ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, April 29, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 48
Columns - Situation Report

Thursday's air terror: The grim story

  • Third Flying Tiger air raid fails but alters the course of the war
  • Amateurish handling of panic-stricken passengers at BIA
  • Radar did not work again but lone gunner spotted aircraft

By Iqbal Athas

During days of World War II, the British Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm had established a number of land-based air stations in jungle clearings in Sri Lanka, then Ceylon. They were to support air operations against the Japanese in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific theatre of war. One of them was HMS Regolia at Palavi near Puttalam.

Somerfeld field strip tracking (or porous metal sheets) were used on the otherwise muddy airfield where Corsair fighter aircraft often got stuck. Elephants had to be deployed, using a collar around their neck attached to the under carriage through a belt, to pull parked aircraft to the runway to carry out sorties. Years later, the facility lay abandoned.

In early 2000, the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) restored it. The Air Traffic Control Tower was repaired. So was the 3,500-foot long runway. An SLAF detachment was established there. The purpose then was two fold - to provide support to the adjoining firing range at Kalpitiya where gunnery training is carried out and to use it as a staging area for specific air operations. In the past one month, the airfield gained added significance.

This was after the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) demonstrated their air strike capability on March 26. Tiger guerrilla aircraft dropped bombs at the SLAF's main base at Katunayake, divided only by the runway from the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA), killing three airmen and wounding 16. The bombs meant for the Kfir and MiG-27 squadrons fell on the adjoining Aeronautical Engineering Wing (AEW). It has now come to light that an Mi-17 helicopter, loaned from India and used for VIP transport, was badly damaged.

Palavi, some 101 kilometres north of Katunayake, is on the air route to Jaffna. Thus, the airfield serves as a "gateway" for monitoring air traffic leaving or entering the Katunayake region. The SLAF had introduced a number of measures to monitor air movements round the clock. The Palavi airfield and the SLAF detachment there became an integral part of the Air Defence Control and Command (ADC & C) Centre headquartered at the SLAF base in Katunayake. For obvious reasons the detailed measures cannot be spelt out.

It was past 10.30 p.m. on Thursday night. Officers involved in air defence tasks at the detachment in Palavi radioed to ADC & C Centre that they had detected unidentified aircraft overhead. They were heading southwards. Their first report said one aircraft, with lights on, was flying at a higher altitude. Two others were far below. They later figured out that the aircraft above was an international flight and suspected the two remaining ones to be from the Tiger guerrilla air wing.

The Air Defence Command and Control Centre at Katunayake went into action immediately. Gun positions in and around the air base were alerted. Lights were switched off. Airmen hurried to take up position at strategic locations whilst the Centre made contact with the Operations Command Colombo (OCC), SLAF units including Anuradhapura, Vavuniya and other security establishments. The OCC headed by Major General Lawrence Fernando, Chief of Staff of the Army, is responsible for security in the greater Colombo area and suburbs.

Like during the March 26 attack on the SLAF base in Katunayake, the 2D radar there was not in working order on Thursday night. Hence, surveillance of the airspace electronically was not possible. The intruding aircraft were not spotted on radar. It was an Air Force gunner who was operating a gun position at Koombikanda, on the outer edge of the air base and near the runway, who made the first visual sighting of a suspected guerrilla aircraft. It was at a distance and the sighting was made possible by a light that was switched on. Air Force officials said that unlike on the previous occasion, this time the guerrilla aircraft would have had lights switched on to create confusion to radar controllers at BIA that it could be an international flight. In fact, unlike on the previous occasion, the aircraft went undetected this time.

The aircraft was spotted at the 22 end (the north eastern or the land side). The gunner opened fire though it was clearly beyond range. Soon, other gunners followed suit. In the darkness, gunfire began to be directed into the airspace over the air base. Some airmen even fired their assault rifles. Soon, telephones began to ring and news spread countrywide about an air attack and explosions in the area.

Air Traffic Controllers at BIA diverted inbound flights to the Chennai International Airport in South India. Flights due to take off were told to remain on ground. Nowhere was panic and confusion worse than at the Bandaranaike International Airport. Despite an attack only a month ago, the handling of passengers including tourists was amateurish and considerable damage was done to the country's image.

In one instance, a group of 100 Belgian tourists, who had just ended their holiday, were bound for Brussels via Paris. They had cleared formalities and were in the departure lounge. The group was among those brought down to the ground floor and told to lie prostrate ostensibly for fear of the airport itself coming under attack. After the scare ended, many reached out to their mobile phones to tell friends and relatives abroad about their rough handling and harrowing experience. Some were heard by the airport staff to say they would not return to Sri Lanka. Roads leading to the airport were closed and a search operation got under way.

Whilst the firing frenzy at Katunayake continued, an Immediate Action Drill (IAD) went into effect. The Operations Command Colombo carried out a blackout of the City fearing air attacks. Army Headquarters, residences of VVIPs, leading hotels and a number of business establishments were among those who had their electricity supply disrupted. After the first air attack, the OCC had advised high-rise building owners not to switch on auxiliary power units when the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) cuts off supply. For a new generation of Sri Lankans, this indeed was a fresh experience during the ongoing undeclared Eelam War IV. Elderly Sri Lankans likened them to World War II days when they ran to underground shelters after air raid warnings. Unlike the previous phases of the separatist war, that was the intensity of the ongoing undeclared one. Contrary to claims by champions directing the war, it had begun to affect Sri Lankans much more than any of the previous phases.

The IAD also led to other measures. Two Chinese built K-8 bombers, which have operational capability during the night, were scurried into the skies. One took off from Katunayake and the other from Anuradhapura. In addition, an Mi-24 helicopter gunship that took off from the SLAF base in Anuradhapura force landed in a plant nursery (within the base) causing extensive damage. However, the pilot and the co-pilot escaped unhurt. Another Mi-24, parked at the SLAF detachment at Palavi for air defence purposes, was also hurriedly airborne. One of the Mi-24 pilots was to report to Air Defence Control and Command Centre later that he felt an unidentified aircraft flying overhead somewhere in the skies above Anuradhapura.

The melee in the skies continued for more than three hours. On Friday, senior Air Force officials who analysed the sequence of events of the previous night were convinced that the target for the second time was also the Kfir and MiG-27 squadrons. One source who spoke on grounds of anonymity declared, "it appears that they (the LTTE) wanted to accomplish their target within one month after the first attack. The first attack came past 12.45 a.m. on March 26. This was why they made it a little early this time. They thought they could accomplish the task before midnight on April 26." A more important fact is that there were intelligence warnings of a possible air attack again.

Fears of a repeat air attack, or attempts by guerrillas to trigger off other attacks in the wake of Thursday's incident, prompted tough security checks in the City and suburbs yesterday. Such attacks, the authorities feared, could be intended to mar yesterday's World Cup Cricket finals which most Sri Lankans watched on television.

Sections of the business community and even some diplomats refused to believe there had been a Tiger guerrilla attempt for the second time to attack the SLAF base at Katunayake. They claimed there was no intruding aircraft but only a mere panic reaction that triggered off all the firing and chaos. Initially some influential sections of the Government also shared this view. However, things turned out to be different. Some were even angry they were misled.

Further proof came later on Friday morning. Over an hour after the first sighting of the aircraft over the SLAF detachment in Palavi, hundreds were to see one aircraft, suspected to be that of the LTTE, returning. There was a musical show in the Police Station premises at Palavi which is located very close to the SLAF detachment. The attention of the crowds attending it was diverted skywards after Air Force personnel opened fire at the fleeing aircraft. Both the Police and the crowds witnessed the firing and how the aircraft got away. Descriptions obtained by the Air Force confirmed that the aircraft in question was a Czech built Zlin Z-142.

Little later, there was considerable confusion in Vavuniya. Both Army and Police deployed in the area fired at an aircraft believing it was the one that had flown over Palavi earlier. However, the fire did not hit the aircraft that had all its lights switched on. Questions are now being raised whether such firing was directed at one of the three Colombo-bound flights that were diverted to Chennai. At least one was known to have been maintaining an altitude of 20,000 feet over Uyilankulam near Vavuniya at that time. The height was far beyond the range of guns used by the Army or the Police.

Bolstering the doubts of those who did not believe there were any LTTE craft involved in an attempted air attack was a brief account posted on the pro-LTTE website Tamilnet on Thursday night. It said: "Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) personnel at Katunayake airbase fired precautionary shots into the air as an alarm was issued in Colombo that two unidentified aircrafts (sic) were observed over Puttalam sea Thursday around 11 p.m. All flights were grounded and power supply in Colombo city was cut off. The situation resumed normal Thursday night. Tension prevailed in Colombo city following the false alarm."

The Tamilnet account that represented the LTTE viewpoint was quite clearly understandable. Without accomplishing their intended target, conceding the fact that guerrilla aircraft flew towards Katunayake and simply retnrned would have been bad propaganda. More so, when LTTE Military Spokesman Irasaiah Ilanthiriyan (who goes by the nom de guerre Marshal) had to eat humble pie just two days earlier. It came in the form of a report on the Tamilnet on Monday (Aril 23). It said: "Two attack air crafts (sic) of the Tamileelam Air Force (TAF) have bombed Palali military base Tuesday early morning at 1.20 a.m., inflicting heavy damage to the Sri Lankan military garrison in Jaffna's High Security Zone, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) military spokesman Irasaiah Ilanthiriyan told Tamilnet.

"The attack has caused severe casualties to the Sri Lankan forces garrisoned in the base, Mr. Ilanthiriyan added. The attack comes a month after Tigers attacked Colombo's Katunayake military airbase causing severe damage to the Sri Lankan Air Force installation." Lakshman Hulugalle, Director General of the Media Centre for National Security (MCNS), proved Ilanthiriyan's claims wrong. He put together a team of journalists for a visit to the Security Forces Headquarters in Jaffna. They were shown that no bombs from aircraft fell on the military base. Therefore, there was no "heavy casualties" and "severe damage" as claimed by Mr. Ilanthiriyan. Hence, the LTTE Military spokesman was not there to comment to the Tamilnet on their second attempt on Katunayake air base. That is not to say the LTTE aircraft did not target the Security Forces Headquarters, Jaffna, (SFHQ-J) the largest military base in Government controlled Jaffna peninsula.

The Commander of SFHQ - J, Major General G.A. Chandrasiri and his men were quick to thwart a cunningly planned operation by the LTTE to attack the Palaly military base. It had begun late last Sunday night with 130 mm artillery barrages being directed from LTTE positions in Pooneryn. A pause thereafter roused suspicions. A blackout was ordered and men took up positions in bunkers and gun positions to direct fire into the sky fearing an air raid was imminent. Their fears were proved right.

The LTTE had planned to use the lull during the artillery firing to fly over the military base and bomb it. The intense fire forced the two LTTE aircraft tasked for the purpose to veer course. Thus, they dropped three bombs at an Army Engineers Unit in Myliddy, located within the High Security Zone that encompasses the military base in Palaly. That killed six soldiers and left 13 more wounded. A disturbing development was the fact that the intruding guerrilla aircraft were not located by any radar at Palaly. Nor was it detected by the SLAF Beechcraft which was on reconnaissance patrol over the area when the Zlin Z-143 dropped bombs at the Army Engineers unit in Myliddy. The well equipped aircraft had been detailed for such patrols after the LTTE demonstrated their air strike capability.

Air Force investigations revealed that like the bombs the guerrillas dropped on the air base in Katunayake, the ones used to attack the Army Engineers Unit were also packed with a mixture of C-4 explosives and steel razor balls. They have been sealed in locally turned out metal containers. The soldiers were killed by the steel balls penetrating their bodies in several places after the bombs exploded.

The LTTE attempt on the Palaly military base was to draw an angry response from the Army. Last Wednesday, troops broke out from their defence lines west of Omanthai to attack rebel positions some six kilometers ahead. Later that day, they fought heavy battles with Tiger guerrillas in the village of ViIlattikulam (north west of Irana Illuppaikulam and east of the Madhu Road Sanctuary). At least 13 soldiers were killed and over 60 were wounded. The Media Centre for National Security said over 20 guerrillas were killed but their Military Spokesman Ilanthiriyan claimed none of their cadres died. Independent verification of rebel casualty counts is not possible. Troops later returned to their original positions and the offensive was halted. Guerrilla mortar fire yesterday injured six soldiers in the same area. See map on this page.

The demonstration of LTTE's air strike capability again this week, no doubt, calls for a co-ordinated and well planned strategy by the armed forces and the Police. Thursday night's sequence of events shows the amateurish handling of those using the BIA including tourists by inexperienced top officials, appointed purely for their political and personal allegiances. Such officials have not even the basic knowledge or experience on the workings of international airports except to have travelled through them during their longer stints away from Sri Lanka.

Another is the workings of the Sri Lanka Air Force itself. A United States Pacific Command study of Sri Lankan armed forces noted that current Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Assets of the SLAF were inadequate. The report formulated in 2002 notes:
"The SLAF has poorly managed its limited resources. A case in point is the heavy airlift squadron; where neither of two C-130s is flyable, and only two of seven Antonov 32s are. Similar non-mission capable rates exist throughout the fleet. In every unit the primary reason for unserviceable aircraft is a lack of spare parts. Furthermore, SLAF purchases of additional types of aircraft have diverted logistical support from the existing fleet. For example, acquiring two MiG-27s drained resources that could have been used to maintain, arm and upgrade the Kfirs. Also, an extremely expensive Forward Looking Infra Red (FLIR) system was purchased for the Mi-24, but not Night Vision Goggles (NVGs), guided weapons, or, again, sufficient spare parts. Finally, the SLAF has deferred payments on some aspects of aircraft support and operations increasing overall expense. Recommendations:

= Other than ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaisance) platforms, do not purchase additional aircraft until all current operationally required aircraft are serviceable.
= Immediately purchase adequate spare parts to sustain extended combat operations.
= If necessary, ground or sell limited numbers of complex aircraft (C-130, MiG- 27) in favour of sustaining larger Numbers of simpler aircraft (AN 32), upgrading effective Ones (Kfir), and adequately arming others (Mi-24, Mi-17).
= Develop new capabilities (NVGs, Close Air Support,Air Assault, Air Drop, etc.) with fully operational and appropriately equipped aircraft.
= Restructure debt to maximize capability for the lowest cost.
= When resources permit new aircraft acquisitions, buy more Mi-24s first.

USPACOM assembled a 24-man military assessment team from its service components and Special Operations Command to carry out the study on Sri Lankan Armed Forces. Upon arrival in Colombo, the team divided into four groups. (1) a combined arms team (2) a naval team (3) an air force team, and (4) a small-unit tactics team. Their findings were contained in three reports. The USPACOM reports were handed over only to then Minister in the UNF Government, Milinda Moragoda (then Government designated) and Austin Fernando, Defence Secretary. Neither then President Kumaratunga nor then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe were given copies directly by the US authorities.

In a letter to Mr. Moragoda, now a Minister in the Rajapaksa administration, and to then Defence Secretary Fernando, the US Assistant Secretary of Defence Peter W. Rodman said "On behalf of the Department of Defense, it is my pleasure to convey to you the attached reports from the three US Defence Department sponsored teams that your Government recently hosted." See montage of the letter on this page. The Sunday Times learnt Minister Moragoda had recently handed over to the Ministry of Defence copies of the report. Officials of the Rajapaksa administration had not been able to trace the original copies handed over earlier.

Despite continued revelations in The Sunday Times that the LTTE constructed a runway and acquired air capability, successive Governments ignored the threats posed. Now, the LTTE's Air Wing has demonstrated not once but thrice that they could use their air strike capability at will so far. There is no gainsaying that the authorities will have to go far beyond flowery press releases if the public are to be assured, the Security Forces and the Police are not placed in harm's way any more. They owe it to them.

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