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

It 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).

Within 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…"

Soon 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 losing thrust.

Creditably 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.

This 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.

During 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 houses.

By 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.

The 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 fire.

Air 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.

The 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.

It 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.

In 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 disastrous.

On 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.

Ukranian 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.

The 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.

If 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.

The 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.

A 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 district.

A 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.

One 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.

With 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.

On 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.

The 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.

At 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.

Word 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.

By 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.

By 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 flight.

He 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.

How 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.

Soon 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 activity.

The 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.

It 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.

Why 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.

One 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 they had.

Though 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.

The 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?

This 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.

References 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.

"The 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)

"Thereafter 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.

"The 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."

Interesting 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 it seems.

I 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."

I 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.

As 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.

The 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?

If 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.

Back to Top
 Back to Columns  

Copyright © 2001 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd. All rights reserved.