without consulting it, the lull had to end. And it did, on July 24, not with some ordinary suicide bombing on a crowded street, which had become a gory trade-mark of the LTTE, but with a well-planned strike at Sri Lanka's vital military and commercial infrastructure, delivering a body blow to the political establishment, to the security forces, to the economy, and to prospects for peace, all at once.

The Sri Lanka Air Force base at Katunayake, 35 km north of the capital, is the most important and the biggest airbase in the country. Only from this airbase can its Israeli-built Kfir bomber jets take off, as they did on June 30, for an air-strike on LTTE targets in the Jaffna peninsula. Adjoining the airbase is the Bandaranaike International Airport, Sri Lanka's only civilian airport, and its only air link to the outside world, besides being the 'hub' of the international operations of Sri Lankan Airlines. Together, the two constitute the most highly guarded facility in all of Sri Lanka.

In the early hours of July 24, despite the fact that there are 90 sentry points around the complex, and over 500 men guarding it, a yet undetermined number of LTTE cadres, wearing military uniforms and carrying shoulder-launched anti-tank weapons, mortars, T-56 rifles and rocket-propelled guns (RPGs), managed to enter it. Within minutes, they had reduced to rubble eight military aircraft, including two Kfirs, two Mi-17 helicopters, one MiG-27 fighter and three Chinese K-8 trainer aircraft. They did not even need to attack the hangars, as all these planes were, conveniently for the LTTE, parked on the tarmac and were sitting ducks for the RPGs.

Meeting with little resistance at the airbase, the infiltrators moved next to the airport located across the tarmac, and as panic-stricken passengers and airport staff scrambled for safety, reduced three commercial planes belonging to Sri Lankan Airlines to ashes.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga.-GEMUNU AMARASINGHE/ AP

One, an Airbus 340, had a few hours earlier arrived from Singapore and was to leave for Milan at 5-30 a.m. Another plane, an Airbus 330, was to leave for Chennai at 7-30 a.m. The third plane was also an Airbus 330. Three other planes, also belonging to Sri Lankan Airlines, were damaged. Together, they constituted half the fleet of the national carrier.

The damage was done by the time the security forces stationed at the airbase and the airport, including a crack unit of Special Forces commandos, gathered their wits to fight back. The terminal and the airfield became a virtual battlefield till about mid-day. At the end of it, the bodies of 13 LTTE cadres were found, including two of those who had blasted themselves. Six security forces personnel were killed. An airport engineer who was wounded succumbed to his injuries in hospital later. A journalist of the state-run television Rupavahini, who was the only such professional to be allowed access into the airport as the battle was going on, was also wounded in the cross-fire.

The total estimated cost of the destroyed aircraft is about $450 million, of which the Airbuses alone cost over $300 million. But there were other, bigger costs.

The airport was shut down immediately. Several inbound flights were diverted to destinations all over the world and all outbound flights were cancelled. For Sri Lanka's tourism industry, which has been formulating strategies to attract more Western travellers to the "paradise isle", there could not have been a bigger blow.

Passengers who were waiting in the terminal for their flights, and who had seen the unfolding drama, told tales of burning planes, explosions, machine gun fire and of fleeing for their own safety. It all seemed like a nightmarish plot out of a Mumbai blockbuster, except that it was all for real. For proof, there were the charred and crumpled remains of the Sri Lankan Airlines planes, sitting on the tarmac in three mountainous heaps, awaiting the insurance agents from Lloyds of London.

As the airport reopened and limped back to normalcy with the resumption of flights, the government and the Air Force started separate investigations into the incident to figure out how the LTTE infiltrated the complex and to pinpoint the breach in security. But there is no doubt that the attack has shamed the country's security apparatus, exposed the complacency that had obviously set in over the last few months and once again demonstrated that the LTTE can pick a target at will for destruction. It gave the lie to the government line that Sri Lanka was a safe country and that the conflict was confined to the north-east where the security forces were locked in a war with the LTTE. It underlined once again the fact that stories of an emaciated and weakened LTTE are all very well for the purpose of propaganda, but dangerous if the security forces begin to believe in these stories themselves.

There are at least two theories about the attack. One is that it was timed to coincide with the 18th anniversary of the anti-Tamil riots of July 1983. The other is that the LTTE specifically picked the airbase to avenge the Air Force bombings in Jaffna peninsula in June.

THE attack came also against the backdrop of a major political battle between the ruling People's Alliance and the Opposition United National Party (UNP). The UNP, along with a few other Opposition parties, had moved a no-confidence motion against the minority government. In order to side-step this, President Chandrika Kumaratunga had prorogued Parliament, and announced a referendum on August 21 on a new Constitution. The move evoked strong protests from the combined Opposition. There were demonstrations and rallies against Kumaratunga and calls for the immediate reconvening of Parliament.

In the aftermath of the attack on the airport, UNP leader Ranil Wickrema-singhe blasted the government for its failure to protect the airport and said it provided more proof that she had failed to solve the country's problems.

But the President rallied back, and in an address to the nation two days after the attack, accused the UNP and the LTTE of blocking her efforts to resolve the ethnic conflict instead of cooperating to bring in a new Constitution. But she promised yet to bring in a new Constitution that would resolve all the ills of the country, if only the people gave her a mandate for it in the referendum.

On the whole, the sheer scale of the LTTE attack on the airport has, at least for the present, deflected national attention from the prorogation and enabled the government to provide a case in point for its long-standing allegation that by creating political instability the UNP was playing into the hands of the LTTE.

LTTE supremo V. Prabakaran.-GEMUNU AMARASINGHE/ AP

In this context, the UNP might be forced to re-examine its ties with three Tamil parties, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO) and the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC), with whom it is in an alliance to oust the government through a no-confidence motion. Two of these, TELO and the ACTC, speak vociferously on behalf of the LTTE. On the other hand, without the assistance of these parties, the no-confidence motion would be thrown into deep jeopardy.

The crisis prompted calls for the government and the Opposition parties to set aside their differences and come to at least a "working arrangement" - if the formation of a national government was too ambitious a demand. Chandrika Kumaratunga had invited all the Opposition parties with representation in Parliament for discussions on the political situation in the aftermath of the attack.

The events of the last few weeks spell doom for the Norwegian-facilitated process for talks between the LTTE and the government. In announcing the referendum, Kumaratunga did not make clear what part, if any, the LTTE would play in formulating a new Constitution.

The latest LTTE attack was a reminder to the embattled President that it would neither be "Kfired" to the negotiating table nor side-lined in a solution to the ethnic conflict. Through this attack, it might have been the LTTE's intention to put pressure on the government to negotiate with it on its terms, one of which is the removal of the ban placed on it in 1998.

But it could also have the very opposite effect. The world over, terrorist attacks make it difficult for any government to justify a decision to engage the perpetrators of the attack in negotiations to offer them political concessions. In the case of Sri Lanka, Chandrika Kumaratunga has never been fully convinced of the benefits of negotiating with the LTTE. The latest attack might only serve to reinforce her doubts.

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