Situation Report
19th August 2001

Guarding against guerrilla attacks

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Ukrainian aerobatics destroy a Mig-27

August 18, 2001 - or yesterday - was Aviation Day in Ukraine, once part of the now dismantled Soviet Union and now a republic. 

Two Ukrainian pilot instructors, training Sri Lanka Air Force pilots and attached to the airbase in Katunayake, wanted to mark the occasion with a flypast. That was to include some aerial stunts over Katunayake skies last evening.. 

File picture of an SLAF Mig-27 coming into the SLAF base at Katunayake
File picture of an SLAF Mig-27 coming into the SLAF base at Katunayake

The pilots had sought permission and it had been granted by a senior SLAF officer. He had claimed that he had asked the pilots to maintain flight levels at over 2000 feet. An investigation was under way yesterday to ascertain why the Commander of the Air Force, Air Marshal Jayalath Weerakkody, was not informed of the matter or why covering approval was not obtained from him. He had heard of the matter only after the Mig-27 crash.

Ukrainian pilots Valeri and Dughaman had been airborne and were engaged in aerobatics. The MIG 27 piloted by Valeri had done a loop and was trying to level off when it broke telephone lines. The Mig-27 hit the ground close to the Colombo-Negombo road at the 18th mile post and careered through a two storied house.

Both the ground attack aircraft and the house were wrecked.

The two Mig-27s on flight yesterday were the first two ground attack aircraft to take off on bombing missions after Black Tiger guerrillas attacked the SLAF base and the adjoining international airport on July 24.

Resultant fire destroyed most of what was left out of the aircraft. Three inmates of the house had escaped since they were at a wedding when the incident occurred. 

Investigations were also being conducted to ascertain whether the two Ukrainian pilots had filed a flight plan with the Air Traffic Controllers to engage in aerobatics before the aircraft took off. 

A three member court of Inquiry headed by SLAF chief of staff, Donald Perera, was named last to probe the incident. 

If the July 24 attack on the Sri Lanka Air Force's main base at Katunayake, and the adjacent international airport, has spurred the Government to tighten security measures at key installations in the City and outside, reports of a possible foray into Jaffna peninsula by Tiger guerrillas led to other measures this week.

Though reports of any possible guerrilla thrust into the peninsula in the coming weeks are largely hearsay, and not confirmed by major state intelligence agencies, the Government is taking no chances.

Chief of Defence Staff, General Rohan de S. Daluwatte, flew to Jaffna with a top level military team on Friday morning. It included Navy Commander, Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri and Air Force Commander, Air Marshal Jayalath Weerakkody. Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle, was indisposed. Standing in was Director of Operations, Brigadier Nimal Jayasuriya.

General Daluwatte and the top brass toured the front lines south east of the Jaffna town, including the sprawling Thanankilappu area, to examine security forces defensive positions and ascertain their level of preparedness. He later addressed a top level conference of senior officers of the Army, Navy and Air Force positioned in the peninsula.

Gen. Daluwatte is learnt to have impressed on them the need to respond promptly in the event of any guerrilla attacks on security forces positions. For obvious reasons one cannot elaborate on what the Chief of Defence Staff further declared or what followed during discussions thereafter.

Intelligence agencies have been verifying a claim by the clandestine Voice of Tigers radio which declared the LTTE had issued two statements, one to the media and another to the public in Jaffna, about a so called liberation of the town area. However, the statements in question are not available. Jaffna residents too have said they did not receive them.

Yet, the pro-LTTE International Broadcasting Corporation (IBC) during a Tamil broadcast monitored in Colombo, read out what it called a message the guerrillas had released to the public in the peninsula. In a veiled reference to the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP), the message charged that "traitors are active to douse the revolutionary conflagration that has been alighted by thousands of great heroes who are shedding their blood for the cause of Eelam."

The message which was devoted largely to attacks on the EPDP without identifying them said "attempts are being made by these elements to divert the attention of our youths who are thirsting for their freedom." The message concludes by saying "Our dearest people, the day will not be far when the entire territory of Jaffna will be liberated from oppressive aggressors. On that day no traitor will be allowed to escape inevitable reprisal. Do not get trapped by the schemes of the traitors. Co-operate with the freedom fighters to hasten the day of liberation." The LTTE has also warned the Jaffna public of settling in the ruined nodal town of Chavakachcheri since they would be used as a "human shield" in an area where land mines and anti-personnel mines are still buried.

In reality, the security forces have debarred civilians for re-settling in Chavakachcheri and its environs until all booby traps and mines, placed by the Tiger guerrillas, are removed or deloused. Late last year, a group of soldiers who tried to enter a house were caught in an explosion that brought a concrete slab crashing on them. At least one soldier was killed in the incident and three others were wounded.

On Friday, Gen. Daluwatte and his team had to finish their task in the Jaffna peninsula in the forenoon and fly back to Colombo. A second conference that day was with a four member team of the Canada based International Civil Aviation Authority (ICAO), which had conducted a detailed security audit at the Bandaranaike International Airport.

The ICAO team is learnt to have declared that their preliminary report was now ready and would be placed before heads of their organisation when they return to Montreal. It was only thereafter that the ICAO's formal response on existing security measures at the airport would be officially made known. The team has also expressed the need to visit Colombo periodically to review how the security measures enforced were being continued.

This is whilst the Sri Lanka Air Force is now embarking on plans to shift its jet squadrons away from Katunayake. Air Force Chief, Air Marshal Jayalath Weerakkody, attended a top level conference with senior Government officials in this regard yesterday. Several alternatives sites were being considered bearing in mind the need to ensure security in such areas would have no impediments.

This is also taking into consideration the lapses that led to the July 24 attack, first on the airbase and thereafter on the international airport a matter which is now under investigation by more than 60 CID officers and detectives.

Detectives are yet to make a significant breakthrough although they have interviewed nearly 200 persons since their probe began. Hopes they were on the trail of a key suspect were shattered after it was revealed that the man in question, a former airman, was in fact doing a bit of investigation on his own. He had found a list of phone numbers in a dust heap near Major Raj Fernando Stadium, on the outskirts of the outer perimeter of the airbase defence lines. He had telephoned the numbers in question which belonged to phones used by the attackers on the airbase.

The Sunday Times has learnt that when the Sri Lanka Air Force took over security responsibilities at Bandaranaike International Airport, there had been a shortage of trained personnel. This had been overcome by recruiting men from the area on the basis of recommendations made by leading People's Alliance politicians in the locality and putting them through basic training chores.

The move led to a string of problems for the SLAF authorities. A record 38 of them have been subjected to detention without pay, ranging from periods of two to four weeks, for neglect of duty. That included sleeping whilst on duty. In at least two instances, a senior officer had removed the weapons assigned to them.

Fears of attacks on other installations after the July 24 incidents at Katunayake, has led to the intensification of security arrangements at the Colombo and Trincomalee Ports. Particular attention is being placed on the Colombo Port where insurance premia on shippers using it has been increased manifold.

Heightening the security measures at the Colombo Port were intelligence warnings. The Directorate of Internal Intelligence (DII) has warned that the LTTE was embarking on a series of robberies in the past months to enhance the capabilities of their naval arm, Sea Tigers.

An idea of their plans surfaced, late last year, from a robbery reported from a fisherman in Kalmunai. Armed guerrillas robbed a fisherman of six Yamaha outboard motors, 53 oxygen cylinders, 13 regulators, two bags used to strap oxygen cylinders, 13 pairs of goggles and other items. In another robbery at Kattankudy, armed guerrillas had forced open the house of a businessman and robbed six oxygen cylinders used for underwater fishing purposes.

As reported in these columns last week, Sea Tiger suicide cadres were being trained in the seas off Mullaitivu to carry out suicide missions in the ports of Colombo and Trincomalee. The warning came from the DII. Exacerbating fears over these attacks were reports from the Directorate of Foreign Intelligence that groups sympathetic to the LTTE were collecting funds from the Tamil diaspora informing them that the guerrillas were due to launch an all out attack as a follow up to the Katunayake incidents.

This week also saw Tiger guerrillas issuing a strongly worded warning of "disastrous consequences" if the Government inducted weapons with chemical warheads into the north-eastern theatre of war. Thursday's Tamilnet website carried the Tiger guerrilla statement which came in the wake of a report in last week's The Sunday Leader about the acquisition of shoulder fired RPO-A Shmel Rocket Launcher. The newspaper, however, did not specifically report the rocket launcher was a chemical weapon though Tamilnet posted on its website their entire report.

The LTTE statement prompted the Government to issue a denial. A Government communique on Friday said: The Government wishes to refute categorically reports that it has recently acquired weapons with chemical warheads. No such procurement has been made and there are no plans to obtain them."

As a matter of fact, the RPO-Schmel Rocket launcher is not a weapon with chemical warheads but one with a thermobaric warhead. This is what an account in the Jane's Land Forces has to say:

"Russia is currently the world leader in thermobaric weapons, and has already used them in action, for example to clearing Mujahideen from caves in Afghanistan and more recently Chechen guerrillas from buildings in Grozny. There were international protests over their use since a large number of civilians were affected in these instances.

"The Russian RPG 7 (Note: this also is a weapon used by the LTTE) thermobaric warhead, fired from a manportable rocket-launcher, is said to produce effects comparable to the detonation of 2 kg of TNT, while the effects of the Russian RPO-A Shmel rocket-propelled incendiary / blast projectile are reportedly similar to those produced by a 122 mm howitzer projectile. (Note: 122 mm howitzers are used both by the Army and the Tiger guerrillas).

How does a thermobaric weapon work ? The thermobaric weapon works by propelling a warhead that scatters an aerosol explosive on or before impact with the target and then immediately igniting this to create a high pressure blast wave. The effect is a much more rapidly expanding blast than a conventional explosion.

According to an article from the US Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort Leavenworth, thermobaric (or fuel air) weapons are available with several countries including United States, China, India and Russia. The article notes: "Russia used thermobaric weapons sparingly during the 1994-1996 war in Chechnya. These were employed outside the city of Grozny against villages and mountain positions. Only the RPO-A flame thrower, which has a thermobaric round, was used in fighting in Grozny itself. When the fighting rekindled in the fall of 1999, Russian forces bombarded some villages in Dagestan with thermobaric bombs, but initially limited their use. When the Russian Army was committed, it slowly advanced across Chechnya's plains, preceded by conventional artillery fire. The advance, however, stalled when it finally reached Grozny and the mountains. Conventional artillery could not force out the Chechens and the Russian Army looked for other ways to move them. Two methods were apparently opposed-chemical weapons and thermobaric weapons. The Russian political leadership apparently vetoed the use of chemical weapons, but allowed the use of ground-delivered themobaric weapons. Air-delivered thermobaric systems were only used outside the city".

The Sunday Leader report also drew in a sharp response from Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle, who was named among three officers, to whom bribes were allegedly offered in a deal with Russia to procure Schmel Rocket Launchers. In a letter to the Editor of the newspaper, Lt. Gen. Balagalle said:

"Without prejudice to whatever legal remedy I may resort to, I write to strongly deny the wild allegations of corruption made against me, as Commander of the Army and against two other senior officers.

"I would request you to give this denial publicity since the publication of the said article, for reasons best known to you, is intended to ridicule us in the public eye and to demoralize the Security Forces at a crucial phase in the conduct of the ongoing separatist war.

"It is also a matter of deep regret that despite a written request by Military Spokesman, Brigadier Sanath Karunaratne RWP RSP, to Ms Jansz, as a responsible journalist, to exercise caution when giving publicity to the military equipment in question, for the only reason that the enemy, the LTTE would become aware, she has, it appears, chosen to completely ignore it. Fears Brigadier Sanath Karunaratne RWP RSP expressed to me when he made this request to Ms Jansz have come right.

"Your report tried to take umbrage under the fact that details of the equipment in question are available on the Internet. Perhaps so. But procurements by Army Headquarters are not posted on the Internet and were therefore not available in the public domain until you chose to reveal it.

"The pro-LTTE Tamilnet website of 16th August, where the LTTE has, as expected, responded using your report as the only basis. They will receive a fitting reply in due course to their latest campaign for which you have so readily supplied the fuel, in the form of a malicious and mischievous report. Must I say this not only compromises the nation's national security interests but also places the lives of our troops, and even our citizens, in jeopardy.

"I have requested both the Ministry of Defence and the Permanent Commission for Bribery and Corruption to conduct investigations into the allegations your newspaper has made, however frivolous they are. If you, as you boldly state, have any evidence to prove the claims made by your newspaper, I would request you to make them available to the investigators.

"The outcome of such investigations, I am sure, will reveal to the public that your article in question is one of the many witch hunts embarked by your newspaper purely to vilify people in public life to satisfy vested interests. It will also, I am sure, expose the sinister and mischievous actions your newspaper resorts to against national interests under the guise of responsible journalism and media ethics.

"I have no doubt the upcoming investigations will unmask the true character of your newspaper, which many of my senior officers have complained, devotes more columns (or pages) to espouse the enemy's cause than to highlight the deeds of our own brave soldiers fighting to protect the nation's territorial integrity and sovereignty to say the least a grossly unpatriotic act".

Opposition political parties including those representing Tamil constituencies were yesterday discussing sending a protest to the Government over the use of the so called chemical weapon. An official Government response setting out the facts is likely in the coming week.

For a second successive week, the Government has been plunged into confusion over matters relating to the security establishment.

One was over a reported claim that LTTE ideologue and confidante of its leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, and three of his colleagues have been banned from entering France. The French Government denied the official claim made by Sri Lanka. It is only now the authorities have realised the Dr. Balasingham and at least two of his colleagues are British nationals holding British passports.

Defence Secretary Chandrananda de Silva has now directed that no official announcement should be made based on intelligence reports without his prior permission.

Another was a pamphlet a senior Army official in Batticaloa approved for distribution to civilians in the district. It was to urge them to move away four kilometres from their homes if they were living close to LTTE camps, since the Army planned to attack LTTE positions. They were advised to stock food for two months. 

The official concerned has been transferred from his present posting on an order issued by Army Headquarters.

More confusion continues as high officials in the security establishment brace themselves to prevent any further Tiger guerrilla attacks.

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