Military Matters


  • Foreign doctors to treat Prabhakaran who may slip out

  • Anti-aircraft guns check free run by air force

The news that elusive LTTE Supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran was slightly injured in an Air Force raid was exclusively reported in The Nation last Sunday. Fellow columnist and senior journalist D.B.S. Jeyaraj scooped what was easily a world-class exclusive.
On Wednesday, the Media Centre for National Security (MCNS), quoting Intelligence Services, confirmed the story.

The MCNS ran the story after Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa requested Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) Commander Air Marshal Roshan Goonetilleke to release details to the media.
The military said the air raid that injured Prabhakaran happened on November 26, while Jeyaraj said it occurred on November 28.

Let us look at the chronology of events that ensued subsequent to the Thamilselvan killing, to get a clearer picture of the November 26 attack.

Ironically, LTTE Political-wing Leader S.P. Thamilselvan participated at the funeral of International Community Coordinator, Lieutenant Colonel Kalaiarasan at Kilinochchi in April. Lt. Col. Kalaiarasan was killed when a communications base was targeted by the SLAF ground attack aircraft on April 18.

Based on ground intelligence, Thamilselvan was heading for a bunker at Thiriviaru, south of Kilinochchi on November 1. The Air Force hierarchy passed on the information to the relevant squadrons.

The Defence Secretary, as well as the Air Force Chief gave instructions to swoop at the lowest possible altitude and drop the lethal cargo on the Alex Base bunker that Thamilselvan was staying in overnight. At 6:30 a.m. the following day (November 2), the pilots dropped their bombs and passed on information that they hit the target accurately.

Low altitude flying depends on manoeuvrability skills of the pilots, weather and climatic conditions, the time of the raid, as well as the type of vegetation over the targets.

Though the pilots confirmed they took on the target accurately, there was no confirmation that Thamilselvan had been killed. The LTTE, both unable to withhold that information and wanting to capitalise on it, broke the news around 11:30 a.m. on that same day.

Since it was the LTTE that broke the news, the story was twisted by some to claim there was a leadership tussle in the organisation. It was made out that those vying for the No. 2 slot and eventual overall leadership, passed on information about Thamilselvan’s movements to the military.

Some even went to the extent of saying that Prabhakaran, who posthumously promoted Thamilselvan to the highest military rank ‘Brigadier,’ orchestrated his killing to make way for his son Charles Anthony to succeed him as leader.

But then, how does one explain the SLAF taking on Prabhakaran’s hideout? Conspiracy theorists would probably now say Pottu Amman passed on information to have Prabhakaran eliminated.

How does one then explain the mid-April SLAF bombing of an Intelligence Nerve Centre at Kombavil where intelligence leaders, including Pottu Amman, gathered for meetings?

Ground intelligence
Like in the case of attack on Thamilselvan, it is nothing but good ground intelligence and pin-point accuracy that did the trick, in the raid that injured Prabhakaran. He was expected in a cluster of bunkers south of Kilinochchi, in a place called Jayanthinagar at an appointed time on November 26, which incidentally was his 53rd birthday. This information was passed on to the military, which was aware that his Heroes’ Day speech was to be relayed the following day.

While the instructions were given by the top brass of the Air Force to conduct the raid, these officers feel that credit should go to the Kfir and MiG 27 Squadrons involved in the attack.

Four ground attack aircraft were used in the operation that saw nearly 50 bombs dropped to flatten the entire area. The Government feels that several LTTE seniors could have died in this bombing raid, but there is no confirmation.

Israeli-built Kfirs were secured as far back as 1996 and the MiG 27s were first brought down in 2000. After the successful air raid, the Air Force Chief informed the Defence Secretary that the pilots had confirmed they bombed the target accurately.

The area was a hive of activity following the lightning air raid carried out around 5:25 p.m. on Prabhakaran’s birthday. According to electronic surveillance carried out subsequently, the targeted area had been sealed off and excavated.

Air Marshal Goonetilleke also informed Defence Secretary Rajapaksa that the LTTE had directed heavy ground-to-air fire at the four ground attack aircraft that undertook the bombing mission.

Aircraft scraped
Last week, Senpathi exclusively reported that the ground attack aircraft were targeted by LTTE anti-aircraft guns and one aircraft sustained scrapes.

“A fortnight back, however, unknown to the LTTE, its anti-aircraft weapons succeeded in causing minor damages to a fighter jet carrying out a bombing mission,” Senpathi said last week.

The unprecedented LTTE anti-aircraft fire in the direction of the ground attack aircraft was further confirmation to the defence establishment that the ground intelligence about Prabhakaran being at the target site on November 26 was accurate.

A lost chance?
Perhaps, had the pilots undertaken another raid on the Jayanthinagar target in quick succession, it was likely that Prabhakaran could have been mortally wounded. But, the Air Force undertook the second bombing mission only two days later, on November 28.
In the interim, on November 27, they bombed the studio from which his Heroes’ Day speech was to be recorded. Defence officials feel that the recording of the speech was possibly done earlier.

At the very next Security Council Meeting, Air Marshal Goonetilleke demonstrated documentary evidence of the attack in the form of video clippings.

The crucial question to be posed is why didn’t the government come forward and make an announcement, preferably before the Third Reading of the Budget, to make political capital.

Without ground intelligence confirming that Prabhakaran was injured, the SLAF was not willing to take the risk.
As far as the LTTE was concerned, this time around the organisation did not stand to gain by announcing that the elusive leader, considered by the movement to be invincible, was injured in the attack.

In fact, the news that Prabhakaran was injured has a dampening effect on the morale of the LTTE cadres. As the organisation was tightly controlled by Prabhakaran, it was likely to have a demoralising effect on the cadres in the field.

The LTTE’s many attempts (including latest Heroes’ Day speech), to convince the Tamil diaspora that a separate state was still possible, were undermined by the simple act of injuring the elusive leader.

To continue the war, the LTTE needs the support of the Tamil diaspora that has been forced to fill the organisation’s coffers, in view of realising a separate state, or at least a federal solution.

No denial
None of the websites of the organisation thought it fit to carry a denial to such a big story. The LTTE, only when contacted by the media, flatly denied that their leader was injured.

“It is a lie. Nothing of that sort happened,” an LTTE spokesman said.
While the Air Force pilots swore they took the target and the LTTE responded with anti-aircraft fire, there was no ground intelligence, after the attack, to support the claim.

However, the defence establishment did not remain mum regarding the matter. Defence Secretary Rajapaksa, who later had queries from London and Singapore whether Prabhakaran was killed in the air raid, decided to hint at the vulnerability of the LTTE Chief a day after taking the target.

On the morning of November 27, the day of the Great Heroes’ Day, Rajapaksa gave an interview to visiting AFP South Asian Chief Editor Stefan Smith, who is based in Delhi. In this interview, Rajapaksa made no bones that the defence establishment was targeting the elusive guerrilla chief.

“We are after him. We are specifically targeting their leadership,” said Rajapaksa hinting at the previous day’s air strikes on Prabhakaran.

“The killing of Thamilselvan sent a very powerful message: They know we have good intelligence on their movements,” said Rajapaksa adding that “for the last few months, he (Prabhakaran) has been even more restricted in his movements.”

Mullaitivu attack
Shortly, after the attack in Kilinochchi, the SLAF took on a cluster of bunkers in Mullaitivu, believed to be one of the three abodes of Prabhakaran.

“Prabhakaran’s bases are suspected to be within the high security zones in Vavuniyakulam, Mullativu and Kilinochchi, and bunker buster bombs have already been secured to hit big targets. But, it is learnt that the LTTE Leader shuttles among his bases and utilises bunker clusters 30 feet deep, to avoid the impact,” Senpathi observed on April 15 this year.

Unlike the attack in Kilinochchi, the attack in Mullaitivu on November 28 saw no anti-aircraft fire directed at ground attack aircraft, possibly suggesting that Prabhakaran was not there at the given time.

The Air Force hierarchy still feels that the LTTE Chief sustained more than minor injuries in the Jayanthinagar attack, as they believe the debris of a well-fortified bunker, had the potential of causing more than minor injuries.

There is mention that doctors from Tamilnadu have been contacted to treat the injured LTTE leader. Significantly, his wife Mathivathani Prabhakaran declared open an elders’ home and has been seen in public gatherings after the LTTE sustained injuries in a deadly air raid.

If Prabhakaran actually got away with minor injuries, the Top Cat really had an additional life and was destined to live another day to carry on his struggle.

Some analysts say the injury—whether slight or serious—was likely to demoralise the Tiger cadres who are fighting with their backs to the wall. Others try to make out that Prabhakaran’s miraculous escape after his bunker was accurately targeted had a message that he had a mission to complete.

Tsunami effect
Interestingly, there were reports to the effect that Prabhakaran was killed in the Boxing Day tsunami three years back, when the ‘maritime palliya’ on the Mullaitivu coast was destroyed. He had reportedly been there when the tsunami struck. Several Sea Tigers lost their lives while valuable equipment including Tiger craft, destroyed.

The LTTE deliberately failed to deny the story to give credence to the rumours and keep up the suspense, to gain mileage when he finally made an appearance. The tsunami struck exactly a month after Prabhakaran in his 2004 Heroes’ Day statement said thus: “We are living in a political void, without war, without a stable peace, without the conditions of normalcy, without an interim or permanent solution to the ethnic conflict. Our liberation struggle will be seriously undermined if this political vacuum continues indefinitely.”

Now, three years later there is a raging war with no hope in the horizon. Should Prabhakaran be eliminated, as pledged by the Defence Secretary, the 25-year struggle would be seriously undermined.
Given the milieu of accurate air raids and deep penetration teams’ success, will Prabhakaran slip out as a tactical withdrawal?

SLAF successes
Though deep penetration teams missed Thamilselvan, the Air Force successfully got him, and prior to that, former Air-wing Head S. Sathiyananthan alias Sankar. Eastern Political-wing Leader Kaushalyan was gunned down by the Karuna faction that parted ways with the Wanni Tigers.

Despite the fact that infantry troops are a long way off, the crack provided by the ground intelligence to the Air Force, was too close for Tigers’ comfort.

During the Vadamarachchi operation in the mid 80s, with the Army closing in, Prabhakaran slipped off to India. Now, wanted in India for the murder of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Prabhakaran would settle for another destination. Alive to the fate that befell Karuna Amman after he left the shores, Prabhakaran, whose leadership was threatened a few times, may think very hard before his decisive step. This year, the LTTE became paranoid about the security of its senior cadres and issued special identity cards for civilians. Now strict orders have been given to LTTE officials not to speak even to the media. The latest decision was to clear Mullaitivu of all foreign nationals, and accordingly, members of the United Nations agencies as well as personnel from INGOs have been asked to move to Kilinochchi from Mullaitivu.

Civilian control
The immediate motive for the drastic step could be the fear of information leak. It may also be to control civilians with an iron fist and cut off their communication with the outside world. Security threat to foreign nationals was the diplomatic answer to the eviction. In another related development several INGOs who sought to set up bases in Kilinochchi after the attack were refused permission on Thursday. The Government feels the move was to thwart the bombing raids. The LTTE leadership was also likely to construct their bunkers close to civilian settlements.

The Prabha injury - whether slight or serious—has further damaged the LTTE at a time when it is gasping for breath, not just on the battle field but across the globe.

His injury – and the miraculous escape, three years after missing death by tsunami, has a ripple effect on one and all. Is there a message for Prabhakaran to shun the military approach and accept a peaceful political solution? Was he preserved till the conflict is resolved? Six years ago, on Christmas Eve of 2001, Prabhakaran declared a unilateral truce that blossomed into a cease-fire agreement that has survived, to this date, albeit on paper.


What are the anti-aircraft guns LTTE has?

During the undeclared Eelam War IV, this is the first time the LTTE activated its air defence system and fired with anti-aircraft guns. In previous wars, the LTTE used surface-to-air missiles and gunned-down Pucaras and Avros. It was only recently that the LTTE tried to acquire SA-16 missiles to take on the Kfirs. The Army that secured the East had found a SAM 14 in an LTTE hideout.

Man-portable anti-aircraft missiles like the SAM-7 Strella or Stinger could cause significant damage to an airliner on take-off. SAM-7s (and perhaps follow-on Russian missiles like SAM-14 or SAM-16) are widely available. But, to get at a Kfir a SA 16 type was required.

The Air Force would do well to ascertain the type of anti-aircraft guns that are used against the ground attack aircraft. It is also useful to ascertain the type which is in LTTE’s possession, as this information would be vital when the SLAF carries out its missions.