Force studies Tiger air power
President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga last week apprised
two former United States Presidents - George Bush and Bill Clinton
- over a matter of serious concern to her Government.
is the fact that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has
acquired air capability. The disclosure came in the course of a
25-minute brief she gave them. The main focus was the aftermath
of the tsunami catastrophe and how her Government was handling rehabilitation
references to the LTTE came when she explained how the Government
was trying to work with Tiger guerrillas after the tsunami disaster.
She spoke of the recruitment of child soldiers and military preparations
by the guerrillas. The two former Presidents listened intently but
did not make any comments.
five days later, last Friday, President Kumaratunga conferred further
with her officials about measures necessary to counter threats posed
by this new development. This is whilst she awaited an official
report to enable the Government to raise issue through diplomatic
developments came as the Sri Lanka Air Force has told the Government
it now has irrefutable evidence that the Tiger guerrillas possess
one light aircraft and an airstrip. The quality of images obtained
by the Israeli built Searcher Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) on the
second aircraft is still causing some difficulty. The Air Force
is unable to conclusively identify its broader characteristics but
Air Force has pointed out that during the protracted separatist
war with Tiger guerrillas, the security forces have been sprung
with many a dramatic shock or surprise. Through them the guerrillas
had gained a tilt in the military balance in their favour, at least
for a while. It began in April 1995 when the guerrillas introduced
Surface-to-Air missiles leaving the Air Force with no counter measures
for a considerable time. During this period the guerrillas maintained
a decisive edge. It took a while before the security forces wrested
the initiative by acquiring counter measures that included air defence
systems and sophisticated radar.
the recent developments, shocking enough during the period of a
three year ceasefire, appear to have put the clock back again. During
19 years of separatist war Tiger guerrillas have engaged the Army
and the Navy on land and at sea. Where the Air Force was concerned,
the challenges posed were all from the ground. This has been in
the form of gunfire and Surface-to-Air missile attacks. But the
scenario has now changed with the acquisition of air capability.
They have for the first time acquired the capability to engage Air
Force aircraft and helicopters in the skies.
a giant leap in their military preparedness has been achieved by
the LTTE during the period of the ceasefire. To say the least, the
UPFA Government has been caught by complete surprise. Firstly the
leadership was unaware or chose to ignore reports that a completely
new airstrip was being built near the Iranamadu tank. This was followed
by reports that light aircraft were using this airstrip.
Air Force has confirmed to the Government the chance discovery of
a guerrilla aircraft was made during a routine reconnaissance by
a UAV. It yielded, for the first time, the presence of a light aircraft.
It came both as a revelation and warning both to the Government
and the Air Force. This was revealed exclusively in The Sunday Times
(Situation Report - January 16). The report said: "Last Wednesday,
Israeli built Searcher Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) was scouring
the skies over Tiger guerrilla controlled Wanni. Controllers at
the Command Centre in Vavuniya were surprised to see an aircraft
on the ground. It was on the newly built airstrip east of the Iranamadu
far back as 2002, the Air Force had warned then United National
Front (UNF) Government of indications that the LTTE had redoubled
their efforts to acquire an air capability since the ceasefire.
It fell on deaf ears. On November 25, 2003, an Air Force UAV on
a routine reconnaissance mission obtained video footage of a vast
stretch of jungle being cleared south east of the Iranamadu Irrigation
tank. Thereafter, on February 16, 2004 UAV reconnaissance showed
construction work on a runway, 1250 metres long, on the cleared
site. Another UAV mission on September 30, 2004 further confirmed
that the airstrip had been paved, the threshold and the centreline
UAV findings came as irrefutable evidence that the LTTE had constructed
a new airstrip, one capable of operating medium sized aircraft in
and out of the Wanni. The Air Force reported that even some heavy
aircraft such as the Hercules C-130 could be accommodated. The Sunday
Times (Situation Report - December 12, 2004) revealed details of
how the guerrillas are readying an airstrip in Iranamadu. The report
was accompanied by a satellite image of the airstrip and surrounding
areas obtained exclusively by The Sunday Times.
Army's Directorate of Military Intelligence, The Sunday Times learnt,
had warned the Air Force earlier of the availability of information
that the LTTE had acquired two aircraft and possibly an Unmanned
Aerial Vehicle. This warning said there had also been moves to acquire
an unspecified number of light aircraft.
to the Air Force, the first UAV mission on January 12 was in the
morning. Video footage showed an aircraft parked at the southern
(05) end of the runway. A second UAV reconnaissance mission was
carried out in the night of January 12. Infra red images showed
another aircraft parked near a structure that resembled a makeshift
hangar. These images showed that the second aircraft had been concealed
under camouflage netting to hide its presence.
February 3, ahead of Independence Day observances, an Air Force
UAV on a routine reconnaissance flight over Iranamadu during night
videoed an aircraft touching down in the newly built airstrip. This
became the first confirmation through visual images that the LTTE
was in possession of aircraft, as revealed in The Sunday Times (Situation
Report - February 6).
to the Air Force, the possession of an airstrip can be advantageous
to the LTTE in a number of ways. Among them:
could operate medium sized aircraft flying in and out of Wanni with
ease. This could become a means to transport all kinds of military
could be used to launch ultra light, light or medium aircraft for
offensive operations or attacks.
can form the nucleus for a flying training establishment.
can be utilised for more devious purposes like forcing a hijacked
aircraft to land in the guerrilla controlled territory.
for the acquisition of light aircraft, the Air Force believes there
may be a number of reasons. Among them:
aircraft may have been moved to the airstrip for protection after
the tsunami damage in guerrilla controlled areas.
deliberate show of strength, a morale booster to the civilians in
precursor to using the air assets for offensive air operations against
Government assets. This is either through the use of aircraft to
drop bombs or fire at targets. They could also use an aircraft as
a "flying" bomb.
phase before commencement of operations to transport cadres and
material from one theatre to another.
if the Air Force has not spelt it out, in the political sense, the
acquisition of air capability by the Tigers confers on them a tremendous
advantage. It enhances their bargaining power at the peace talks
whenever they resume. In fact it is no secret that the LTTE's military
capability has grown in strength during the period of the ceasefire.
And now, the acquisition of air capability consolidates the position
further. If the previous UNF Government paved the way for these
developments by not keeping matters under check, the ruling UPFA
Government has done no better. Despite a panic reaction, they are
yet to appreciate the manifold dangers that portend.
interpreting the images, the Air Force has come to the conclusion
that the first one spotted was either a single engine or twin engine
light aircraft. Earlier, it also considered the possibility that
it was a mock up. This was on the basis of suspicion that the infra
red imagery obtained from different angles indicated a uniform heat
signature. Aircraft with engines on the wings or nose could in all
probability be the "heat signature" of an engine in the
nose. However, the Air Force is categorical in their assertion that
the LTTE is in possession of at least one aircraft.
for the second aircraft, Air Force officials have attempted several
times to co-relate the images obtained. This is with catalogues
of aircraft available for purchase in commercial markets in order
to obtain at least an approximate estimate of its capabilities.
The quality of the images prevented a detailed and positive identification.
But the Air Force strongly believes such an aircraft can be thought
to possess the capability to fly for about 350 nautical miles at
an average speed of approximately 150 miles (or 240 kilometres)
per hour. Further searches are now being continued by the Air Force.
Sunday Times learns the Air Force has identified a number of potential
targets if the Tiger guerrillas use their new airstrip as a platform
for attacks using their aircraft.
peace talks now stalled and attention being focused on a joint mechanism
between the Government and the LTTE to share tsunami relief aid,
the acquisition of air capability by the guerrillas is no doubt
a thorn in the flesh. That is for the Government. How it will reconcile
the two issues only the coming weeks will reveal.
still alive at funeral
V.K. Erambu master's abandoned house in Pungudutivu, one of
the outlying islands off the Jaffna Pennisula. Navy personnel
on a routine patrol take a look. Photo: Ishara S. Kodikara
a few but formidable faction in the dovecotes of power in Colombo
who still wish to believe Tiger guerrilla leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran
is dead and gone; there was more news this week. But it was not
to their liking.
more Mr. Prabhakaran made an appearance, this time in public, for
a family funeral. That was to pay his respects to V.K. Erambu Master,
his father-in-law, who passed away on Wednesday. His body lay at
the LTTE's Thooyavan School of Political Science in Kilinochchi.
The building adjoins the Peace Secretariat there. He turned up with
his entire family, as usual, under heavy security.
was also later present at the private funeral yesterday. Ten relatives
of Mr. Prabhakaran's family, all holding Danish passports arrived
in Colombo yesterday from Malaysia in a Gulf Air flight. They were
received at the Bandaranaike International Airport by an official
from the Peace Secretariat. Thereafter, the ten family members were
taken under armed escort to Omanthai from where they crossed the
"no man's land" to enter guerrilla held territory. They
were on time to attend the funeral which took place yesterday.
news of Erambu Master's death was tucked away in the obituary columns
on Page 2 of Uthayan, Jaffna's leading Tamil newspaper. In addition
to Uthayan, all other Jaffna based newspapers were advised by a
senior cadre of the LTTE not to provide any news coverage to the
death or other related activities.
to the obscure obituary notice, Erambu Master was the husband of
Sinnamah and the father of Devi, Girithran, Mathivathani, Balachandran
(Maveerar or "Great Hero") and father-in-law of Kumarathas
and Prabhakaran. The notice called upon family members, relatives
and friends to accept this intimation and added that funeral arrangements
would be notified later.
Master's third daughter, Mathivathani, a student of Jaffna University
married Mr. Prabhakaran. Romance between the two developed after
she together with other students was abducted by Tiger guerrillas
for defying a decree to call off a strike at the University.
rich family, Erambu Master, his wife and children lived in a large
house in Pungudutivu, an island outlying the Jaffna peninsula. They
abandoned their house after Jaffna fell to the security forces following
the string of military operations codenamed "Operation Jaya
Sikurui" (or Victory Assured). The house still remains vacant.
The area now comes under the control of the Sri Lanka Navy. The
house has become an attraction to visitors to the area.
Master, a member of the Vellala caste, was a popular school teacher
in the area. When he was living, he was decorated by Mr. Prabhakaran
as "Naatru pattalar," (the equivalent of a patriotic citizen),
the second highest "honour" conferred by the LTTE. The
first is "Mamanithar" or Great Man.
Prahbakaran and wife Ms Mathivathani named their first son Charles
Anthony. This was in memory of his close friend and confidant, Charles
Anthony alias Seelan who died in an Army ambush near Meesalai (Jaffna
peninsula) on July 16, 1983. It was to avenge this killing that
Mr. Prabhakaran triggered off the first major land mine explosion
that killed an officer and 12 soldiers on July 23, 1983 - the precursor
to the unfortunate ethnic violence. Mr Prabhakaran also named a
crack unit as the "Charles Anthony Brigade." They named
his second child, a daughter as Dwarka.
named their third son as Balachandran. This was after Ms Mathivathani's
brother who died in a confrontation. It was in 1988 when the Indian
Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) conducted a rounding up operation in
Puliyampokkanai in the Wanni. He was shot dead and was listed as
a "Maveerar" or "Great Hero."
Prabhakaran's first formal appearance after reports that he had
died came during a meeting with a Norwegian peace delegation led
by Foreign Minister, Jan Petersen. It took place in Kilinochchi
on January 22. The media, both local and foreign, were allowed to
take pictures on this occasion. This laid to rest rumours to a large
a slightly obese Mr. Prabhakaran prompted some quarters to declare
he was a substitute and did not resemble the LTTE leader in previous
photographs. Despite Mr. Petersen's strong assertion that Mr. Prabhakaran
was alive and he met him, a few in the Government did not believe
some of them may still wish to believe it was an impersonator who
came for Mr. Prabhakaran's father-in-law's funeral. This is because
the LTTE leader is dead, they would still argue.
them, it is now a headless guerrilla group that is demanding a separate
state or talking peace with the Government of Sri Lanka. It is a
headless group that is demanding an Interim Self Governing Authority
(ISGA). It is also a headless group that is now making preparations
for war if they fail to win their demands.
sleuths can swear the power brokers are wrong. But they don't believe
their own sleuths. Needless to say, the credibility crisis continues.