By B. Raman
In an attempt to pre-empt an apprehended military offensive by the Sri Lankan Armed Forces on the territory controlled by the Lberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka, the LTTE Air Force has carried out a successful air strike on the Palaly military base of the Sri Lankan Armed Forces in the Jaffna peninsula. The Palaly military base serves as the headquarters for operations against the LTTE in the north. It is also the supply base for the thousands of soldiers stationed in the region. Any serious damage to the base could hamper the military offensive on the LTTE-controlled areas in the Northern Province. In the past, the LTTE used to direct artillery fire at the base, but this is the first time it has resorted to an air strike by its newly-created air force called the Tamileelam Air Force (TAF).
2. Two planes of the TAF flew over the military base without being detected at 1-20 AM on April 24, 2007, dropped two bombs on an arms and ammunition storage area and returned safely to base. As in the case of the first air raid on the Katunayake air base near Colombo in March, 2007, this was again a well-planned and well-executed conventional air strike and not an act of air terrorism. As it did during last month’s attack on the Katunayake air base, the LTTE had taken precautions not to cause civilian casualties through wrong targeting.
3. Like the Katunayake air strike, the Palaly air strike too was carried out at night. The two planes of the TAF flew at very low altitude in order to evade radar detection and reportedly came not from the direction of the LTTE-controlled territory, but from the direction of Colombo in order to confuse the ground defence staff of the base into believing that these were planes of the Sri Lankan Air Force making a night strike on the LTTE positions in the Northern Province as a prelude to the planned military offensive. Since the Katunayake air strike by the LTTE, the Sri Lankan Air Force has been carrying out—-at least claiming to be carrying out—night air strikes on LTTE positions in order to remove impressions in the minds of the public that it does not have the same night operational capability as the LTTE.
4. After the LTTE’s Katunayake air strike, the Sri Lankan military authorities had strengthened their radar detection capability with the help of the Pakistan Air Force and set up ground watchers at all police stations to specially look out for suspicious-looking aircraft. The fact that despite all this, the TAF was able to carry out the night strike on a most well-defended military base, which functions as the nerve centre of the Sri Lankan military operations against the LTTE in the North, speaks well of the training and capability of the TAF pilots. Even if the air strike had not caused any damage, the very fact that the two planes were able to reach the base without being detected, drop two bombs and return unharmed would itself be considered an achievement for a fledgeling air force like the TAF. Independent reports from the military base say that at least one of the bombs struck a storage area causing moderate casualties and serious damage to the military holdings of arms and ammunition.
5. In keeping with its policy of exaggerating the results of its land and air strikes and playing down those of the LTTE, the Sri Lankan Government initially maintained a silence over the successful air strike by the LTTE. Subsequently, it admitted the air strike, but projected it as a failure due to timely detection and counter-action by its ground staff at the base. According to the official version, after being thwarted in their attempts to bomb the military base, the TAF aircraft while flying back dropped a bomb on a ground position of the army outside the base, which injured six soldiers.
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: email@example.com)