Air 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.

That 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 and reconstruction.

The 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.

Just 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 channels.

These 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 studies continue.

The 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.

But 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.

Such 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.

The 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 Irrigation tank."

As 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 markings added.

The 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.

The 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.

According 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.

On 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).

According to the Air Force, the possession of an airstrip can be advantageous to the LTTE in a number of ways. Among them:

It could operate medium sized aircraft flying in and out of Wanni with ease. This could become a means to transport all kinds of military hardware.

It could be used to launch ultra light, light or medium aircraft for offensive operations or attacks.

It can form the nucleus for a flying training establishment.

It can be utilised for more devious purposes like forcing a hijacked aircraft to land in the guerrilla controlled territory.

As for the acquisition of light aircraft, the Air Force believes there may be a number of reasons. Among them:

The aircraft may have been moved to the airstrip for protection after the tsunami damage in guerrilla controlled areas.

A deliberate show of strength, a morale booster to the civilians in the area.

A 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.

A preparatory phase before commencement of operations to transport cadres and material from one theatre to another.

Even 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.

By 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.

As 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.

The 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.

With 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.

Prabha 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

For 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.

Once 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.

He 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.

The 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.

According 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.

Erambu 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.

A 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.

Erambu 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.

Mr. 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.

They 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."

Mr. 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 extent.

But 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 it.

Perhaps 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.

For 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.

Intelligence sleuths can swear the power brokers are wrong. But they don't believe their own sleuths. Needless to say, the credibility crisis continues.

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