Shooting down plane carrying 52 civilians integral part of LTTE strategy – military

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Shooting down of a civilian aircraft over Iranativu Island in September 1998 was part of the LTTE’s overall strategy to isolate the Jaffna peninsula, military sources told The Island.

The LTTE shot down the aircraft killing 52 persons on the afternoon of Sept. 29, 1998 in the wake of the then government’s abortive bid to re-open the Kandy-Jaffna A9 Main Supply Route (MSR). In the absence of overland route, civilians had no option but to use Lion air and Monara, which operated regular flights between Palaly and Ratmalana.

Government officials as well as diplomatic and NGO staff used the private airlines. In fact, top UN representative, Olara Otunu, too, used Lion air during a visit to the North.

The Sri Lankan military used private flights due to the SLAF’s failure to meet the requirement.

The wreckage of Russian built AN24 aircraft is scattered about 1.5 kms south of Iranativu Island. From the Vanni mainland, the wreckage is about 15 nautical miles north of Talaimannar.

On a judicial directive, the SLN provided a video clip of the wreckage, authoritative sources told The Island adding that the Mannar Magistrate directed that there shouldn’t be any further underwater search without his presence.

The detection was made by SLN divers with the help of an LTTE terrorist, who shot down the aircraft. The victims included four foreigners, Captain Matochko Anatoli, Co-pilot Lysaivanov Siarhei, navigator Kozlov Sergei and flight engineer Anapryienka Siashei.

The Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) spearheading the inquiry brought the terrorist to Iranativu Island about a month ago to help the SLN locate the wreckage. The police arrested the terrorist after the conclusion of the conflict when he returned to Sri Lanka from West Asia, where he was living for some time.

Military sources told The Island that the terrorist had left the country at the onset of the Norwegian arranged Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) in Feb 2002.

The SLN intends to salvage the wreckage day after tomorrow (Oct 31). A 23 man-SLN team, including three officers, will be involved in the operation to float the wreckage. Sources said that it wouldn’t be a problem. "We have the expertise as well as experience in salvaging Fast Attack Craft, ships etc," an officer said.

Military sources said that the LTTE had threatened both Lion air and Monara in early August 1998 to stop services between Palaly and Ratmalana or face the consequences. The LTTE had threatened to attack private aircraft after Sept 15, 1998 prompting Monara to suspend flights, sources said. The University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) in a special bulletin captioned Lion air flight from Jaffna: Crossing the bar into the twilight of silence blamed the LTTE for the attack. The bulletin released on Oct 16, 1998 discussed the circumstances leading to the shooting down of the aircraft.

The TID had so far interviewed families of 33 victims. The investigators had also found the missile tube. Under interrogation, the terrorist said that LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran had given him a pistol as a token of appreciation. The police are trying to locate the pistol. The killer had been picked by the LTTE to join its anti-aircraft unit, while he was serving as an expert in the RPG (rocket propelled grenade) squad.

Among the 48 Tamil passengers were two Jaffna University students, whose parents, according to an online Tamil Net report dated Nov 25, 1998, planned to sue authorities seeking compensation.

Pro-LTTE Tamil Net said that parents along with the Bishop of Mannar, Rt Rev. Rajappu Joseph would push for death certificates and compensation for those killed in the crash.

The website identified the dead undergrads as Edward Thiriceta Arulmani and Imakkuleta Fernando, all from Vankalai in Mannar.

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