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Financial Times: Tigers’ homemade air force delivers new threat to Colombo

By Joe Leahy in Mumbai
Published: May 1 2007 03:00 | Last updated: May 1 2007 03:00

An attack by the fledgling air force of Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tiger separatists has thrown the island’s international airport into disarray, with foreign carriers suspending or altering flights for fear of being caught up in an escalating air war.

In a blow to the island’s tourism industry, Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways and Emirates Airlines suspended services to Col-ombo, while Singapore Airlines stopped night flights.

The attack, in which light aircraft flown by the Tigers dropped homemade bombs on a Shell oil storage facility near Colombo on Sunday, also drove the island’s stock market and rupee lower, as investors worried about the impact on the economy.

The raid, only the third by the Tigers since they unveiled their air wing little more than a month ago, caused relatively little damage. But the incidents mean the government – and the rest of the world – will have to start taking the Tigers’ air threat more seriously. They are now believed to be the only group officially designated as terrorists by the US and the European Union that has sea, ground and air military capabilities.

“Earlier they had a sea-going arm, they had a land arm, now we are seeing an air arm. So, however primitive it remains, this is the only non-state actor that is boasting of all this, including holding a mass of land area where they are running their own parallel administration,” says Iqbal Athas, a defence analyst in Colombo.

The air attacks come at a delicate time for Sri Lanka. The government and the Tigers, who have been fighting for two decades for a separate ethnic Tamil homeland in the north and east, have all but abandoned a ceasefire they signed in 2002.

Over the past year the government, with the help of a breakaway Tiger faction known as the Karuna group, has driven the rebels out of significant territory in the east. The rebels have responded with attacks on civilians and soldiers. But until the air attacks, the propaganda war had been going the government’s way. President Mahinda Raja-pakse was starting to convince a sceptical public that a military victory might be possible. In recent weeks he has tried to turn the air attacks to his advantage, describing the Tigers’ newfound air capabilities as a threat to Sri Lanka, India and the region.

But the boldness of the air sorties has left the government looking flat-footed. In the initial attack in March, the Tigers’ first air raid, they were able to fly undetected to the main air force base in Colombo, drop bombs and return home safely. On Sunday they took advantage of the nation’s preoccupation with the cricket World Cup final, in which their team was battling Australia, to launch their early-morning attack.

The air strategy has enabled the Tigers to add a new dimension to the war, Mr Athas said. The group, which some say was the first to make full tactical use of suicide bombing, have once again invented a way of unsettling a conventional opponent. “Every area that you can see – the residences of VIPs, the parliament complex, the ports or military installations – are all going to become military targets. Now the fear factor is in hand,” he said.

It has also provided them with a vital propaganda victory to shore up support at home and among their financial backers in the Tamil diaspora.

“They’ve re-established their reputation for daring. That is what psychologically they needed to do,” says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, the executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives in Colombo.

The air attacks are also worrying for the government because they indicate that the Tigers have been busy rearming during a ceasefire in which they have already set up their own police stations, courts and administrative offices in the north.

The Tigers are suspected of persuading foreign Tamils to help them speed up the development of the air wing, on which they originally began working in the 1990s. Foreign engineers are believed to have helped rig up basic electromagnetic systems to drop the bombs from single-engine Czech Zlin Z-143 trainers smuggled into the country in parts.

Others argue it would be wrong to overestimate the advantage the Tigers have won from the air attacks. The split with the Karuna rebel faction has cost the Tigers not only territory but probably also access to weapons supply networks in south-east Asia, which were run from the island’s east, says Robert Karniol, the Asia-Pacific editor of Jane’s Defence Weekly.

The Tigers remain as defiant as ever. “The Sri Lankan military, especially the air force, are adamantly trying to prove they will always seek a military solution,” a Tigers military spokesman told Reuters yesterday. “So we have no other way than to take our own measures.”

Background

There are few examples of air power being used by guerrilla movements. In the Biafran war in 1969 rebel forces flew MFI-9s – tiny Swedish training aircraft equipped with light rockets – from bush airstrips, destroying several Nigerian jets on the ground. More recently, Hizbollah flew Iran-supplied drones armed with explosives from southern Lebanon into Israel.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007

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