/ 26 March 2007

Tigers take fight to new level with first air raid

Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tiger rebels, until now best known for their signature suicide bombings, took their separatist campaign to a new level on Monday with their first air raid.

Their aircraft may be small in size and number, but the daring night-time bombing mission on a key air force base beside Sri Lanka’s only international airport strikes a significant psychological blow.

Not only did the Tigers operate two aircraft out of a secret base and bomb the well-guarded military airfield, they also managed to bring them home again before the air force’s superior warplanes could shoot them down.

”The damage by this attack is not that much, but the psychological impact they have created is huge,” said freelance defence columnist Namal Perera.

”You don’t hear of guerrilla groups operating aircraft like this anywhere else.”

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) said their first ever airborne attack was carried out by two light fixed-wing aircraft against the Katunayake air base where the military’s supersonic aircraft fleet is located.

”We will carry out more attacks like this to prevent the air force from bombing civilians,” LTTE spokesperson Rasiah Ilanthiriyan told Agence France-Presse shortly after the pre-dawn attack, which temporarily forced the closure of the adjoining international airport north of the capital Colombo.

The attack came almost a year after Sri Lanka’s military bombed the Tigers’ clandestine airfield at Iranamadu, about 250km from Katunayake.

Military officials privately admit the latest attack was a major breach of security and could also affect future operations against the Tigers, who are campaigning for an independent Tamil homeland.

Sri Lanka’s military usually carries out its attacks during daylight hours with night flying severely restricted, but the Tigers staged their raid under cover of darkness.

Officials said the guerrillas avoided being intercepted by several military planes which took off in pursuit.

Monday’s attack was the first public demonstration of the Tigers’ air power although they had been hinting of an air wing for the past 10 years.

Media reports had speculated they were using two or more small fixed-wing planes specially modified to carry a payload of bombs.

Authorities had been expecting any attack to be a kamikaze-style suicide mission.

Last year, the government warned that the Tigers’ ”illegal aviation facility” posed a threat to the entire region.

The LTTE also operates a sea-going wing known as the Sea Tigers, a ”navy” that is a rarity among the world’s guerrilla forces.

The Black Sea Tigers, or the suicide wing of the seaborne arm of the LTTE, have boasted that the al-Qaeda militants who bombed the USS Cole in October 2000 off Yemen were inspired by them.

The guerrillas have recently lost a considerable amount of territory in the island’s east and a pro-rebel website said the Tiger air attack was aimed at pre-empting a fresh military onslaught against them.

More than 60 000 people have died in the LTTE’s drawn out campaign for an independent state for the island’s ethnic Tamil minority.

The LTTE was formed by Velupillai Prabhakaran, a shy school dropout who built the group up from scratch with a handful of young men in 1972 and a couple of rusty pistols.

A low-intensity conflict erupted into full-scale war in 1983 after bloody anti-Tamil rioting following the rebels’ biggest attack to date when they blew up 13 soldiers. – Sapa-AFP