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Home > Struggle for Tamil Eelam  > Tamil Armed Resistance > Reports of Armed Conflict > Katunayake Airport Attacked

Reports on Armed Conflict in Tamil Eelam

Katunayake Airport Attacked

in Sinhala owned Sri Lanka Sunday Leader
29 July 2001

[see also...

Katunayake Military Airbase Bombed by LTTE Air Wing, 25 March 2007
LTTE launch combined air, ground attack on Anuradhapura air base, 22 October 2007
Tamil Tiger planes bomb Colombo power station and Mannar army camp,  29 October 2008

Attack on Sri Lankan Airbase at Katunayake, B.Raman, 24 July 2001
 Janes Weekly Report: LTTE assault on Sri Lanka's Katunayake Airport,  3 September 2001]

The daredevil raid launched by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (on 24 July 2001) in the Katunayake area against the Sri Lankan Air Force base and the Bandaranaike International Airport has rocked the country and shocked the world. Globally almost every major newspaper, news radio and Television news channel devoted much space and time to the incident. In neighbouring India, security systems around sixty strategic airports and bases are to be reviewed and revamped in the aftermath of Katunayake.

What is baffling to most is how the Tigers could brazenly infiltrate a maximum security zone in the heart of the Sinhala majority Western Province and wreak havoc to this extent. For obvious reasons the authorities are blacking out or dishing out vague details of what really happened. Various reports in the media in Colombo, Wanni and abroad along with information supplied by "authoritative" sources help to piece together a coherent but not complete picture of what really occurred at Katunayake in the wee hours of July 24th morning.

Blueprint for the attack

The Katunayake attack project was conceptualised by LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabakharan. The blueprint for the attack and training program for the operation was prepared by Prabakharan in association with Intelligence Chief Pottu Amman, Anti Aircraft and Air Wing head Shankar and Deputy Military Commander Balraj. It is said that Prabakharan supervised the project in its preliminary stages paying minute attention to the slightest detail. This was because the Tiger leader realised the importance of the mission against the backdrop of the Sri Lankan states growing airpower.

Having stalemated the army and contained the navy, the intrepid guerrilla chieftain was now focussing on the one area where Colombo had a clear and distinct advantage. If successful, the Katunayake attack would reduce the states airpower greatly even if not eliminate it totally.

Even though the Tigers possessed surface to air missiles and anti aircraft guns that arsenal was insufficient and somewhat ineffective against the ultramodern aircraft purchased in recent times by the Kumaratunga regime. The acquisition of Israeli built K-fir bombers and Russian cum Ukrainian MIG-27 jet fighters in particular had elaborate antimissile defence systems. Besides they were too fast for targeting from ground.

The LTTE had conducted two infiltratory attacks inside the China Bay Air Base and the Palaly base complex in the early nineties. Two planes and three helicopters were damaged at Trincomalee and one helicopter destroyed in Jaffna. The Tigers had also launched an abortive mission to bomb the Katunayake Airport in 1995. A taxi with explosives packed inside secret compartments was detected and neutralised by officials then. Thereafter security was tightened and intensified in and around the Airport. The zone was highly fortified and regarded as impregnable. The LTTE too ceased its attempts to target Katunayake thereafter and it was assumed that the high security was too tough to crack.

Civilian vulnerability

Besides there was also the question of civilian vulnerability. In what may well be a unique phenomenon, Sri Lanka's only International Airport at Katunayake adjoins an Air Force base also.

This is somewhat unusual because a clear distinction is maintained between civilian and military installations in the interests of civilians, particularly in times of war. While stationing a military contingent on airport premises for its protection is acceptable practice, the physical proximity of a full fledged air force complex with that of a civilian aerodrome catering exclusively to international traffic is a rare occurrence.

It could be argued that such a situation prevailed for the Airbase to protect the airport and vice versa. Any attack on the Air base would definitely affect the airport too. This could result civilian passengers and tourists getting killed or injured. Since the LTTE has been scrupulously avoiding any harm befalling foreigners as far as possible, it was calculated that the Tigers would not dare attack Katunayake. Also in recent times the LTTE has been attempting to refurbish its international image as an accredited national liberation organization instead of a terrorist outfit as Colombo depicts it. It had also been involved in a peace process that had now reached an impasse.

Despite these factors, Prabakharan had his own reasons and compulsions for selecting Katunayake instead of Ratmalana, Anuradhapura, Trincomalee, Vavuniya or Palaly. In the first place it was Sri Lanka's only International Airport and any attack there would derive maximum publicity. It was in the heart of Sinhala majority Western Province and therefore provided a stimulating challenge. A successful attack on the Airbase here would deliver a decisive military, political and symbolic blow to the regime.

"Ten Squadron"

More importantly, it was Katunayake that housed the bulk of the Air Forces newly assembled aerial bombardment fleet known as "Ten Squadron". This rapidly expanding fleet comprised thirteen K- firs and eight MIG - 27's. The bulk of these was garaged in Katunayake hangars. This was because it was Katunayake that had the most suitable infrastructure in terms of tarmac and runway facility for smooth multi-level take offs and landings for these aircraft, particularly the supersonic MIG's. With the Kumaratunga regime planning to escalate the conflict literally and metaphorically by intensifying air raids in the North-East to create a "war fever" in the South and tide over her political difficulties, Prabakharan may have very well decided that an assault on Katunayake was timely and appropriate.

The Katunayake project had been hatched to some extent last year. The Oslo facilitated peace process compelled Prabakharan to put it on hold because of a pledge given by him to Erik Solheim that there would be a moratorium on violence in the South. The LTTE refrained from such attacks for several months. Even after it suspended its unreciprocated unilateral cease-fire the Tigers did not commence any attacks in Colombo.

The turning point came when the government embarked on a massive bombing spree in the North on June 30, under the flimsy pretext that it was necessary to preempt an offensive planned by the Tigers to retake Jaffna.

The LTTE denied this vehemently and issued a statement on July 2, warning the government that it must bear the consequences for the unwarranted air raids.It is reported that Prabakharan gave the green light for project Katunayake on the same day.

LTTE leopards

The LTTE has assembled and trained a team consisting mainly of its elite commando unit known as "Chiruthaigal" or leopards, some members of the anti aircraft and air wing and intelligence operatives. All of them had taken the black Tiger oath and were therefore prepared to embrace death voluntarily. The team was given rigorous specialised training. Elaborate models replicating the Katunayake complex were constructed and utilised for mock attack practices.

The Tigers had acquired sufficient intelligence and information to draw up an efficient attack plan. An intelligence operative had rented out a house in the Katunayake area for a long time and mapped out the location. Former air Force and Air Lanka employees provided some input. Tiger cadres also adopted painstaking reconnaissance missions under various disguises to monitor the Airport complex. Some posed as travellers and visitors etc to do so.

The greatest windfall however was when Pottu Amman's intelligence bureau succeeded in purchasing maps and blue prints from middle ranking Air Force officers for a hefty amount. The Tigers also converted a few airmen stationed at Katunayake into "moles" through financial incentives. At least two suspected Airmen are now under arrest for alleged collaboration with the LTTE. Significantly, none of these Air Force officers or Airmen are Tamils

The last supper

After Prabakharan gave the go ahead on July 2, more than two weeks were necessary for logistical arrangements. It is said that when Prabakharan had his customary "last supper" with the black Tiger fighters he impressed upon them the need to prevent civilian casualties. The Airport building was not to be attacked at any cost. Also the Air force base was to be attacked first so that civilians in the Airport could have adequate time to ensure their safety. A simultaneous attack on both targets was ruled out.

It is indeed miraculous that no civilian was killed and only a handful injured in an attack of such colossal proportions. This was mainly because of luck and the extra careful endeavours undertaken by the Tigers to avoid harm befalling civilians as according to the directive issued by their supreme "thalaiver". Although the civilians were exposed to risk the care taken by the Tigers to prevent "collateral damage" to civilians denotes a remarkable shift in Tiger modus operandi.

The bulk of the assault team was transported by sea to the Western coast. Some guerrillas travelled by road and arrived in Colombo. The awesome arsenal required for the operation was also ferried by sea and lodged in a safehouse off the western seaboard. By D-Day, most members of the assault squad had assembled at a safe house in the interior of Gampaha district. The arms and ammunition necessary was also collected. Hard as it may be to accept the 21 member assault squad led by a senior leader addressed as "Amman" by the team clambered aboard a 36 seater luxury bus to take on a highly fortified airbase in the heart of Sinhala country.

Preliminary manoeuvers however were on. Intelligence operatives and advance scouts preceded the assault team to conduct "rekki" as reconnaissance missions are known. These Tigers generally unarmed would most likely have travelled in singles or pairs to avoid attention. It is now understood that some came by road transport to the Katunayake Airport area while others took the train to Kurana situated between Katunayake and Negombo. Once the environment was monitored and risk factors measured, signals to go on with the mission were given the assault team through cellular phones.

The luxury bus with tinted glass windows and curtains bore the name "Rosa". It had a "Matara" destination board. The upper portion was brownish and lower portion greyish in colour. The bus was seen in Kadhirana and Kurana areas near the railway station after dusk. What is puzzling is how the vehicle managed to get past the so called security system in the area, particularly with its lethal cargo and dangerous occupants. Was it sheer luck? Or possession of impeccable credentials and documents ? Or through bribing security officials at check posts? The last seems more likely given the corrupt system and also the fact that the vehicle was unsuspected. But then was this not "black July" where every member of the security forces and Police was supposed to be extra alert ?

Picnic at the playground

The luxury bus was parked at the Raja Fernando playground in Kurana after 8:30 pm. The occupants got out, removed their footwear, stretched their legs and began consuming dinner. Most of them knew that this was going to be their last meal on earth. They ate out of food parcels and also had chocolate slabs and biscuit packets. Cans of soft drinks were also taken. The neighbourhood where the playground was situated was not densely populated, but several passersby took notice of the vehicle and men.

Some thought they were security personnel in civils as lilting Sinhala music was playing on a cassette player. A few who inquired were told in perfect Sinhala that they had come to Katunayake to bid farewell to friends departing to the middle east, and were now camping out in picnic style at the playground for the night. They would do some sight-seeing the following day and then depart to Matara. Many bought this explanation. A few like Xavier Dayananda Fernando, a resident of the area were suspicious. They informed Air Force personnel of their suspicion. But there was no immediate response.

The usual power cuts in the area to conserve electricity was from 9:45 pm to 11:15 pm. When it ensued slightly earlier than usual that night, everything was pitch dark. The assault squad hastily finished their meal, changed into uniforms (mostly airforce type with a few combat fatigues) and started out on their destination. In the hurry at least twelve pairs of footwear were left behind. Some were removed by residents later.

The luxury bus dropped off the squad at the railtrack in Kadirana area. The Tigers then used the overwhelming darkness as cover and started to walk on the railtrack towards Katunayake airport. They were also carrying several heavy sacks of armaments and equipment. The bus then sped off.

The sacks were heavy with G-3 general purpose machine guns, T-56 assault rifles, 40 mm grenade launchers, Rocket Propelled grenade RPG launchers, shoulder fired disposable LAW, Light anti tank weapons, LMG light machine guns, packets of plastic explosives, magnetic devices with timers to affix explosives onto targets, detonators, mortars, shells, grenades, spare ammunition and night vision equipment comprised the heavy lethal cargo carried by the Tigers.

Video operation

After a while, the Tigers branched off from the railtrack through a coconut grove and reached the Kimbulapitiya area behind the Air Base. The assault team of 21 commanded by "amman" comprised highly trained black Tigers. Among these were two men with video cameras and equipment. They were instructed to photograph the operation. The LTTE videos major operations in the North-East and then makes films for propaganda purposes. This was the first time perhaps that an operation in the south was going to be videoed. One of the guerrillas had a pilots license. Another was qualified in aeronautical engineering. Each had been handpicked by Prabakharan for this particular mission.

Systematic invasion

Meanwhile some Air force personnel came to the playground after electricity supply was resumed to check out the "picnickers". There were none. Empty soft drink cans, food parcel remains and biscuit and chocolate wrappers were strewn around. The Airforce personnel did not suspect anything and told the residents who complained that the "picnickers" must have left after their "bajaw" and returned. This was a security lapse with grave consequences.

The Tiger squad reached a point about 400 metres from the outer fence behind the Air base. There was an open stretch of land between the fence and the outskirts of the coconut grove that was a "no go zone' as it was heavily mined. Also the fence was too was electronically activated and could electrocute intruders. There was however a drainage canal that was partly sub - terranean. This was to prevent flooding of the runways and tarmac during rainy season. The water flowed through to a nearby marshy lagoon. It was stone dry now. The Tigers now began to crawl through this drainage canal towards the base.

The advance column infiltrated the outer limits of the base through the canal and deactivated the electronic fence. The barbed wire was then cut systematically. Thereafter the entire team with their weapons and equipment got inside the base perimeter. The next step was to fix explosives to the three transformers. The Tigers had accurate maps and diagrams of the installation and knew exactly where everything was. Some Tigers also moved towards the hangars and prepared to explode the aircraft within.

At 3.15 am a single subdued shot was fired by one of the Tigers. Airforce sentries heard it and were puzzled but did not react sharply. It is presumed that the shot was some form of signal to the squad which divided itself into three main groups. The electric transformers were blown up in rapid succession from 3. 30 to 3.35 am. The Air base was enveloped in darkness. The Airforce did not suspect anything at even this stage. Along with electricity board men attempts were on to check out and restore powers supply again.

There were 350 Airforce personnel of all categories in the base at the time of attack. An unconfirmed report says that 250 men had been redeployed out of the base to provide security for the triangular cricket touney among Sri Lanka, India and New Zealand.

While total darkness reigned the Tiger squad moved out in three directions. One went clandestinely to the Airport terminal and climbed on top of the control tower roof. One went inside the hangar premises and started implanting explosives. The third went towards the tarmac and commenced affixing explosives.

The explosions

The first explosion took place at 3.50 am. An unconfirmed report says that it occurred where Helicopters were parked. With the first explosion the Tigers started breaking out and advancing. The sentry positions were taken one after another. Prior knowledge of where each and every point was situated helped the LTTE to move systematically. The Tigers concentrated initially on targetting the base and next moved to the passenger aircraft in the airport. The Tiger groups then subdivided themselves into two formations with one exploding the aircraft intermittently and the other providing cover fire.

The three Tigers on top of the control tower used the strategically vantage point to obtain an aerial overview of the entire complex and engage in firing. Segments of the air force were pinned down by these "towering" marksmen. Later they kept security force formations trying to advance at bay through firing. In the final stages, these gunners targetted aircraft on the tarmac with heavy weapons successfully.

Even as fighting broke out the civilian authorities got alerted. 22 flights were scheduled to land an take off from midnight to noon on Tuesday 24th. Only five were over when the attack began. Passengers were off loaded, outgoing flights cancelled and incoming ones diverted. There was however mass panic and pandemonium. Employees and officials simply ran. Passengers and tourists were greatly frightened and terrorised. A foreigner described the scene aptly to a foreign news agency by saying the Sri Lankan Airport staff including securitymen were "flapping about like headless chickens".

The long battle went on from 3. 50 to 8. 30 am. The tide began to turn against the Tigers after a specialised commando unit of the rapid deployment force arrived on the scene. The security forces who were utterly confused in the dark, began to get their act together after first light at the crack of dawn. The Tigers also began to run out of ammunition and also get tired.

Even as a few Tigers made tactical withdrawals from the scene according to a set gameplan, the others began to fall one by one. At least one Tiger was blown up with an exploding aircraft while some others were shot dead. A few committed suicide after they ran out of firepower or when surrounded.

The commandoes also used tear gas to immobilise two of the three Tigers at the control tower . The third apparently was missing. It is presumed that he had videoed the scene from his high perch and then gone away. One of the guerrillas was found near the cooling plant on the roof and the other in the baggage sorting section.

The final result

Fourteen Tigers lay dead when the fighting was over. One body was shattered to bits in the explosion. Five of the thirteen had taken their own lives. The others had been shot dead by the security forces. A lot of empty firearms and launchers were recovered. Ten security personnel two from the army and eight from the airforce were killed. 19 airmen and 5 soldiers were injured. A handful of civilians had got injured of whom only two were admitted to hospital. These were an Ukrainian flight engineer and a Rupavahini cameraman were injured. At least seven Tigers are said to have escaped including the videomen cum fighters.

An intensive search has been launched to in the Kurana area to flush out Tigers suspected to be hiding in the area. An islandwide hunt was launched for the luxury bus with several false alarms. True to form, more than 50 Tamils have been arrested as suspects so far. In a bid to impress the nation and the world the government ordered retaliatory bombing raids in the North-East using two K-firs and two MIG - 27's. A four member commission has been appointed to inquire into the incident and identify security lapses.

The government has estimated the initial damage cost at 539.3 million US dollars. In rupees it could be nearly 50 billion. The adverse impact on tourism, foreign investment and foreign employment will be tremendous. Finally what was the extent of the destruction caused? The government has given certain figures but LTTE sources dispute them. The "Eelanatham" published by the LTTE at Skanthapuram in the Tiger controlled area of Kilinochchi district has in a special issue of July 26th claimed that the number of aircraft affected in the attack were exactly double that of the official figures provided by the state. The newspaper however has not quoted the LTTE on this but has made this claim on the basis of information supplied by knowledgeable sources in Colombo.

Tigers silent

The Tigers have not issued any statement on the Katunayake attack so far, although Tamil journals published in Sri Lanka and abroad have given wide prominence to the incident. Since the "Eelanatham" is directly controlled by the LTTE it is surmised that the relevant news story is endorsed and approved by the LTTE hierarchy. According to the "Eelanatham" 28 aircraft have been destroyed or damaged and not 14 as stated by government circles. Of these 18 are completely destroyed while 10 are substantially damaged.

The destroyed 18 aircraft are as according to the newspaper three Airbuses ( 2 A - 340 - 300's and one A - 330 -200), four K-fir bombers, three K - 8 trainer planes, two Mig - 27 jet fighters, Two MI -17 helicopter gunship , two bell 412 helicopters and two VVIP 412 helicopters. Eelanatham has also said that the 10 damaged aircraft are another three Airbuses (two A 320's and one A -330) four K-fir bombers, one MI - 24 helicopter, One Antonov transport plane and one Bell 412 helicopter.

The Eelanatham claim contrasts sharply with that of Colombo's figures according to which eleven aircraft are destroyed and three damaged. The official breakdown of those destroyed are three airbuses, three K-8 trainer planes, two K- fir bombers, one MIG-27 jetfighter and two MI-17 helicopter gunships. Three airbuses are damaged. According to the Eelanatham the losses incurred by the Air Force has reduced its bombing capability by 45 %. The newly formed "Ten Squadron" fleet utilised for bombing has lost two out of eight MIG - 27's and four out of thirteen K-firs. In addition four K'firs are decommissioned due to damage.

The Wanni newspaper has also stated that severe infrastructural destruction has also been done. It says that the special bombing storage facility used to keep lethal high explosive bombs was blown up along with the contents inside. The Arms warehouse cum ammunition dump within the airbase has also been demolished totally said the newspaper. Also the fuel storage tank for the Air Base as well as three oil tankers have been destroyed. The "Eelanatham" has charged the government of trying to suppress the real facts about the attack to prevent erosion of international confidence in the regime and also because of fears that the Sinhala public would agitate against the government, blaming it for the colossal losses incurred. Only time will reveal which version of the destruction caused is correct.



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