Amid air disaster, big bomb hoax at BIA
Air Force personnel on a Navy boat examine how to salvage the
MIG27 ground attack craft that was ditched by its pilot in the
Negombo lagoon last Wednesday. Pic by Ishara S. Kodikara
was 8.42 a.m. last Wednesday when Wing Commander Priyantha Gunasinghe,
Commanding Officer of No 5 Jet Squadron of Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF)
rolled out in a two-seater MIG 23 jet trainer ( CF 730) from the
runway at Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA).
seconds, Flight Lieutenant Nimantha Goonetilleke followed in a MIG
27 ground attack aircraft (CF 734). Hugging the north western coast
they were flying in formation. Six minutes later, some 20 miles
away and at an altitude of 1300 metres, the radio in Wg. Cmdr. Gunasinghe's
trainer crackled "Juliet Alpha (his call sign) I am having
an engine malfunction…"
the formation leader and his pilot undergoing routine advanced training
were in frenzied radio conversation. Flt. Lt. Goonetilleke who joined
the SLAF in September 1997 had been commissioned as a pilot in December
1998. He was on a flight that day, like many of his colleagues,
to fine tune his skills and be ready for battle at any time. He
told his Commanding Officer there was engine vibration and he was
Wg. Cmdr. Gunasinghe took control of the situation. He asked the
young pilot to go through the emergency manoeuvres and return to
base. He promptly made contact with Air Traffic Controllers to advise
them of the emergency. Just then a Sri Lankan Airlines flight to
Trivandrum (South India) was taxiing for take off. Controllers advised
the troubled MIG 27 to do an orbit - or remain airborne flying in
a circle allowing time for the commercial flight to be in the skies.
turned out to be good omen for Flt. Lt. Goonetilleke. He was losing
control of his aircraft in trying to heed the Air Traffic Controllers
advice to go into an orbit. He had tried but found the engine was
smoking and he was losing altitude. He reported it to his formation
commander and was advised to eject immediately.
training, one of the basics taught to pilots is to guide their aircraft
in such a way as to avoid collateral damage or threat to lives in
an emergency. That is exactly what Flt. Lt. Goonetilleke had done
by veering away over the Negombo lagoon. But, if he had not heeded
the advice of the Air Traffic Controllers and attempted to engage
in an orbit, the MIG 27 would have been over the land. In such an
event, there was every possibility it could have crashed into some
ejecting on time, the pilot saved his life but suffered minor bruises.
The MIG 27 plunged into the Negombo lagoon. The SLAF first acquired
a fleet of four MIG 27s from Ukraine Marsh, a state owned company
in Ukraine through a Singaporean intermediary. This deal including
an "operational package" cost US dollars 8 million (or
approximately Rs 800 million). Thereafter two more MIG 27s were
procured at a cost of US dollars 1.6 million each (or around Rs
160 million) besides a MIG 23 trainer for US dollars 900,000 (or
around Rs 90 million). The SLAF is now left with only three MIG
27s besides the trainer.
SLAF made hurried preparations to fly down experts from Ukraine,
from where the re-conditioned MIG 27s, no longer in production,
were purchased, to make a full study. Last Tuesday, just a day before
the incident, the aircraft has performed perfectly well and technicians
who gave it the go ahead the next day reported nothing was wrong.
Initial inquiries point to a turbine malfunction causing an engine
Force Commander Air Marshal Donald Perera appointed a four member
Court of Inquiry to ascertain the circumstances that led to the
fighter bomber being ditched. This fact finding inquiry is headed
by Group Captain Gagan Bulathsinhala, SLAF Base Commander, Trincomalee
and comprises Wing Commander Sunil Karunaratne, a specialist in
aviation medicine, Wing Commander Sudarshana Pathirana, Commanding
Officer of the SLAF No 10- Kfir Squadron and Squadron Leader Laksiri
Gunawardena, an engineering officer.
latest crash of the MIG 27 gives the country's defence establishment
a chilling message, a very chilling one though such incidents do
not spur them into any preventive measures for the future. Not until
serious damage is caused or an incident is of catastrophic proportions.
would not be wrong to say it was sheer providence that led to the
MIG 27 ending up in the Negombo lagoon last Wednesday. If by some
unfortunate event, if the MIG 27 was forced to crash on an aircraft
loaded with passengers on the ground at the BIA, on the terminal
building, in the Negombo town area or on a tourist complex, the
consequences would have been unimaginable. It would have ruined
the country's tourist industry and brought forth another economic
crisis of gigantic proportions. Needless to say amidst a gloomy
economic forecast already threatening Sri Lankans, such bad news
would heave come as a severe blow.
the past, both the defence establishment and even the SLAF have
been somewhat lucky. In 1997, a Kfir interceptor jet loaded with
two 250 kilogramme bombs and on an operational mission in the north
plunged into the Negombo lagoon. The pilot claimed the canopy was
faulty and he was forced to eject. The consequences of such a crash
on a township with 500 kilograms of lethal bombs would have been
August 18, 2001 two Ukranian pilot instructors, training Sri Lanka
Air Force pilots and attached to the airbase in Katunayake, wanted
to mark the Ukranian Aviation Day with a flypast. That was to include
some aerial stunts over Katunayake skies.
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
craft and the house were wrecked.
two MIG-27s on flight 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,
2001. 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.
this did not cause any concern in the defence establishment, the
consequences brought about by the Tiger guerrilla attack on the
BIA and the adjoining SLAF base did. It shook the tourist industry.
Soon after the attack, Brokers of Lloyds of London insurance market
imposed massive war risk surcharges on shipping to Sri Lanka provoking
the country to face hyper inflation and economic collapse.
Ministry of Defence promptly embarked on moves to shift the SLAF
base from Katunayake. Pressure was mounted on then Commander of
the Air Force, Air Marshal Jayalath Weerakkody to move out lock,
stock and barrel from Katunayake. He planned to extend the runway
of the airstrip at Sigiriya from 6,000 to 8,000 feet and shift there.
The move drew angry protests from archaeologists and environmentalists
alike. Some instituted legal action on grounds that the shift would
pose environmental threats to historic sites at Sigiriya including
the world famous rock with frescoes.
top level Committee headed by then Defence Secretary, Chandrananda
de Silva was appointed to work out an alternative. Moves to shift
the airbase to Hingkurakoda where there is already an SLAF installation
was ruled out. This was because of an incident where guerrillas
used a surface to air missile to attack a Mi-24 helicopter gunship
flying over the Kaudulla tank in Minneriya having taken off from
Hingurakgoda. The SAM, however, misfired and no damage was caused
but the incident showed the vulnerability since the location was
close to then operational areas in the east, particularly the Batticaloa
compromise was thereafter worked out. That was to shift the fighter
squadrons of the Air Force - both MIG and Kfir - from Katunayake
to a location in Habarana. Training and all other activities were
to be carried out from there. The remaining facilities at Katunayake
including helicopter squadrons and other transport aircraft were
to remain there since they only posed a relatively less threat compared
to the fighter jets. It was also felt that the large stocks of lethal
bombs used by the fighter bombers could be shifted to the same location
thus obviating any threat that is posed to the international airport
and its environs. As has been the case always, the matter has gone
into the limbo of forgotten things only to be looked at if another
crisis occurred. Sheer luck prevented such a disaster last Wednesday.
would have thought it was the only event that caused a near disaster
at Katunayake last Wednesday. No, it was not. There was another
major event which later turned out to be a complete hoax. This again,
as repeatedly illustrated in these columns, highlighted the disarray
in the defence establishment ever since President Chandrika Bandaranaike
Kumaratunga took over the defence portfolio on November 4, last
year. If it was on the grounds that national security interests
were at stake and urgent corrective measures were necessary not
much has been done.
no one in proper command and control, it seems the task of ensuring
urgent security measures are taken in an emergency seems to be falling
all the time on the shoulders of President Kumaratunga. This is
not withstanding her other onerous responsibilities in managing
the ongoing political crisis not to mention other tasks connected
with Ministerial portfolios vested in her and exercising her role
as President. What happened last Wednesday evening clearly illustrates
the pathetic situation that continues.
Wednesday evening President Kumaratunga summoned the armed forces
top brass for a crisis meeting at the Janadipathi Mandiraya. Taking
part were Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle (Army), Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri
(Navy) and Air Marshal Donald Perera (Air Force). Also present were
former Presidential Secretary, Kusumsiri Balapatabendi, now Chairman
of Sri Lankan airlines and Chandana de Silva, head of corporate
communications of the same airline.
reason for the meeting - information has been received that a Tiger
guerrilla suicide bomber was planning to trigger off a string of
explosions at the Bandaranaike International Airport. The bomber
was identified as Sithamparampillai Kandasamy, a passenger due to
board a Czech Airlines flight from Colombo to Dubai and Prague on
Thursday morning. Intelligence agencies were alerted.
the airport a massive security operation got under way on Wednesday
night. Air Force Commander Air Marshal Donald Perera, a man known
for his thoroughness in any task, directed his senior-most officer
at BIA, Group Captain Vijitha Gunaratne to cope with the impending
threat. He went into action immediately with some 300 of his officers
and men. Chief of Security of Airport and Aviation Services Limited
(AASL), A.M. Munsoor and his security marshals were also on the
job. Specially trained Army commandos who are assigned to BIA to
cope with any situation arising from a hijack were placed on alert.
spread to authorities at BIA including various officials of airlines
operating there that a bomb had been placed in an aircraft, departure
area or was being carried by a passenger. As the night grew, intense
security measures were in place. All those engaged in the operation
were reminded that no untoward incident like the July 2001 LTTE
attack should be allowed to occur at Katunayake.
Thursday morning, the passenger whose name was mentioned as the
key suspect was detected when he checked in for the Czech Airlines
flight. He had nothing incriminating and possessed a valid ticket
and proper documentation. All his personal belongings were in order.
Intelligence officials at BIA subjected him to intense grilling
but were unable to extract even a clue of any suspicious conduct.
Searches on aircraft, departure lounge and other passengers also
proved futile. There was no bomb and there was no evidence of any
suspicious activity. The suspect passenger was cleared and the Czech
airlines flight was cleared for take off.
then confusion had become worse confounded. A person who had been
appointed to a top official position at the BIA after he failed
to win the April 2 parliamentary elections as a UPFA candidate and
had taken his own decision. Since bombs were not found after a major
security operation, he feared someone could bring it in an incoming
ordered that passengers and aircraft inbound to the BIA should be
fully checked. It was ironic that such a directive was made for
the official in question had no previous experience in aviation
or in the travel trade. As one irate airline official said, his
only association with BIA was to use it, like any other passenger,
to travel abroad or return.
rewarding defeated candidates with plum positions where vital decisions
have to be made could serious misfire was illustrated by the conduct
of this official. Despite pleas by many, the official refused to
change his decision. One of those who made a passionate plea was
Sri Lankan Airlines top runger, Chandana de Silva. He found the
first to be affected was a Sri Lankan flight arriving from Zurich.
The conscientious airline man worried how his passengers who were
inside the aircraft for well over 12 hours would feel. But his pleas
were of no avail.
after the Sri Lankan Airlines flight touched down and taxied to
a parking apron at BIA, passengers were required to line up on the
tarmac. Every one of them was body searched. Their personal luggage
was examined before they were allowed to go through immigration
formalities. Thereafter, when their luggage arrived in the beltway,
they were also subjected to checks. A similar fate befell passengers
arriving in a Qatar Airways flight from Dubai. There was no sign
of any bomb. Neither was any inkling of any suspicious Tiger guerrilla
passengers who board the flight to Colombo from Zurich and from
Dubai undergo strict security checks at both airports. Since the
US led war on terror, security checks at Zurich have been intensified.
Similar measures had also gone into effect at Dubai International
Airport in view of the ongoing fighting in Iraq. But the official
in the new post seemed unaware and was not willing to heed the advice
of security staff at BIA.
was only on Wednesday that the high alert at BIA was called off.
By then the stark truth had emerged. The suspected passenger, Sithamparampillai
Kandasamy, though a one time Sri Lankan national from the North
was a Swedish citizen for 25 long years. Checks on intelligence
records by State agencies failed to bring out his name as someone
who had come to their adverse notice. He had come to Sri Lanka to
visit relatives and was on his way to the Swedish capital of Stockholm.
was he then made to be a suspect carrying a bomb? The simple answer
became clear only after the event. The Sri Lanka Embassy in Sweden
had received an anonymous letter in which the writers had warned
Mr Kandasamy, who was taking his return flight (via Czech airlines)
was carrying bombs to be exploded at BIA. It soon became clear to
security authorities that the passenger in question had his own
enemies in Sweden who wanted to see him arrested in Colombo as a
terrorist suspect. Hence the anonymous letter.
high ranking security source told The Sunday Times "we conducted
a thorough search on Mr. Kandasamy's background. Neither our own
records nor those of some friendly agencies we relate had anything
on this passenger. It turned out to be a big hoax." The source
added: "all the confusion could have been avoided if the relevant
agencies were tasked to deal with the matter with the expertise
the security operation at BIA did not yield any result, Ports and
Aviation Minister Mangala Samaraweera and Sri Lankan Airlines Chairman,
K. Balapatabendi visited BIA on Thursday in the company of Air Force
Chief Air Marshal Donald Perera. Mr. Samaraweera commended the Air
Force officers for the thorough search they carried out.
SLAF has now been told to take over more security points inside
the terminal building from security marshals. They have also been
told to man a point where heavy vehicles bringing in air cargo pass
through. Last Wednesday's hilarious episode at BIA illustrates the
level of ad hocism and the continuing confusion in the nation's
defence establishment. Must one say anything more about how priorities
are getting mixed up?
is in the backdrop of intense diplomatic activity to make the proposed
Defence Co-operation Agreement (DCA) with India an immediate reality.
The UPFA Government that has just concluded an intelligence co-operation
agreement with Kampuchea wants to finalise negotiations towards
this DCA soon.
made in these columns last week about the Sri Lanka-India Defence
Co-operation Agreement had drawn a response from the Office of the
Leader of the Opposition. First to its contents: "Referring
to the Defence Cooperation Agreement with India which was initiated
by the United National Government in October last year, your article
Drifting away from Peace? - Situation Report appearing in the Sunday
Times of June 6th attempts to make out that the agreement was not
pursued owing to pressure exerted by the LTTE.
facts of the case as stated in the Joint Communique issued after
the visit to India on 22nd October 2003 are that: "the two
Prime Ministers discussed the ongoing cooperation in training and
the supply of equipment to the Sri Lankan defence forces and agreed
that the two sides commence discussions with a view to concluding
the Defence Cooperation Agreement at the earliest". (Paragraph
10 of the Joint Communique on Defence and Economic Agreement)
on 31st October 2003, the then Prime Minister left for the USA for
talks with President Bush. While the Prime Minister was away, the
President, as the public are aware, precipitately took over the
Minister of Defence on the 4th of November. This was less than two
weeks after the initial discussions with India took place. The Secretary
Defence was removed from his post on 3rd November while he himself
was in London. Clearly this matter could not be proceeded with until
the crisis resulting from the action of the President was resolved.
presumption in your Situation Report that the Defence Agreement
with India was not proceeded with owing to the pressure of any other
party is therefore blatantly unfounded."
enough, this statement comes as many an official of the former United
National Front (UNF) Government who were associated with the peace
process, who were all out to appease every request of the LTTE,
are now distancing themselves. Their patriotic fervour and national
zeal now seem unmatched by all others. Though The Sunday Times learnt
a former official was instrumental for this statement, he has sought
to take umbrage under the Leader of the Opposition and not identify
himself. Quite clearly, the more the exposure the more the embarrassment
said in these columns last week the matter of a DCA was not pursued
any further by the UNF Government though it was agreed upon by then
Premier Vajpayee and his local counterpart, Mr. Wickremasinghe.
I added "A senior official then in the Prime Minister's Office,
who has been most helpful to the Tiger guerrillas on many matters
including the obtaining of radio broadcasting equipment, directed
his counterpart in the Ministry of Defence not to pursue matters
relating to the DCA. This was after strong protests were raised
by the LTTE. They perceived the DCA as a serious threat."
stand by what I said. That is a true and accurate account. Attempts
by the embarrassed and the exposed at re-writing history now will
be of no use. It is soon after the publicity generated from then
Premier Wickremasinghe's visit and talks with then Premier Vajpayee
that concerns were raised in the Wanni. LTTE sources in the Wanni
not only confirm this but have re-iterated to me that they did pressure
the UNF not to go ahead.
the Joint Communique said the two sides agreed to commence discussions
"at the earliest" to conclude the DCA. Such discussions,
though it should have been "at the earliest," never took
place in the less than two weeks after the initial discussions.
This was despite published reports that Indian Defence Secretary,
Ajay Prasad, was due in Colombo en route to New Delhi after a visit
to Kampuchea just a week after the talks in New Delhi. This was
to talk on the outline of the proposed DCA.
Sunday Times has confirmed through diplomatic channels that a request
was in fact made that the matter should be discussed at a later
date. There certainly is no doubt there was pressure though blatant
attempts are now being made to say it is not so. Is this not the
same way many other denials were made after appeasing the LTTE,
like the grant of radio equipment or the opening of Courts and Police
Stations in the east?
it has been the practice of the LTTE to prepare for war whilst talking
peace. For both the former UNF and the present UPFA Governments,
it seems different. Ignore all preparations lest they offend the
Tiger guerrillas. For any contingency, the answer seems to be a
resort to ad hoc measures.