The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has once again shown why it is considered one of the most formidable militant groups around the world. The air attack on Colombo’s Katunayake airport was in itself largely symbolic, though it was a major propaganda coup. The group whose other ‘achievements’ include the creation of suicide bombers was known to have acquired some kind of light aircraft in 2005, but their use now was certainly a major surprise. In recent months, the Tigers have been hard-pressed by the successes of the Sri Lankan armed forces. With the help of rebel commander Karuna, Sri Lanka has re-established government authority in large parts of the eastern province. The Sri Lankan Air Force (Slaf), which has been equipped since the mid-1990s with Israeli Kfir, Russian/Ukrainian MiG-27s and Chinese F7 aircraft, has played a major role in the ambitious strategy to finish off the LTTE through military means. The aim is to first limit the LTTE to the Wanni jungles, away from its stronghold in Jaffna, and then systematically eliminate its cadres and infrastructure.
The relentless bombardment of LTTE-controlled areas by the Slaf is unlikely to have had much of a military impact on the guerrilla-type capabilities of the Tigers, but they have been having a deep effect on the morale of the Tiger’s supporters. Monday’s attack at Sri Lanka’s premier civil and military airport will no doubt give the LTTE a shot in the arm. With a bit more luck the LTTE ‘bombers’, who were flying a light sports and touring aircraft, could have knocked out a couple of aircraft on the ground. In a ground raid in 2001, they wiped out half the national airline. Fortunately, this time they did not succeed.
The decision of some airlines to stop using the airfield means that the Tigers have managed to send their message to the international community as well. The fact that the LTTE has aircraft that can toss a few bombs may not mean much to the military equation, but this presents a clear danger in that loaded with explosives the aircraft could be used to target VIPs or sensitive government buildings. Sri Lanka will now have to pay urgent attention to protecting these assets, as indeed eliminating this nascent LTTE capability.