ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, April 01, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 44
Columns - Political Column

Defence chief drops bombshell on India

  • ACM criticizes radar as outdated and defective
  • SLAF spokesman in damage control measures to prevent diplomatic rift
  • Mangala was at airport during attack but chose to fly off

By Our Political Editor

Most Sri Lankans woke up to the shocking news last Monday morning. By dropping four crude bombs at the main base of the Sri Lanka Air Force at Katunayake, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had demonstrated they have now developed an air strike capability no matter whether it was primitive or not. What was disturbing was the fact that the news came when official accounts boasted of the Tiger guerrillas being badly weakened and only very little had to be done to defeat them.

The guerrilla bomb attack came at 12.45 a.m. or just 45 minutes after the dawn of Monday. Within minutes President Mahinda Rajapaksa was to personally take control of the situation. He was regularly in touch on the telephone with representatives of international media. He wanted to make sure their reportage did not say the international airport was under attack. Such a move would not only result in a drop of tourist and visitor arrivals but also lead to higher insurance premia for airlines operating from Colombo.

There were some tense moments when both the BBC and the CNN ran crawlers (or the moving strip of words at the bottom of the screen) that referred to the "airport attack." An erroneous news agency report had made such a reference and had found its way into the two international satellite news channels with a worldwide audience. President Rajapaksa rang one of the correspondents to have it corrected immediately. Both the BBC and the CNN corrected what was clearly a mistake. But some Government Ministers thought otherwise. During a news conference later on Monday these thoroughly excited Ministers described the mistake as an "international conspiracy" against Sri Lanka.

A Colonel at the Media Centre for National Security (MCNS) telephoned foreign correspondents with an important message. He told one of them "I am directed by my Honourable Minister to direct your headquarters to give him a call." The telephone number in a foreign country was given. The Minister is one known for his loquacious outburst on anything military, sometimes right, sometimes wrong. One irate correspondent was to bark back at the Colonel saying his international organization did not come under Lake House, or the Government's control to be giving such orders. Hence, he told the Colonel to tell the Minister to make the call himself if he wished to speak with him.

Joining in the exercise in 'damage control' was an Air Force spokesman. He telephoned both the local and foreign media to appeal that they should not make any reference to the malfunction of the two dimensional Indian built radar on the night of the Air Tiger attack. These calls were being made on Tuesday evening. The Air Force officer was to make clear his appeal was "only a request" and "not an order." That goes without saying that an Air Force officer however high his rank is cannot give "orders" to the media. The opposition United National Party (UNP) was angry with this officer's conduct and wants to name him when Parliament resumes sittings next week.
But there was also a valid reason why the Air Force officer had to plead with the media. The previous night (Monday), Chief of Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Donald Perera, the highest ranking serving military official in Sri Lanka, dropped a bombshell, himself. This was at a meeting President Rajapaksa had summoned with representatives of all political parties to be briefed on the air attack. Details of how the air attack took place are described by Our Defence Correspondent on the opposite page.

Air Chief Marshal Perera declared that the Air Defence system provided by the Government of India was an outdated piece of equipment. Despite several protests to the Indian High Commission in Colombo, he said, no corrective action has been taken by them. He said the equipment was defective and old. The faces of some Government officials present reddened at the remarks. Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga was to rush towards ACM Perera and whisper into his ears. Evidently, it was a warning to avoid bombarding India over the air raid. Thereafter he was to become cautious. One party leader said there were occasions when ACM Perera contradicted himself.

After the briefing ended, some of the party leaders were to chat informally with President Rajapaksa. The President was to reveal that hardcore guerrillas were drivers or were in the staff of some Tamil parliamentarians. He said a close watch was being kept on them. Only a week ago, one Tamil parliamentarian had travelled to the Wanni in a new car. He had left the vehicle behind and come in an old car. Asked at the Omanthai Entry-Exit point over what happened to the new vehicle he had taken, the parliamentarian had declared it broke down.

Even if Air Marshal Donald Perera dropped a bombshell against India and contradicted himself later at question time over other issues, he knew what he was talking about. As Air Marshal, he was the Commander of the Sri Lanka Air Force in 2005. In October that year he had written to China National Electronic Import Export Company cancelling a contract already entered into for the supply of 3D Air Defence Radar. He said "Due to the present developments in Sri Lanka, the Sri Lanka Air Force on behalf of the Government of Sri Lanka requests that the process of manufacture of the 3D Air Defence Radar be kept on hold temporarily until further notice." This came after the Government had made an advance payment to the Chinese company for the 3D Air Defence system.

The reason: Then India's High Commissioner Nirupama Rao had protested to former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga over the 3 D Air Defence radar from China. This was on the grounds that it would lead to security concerns for India since the radar in the 3 D system had a wider reach. Instead, she said the Government of India would offer a 2D Air Defence system and later upgrade it to a 4D system. The 2 D radar only gives the direction and the distance of a target. It is the 3 D radar that is, in addition to the two features, able to give the height (or altitude) of the target.

Kumaratunga ordered Donald Perera to cancel the Chinese deal. Thereafter, Sri Lanka Air Force teams were sent for training in air defence to the Indian Air Force base in Bangalore. The Sunday Times learnt Air Chief Marshal Perera's remarks had angered New Delhi. "The perception in New Delhi is that his remarks at the briefing to the political party leaders were pre-planned," a diplomatic source said. However, this charge was strongly refuted by officials in the Presidential Secretariat. An aide said "it were off-the-cuff personal remarks and did not represent the views of the Government of Sri Lanka. He was only speaking as an Air Force officer."

Either in the light of this or otherwise, the Indian response to last Monday's LTTE bomb attack was lukewarm and did not lay any blame on the guerrillas. Last Thursday, Indian Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon gave New Delhi based media a briefing on the upcoming SAARC summit. He was asked "After the air strikes, have you spoken to Sri Lanka?"

His reply: "With Sri Lanka, as I said, we have made it clear to everyone concerned. As I just said to the earlier question, we are very concerned at the escalation of violence. The air strike is one example of the escalation of that violence in the Sri Lankan conflict. Certainly, we will remain engaged with everyone, Sri Lankan Government and everyone, to see what we can do just not to ameliorate the conditions that have been created by this and the humanitarian effects of this escalation of this violence, but also to see what we can do to help towards a solution of this issue, to encourage Sri Lankans themselves to find a solution to this issue."

The strange irony of last Monday's Tiger guerrilla air raid on the SLAF base in Katunayake is the fact that no country has pointedly condemned the LTTE. India was not the only country to avoid any critical reference to the LTTE over the air raid. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's spokesman declared "He deeply regrets the air raids, military confrontations on the ground, and suicide bombings have become a daily occurrence, prompting massive displacement and suffering for civilians." China, still Sri Lanka's biggest supplier of military hardware, issued a brief statement condemning "terrorism." The silence in other world capitals was deafening and gave the Government a clear message that it was losing international confidence.

One of those who was in the forefront of the international campaign against the LTTE's acquisition of air capability was then Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar. According to a Foreign Ministry source closely associated with his efforts, the late Mr. Kadirgamar referred to media reports in 2005 about widespread concerns about the possibility of the LTTE acquiring an air offensive capability. He then told his counterparts from leading countries information gathered through sources confirm that the LTTE was in possession of mobile aircraft, of possible Czech origin.

Unfortunately, after Kadirgamar, the Government was unable to continue with the momentum, having had three Foreign Ministers in less than two years. none of them able to garner international support against the LTTE. One of them, Mangala Samaraweera, was himself caught up in the melee at the international airport last Monday, on his way to Singapore as CID detectives were preparing to quiz him over certain matters relating to his involvement with Tiran Alles, the businessman whom he appointed as head of the Airport Authority.

Rajapaksa was informed of Samaraweera's presence at the airport, awaiting the SIA flight, whereupon he promptly called him and offered assistance to have him brought to Colombo. Samaraweera might have felt safer at the airport, and take wing as quickly as possible to Singapore, which he did later that day when the flight eventually left.

Ironically, Opposition United National Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe had landed just a few hours earlier from his three day visit to Phuket in Thailand where he celebrated his 58th birthday. He is smugly saying that he has the dubious distinction of flying in the last Cathay Pacific flight to Sri Lanka, because the airline suspended its operations after the bombing raid.

Wickremesinghe had just about reached home when the news of the attack came through. By the next day, he was being pilloried by gaga Government Ministers for allowing the LTTE to build an Air Force through the CFA (ceasefire Agreement) he negotiated with the LTTE, but the UNP hit back at a news conference during the course of the week when Kandy District MP Lakshman Kiriella quoted from some comments made by Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa recently in a television chat show when he said;

" ….As an example, the BIA is not falling within the ambit of my defence ministry, but its security is my responsibility. If this responsibility was ignored, and as a consequence the Tigers attacked it to whom am I answerable? They will say the Secretary was asleep…..".

And so, it seems, the political dog-fight between the Government and the Opposition will spill over to the coming week. Next week, Wickremesinghe is due to make a speech in Parliament on the current situation, but his party aides were unable to confirm this, saying he may, at the last moment, palm the buck to some other MP to do the honours. And then, he leaves for Bhutan for the April Avurudhu (traditional New Year) vacations when Parliament, and his countrymen will also take a break; but the question is; will there be a respite from the LTTE, which is known to mount operations exactly during this period in the past.

Monday's air raid comes at a time when the so called Ellalan Force, said to be a front for the LTTE, warned of more attacks. A note sent to the media claims the Tamil educational community is being continuously targeted by the Sri Lankan government and its security forces. It accused the Sri Lanka Air Force of targeting a school and said "strict action against this criminal activities" would be taken.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.