The last hurrah?

In what may well be its last hurrah, the LTTE on Friday night attempted a suicide attack on the headquarters of the Sri Lanka Air Force in Colombo by trying to dive bomb into the premises using two of their remaining light aircraft. In the event, one of these planes was shot down near Katunayake while the second, apparently disabled by the air defenses, crashed into the headquarters of the Inland Revenue Department near SLAF HQ. Both pilots who were killed were described by TamilNet, the LTTE’s propaganda arm directed mostly to the Tamil Diaspora and the world outside Sri Lanka as ``Black Air Tigers,’’ connoting that they were suicide cadres and their pictures, posing with Prabhakaran before their kamikaze-style mission, were posted on the web. The air defense systems that were activated as the aircraft approached proved effective, unlike on some previous occasions, with both intruders brought down.

While some satisfaction can be derived from this, it is unfortunate that far too many people did not understand that it is essential when an air battle such as Friday’s is being fought, that they should remain indoors under secure cover. If not, they are at risk of being injured as many people were by falling debris and spent shells fired at the intruding aircraft. For too many, it seemed like a fireworks display and they emerged from their homes to watch the action. It is essential that the public are aware of the dangers and take due precautions. For most people, the first signal that something was wrong was when a blackout was imposed and the electric power over the metropolitan Colombo area. Minutes later the shooting began, and as tracer bullets illuminated the night sky it became clear that the LTTE was attempting an air attack on the city. Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa told The Island that troops in the frontlines had spotted the air activity and sounded the alert even before the intruding aircraft was picked up by radar.

This was all to the good. The air defenses were up and running, though not perfectly so, and neither of the two Tiger aircraft, clearly bent on a suicide mission, were able to return to their base in the 100 square kilometers or so in Mullaitivu yet under LTTE control. This was clearly evidenced by a two paragraph TamilNet report which named the pilots, ran a photo of them posing with Prabhakaran and claimed the aircraft had ``dived’’ into SLAF HQ and the Katunayake airbase. That had not happened thanks to the ground and air defenses. One aircraft ended in a marsh in Katunayake while the other, disabled by ground fire, careered into the Inland Revenue building on the other side of the road a few meters from air force headquarters. The pilots who were probably flying the last of the Tigers’ air resources and were at the controls of C-4 explosive packed aircraft were intent on making a morale boosting strike even as the LTTE was struggling to hold on to the last sliver of the territory they controlled in the Vanni. With only two percent of that area remaining, Prabhakaran obviously needed some oxygen and tried to get what mileage he could by scraping the bottom of his barrel.

Reports from the war front indicate that the advancing troops are now finding the LTTE’s heavy weaponry and have dug out artillery pieces buried in the ground. While the forces have destroyed or captured several of the Tiger airfields, they have not captured any aircraft although they shot down one. Friday’s was the LTTE’s seventh sortie into skies over the government held areas and Prabhakaran, in all probability, decided to use what aircraft he holds in this last ditch suicide mission. He has obviously reached a stage that he can afford to sacrifice his trained pilots, something he did not wish to do before, as the LTTE always gloated about the successful return of their aircraft to their Vanni bases after previous missions. While he posed for pictures with the pilots earlier, they were usually not named and part of their faces blanked out of the photos, no doubt because they were a valuable resource who perhaps traveled abroad through the Katunayake International Airport for training etc. But now with the chips down, they had become an expendable resource.

As we have reported elsewhere in this issue, the F-17 interceptor aircraft launched from Katunayake were not able to down the intruders and the missiles directed at them did not `lock’. The SLAF, we are sure, will find out the reason why and take necessary corrective measures. Neither the forces nor the country at large can afford to be complacent on the assumption that the back of the Tiger is broken. Although he was not lucky on Friday, Prabhakaran was able to play a card that may yet not be his last. Most Lankans believe that the forces are now engaged in a mopping-up operation. This is not altogether correct as the Tigers are still putting up fierce resistance and the army has to fight its way through heavily mined and booby trapped terrain at tremendous cost. Nevertheless the advance is inexorable and will be accomplished in the short-term. But the long march of winning the peace after winning the war remains. As the poet Robert Frost had it,

``The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep.’’

That holds true for this country and its leaders. Winning the war is only part-completing the journey. There must be no triumphalism and the whole country and its leaders must show not only our people but the wider world outside that Sri Lanka treats all its people justly and humanely and the rights of its citizenship is the same for all be they Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, Burgher or any other.

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