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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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 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.
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