Sri Lankan separatists take fight to the air

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

For the second time in two days, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) launched a brazen attack on the Sri Lankan Army. The latest came after a suicide bomber killed seven by driving an explosives-laden tractor into an Army camp early Tuesday morning in Batticaloa district in eastern Sri Lanka.

But while the Tigers have launched several such assaults by land and sea, it was Monday's raid by two crude aircraft on a military base just outside Colombo that has left Sri Lankan military analysts worried.

For the first time in more than two decades of fighting, the separatist Tamil Tigers have launched an aerial attack, confirming that its military now includes a small air force, called the Tamileelam Air Force (TAF) or "Vaanpuliga."

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These capabilities make the Tigers the first guerrilla group with the potential to carry out attacks by land, sea, and air, says N. Manoharan, a senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS) in New Delhi.

"This has added a new dimension" to the conflict, says Iqbal Athas, a columnist from Sri Lanka's Sunday Times. "The aerial capability of the Tigers has increased the threat perception for the Sri Lankan Army, which already has to deal with their formidable squad of suicide bombers and their sophisticated naval wing."

What worries Sri Lankan military analysts is the audacity with which two low-flying aircraft flew close to the nation's capital from an air base nearly 250 miles away and returned safely – all while avoiding radar detection and Sri Lankan Army antiaircraft missiles. The attack killed three Sri Lankan soldiers and injured 16.

Facts are disputed after air attack

While the Sri Lankan government maintains that only two helicopter gun-ships were slightly damaged in the raid, the Tigers say on their website,Tamilnet.com, that several Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF) jet bombers, including the prized Israeli-made Kfir jets, were "put out of action" after being bombed by their aircraft.

"Up to 40 percent of the SLAF's strike capability has been knocked out," the site claims. Rasiah Ilanthirayan, the rebels' military spokesperson was quick to warn that "more attacks of the same nature will follow."

"Their air-raid capability is like a new jewel to their crown," says Ashok Mehta, a retired Indian Army general who led the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to assist the Sri Lankan Army in fighting the Tigers in the late 1980s.

However, Mr. Mehta is quick to point out that the aircraft owned by the Tigers – possibly up to three in number – are crude in nature and are no match to the Sri Lankan Air Force's MiG-27s and Kfir jets.

According to the Sri Lankan military, the Tigers' new planes are locally designed one- or two-seater light aircraft assembled in Tiger-held territory with parts smuggled, most likely, from Southeast Asia. Most Tamil Tiger military hardware, military experts say, is smuggled from that region.

The Sri Lankan Air Force has long suspected the insurgents of trying to develop an air force.

Intelligence officials suspected that, before his death at the hands of the Sri Lankan Army in 2001, Colonel Shankar (the nom de guerre for rebel leader Vaithilingam Sornalingam) was working to create a viable armed, aerial force. Shankar, who was once an aeronautical engineer with Air Canada, was responsible for developing the airplanes from scratch since 1995, according to an SLAF report.

A routine reconnaissance mission by one of the SLAF's Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) in early 2005 detected an airfield in Tiger-held territory in the north of the island. Analysts estimated the field to be around 3,600 feet in length with a paved surface, sufficient to land a variety of different aircraft.

The Tiger air raid comes shortly after SLAF claims that they have destroyed the Tigers' air capabilities.

What's most surprising about the Tamil Air Force, says Mehta, is that the Tigers were able to improvise the assembly of a light, single-propeller aircraft equipped with automatic weapons circuitry and the ability to carry as many as four undercarriage bombs – a difficult feat of engineering for such small aircraft.

Tamil Tigers are on the defensive

The air attack, Mehta says, could be a sign of the Tigers' growing desperation after a series of losses in ground battles in eastern Sri Lanka.

"After the recent losses, they [the Tigers] want to disabuse the common perception that they're down and out," Mehta says.

The LTTE are fighting for a separate ethnic-Tamil state in the island nation's northeastern region. The majority of Sri Lankans are ethnically Sinhalese. Several nations, including the United States and Canada, have classified the Tigers as a terrorist organization.

Despite a 2002 ceasefire, which is still officially in place, the last 15 months have seen Sri Lanka slide steadily back toward full-scale civil war. Now, as many as 127,000 people from the largely ethnic Tamil eastern region of the country are considered internally diplaced people, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The Tigers have, of late, lost territory in ground fights with the Sri Lankan Army for the first time in several years. In Sept. 2006 and Jan. 2007, the Tigers lost Sampur and Vaharai respectively, two strategically important towns along the island's east coast.

Their new air capabilities, says the IPCS's Dr. Manoharan, may now help the Tigers reverse these losses and may signal more brazen and bloody attacks to come.

"No matter how unsophisticated their aircraft are, the possibility of suicidal attacks similar to 9/11 on a Colombo high-rise building or targets of economic and political significance in the future cannot be underestimated."

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