SOUTH ASIA INTELLIGENCE REVIEW
From the mutually discrepant mass of published information relating to the recent LTTE attack targeted on the second largest operational base of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) – located at the southern periphery of Anuradhapura (an ancient capital-city site venerated for its associations with Buddhism, and a major urban centre in the northern plains of Sri Lanka), it is possible to extract the following facts as reasonably well established. The attack began at about 3.00 a.m. on October 22, 2007, with a group of LTTE cadres infiltrating the airbase. The group, carrying assault weaponry, soon brought under its control certain installations (including several gun emplacements) within the base, caused damage to aircraft and equipment, and, until about dawn, held on to a large part of the base killing several air force personnel and driving the others into defensive positions. Following the initial success of this commando-style raid, two low-flying light aircraft belonging to the LTTE arrived at the scene, dropped several bombs and returned to their base in the ‘Vanni’ – the forested area about 70 km to the north of Anuradhapura, presently the principal domain of the LTTE. Meanwhile, the Air Force incurred an additional loss in the form of one of its transport helicopters crashing at a spot about 13 km north of the airbase, the reasons for which are yet to be unravelled. The counterattack by the security forces, led evidently by soldiers of the Gajaba Regiment of the Sri Lanka Army, began in earnest soon after sunrise and re-established control of the airbase by mid-morning. The death-toll of this battle, according to Government sources, was 21 Tigers (all participants in the raid) and 13 persons attached to the Air Force. LTTE statements refer to 21 of its cadres "missing in action".
The attack was widely reported both within and outside Sri Lanka. "Tigers Deal a Stunning Blow", "Flying Tigers Fox Lankans", "Tigers Cannot be Vanquished", "LTTE’s Anuradhapura Raid: Bravery and Precision", and "Tamil Tigers in an Audacious Raid" were among the jubilant headlines under which the news on the raid was disseminated by the media sympathetic towards the LTTE cause. That detailed accounts of the attack, based undoubtedly on LTTE sources, were published on websites even while the confrontation was underway, points to the priority placed by the Tiger leadership and its sympathisers on the propaganda objectives of the attack. The Reuters news agency sensationalised the attack as the "biggest ever suicide operation launched by the Black Tigers" but omitted to mention that it was ‘biggest ever’ only from the viewpoint of the verified number of Tiger casualties. One Indian claimed that "…it was neither an act of desperation as projected by the embarrassed Sri Lankan military spokesmen nor an attack of needless dramatics as suggested by others". This hosanna included a strange assertion attributed to unnamed "reliable Western sources" according to which "… no other terrorist organisation in the world would have been capable of organising such a raid which had been preceded by painstaking intelligence collection, planning and rehearsal" (Surely, there is more "desperation" and "dramatics" in this type of writing than in the LTTE attack?) Segments of the local media opposed to the Rajapakse regime rushed to publicise blatantly exaggerated accounts of the destruction and damage caused by the Tigers, and demanded the resignation of several persons holding key positions in the country’s defence establishment. Spokesmen for the Government, in turn, were also guilty of false disclosures on the raid and of engaging in the counterproductive task of trivialising the losses. Redeemingly, there have also been several versions of the attack that contained sober assessments of verified facts.
There could hardly be any doubt that the attack on the Anuradhapura airbase, though falling far short of "crippling the Government’s air strike capacity", represents both a significant (but ephemeral) propaganda victory for the LTTE and a fairly substantial loss of SLAF resources. The related claims have, however, remained confusing and contradictory. The position taken by spokesmen for the Government in the immediate aftermath of the attack that only two ‘MI-24’ assault helicopters and a ‘K-8’ trainer aircraft were damaged by the raiders, and the crash of the transport helicopter was not a result of enemy attack, has been subject to considerable revision in the light of more credible information unearthed through subsequent investigation. It is now being admitted, at least implicitly, that while at least four aircraft were destroyed beyond repair, about four others suffered varying levels of damage. There is, in addition, wide ranging diversity in the available cost estimates of the overall losses suffered by the air force. The TamilNet placed it at US$ 40 million. A similar estimate (£ 20 million) has been suggested by Peter Foster, the South Asia correspondent of the London Daily Telegraph (for purposes of gauging comparative scale, note that the ‘Defence, Public Security, Law and Order’ expenditure in 2006 was equivalent to about US$ 1.13 billion). Not surprisingly, a spokesman for the United National Party asserted in Parliament that aircraft and other equipment destroyed during the raid was equivalent to a loss of USD 439 million.
Certain insights provided by the various published accounts of the LTTE offensive against the Anuradhapura airbase, regardless of the idiosyncrasies and biases such records may contain, are also of relevance to an assessment of its significance. The attack did have certain extraordinary features. "Operation Ellalan", as it was named, was the first of its kind since the Ceasefire Agreement of February 2002 when a Tiger offensive was code-named in military fashion. Likewise, within a few hours of the attack, the LTTE headquarters took the unprecedented step of releasing for international circulation a photograph – a product of clumsy photo-editing – of the group of attackers with Prabhakaran implanted at its place of honour, along with the names and other personalised information on those that constituted the group. These are of special interest. The release of the photograph (widely reproduced by the media, and meant to be seen as a group of ardently committed calm men and women being sent by their ‘larger-than-life’ leader to near-certain death), for instance, is likely to have had the objective of publicising the intense loyalty which Prabhakaran still commands and, thus, to quash rumours of dissidence prevailing within the LTTE leadership. The information on the personnel could have been intended to publicise the fact that the group consisted of high-ranking Tiger "officers" (two of ‘Lieutenant Colonel’ and six of ‘Major’ rank) drawn from all parts of the claimed LTTE domain, including the eastern lowlands of Sri Lanka which it had lost during the preceding months. It has also transpired that the brief and logistically unproductive foray of the ‘Air Tigers’ which several pro-LTTE writers portrayed as an act of bravery comparable to David defying the mighty Goliath (represented by the Sri Lanka Air Force) took place after the commandos, maintaining constant communication with the Vanni high-command, had taken effective control of the airbase and its anti-aircraft gun emplacements in the first two hours of their surprise attack. It thus appears that the aerial bombardment was staged for whatever intimidatory and propaganda benefit which the impression of a "two-pronged ground cum air attack" could entail. The aerial attack was, in fact, a bigger fiasco than that of March 2007, for, while three of the bombs had exploded harmlessly over open space within the airbase, a fourth, dropped near a school on the outskirts of Anuradhapura, had caused minor damage to a school wall. So much for "coordinated precision bombing".
The euphoric responses to the attack on the Anuradhapura airbase by the pro-LTTE media ignore two simple but vitally relevant facts. One is that the attack, when placed against terrorist offensives witnessed elsewhere in the world in the recent past in, say, Washington, Belfast, London, Beirut, Baghdad, Karachi, Delhi, Mumbai, Kathmandu, Bali or Manila, appears relatively insignificant in respect of the scale of damage and destruction. The other is the fact that the Anuradhapura attack represents one of many attempts by the LTTE, since the early months of 2006, to administer a devastating blow on Sri Lanka – one that would compel the Government to change its strategy of combining peace overtures with pre-emptive and retaliatory offensives based presumably on the policy axiom that a negotiated solution to the country’s conflict cannot be achieved until terrorism is brought under control.
To recapitulate the specificities relating to the latter, perhaps the most successful among such LTTE attempts took place at Habarana on October 16, 2006, in the form of an explosive-packed truck ramming a convoy of vehicles carrying navy personnel, killing 115 and wounding 150. There was also the equally spectacular ‘success’ achieved in the massacre of 64 impoverished peasants in a claymore-bomb blast in the remote village of Kebithigollewa of the North-Central Province in May 2006. These were, of course, less cataclysmic in impact than some of the pyrotechnics of earlier times such as those at the Central Bank in Colombo (January 31, 1996), the petroleum refinery at Kolonnawa (April 28, 2007) and the International Airport at Katunayake (March 26, 2007). From perspectives of destruction inflicted on the enemy and inculcation of its own aparājito (indestructible) image, the LTTE leadership probably considers as ‘partial successes’ the attempted assassination of Sri Lanka’s Army Commander on April 25, 2006, the amphibious offensive on the naval base in Galle harbour by a 15-member Tiger squad on October 18, 2006, at which all attackers perished but two vessels berthed along the Navy pier were damaged, the bombing of the motorcade of the High Commissioner for Pakistan on August 14, 2006, the much publicised aerial raid on the Air Force base at Katunayake on March 26, 2007, the bomb attack at Ratmalana (southern suburb of Colombo) on May 27, 2007, in which eight soldiers were killed, and several explosions inside public omnibuses (on January5, April 2, and April 6, 2007) achieving an aggregate death-toll of about 50 civilians.
As distinct from these were, of course, the ignominious failures that include the detection at highway checkpoints of several large consignments of explosives (each of over 1,000 kilograms) being conveyed to Greater Colombo; the abortive attempt at an attack on ships berthed in Colombo Harbour on June 19, 2006, several thwarted attempts at destroying economic infrastructure, and, above all, the massive debacle in the Eastern Province, which began in July 2006 in an attempted disruption of the irrigation channel system at Mavil Aru in the Mahaveli Delta and ended with the fall of the supposedly impregnable Tiger base in the forested area of Toppigala almost an year later during which the LTTE losses included 718 confirmed battle-field deaths, about 700 who surrendered to the Army, several hundreds seriously wounded, and the entire arsenal at its military bases in the ‘East’. These ‘terrestrial’ losses were paralleled by equally severe ‘maritime’ losses. A rough impression of their magnitude is conveyed by the fact that, from January 2006 to early October 2007, the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) had destroyed and/or intercepted ten transoceanic arms shipments of the LTTE, in addition to many smaller vessels engaged in carrying contraband across the Palk Strait.
The replacement of personnel losses has been even more problematic. The densely populated coastal lowlands of the East, where there is a large and impoverished Tamil population, are no longer the brim-full reservoir of young conscripts to the Tiger cadres; and the forest-clad Vanni, which has remained under the LTTE jackboot, has hardly ever been a significant source of fresh recruits.
Another dimension of the difficulties that have affected the LTTE leadership and its supporters is the trend of increasing restrictions imposed on the Tiger agents and front organisations in almost all countries where there are sizeable expatriate Sri Lanka Tamil populations, and, in particular, the consequent decline in the flow of external financial support. Moreover, the greater vigilance over illegal arms transaction in at least some of the countries where there are clandestine arms markets, the strengthened Indo-Lankan collaboration in coastal surveillance and exchanges of security information, and the substantially increased operational capacity of the SLN have converged to make it more difficult than ever before for the LTTE to engage in bulk procurement of arms and ammunition to replenish its arsenal.
In Sri Lanka, past experiences are seldom placed under the type of incisive scrutiny that generates lessons for strategy formulation and perspective planning, so that even in the case of the Anuradhapura attack, a ‘cover-up’ couched in excuses and extenuating circumstances could well be the end-product of retrospective inquiry. In the light of recent happenings the rationale for maintaining the second largest airbase of the country adjacent to a sacred city characterised by brief spells of mammoth population upsurges must surely already be under the critical attention of the relevant authorities. It would, moreover, be presumptuous to comment here on the probable lapses and loopholes that made it possible for about twenty commandos to cross the twin perimeter fences of the airbase (at a spot where some of the installed security safeguards had evidently been cleared for an abandoned plan to extend the runway), capture raised bunkers, watch-huts and gun emplacements scattered throughout the base without causing alarm or retaliatory action, and then remain in control of the base over several hours with only the ill-fated helicopter making a surveillance attempt from outside. These too may be left for those with the required expertise.
However, a basic fact concerning the circumstances of the Anuradhapura attack which should be highlighted on the basis of common sense is that victory celebrations or, for that matter, tamashas or other ostentatious festivities, especially those that involve the presence of civilians and security forces in large numbers, are not merely premature but totally inappropriate, and could entail the risk of losses which Sri Lanka cannot afford. (Why, of all things, a ‘motor cross’, in a country that does not produce even a bolt for an automobile, and with a barrel of crude oil nudging the 100 dollar mark? Is it for showing "country bumpkins" the amazing skills with which a motor vehicle could be driven?). That the Rajapakse-led Government has succeeded in weakening secessionist military capability to an extent which no previous Colombo-based Government had done since the commencement of the Eelam campaign almost three decades ago cannot be denied. Yet, as confrontational experiences since mid-2006 along the ‘Forward Defence Lines’ of the LTTE stronghold in Vanni demonstrate, there still remains a long and arduous way to go before the Tiger capacity for random terrorist attacks ceases to pose a serious threat to the survival of Sri Lanka.
Weekly Fatalities: Major Conflicts in South Asia
October 22-28, 2007
Provisional data compiled from English language media sources.
Maoists kill 17 persons in Jharkhand: At least 17 persons, including the son of former Jharkhand Chief Minister, Babulal Marandi, were killed by armed cadres of the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) at Chilkhadia village in the Giridih District around 1 am (IST) on October 27, 2007. According to the Additional Superintendent of Police (ASP), Arun Kumar Singh, around 25-30 Maoists mingled with the crowd at a cultural programme in the village and later, around 1 am, they suddenly opened indiscriminate fire and exploded bombs killing 14 people on the spot, while three others succumbed to their injuries later. Four people were wounded in the attack. Babulal Marandi disclosed that his son, Anup, was among those killed but his brother had escaped the attack. He stated: "My family has been a target of the Naxals... they should be more careful. As per my information the Maoists were in CRPF uniform, sat with the crowd watching the cultural programme and attacked during the closing part." The Hindu, October 27, 2007.
31 convicts, including Al Umma founder, sentenced to life imprisonment in Coimbatore serial blasts case: Special Court sentenced 31 convicts, including Al-Umma founder S.A. Basha and general secretary Mohammed Ansari, to life imprisonment in the 1998 Coimbatore serial blasts cases on October 24, 2007. Judge K. Uthirapathy sentenced four other convicts to 10 years rigorous imprisonment (RI). Among the convicts sentenced to life terms, 17 were awarded double life terms, while 12 got a single life term. Abdul Ozir was sentenced to undergo four life terms and Jehangir, three life-terms. Basha was awarded life sentence for conspiracy read with various IPC offences and three years RI for promoting communal hatred. Mohammed Ansari was awarded two life terms besides 73 years RI. Basha’s brother Nawab Khan was sentenced to one life term and 27 years of RI. All the convicts faced charges of conspiracy, murder, attempt to murder, rioting and abetment, besides charges under Explosive Substances Act, Indian Arms Act and Tamil Nadu Public Properties (Prevention of Damages and Losses) Act. 58 people had died in the serial bomb blasts triggered on February 14, 1998, during the visit of Bharatiya Janata Party leader L K Advani. The Hindu, October 25, 2007.
42 people killed in continuing violence in the Swat district of NWFP: At least 42 people have died so far in continuing violence in the Swat district of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).
29 people were killed and 55 others wounded on the third consecutive day of clashes between Taliban militants and the security forces (SFs) on October 28. The dead included 15 militants, 11 SF personnel and three civilians. Unconfirmed reports, however, said that 20 SF personnel were killed in a suicide bombing in Sangota. A day earlier, militants publicly executed two SF personnel and seven civilians. Maulana Sirajuddin, spokesman for the pro-Taliban cleric Maulana Fazlullah of the Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM), confirmed that they had beheaded the soldiers. On October 26, the militants had publicly executed four SF personnel in a village, 16-km west of Mingora, the headquarters of Swat District. Daily Times; The News; Dawn, October 27-29, 2007.
18 soldiers and two civilians killed in suicide bombing in NWFP: 18 soldiers and two civilians died and 35 persons, including nine civilians, were injured in a bomb blast aimed at a vehicle carrying Frontier Constabulary (FC) personnel in the Swat district of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) on October 25, 2007. The blast occurred at Nawan Killi, about a kilometer from Swat city, at around 2:45 pm (PST). It set off an explosion of ammunition carried inside the military truck, triggering bullet fire. The blast also damaged 25 shops, a service station, a CNG station and a petrol pump. "I suspect this was the handiwork of a suicide bomber… Part of the truck has been blown up. There is no crater to suggest that it was a roadside bomb. It has been hit from the side," said Frontier Constabulary Commandant Malik Mohammad Naveed, whose force suffered the most casualties. NWFP Home Secretary Badshah Gul Wazir said, "it appears to be the work of a suicide bomber, whether he walked up to the truck or rammed a vehicle into it is yet to be determined." Daily Times; Dawn, October 26, 2007.
Over a million illegal arms in Sri Lanka: There are over 1.3 million illegal weapons in use in Sri Lanka, a South Asian watch group on the use of small arms said on October 28, 2007. "According to the Small Arms Survey conducted since 2003 it has been found that there are over 2.3 million small arms in the country. 1.3 million of them are illegal weapons," Ranjith Srilal Piyaratna, the local program co-ordinator of the South Asia Small Arms Network said. Piyaratna also stated that the availability of illegal small arms has led to the escalation of the rate of crime in the island. "It is possible that most of these illegal small arms have come into the country via the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) rebels. The 1988-89 insurrection was another reason," Piyaratna said. Xinhua, October 29, 2007
21 LTTE cadres and 13 soldiers killed in LTTE attack on Anuradhapura air base: Elite army troops of the Special Forces confronted cadres of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who infiltrated and carried out a suicide attack on the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) base at Anuradhapura on October 22-morning, and evicted them from the premises killing 21 militants. 13 security force (SF) personnel, including two officers, were killed and 20 others wounded during the clash. LTTE cadres had infiltrated the area and launched a pre-dawn ground attack on the air base and subsequently carried out an aerial attack dropping two shells damaging two MI 24 helicopters parked in the hangar. Daily News, October 23, 2007.