BANGALORE - Even as Sri Lankan armed forces gain ground in their military
operations against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in northern Sri
Lanka, the LTTE has signaled yet again its capacity to rain destruction from
On the night of August 26, two LTTE light aircraft sneaked into airspace over a
tightly secured key naval base in the eastern port city of Trincomalee and
dropped two bombs.
Four days later, the LTTE stuck again, this time in the heart of the capital,
Colombo. A parcel bomb went off in Pettah, a crowded commercial area near the
bus station and railway terminus, injuring about 50 people.
While the air strikes on the Eastern Naval Command
headquarters signal the LTTE's continuing capability to breach air space of
even high security zones, the blast in Colombo indicates that it can carry out
attacks in "tightly secure" Colombo.
Last month, Colombo played host to the 15th summit of the South Asian
Association for Regional Cooperation. The summit took place under unprecedented
levels of security in Colombo. Two Indian warships, INS Ranvir and INS Mysore,
were docked off the Colombo coast to deal with any contingency.
The air strike on Trincomalee has been described by the Sri Lankan military as
an "abortive raid". Indeed, the LTTE aircraft had to pull away under fire from
anti-aircraft guns. And the airstrike did not damage the Eastern Naval
Headquarters at Trincomalee and only one of the two bombs dropped went off.
"Still, the mission was partially successful. At least 10 sailors were injured
in the strike. What is more, the aircraft successfully dodged anti-aircraft
gunfire," a Tamil journalist based in Colombo told Asia Times Online.
This is the sixth aerial attack by the LTTE's air wing. On March 26, 2007, the
LTTE carried out its first air strike, dropping bombs on the Katunayake
military air base near Colombo international airport. While that strike failed
to destroy any of the Sri Lanka Air Force's MiG-27 and Kfir fighter jets lined
up at the base, it announced the LTTE's arrival as the world's only insurgent
group with air capability. The attack also sent out an audacious message: the
Sri Lankan government had lost its monopoly over the country's air space.
Less than a month later, a Tiger aircraft headed towards Palaly air base in
Jaffna. While anti-aircraft fire prevented an assault on Palaly, the LTTE was
able to hit nearby military bunker. Three days later, the LTTE air wing struck
again, this time dropping bombs on oil storage facilities near Colombo. Then in
October, LTTE aircraft targeted a key air base at Anuradhapura, 212 kilometers
north of Colombo. The air strikes were part of a combined land-air operation on
the Anuradhapura base. In April, LTTE aircraft dropped three bombs on military
installations near the army's forward defense lines in Weli Oya.
The Tamil Eelam Air Force, as the LTTE's air wing is called, includes just a
few light aircraft. It is nothing compared to the Sri Lankan Air Force. Still,
it cannot be dismissed as inconsequential. It has survived the air force's
repeated bombing raids on its air infrastructure at Iranamadu in northern Sri
Lanka and has repeatedly breached air defenses, even in high-security zones.
And its aircraft have escaped unscathed from anti-aircraft fire during all
raids so far.
The air strikes will boost the sagging morale of LTTE cadres, but it will not
correct the current tilt in favor of the military in the ongoing war in the
The LTTE has suffered a series of reverses on the battlefield over the past
year. In July 2007, the last of its strongholds in the multi-ethnic Eastern
Province fell to government forces. Recently, the government consolidated
political control over the east through holding elections there. In the year
since, government troops have advanced into LTTE-controlled territory. The
Lankan military claims it is around 12km from Kilinochchi town, where the
LTTE's political headquarters is based. The LTTE has lost several top leaders
and hundreds of cadres over the past year. Over the past month, a string of
towns and LTTE bases in the north have fallen into government hands.
Battles between the Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE are bound to become
bloodier as soldiers close in on Kilinochchi town. The government has called on
civilians in Kilinochchi to leave their homes and flee to government-held
Even as the Sri Lankan armed forces step up their battle against the LTTE, they
are having to grapple with large-scale desertions. The government had announced
an amnesty to deserters this year, in a bid to draw soldiers back into the
forces. Over 1,700 deserters returned while 1,600 were arrested, army
spokesperson Udaya Nanayakkara said last month. The amnesty was withdrawn last
month, which means that about 12,000 soldiers and officers will face punitive
"The 160,000-strong Sri Lankan armed forces will need every one of their
soldiers for the upcoming battle for Kilinochchi, where the LTTE is expected to
send its cadres in unceasing waves to defend the stronghold," the Tamil
"Much will depend on how India reacts to the high civilian casualties that are
inevitable in the event of the army laying siege to the LTTE's political
headquarters," he said.
Some believe that India might pressure the Lankan government to back off.
Recently, when India's National Security Advisor M K Narayanan observed in an
interview with the Straits Times of Singapore that even if the government wins
the battle for Kilinochchi, it will not win the war unless a viable political
solution that will win over the Tamil people is put in place, it created a bit
of a flutter in Colombo.
It prompted a section of Sri Lankans to recall events in the summer of 1987. An
article by Dharisha Bastians in The Nation, an English weekly, recalled that in
1987, when the Sri Lankan armed forces were rapidly advancing in the
Vadamrachchi sector of the Jaffna Peninsula and had the LTTE "on the run",
India air-dropped food rations over the peninsula for the beleaguered Tamil
population. The Sri Lankan government subsequently halted its military
operations and came around to signing an agreement with India that aimed at a
political settlement of the conflict.
"With the infamous 1987 parippu [lentil] drop still fresh in their
minds, Sri Lankans continue to be wary of the levels of Indian involvement in
the Lankan conflict," Bastians observes.
Sri Lankan hardliners, who believe that a military solution to the conflict is
possible, resent India's calls for a political settlement. Delhi believes that
only a negotiated political settlement will resolve the problem. Its appeals to
Colombo to return to the negotiating table are perceived by hawks as
Will Delhi put pressure on Colombo to back off when troops reach Kilinochchi
town? While some Sri Lankan analysts are drawing parallels with the 1987
scenario, this is unlikely.
Much has changed in India's relations with the LTTE since the summer of 1987.
The LTTE was designated a terrorist outfit by India in 1992, its leader
Velupillai Prabhakaran is wanted for his role in the assassination of former
prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. In 1995, India did not intervene when the Sri
Lankan army wrested control of the Jaffna Peninsula from the LTTE.
In the past few years, India's military and economic cooperation with the Sri
Lankan government has grown significantly. It is supplying the Lankan armed
forces with non-lethal military hardware, backing their operations with naval
surveillance of the waters off its coast and providing key intelligence input.
It is reported to be virtually throwing open the doors of its different
military institutions to train Sri Lankan armed forces in counter-insurgency
operations and is said to be offering them specialized naval courses in
gunnery, navigation, communication and anti-submarine warfare. These have
helped in no small measure in the weakening of the LTTE over the past couple of
The LTTE is likely to put up a fierce fight to defend Kilinochchi and
Mullaitivu - the last two districts under its control. It is said to be
prepared to sacrifice several thousand fighters to defend these strongholds.
Sri Lankan hawks have been wondering whether India will intervene to prevent
the fall of Kilinochchi into the government's hands. The question they should
be asking is whether India will go to Colombo's rescue in the event of the LTTE
inflicting very heavy casualties on the Sri Lankan armed forces in the battle
for Kilinochchi, before retreating to the jungles.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in