ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday November 4, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 23
Columns - Situation Report  

SLAF regains its image with powerful strike

  • Killing of Tamilselvan and five others devastating blow to Tigers
  • More disclosures on the Anuradhapura airbase attack

By Iqbal Athas

Near crack of dawn Friday, a Kfir and a MiG-27, both ground attack aircraft, took to the skies from the Sri Lanka Air Force base at Katunayake. For nearly 15 minutes, they maintained an altitude of some 15,000 feet. As their target neared, they dropped altitude. At some 1,000 feet, they dived and dropped their lethal cargo of bombs. It was on a building near the 150th milepost along the A-9 highway at Kilinochchi. The aircraft returned to base safely thereafter.

Six hours later news spread that Suppiah Palani Tamilslevan, head of the Political Wing of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), had been killed. Some Government leaders and even those in the defence establishment were receiving calls from London. Several minutes later, Seeran, Secretary of the LTTE said in a press release:

Guerrillas who took part in the Anuradhapura attack being “decorated” by LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.

"With deep sorrow we announce to the people of Tamil Eelam, the Tamil people living all over the world and the international community that at 6 p.m. today, Friday 2nd November 2007, Head of our organisation's Political Division, Brig. S.P. Tamilselvan was killed by the Sri Lankan Air Force aerial bombing. With him Lt. Col. Anpumani (Alex), Major Mihutan, Capt. Nethagy, Lt. Adchgivel and Lt. Vahaikumaran were also killed."

It was world news. Locally, when the radio stations interrupted their programmes to break the news, there was euphoria in several areas. In Kurunegala, people lit crackers. At a garage in Potuhera, mechanics stopped work, gathered together to clap and dance. "Maru vedey (good work)" exhorted the owner. Others clapped and cheered. International satellite TV networks and radio stations broke the news. The Tamil diaspora in Canada were ringing the LTTE satellite telephones in Kilinochchi. They were calling for revenge.

Soon after the incident, Tiger guerrillas had sealed off the entire area where bombs fell. They conducted a thorough search. Officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) were informally told of the bombing incident and the death of Tamilselvan. It is thereafter that they went public.

The Air Force has struck a devastating blow to the LTTE. That was just 12 days after the LTTE attack on the airbase at Anuradhapura where heavy damage was inflicted. Tamilselvan was no ordinary person. He was the face of the LTTE. As head of its peace team, he led delegations for peace talks with the Government in Bangkok, Oslo and Geneva. He spoke for the LTTE with diplomats and media personnel visiting Kilinochchi. Even if he was at loggerheads with the military wing, particularly with the leadership of their intelligence unit, Tamilselvan enjoyed the confidence of his leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. Thus, he was the voice of Mr. Prabhakaran to the outside world.

Forty-year-old Tamilselvan was born on August 29, 1967 in Chavakachcheri. He is the father of a daughter and son. This is how Adele Balasingham (widow of LTTE ideologue the late Anton Balasingham) describes Tamilselvan in her book The Will to Freedom:

"Mr. Tamil Chelvan was one of the youngest cadres to join the struggle in those early days in 1984. It was his passion for the struggle, coupled with his dedication which caught the eye of Mr. Prabhakaran. Following his military training, Mr. Prabhakaran inducted Tamil Chelvan into his inner circle by recruiting him as one of the most trusted bodyguards. In terms of struggle, Tamil Chelvan is a contemporary of Sornam having functioned as a bodyguard to Mr. Prabhakaran. (Note: Sornalingam alias Sornam, a former bodyguard of the LTTE leader and later head of their Air Wing was killed during an Army Long Range Reconnaisance Patrol attack)

"He was promoted to the post of commander of Tenmarachchi, where he was faced with the challenge of leading the resistance against the occupying Indian Army. He succeeded in this task and was rewarded with the post of Commander of Jaffna where he engaged in many battles in the defence of the peninsula. Tamil Chelvan also wears his battle scars from the several occasions he has been wounded. The most dangerous injury that threatened his life occurred when shrapnel from exploding aerial bombs shattered his leg.

S.P. Tamilslevan

"With his limb hanging from his body and bleeding profusely, Tamil Chelvan was on the brink of death when he arrived at the Jaffna hospital for resuscitation treatment. Miraculously he survived his injuries and, after a long period of recuperation and learning to walk with the support of a walking stick, he resumed his duties. Tamil Chelvam was promoted as head of the political section following the Mahattaya scandal and Kittu's unfortunate death at the hands of the Indian Navy. He remains at the post.

"As a trusted confidant of Mr. Prabhakaran, Tamil Chelvan's work has steadily expanded to include, apart from his many responsibilities as the leader of the political wing of the LTTE, the task of arranging LTTE's functions, including the weddings. Assisting him was Sudha, the head of Tamil Chelvan's administrative structure, a tireless and creative worker. Tamil Chelvan delegated to Sudha the responsibility of attending to our care and maintenance while we were in Jaffna and in Vanni.

"With Mr. Tamil Chelvan's interest and Sudha's skills our life in both Jaffna and the Vanni was made that much easier. Tamil Chelvan was generous to us and made every effort to ensure that we were relatively comfortable. He regularly sent me fruit and vegetables that he ordered specially from the Vavuniya town.

"In recognition of Bala's lengthy history with the organisation, his experience and wide knowledge, Tamil Chelvan always consulted Bala and valued his advice on wide ranging issues. Bala supported Tamil Chelvan with his intellectual input into the political work. He was often a visitor to our house to discuss political issues and quite often for a meal. His favourite dish was my white fish curry (sothi), from which he enjoyed eating the cooked head of the fish."

Tamilselvan's close confidant Alex ("Lt. Col. Anpumani") was also killed. He accompanied the political wing leader on his travel abroad for both peace talks and fund-raising activities. Alex was also a cameraman and often carried a laptop computer that was used by his leader. The building that was bombed is one that had been used as a living quarters by leading members of the LTTE. Mr. Tamilselvan who was used to the habit of shifting locations regularly had chosen to spend Thursday night there. Other details relating to his death appear elsewhere in The Sunday Times.

The air strike that killed the LTTE political wing leader and five others has helped the Air Force regain its public image. This is particularly after the October 22 guerrilla attack on the SLAF airbase in Anuradhapura. Besides three different investigations that are under way, a fourth has now been tasked to go into how the incident occurred.

That is by a tri-services board. It is headed by the Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda (Chairman), and comprises Major General Lawrence Fernando, Chief of Staff of the Army, Air Vice Marshal Ravi Arunthavanathan, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Air force, Jayanath Colombage, Chief of Staff of the Navy and Mohanti Peiris, Director (Legal) of the Army. They are expected to travel to Anuradhapura airbase.

Already two different Courts of Inquiry - one to probe the incident and the other the crash of the Bell 212 helicopter - have been appointed by the Commander of the Air Force, Air Marshal Roshan Gunathilake. In addition, a team from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) is also conducting a detailed probe.

More details of issues relating to the guerrilla attack on the airbase are now surfacing. In one instance, it has come to light that troops manning check-points in Anuradhapura had sold tickets to the Motor Cross rally. It was held just the day prior to the attack. Among those who had purchased the tickets were civilians living in uncontrolled areas of the Wanni. One of them had disclosed he paid Rs 50 for a ticket. Though this move did not contribute to the attack, purchasing those tickets would have helped those living in the Wanni to gain access to a military-sponsored event.

Air Force sources say that within hours of the attack on the airbase, ground attack aircraft bombed the LTTE airbase in Iranamadu. It is located south-east of Kilinochchi adjacent to the Iranamadu tank. These sources said during a sortie where the aircraft flew low, the guerrillas had fired what is suspected to be Surface-to-Air Missiles. However, counter missile systems were activated. The pilots boldly dived to bomb a location where the two guerrilla aircraft involved in the airbase attack had landed. The lights at the airbase had been on for quite sometime.

A damaged Chinese built K-8 intermediate trainer aircraft inside the SLAF hangar at Anuradhapura. Note the glass canopy is warped due to the heat from fire. The nose and the wings are damaged. This is just one of five K-8 aircraft that were inside the hangar.

There were claims by some officials that the Situation Report last week had falsely reported that eight Chinese built K-8 aircraft of the SLAF were destroyed during the airbase attack. One of them claimed that the SLAF possessed only one and that our report was wrong. The Sunday Times stands by its statement that one K-8 was destroyed outside the hangar and that five others were damaged inside the hangar. A picture on this page shows one of the five damaged K-8 aircraft inside the hangar.

I referred last week to a cunning ploy by the LTTE in cropping a photograph they released to maintain only 21 of their cadres were engaged in the attack on the airbase. I disclosed that the CID investigators have reason to believe that 27 guerrilla cadres were involved in the attack. There was another LTTE action that confirmed beyond doubt that the numbers that came were more than their claimed 21.

The Tamilnet website on Thursday said that LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran conferred "Awards of Valour for Tiger cadres who excelled in their performance in the Anuradhapura operation against the Sri Lankan airbase." It said there were four different decorations - "one for individual performance, one for group performance in warfare, one for individual extraordinary performance in a particular field in warfare and for five consecutive and successful flight operations."

The pictures accompanying the story had Mr. Prabhakaran pinning the medals on two "Air Tigers." Their faces were covered. Were only two photographs published to avoid the exact number involved in the attack becoming public? It is therefore clear from the Tamilnet account that some of the cadres returned to the Wanni.

See pictures on this page. Security in the City of Colombo and suburbs has been intensified following Friday's air raid that killed Mr. Tamilselvan. Troops are on high alert. The guerrillas would want to retaliate for the devastating loss they have suffered. That is no secret. Thus, the need for greater vigilance is a sine qua non.

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