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Lame Tigers' fruitless flight

With the army continuing its thrust into the LTTE's heartland, which was once considered impregnable, Prabhakaran is obviously growing desperate by the day. His terror 'empire' is rapidly collapsing and he is unable to turn the tables on the military on land or at sea. Most parts of his terror empire are now within the strike range of the army. Faced with a severe shortage of manpower, he is forcibly conscripting civilians, irrespective of their age, into his fighting units. He finds himself in the worst ever crisis in his Eelam struggle. But, he has not yet given up. He will do his utmost to halt the on-going military onslaught at any cost.

Tuesday night's LTTE air raid on the Trincomalee naval base had all the trappings of a desperate effort to boost the sagging morale of the Tigers cornered in the Wanni rather than a well-planned and properly executed air strike. Put to flight on the Wanni front, Prabhakaran seems to have taken to 'aerial hit-and-run tactics' to delay the fall of Kilinochchi. He has also given his propagandists something to flaunt at this hour of crisis.

However, the LTTE has, through Tuesday's attack, betrayed the setbacks it has suffered since the commencement of the present phase of war. In April 2006, it unveiled its crude air wing with a bang. The Tiger planes dropped bombs on the Katunayake Air Force base and disappeared whence they had come. Thereafter, it carried out a few more attacks on Palali, Welioya, Kolonnawa etc.

Those air raids, albeit ineffectual, may have boosted Prabhakaran's ego and made the Eelam lobby cock-a-hoop. But, as we argued immediately after the first LTTE air attack, Prabhakaran blundered by unveiling his new capability prematurely without reserving it for the final stage of war. For, it prompted the State to acquire air defence systems to counter the threat in time for the battle for Kilinochchi.

Today, due to the counter measures that the State has adopted, at a time when the LTTE needs its air wing most, it has had to confine air raids to targets closer to the Wanni and settle for small attacks. Thus, what began as a huge danger to the military two years ago has become a manageable threat.

Increasing difficulties the LTTE air wing is facing due to air defence systems of the State were evident from the circuitous route it had to take on Tuesday. The Tiger planes first had to fly off the Eastern coast and then journey all the way above the sea to reach Trincomalee. But, the Navy had already been alerted and was able to react with anti-aircraft fire thus forcing the intruders to drop their bombs hurriedly wherever they could and flee without losing their precious flying machines.

Ironically, the targets that the LTTE is trying to take in Trincomalee from the air were within the artillery range of the outfit about two years ago. Using the 2002 ceasefire as a shield, the LTTE had built camps south of Trincomalee and moved its heavy weapons there. Its plan was to target the Trinco harbour and render it inoperable, while pounding the Palali airstrip with heavy guns thus cutting the sea and air supply routes to the Jaffna peninsula, where thousands of troops were stationed.

The late Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar was the first to expose this secret plan. (The reward he got from the then government for alerting the military to an impending danger was a threat to reduce his personal security and throw him out of his official residence!) Had the LTTE got a few more months to consolidate its power in areas like Manirasakulam without a government change in 2004, the army would have found itself in the same predicament as the LTTE today; it would have been trapped in the North without supplies.

Although the navy responded in time and the Air Force swung into action on Tuesday, the fact remains that the LTTE planes disappeared without leaving a trace yet another time. The navy did not suffer serious damage. But, if the LTTE aircraft had been on a suicidal mission, the situation might have been different. They might have been able to hit the intended targets like Osama's pilots who carried out the 9/11 attacks.

There is also much to be desired from the way the military responded to the threat. The SLAF jets had to fly all the way from Katunayake in search of two tiny aircraft flying very low under the cover of darkness. That wild goose chase bolstered the argument for placing some interceptors on standby close to Trincomalee. The effects of the Anuradhapura Air Force debacle ( 2007 ) are being felt now.

The LTTE is very likely to change its methods and strive to achieve the objective it could not on Tuesday. There is the danger of the LTTE opting for a ground or an underwater attack while the military is watching the skies, the way it struck at the SLAF base at Anuradhapura and sank a ship in the Trincomalee harbour as few months ago. Prabhakaran desperately needs a spectacular victory to offset the battlefield gains of the military.

It is not likely that he will be able to do so, on the Wanni front, where he is badly outnumbered and virtually pinned down. But, he may turn to soft targets elsewhere, even far away from the theatre of war. He knows how easily the military gets lulled into a false sense of complacency giving him an opportunity to strike back. That is why strings of successes that the military scores over the LTTE are always punctuated by humiliating disasters.

The armed forces have beaten Prabhakaran at his own game and exploded the myth of the LTTE's invincibility. The Tigers are on their last legs frantically struggling to prevent the fall of their stronghold. But, the LTTE has proved it is still capable of springing surprises for the military, as we saw on Tuesday. It should not be underestimated.

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