Although low flying LTTE aircraft which carried out yesterday`s attack on Katunayake SLAF base escaped detection by radar, they failed to hit the intended targets, the Israeli built Kfirs and the recently acquired Ukrainian MIG 27s due to the SLAF being on a heightened state of alert following unconfirmed reports of sightings of unidentified aircraft about a hour before the attack.
Had they succeeded, the government`s war effort would have suffered an irreparable loss, the military said, emphasizing the need to thoroughly investigate the unprecedented attack. The Island learns that investigators would probe negligence on the part of the SLAF and lapses which may have facilitated the unhindered movement of aircraft from the Vanni.
Sri Lanka acquired radar last year to counter the threat posed by the LTTE. Contrary to expectations, yesterday`s attack did not turn out to be a suicide attack.
The LTTE dropped three bombs at 12. 49 am Monday. Of them, one did not explode, an SLAF spokesperson said.
SLAF headquarters yesterday said they never knew of the intended target. `We alerted bases as a precautionary measure after receiving reports of a possible attack,` a senior official said.
According to him, the advance warning had allowed the Katunayake airbase to respond swiftly as the enemy aircraft appeared over the base. The area shook as the SLAF fired at the low flying aircraft categorized as light planes brought in during the Oslo-arranged direct negotiations between the Ranil Wickremesinghe administration and the LTTE.
This may have prompted them to prematurely discharge locally built explosive devices carried aboard the aircraft, he said. Huge blasts wounded 17 SLAF personnel. Three of them succumbed to their injuries, subsequently. Some of the wounded, after being initially treated at the Negombo Base Hospital were transferred to the National Hospital. The SLAF acknowledged that the attack caused damage to three buildings.
The Pro-LTTE TamilNet quoted military LTTE spokesperson Irasaiah Ilanthiraiyan as saying that they targeted Kfirs and MIG 27s. Kfirs and MIGs, in service with the SLAF since 1996 and 2000 respectively, play a critical role in the ongoing combined security forces action against the LTTE.
The SLAF acknowledged that the aircraft escaped after hovering over the base for about three minutes.
In an earlier predawn attack on the Katunayake air base on 24 July 2001, LTTE cadres infiltrated the air base and destroyed thirteen aircraft, including two Kfirs, one MI-24 helicopter gunship and one MIG-27.
The attack forced the closure of the Bandaranaike International Airport for about two hours. Several incoming flights were diverted to other airports in the region as a temporary measure. Former Ports and Aviation Minister Mangala Samaraweera was among the passengers who were asked to disembark from a passenger aircraft about to take off to the airport as the LTTE struck the SLAF base. Samaraweera was to leave for Singapore. The Tourist Board quoted Renton de Alwis, Chairman of the Board as saying that they would do everything possible to minimise inconvenience to tourists arriving and leaving the country.
Controversy surrounds the failure of air traffic controller to identify the presence of unidentified aircraft. `The Island` learns that security forces beefed up security about six weeks ago after receiving information about a simultaneous air attack on SLAF Katunayake, SLN headquarters and Temple Trees. A few weeks later, SLAF radar recorded two echoes but the anticipated attack never materialised.
The SLAF acknowledged that the aircraft managed to return to their launching pad in the Vanni. The Island learns that the SLAF lacks the capability to intercept aircraft. Although the SLAF had bombed two LTTE runaways on several occasions after the May 11, 2006 abortive bid to target a civilian passenger vessel carrying over 700 off duty personnel off Mullaitivu, yesterday`s attack underscored the pivotal importance in neutralize the LTTE threat permanently.
The military said that there was an urgent need to review the security situation and take urgent counter measures to prevent similar forays, particularly in the light of their ability to operate in the night. The possibility of the LTTE going for major economic and military targets could not be ruled out, an official said. SLN assets, particularly Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs), responsible for the recent destruction of LTTE arms ships on the high seas could be high on their list of targets.