In its first-ever simultaneous air and ground attack, single-engine, propeller driven aircraft of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) bombed the Sri Lankan Air Force's base at Anuradhapura, 210 km north of Colombo, while their ground forces attacked the base early on Monday.
The government said that two bombs were dropped by two small aircraft, presumably Czech-made Zlin-143s ,which the LTTE had used earlier in its three raids around Colombo and Palaly in north Sri Lanka.
Informed sources told Hindustan Times that four to five SLAF aircraft were destroyed, though the government admitted the loss of only three, namely, two MI-24 helicopter gun ships on the ground, and a Bell-212 chopper which crashed en route to the battle field from its base at Vavuniya further to the North. The chopper had crashed at Doramandalawa, near Mihintale. The damage was considerable given the fact that only two bombs were dropped on the base.
Iqbal Athas, Sri Lanka correspondent of Jane's Defense Weekly told Hindustan Times, that that the SLAF's Chinese-made K-8 jet trainer and a propeller driven naval reconnaissance plane were also destroyed, crippling the Sri Lankan Navy's deep sea operations. He feared that 12 to 18 aircraft might have been damaged or destroyed.
The government's Media Centre for National Security (MCNS) announced that five airmen were killed and 18 were injured. The dead including two involved in the chopper crash. A diplomatic source said that while the two attacking aircraft managed to get away, the rebels lost 15 to 17 men or the majority of those who took party in the assault.
The Tamil website www.pathivu.com said that ground troops of the LTTE had begun an attack on the airbase at 3.20 am, and at 4 am, the LTTE pressed its fledgling Tamileelam Air Force (TAF) into action.
"The intruding aircraft were detected on time, but the aircraft on the ground could not take off because of the ground attack," a diplomatic source explained.
But Iqbal Athas wondered why the expensive MIG-27s, which the government said could be airborne in 10 minutes, had not taken off from their base in Katunayake near Colombo to meet the air attack, which was the fourth in a series this year.
This time, the LTTE considered air action to be absolutely necessary since the SLAF was all along enjoying complete mastery over the skies with its MI-24s choppers and Kfirs and MIG-27s jet bombers. These were crippling the rebels on the ground. The LTTE was finding it very difficult to launch and sustain any ground action under these circumstances.
A Tamil source, quoting a Tamil TV channel, said that the attackers came not from Vavuniya in the north, as one would expect, but from the impenetrable Wilpattu jungles on the Western coast. A military expert however said that it was not difficult for 25 to 30 men to infiltrate an area deep in enemy territory over a period of time, and assemble for an attack without being noticed.
LTTE'S air capability
Earlier, on March 26, the LTTE had attacked the Katunayake airbase, 30 kms north of Colombo. The attack by two aircraft at 12.45 am, had hit an engineering facility and returned to base. Though no significant damage was done, the LTTE had demonstrated its air capability, including night flying capability, and the ability to return to base after flying about 500 to 600 km, mostly over the territory of the adversary.
On April 24, LTTE planes hit an army camp near the Palaly air base in the northern district of Jaffna, after failing to bomb the air base itself. Six soldiers were killed in the air raid.
On the night of April 28-29, as Sri Lankans were watching the cricket World Cup final match, LTTE aircraft bombed key oil storage facilities at Kolonnawa and Muthurajawela in and around Colombo city. Again, no great damage was inflicted, but the capital city of more than a million, shook with fright.
A second effort to hit the hangars housing the MIGs at the Katunayake air base near Colombo, had failed, though, like before, the attackers got away, even as anti-aircraft guns boomed for hours.
New dimension added to war
Asked about the significance of the first ever simultaneous land and air action by the LTTE in the 25 year war, a Sri Lankan military expert said that the LTTE had wanted to convey to Sri Lankans and the world at large, that it was not down and out, as portrayed by the Sri Lankan government's spin doctors and a large section of the local media, but could stage completely unorthodox attacks on strategic targets.
Though the damage done in the air raids of March and April was negligible, the LTTE had introduced a new dimension to the war in Sri Lanka – the sky had become a battle field in the true sense of the term. Air defense had become a matter of grave concern not only to Sri Lanka but India too, which supplied 2D radars for the defense of Colombo.
The LTTE had also demonstrated its ability to convert the civilian Z-143s into bombers, to fly at night over enemy territory, dodge radars and return to base unharmed. Despite the use of UAVs, reconnaissance flights, regular bombing raids and ground intelligence, the Sri Lankan forces have not been able to neutralize the LTTE's baby flying brigade.