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India concerned over LTTE air attack in Lanka

India views with serious concern the air attack on Sri Lanka's only international airport by the Tamil Tigers, a giant leap for an insurgent group that has again proved its unlimited resilience even amid severe adversities.

world Updated: Mar 26, 2007 12:30 IST

India views with serious concern the air attack on Sri Lanka's only international airport by the Tamil Tigers, a giant leap for an insurgent group that has again proved its unlimited resilience even amid severe adversities.

It is the first time a rebel outfit in the world has carried out an aerial attack without external support.

Although it has been known for years that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) possessed a limited air wing, its successful ability to carry out a bombing mission using two small planes involving some 400 km of flying distance and that too at night has rung alarm bells in the Indian establishment.

But officials here are quick to point out that they don't see the LTTE attacking Indian interests anywhere, including in Tamil Nadu, which is separated from Sri Lanka by a strip of sea.

Nevertheless, the fact that the LTTE, after years of speculation, has finally carried out an attack from the air is cause enough for worry, they say.

"It is a very, very serious development," a security official told the agency on condition of anonymity.

He added that if a LTTE aircraft could take off from Tigers-controlled Mullaitivu district, fly all the way to Colombo, bomb and return to base, then Tamil Nadu too could be easily accessed.

"In fact the distance to Tamil Nadu would be shorter."

Said another official: "It is a great demonstration of their tactical ability. They have shown what they are capable of."

Added a third official: "It shows the LTTE can widen the conflict. We don't know what else is in the offing."

Just after midnight on Sunday, two light aircraft of LTTE dropped explosives on that side of the Katunayake airport, near Colombo, where military planes were parked, killing at least three airmen and injuring several people.

The airport was immediately shut and incoming flights were diverted to India and Thailand.

The LTTE said the target of the attack was Kfir and MiG-27 jets which routinely bomb its areas in the island's northeast.

An LTTE spokesman added that other military facilities in Sri Lanka would be targets of future attacks.

Although Katunayake is a civilian airport, it has a military wing from where aircraft take off for bombing Tamil Tiger bases.

The LTTE did not say what aircraft were used in the attack. But it has been reported for some time that the Tigers possess at least one Czech made ZLIN Z-143 light aircraft and possibly a Swiss trainer plane besides a couple of helicopters.

An Indian journalist who visited LTTE territory in 2004 was shown photographs of a plane, with LTTE guerrillas taking salute.

The planes, experts feel, were most probably dismantled before being brought into the island and put together.

After initial failures, the LTTE built a runway 1,250 meters long in Mullaitivu district but refused international peace monitors access to it.

Two years ago India public aired its concern about the existence of military aircraft with LTTE.

In response, SP Tamilselvan, the LTTE political wing, said: "All our organisation's structures and efforts are aimed at protecting our people.

This is not in any way a threat to any other country in general, particularly India... India or the Indian people need not fear this. The surprise and concern voiced by India surprises us."

It was the LTTE's "Col Shankar" (real name V Sornalingam), a qualified aeronautic engineer from Canada who formerly headed the group's internal security wing, who set up the air wing of the Tigers called "Vaanpuligal", following the Indian military debacle in Sri Lanka.

LTTE cadres apparently trained in flying schools in two Western countries. A Sri Lankan "deep penetration unit" assassinated Shankar in September 2001.

For years, Colombo refused to admit that the Tigers possessed an air wing, even if nascent, despite the sightings of mysterious dots on Sri Lankan radars off the northeastern coast.

The LTTE maintained a silence too until November 1998 when two aircraft of the Air Tiger wing sprinkled flowers over the cemeteries of LTTE fighters at Mulliyawali in Mullaitivu district.

India's concern became public years later and it also supplied radars to Sri Lanka.

There are officials in India who feel the air attack could have been far worse had the LTTE chosen a more important target or gone for a suicide mission.

And they all agree that the event will be a great morale booster to LTTE supporters, particularly the Tamil diaspora, as it came at a time when the Tigers have faced serious military reverses.