ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday October 28, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 22
Columns - Situation Report  

Pre-dawn pounce

  • Upto 27 Black Tiger suicide cadres were able to go unchecked right to the aircraft hangar
  • Special Forces join Air Force to prevent the base being over-run
  • All but three of the 27 aircraft in the base destroyed or damaged

By Iqbal Athas

The burnt out remains of a Chinese built K-8 intermediate trainer aircraft on the tarmac of the Sri Lanka Air Force base at Anuradhapura afterMonday’s pre-dawn Tiger guerrilla attack.

The group of Tiger guerrillas, among them three women, wore crumpled camouflage uniforms. These, together with their short haircut, made them look like army soldiers. However, unlike the soldiers, there was still a difference. All of them wore black explosive laden "suicide" belts around their waist.

They held an assortment of weapons - Chinese built T-56 assault rifles, Russian made AK-47 Kalashnikovs, Czech automatic pistols, Light Anti-tank Weapons (LAW), Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPG) with launchers, Light Machine Guns (LMGs) Mark 82 Chinese made hand grenades, new Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) among them. They had walkie-talkies to talk to each other and satellite telephones to speak with their controllers in the Wanni. They carried mobile phones, maps, medical kits, chocolates and even a flag of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The group lay in wait in an abandoned house in a plot of land, owned by a military officer. It is located alongside the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) base at Anuradhapura - a major platform for military operations against Tiger guerrillas in the North. The base lies south of the historic capital. It is centrally located to rush aircraft for casualty evacuation in the Northern theatre of conflict. It is also headquarters for the Maritime Surveillance Command, the nerve centre for monitoring the deep seas off Sri Lanka.

It was past 3 a.m. on Monday morning. The guerrillas crawled towards the chain-link perimeter fence. They cut a large hole and crept in one by one. The runway lies in a north-easterly and south-westerly direction. Extension work on it is still under way. They reached another obstacle - a fence made of razor sharp concertina wire. They cut through and set foot on the inner perimeters of the Air Force base.

They walked nearly three hundred metres, across the runway, to the hangar. It was open terrain and there was no resistance of any sort. An assortment of both serviceable and unserviceable aircraft lay parked. Some directed fire at the aircraft using Rocket Propelled Grenades and Light Anti-tank Weapons. The pre-dawn calm was shattered. It alerted airmen in their barracks and those on duty at static points. It woke up the neighbourhood. Soon Air Force personnel with their weapons on the ready were moving in to take on the intruders. They came under fire from guerrillas who had taken up position. Yet the airmen continued.

Belted ammunition and hand grenades, part of the guerrilla arsenal.

Some of the Air Force men boldly moved in braving the threats they faced. They were hit and fell dead. Others were wounded. Heavy explosions and the crackle of gunfire continued to render the air. Telephone lines between Anuradhapura and Colombo were busy and news spread that the airbase was under LTTE attack. Even as the fighting continued, the incident was making world news. Almost all reports spoke of the guerrillas, for the first time, simultaneously launching a land and air attack. Some reports said it came at a time when the Government had repeatedly boasted the Tigers were weakened militarily.

The Operations Room at the Air Force Headquarters in Colombo became a hive of activity. Senior officers there were eager to ensure at least some of the aircraft at Anuradhapura were scoured into the skies. The reasons were two fold: one was to use combat aircraft to engage the attackers. The other was to save the non-combat aircraft on the ground. Fire from RPGs and other weapons was too intense. Hence, they lost no time in getting in touch with SLAF base in Vavuniya to arrange for immediate help.

A Bell 212 helicopter was airborne barely half an hour later and was flying towards Anuradhapura. Flight Lieutenant (posthumously promoted Squadron Leader) Amila Mohotti with colleague Flying Officer (posthumously promoted Flight Lieutenant) Dhammika de Silva (co-pilot) piloted it. There were two door gunners at gun positions on either side of the helicopter. They were in the skies over Doramadalawa in Mihintale when the helicopter was hit by gunfire. However, it was not from the Tiger guerrillas. The helicopter crashed to the ground.

The badly shattered wreckage was strewn in an area covered with bushy growth. That was how four brave men of the Air Force sacrificed their lives in defending the nation. If they did not meet with their untimely death, the course of events during the fighting at the airbase would have been different. Fate had decreed otherwise. The four heroes who hurriedly responded to the call of duty were accorded funerals with full military honours.

At the airbase, aircraft were in flames or smouldering. This is both, those parked inside the hangar as well as some parked outside, near the runway. It became apparent that the attack group was in regular contact with their controllers in the Wanni. The guerrillas had told the latter of the progress of their attack. It is only thereafter; some 45 minutes after their infiltration, that two Czech built Zlin Z-143 aircraft of the LTTE flew in to drop two to three bombs. They, however, did not cause any damage within the airbase, according to officers there. According to one source, a bomb fell on an Army Signals unit located in a detachment stationed next to the airbase.

Security officials, including Police at Vavuniya, had seen the two guerrilla aircraft when they were heading in a southerly direction and later returning to Wanni. They had brought it to the attention of Air Force authorities. By this time, however, they were compelled to cope with other urgent tasks, particularly the crash of the Bell 212 helicopter with the two officers and men on board. There was confusion at that hour as to how it occurred. Questions loomed large then whether it was an enemy attack. If so, there were also questions on whether it was safe to have other aircraft take to the skies.

Thus, the role of the guerrilla aircraft was largely a cosmetic feature in the guerrilla assault. The move to have these two aircraft airborne from a secret location in the Wanni, it is now clear, was made only after the guerrillas made sure they would not come under fire. This is in the light of the mayhem they had caused at the airbase. Thus, claims of a combined land and air assault on the airbase became only a technical definition with the air component causing relatively minimal damage.

An Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) destroyed inside the SLAF hangar at Anuradhapura. INSET: Part of the military hardware the guerrillas brought for the attack.

It was close to crack of dawn. Troops of the Army's highly trained Special Forces joined the Air Force personnel who were engaging the guerrillas. Some of the guerrillas who were finding themselves cornered detonated their suicide belts and died. Others were shot dead by the Special Forces and the Air Force gunmen. The latter's valiant efforts stalled a total take over of the airbase and a possible hoisting of the LTTE flag by the guerrillas. It was well past 9 a.m. when one or two of the remaining guerrillas were gunned down. One of them had climbed a Kohomba tree, later to the roof of a hangar and begun firing at troop positions. At one point during the fighting, an armoured vehicle was brought in to fire at a guerrilla position. But, the latter had fired at the tyre thus halting its movement. He was later shot dead.

LTTE Military Spokesman, Irasiah Ilanthiriyan told BBC television during a Q & A that their "military command" was in touch with their guerrillas attacking the airbase until 9 a.m. However, this claim could not be verified independently. He said it was this communication link that made the LTTE become aware their assault had led to eight Air Force aircraft being destroyed. Then a cunning LTTE ploy unfolded.

Shortly after the fighting at the airbase at Anuradhapura had ended, the Media Centre for National Security (MCNS) held a news conference on Monday morning. There, Defence Spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella declared that 20 guerrilla bodies were found strewn at the airbase. Barely two hours later, the LTTE declared in a news release:

"At 3.20 a.m. a special LTTE Black Tiger team of 21 men and women attacked the Sri Lankan Air Force Base in Anuradhapuram and destroyed and burnt down eight planes and helicopters, including reconnaissance planes and training planes. Following this attack, at 4.30 am LTTE Air Force bombed the same Sri Lankan Air Force Base. "Following is the list of aircraft types belonging to the Air Force that were totally destroyed by the LTTE: one training plane, two Mi-24 Helicopters, one Mi-17, one PT-6, one Bell 212, one Reconnaissance plane, one CTG-748.

"In addition a helicopter that came to the assistance of the Sri Lankan Air Force from Vavuniya also crashed and was destroyed."

After Mr. Rambukwella had spoken of the presence of 20 guerrilla bodies at the airbase, the LTTE news release had claimed that a "Black Tiger team of 21 men and women" attacked the airbase. That is just one more cadre besides the number known dead. One of the news pictures released by LTTE showing the attack team seated with their leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, has been cleverly cropped from one end leaving out some cadres, at least one or two, out. Is this a move to facilitate the safe return of the others?

A Criminal Investigation Department (CID) team tasked to investigate the attack, The Sunday Times learnt, has reason to believe the number of guerrillas involved in the attack was 27. Besides, some villagers living near the airbase have said that at around 5 a.m. they had seen two groups leaving the area at different intervals. Each group had comprised three persons. If that is correct, the presence of only one guerrilla is not explained.

Air Force spokesperson Group Captain Ajantha Silva told Monday's news conference at the Media Centre for National Security (MCNS) that two Mi-24 helicopters and one K-8 jet trainer were "badly damaged" in the Tiger fire targeting the hangar of the airbase. It took one more day for further confirmation to arrive that the MCNS was playing down the details. Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake told Parliament on Wednesday that among the seven aircraft "destroyed" were one Mi-24 helicopter, one Beechcraft, three PT-6 aircraft or a K-8 aircraft and one Mi-17 helicopter. An Mi-24 helicopter was damaged in this attack, he said. This was in addition to the Bell 212 helicopter that crashed, he pointed out.

I constructed the sequence of events relating to the guerrilla attack on the SLAF airbase at Anuradhapura after talking to high-ranking sources at the Air Force Headquarters in Colombo. This is in addition to speaking to officers and men who were at the airbase in Anuradhapura at the time of the attack and thereafter. Apart from the details relating to the attack, I was able to determine that there were altogether 27 aircraft on the ground at the airbase at the time. These included some unserviceable aircraft too. Here is a breakdown:

  1. Two Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). These were brand new and were yet to be included in the Air Force inventory. They had been brought for acceptance trials "without obligation" by the Israeli supplier, Blue Horizon.
  2. One Mi-17 troop transport helicopter. It is virtually reduced to ashes with only bigger parts remaining.
  3. Four Chinese built PT-6 basic trainers.
  1. One US built Beechcraft 200. This was originally purchased in 1985 as a VIP transport aircraft. In 1995, it was modified into a surveillance aircraft with expensive equipment being installed. They included costly cameras and other sophisticated devices. Contrary to a foreign media outlet, which misquoted me, the loss of this aircraft does not hamper deep-sea naval operations. However, it very badly hampers aerial surveillance activity over deep seas. Inputs from such surveillance helped in naval operations in a very large measure.
  2. One Chinese built K-8 intermediate jet trainer.
  3. One Mil Mi-24 helicopter gun ship.

The above aircraft/helicopters which have been completely destroyed are a loss to the Air Force. There were also aircraft, both serviceable and unserviceable, that have been damaged. Highly placed Air Force sources I spoke to said only some of them could be reclaimed. Others will be a further loss. Thus, the exact number of aircraft/helicopters which the Air Force will not have will be known only when its Commander, Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke, writes to the Ministry of Defence, asking permission to "write off" aircraft from his inventory. Here are the other details:

  1. One Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) belonging to SLAF.
  2. Three PT-6 basic trainer aircraft.
  3. Five K-8 intermediate jet trainer aircraft. In some of these trainer aircraft the glass canopy has melted and the metal warped. In addition, some had the wing stripped off with only parts of the frame remaining.
  4. Four unserviceable Italian built Siai Marchetti (Warrior) propeller driven bombers.
  1. One Mil Mi-24 helicopter gunship
  1. Three Mil Mi-17 troop transport helicopters. They were parked a distance away from the scene of fighting.

The cost of the losses at the airbase could be anything above an estimated US$ 30 million or over three billion rupees. That is based on prices paid years earlier. However, the replacement prices would be very much higher. This is not only because the prices have since gone up. In addition, the rupee equivalent to the dollar has also risen.

Two important facts relating to the guerrilla attack on the airbase are glaring. There is no doubt that the guerrillas have been receiving up-to-date intelligence on the lay- out and goings on at the airbase. There was inside information. It is this fact that helped them not only to plan the attack but also to repeatedly practise it in their hideouts in the Wanni using sand models. How the guerrillas received such intelligence becomes a critical question.

For several months now, some of the security measures at the airbase were hampered by work related to the extension of the runway. A private contractor had been given the task. A large fleet of lorries with construction materialhave been gaining access to the airbase every day.

Three different probes are now under way. The attack on the airbase is being probed by a Court of Inquiry chaired by the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Air Vice Marshal P.B. Premachandra. A second Court of Inquiry is probing the crash of the Bell 212 helicopter. The most important among the probe is the one being conducted by the CID. Only their findings will reveal the various lapses that led to the attack.

However, some of the fundamental aspects, like how the guerrillas gained entry to the airbase by cutting the chain link fence on the outer perimeter, to say the least is shameful. Here again, without meeting any resistance from sentries. No lessons are learnt from experience. That is how the guerrillas gained entry to attack the Air Force base at Katunayake on July 24, 2001. A suspected guerrilla cadre cut the chain-link perimeter fence covering the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation's (CPC) installations at Sapugaskande to gain entry a few months ago.

His body was found closer to the area from where he entered. The youth who was later confirmed to be on a reconnaissance mission had died after being stung by a snake. Police found documents in his possession. Some arrests were made and there was confirmation that the man was on the initial stages of a reconnaissance mission to plan an attack on the oil facility.

It is a strange co-incidence the Air Force also lost eight aircraft during the Tiger guerrilla attack at Katunayake. The types were, however, different. They were two Mil Mi-17 troop transport helicopters, three K-8 intermediate jet trainers, one MiG-27 and two Kfir jets. One A-340 and two A-330 airbuses of Sri Lankan Airlines were also destroyed during this attack.

Comparing the damage caused during the attack on the SLAF airbase in Katunayake (without losses to Sri Lankan Airlines) and the one at Anuradahapura, one fact becomes clear. The guerrillas caused more damage at Anuradhapura since the losses there are higher. It must also be remembered that during the attack at Katunayake, the guerrillas were unable to enter the "V" (or Vulnerable) area, which was the hangar. The damage they caused was by directing fire from the runway. However, at Anuradhapura the attackers entered the hangar to cause damage.

The attack on the airbase came just a week after the guerrillas attacked the Army detachment at Talgasmankada inside the Yala National Park (on October 15). The next day (October 16) an Army commando lost his leg and two Wild Life Range Officers were injured due to a pressure mine explosion near the detachment. Seven soldiers were killed and six were wounded in the attack. Special Forces, Commandos and infantry troops conducted a search operation in the Yala jungles. However, no arrests were made. Further checks are now under way by the newly raised 12th battalion of the Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment.

The two incidents come with only 30 days to go for LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran's "Maveerar ("Great Heroes") Day" address, one that is looked upon both by the Colombo based diplomatic community as well as local political leaders.

If Mr. Prabhakaran did not have anything to say in the form of "military achievements" outside the North and East before October 15 (the attack inside Yala), there are two incidents he could now boast of, one in the deep south and the other in a historic area under Government control. That is in his speech, which is viewed as a declaration of guerrilla policy for the coming year.

Thus, the task of preventing any more attacks that will give further leverage to the LTTE lay in the hands of the Security Forces and the Police. That is the challenge before them in the coming days and weeks.

Sweeping powers for new chief

Ma. Gen. Sanath Karunaratne

All military and police activity in the Anuradhapura district has been brought under Major General Sanath Karunaratne who was last week named Overall Operations Commander.
Defence Ministry sources said yesterday he has been given six specific tasks as his responsibility. They are:

  • Exercise command over Army, Navy, Air Force, Police, Special Task Force (STF) and Civil Security Department personnel tasked for operational duties within the Anuradhapura district.
  • Prepare and implement operational plans within the district.
  • Co-ordinate all deployment and operations within the district.
  • Co-ordinate all intelligence agency activities.
  • Co-ordinate matters pertaining to civil/commercial security and civil defence organisations.
  • Prepare contingency plans, rehearse and implement them.

All security establishments, police stations civil/commercial security organisations within the Anuradhapura district will come under his command.

Meanwhile a new Directorate of Ground Operations has been created at the Air Force Headquarters. Earlier, functions relating to ground operations came under the purview of Director (Operations).

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