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Vavuniya attack: How it happened and why

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Barely two weeks after their foray into Eastern Naval Area Headquarters in Trincomalee, Air Tigers showed up again.


This time they were an integral part of a pre-dawn LTTE ground and artillery assault, on Tuesday, September 11 on the sprawling Security Forces Headquarters - Wanni (SFHQ - W) complex located in Vavuniya.

The defining moments of the attack on this garrison, the northernmost under Government control in mainland Sri Lanka, came thrice in regular intervals of six to seven minutes. First, a group of Tigers infiltrated the area near the Air Force radar unit to spark off a ground battle. Then artillery and mortar shells began to rain. Thereafter, two Czech-built Zlin Z-143 aircraft appeared over the skies to drop bombs.


If sparks lit up the night sky over Vavuniya, vibrations caused by the bombardment shook the doors and windows of many homes. This was in a vast area surrounding this key town, the northernmost in mainland Sri Lanka under Government control. For decades now, Vavuniya has been the gateway to the Wanni where until recently vast stretches of land were dominated by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Military offensives in the past months have seen security forces regain control of large stretches, mostly west of the A-9 highway and some east of it as periodically reported in The Sunday Times.


Within minutes of news of the attack reaching Colombo, everyone who is someone in the country's defence and security establishment was out of their beds. Whilst officials clasped their phones to receive updates, security forces top brass were busy with their respective operations rooms. Minute-by-minute feedbacks were reaching Colombo as the mayhem continued for some five and half hours.


It all began minutes before 3 a.m. Some 14 Tigers infiltrated the Army sector by traversing through private property. This is at a relatively thin stretch, soon after the main entrance, before the complex expands to a much larger ground area. They wore fatigues resembling the Army. They were walking past buildings occupied by two different battalions of the Army's crack Special Forces. It is here that the gun battles broke out. Three female cadres blasted themselves using the 'suicide kits' they wore. Another committed suicide by biting a cyanide phial. Others edged forward to fire their assault rifles and Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) at the Indira II radar installed on a knoll or a small hill.


The radar was damaged and two Indian maintenance technicians - A.K. Thakur and Chinthamani Rant - sustained injuries. They were later driven to Anurahdapura and airlifted to Colombo. Another Indira II to replace the radar that was damaged was hurriedly moved by the Air Force on the same day from their main base at Katunayake. The aim of the Tigers was to destroy the Vavuniya air defence radar, the one that was usually the first to locate any LTTE aircraft that is airborne from the Wanni. By moving a replacement Tuesday evening, the Air Force denied the LTTE any freedom of movement over the air in the Wanni theatre without being detected.


Four Indira II radars (named after late Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi) were gifted to Sri Lanka. This was after it became known that the LTTE had acquired air capability by procuring Zlin Z-143 light aircraft in 2005. Radars are used to detect aircraft, vehicles, ships or other objects through the transmission of electromagnetic waves, which are reflected back by the object. A 2-D radar gives distance and direction whilst 3-D radar would also

provide the (height) or altitude in the case of aircraft.


The Air Force area that was under attack lay near the Army's 211 Brigade. Also located in the same vicinity are the second and third battalions of the Special Forces. There is no doubt the Tigers would have carried out months and months of surveillance piecing together all the information about this target they were to attack. They would have also practised with sand models to prepare their cadres before launching last Tuesday's attack.


This was much the same as the land and air attack on the Air Force base in Anuradhapura on October 22, last year. However, it appears that the Tigers may have either not known or failed to take into consideration the presence of the Special Forces (SF) troops in the area they infiltrated. The measures the SF adopted to protect their troops and installations evidently took the attackers by complete surprise. Besides those who committed suicide, SF troops shot dead within a short time the majority of the Tigers who had infiltrated and planned to wreak further havoc.


Within six to seven minutes of the ground attack, heavy artillery and mortars began to fall in the same area. Highly placed security sources said the Tigers had shifted two 130 mm artillery guns to an area closer to Puliyankulam, located a few kilometres away from the LTTE checkpoint at Omanthai. Mortars had been fired from locations nearby. These guns had been used earlier from the general area of Pooneryn to periodically direct artillery fire at the Security Forces Headquarters in Jaffna. There were occasions when such attacks forced the Air Force to call off temporarily all military and civilian flights to Palaly.


Police later learnt that a Tiger cadre atop a tree and carrying a walkie-talkie gave directions to their artillery gunners to fine tune their targets in the area.


The same sources said the Army directed counter artillery fire destroying one LTTE artillery gun. However, independent verification of this claim is not possible.


The Tigers had fired some 70 to 80 heavy artillery rounds during the pre-dawn attack. Later, on Tuesday afternoon two more rounds fell on the military complex. This was when troops were on a clearing operation within the area as well as ahead of their defended localities.


Another six to seven minutes later, two Air Tiger Zlin Z-143 aircraft were over the military complex. First reports said they dropped eight bombs - four near the Air Force installations on the relatively narrow stretch of land just after the main entrance. The other four had been dropped on the large area that encompasses many buildings including administrative blocks of the SFHQ-W. Three had not exploded. Investigations thereafter have raised doubts on the number that exploded, whether it was only three or less and whether only five or six bombs were dropped.


The ground, artillery and air attack had begun just before 3 a.m. Tuesday. Within an hour it had ended. However, the search operations for more possible LTTE infiltrators continued until 7.30 a.m. It is only thereafter that the damage caused and the casualty counts became clear.


Initial reports to the media by Army officials said bodies of ten Tiger cadres, including five females, were found within the military complex. As this news spread worldwide, the LTTE repeated the same figure in a news release. Their idea was to hide the exact number of cadres who were assigned to carry out the attack. Later on Tuesday, another male Tiger cadre’s body was found bringing the LTTE death toll to 11.


Preliminary investigations by the Police revealed that 14 Tigers entered the military complex and three later got away. They left behind assault rifles, RPGs, grenades, communication sets, a machine gun, a global positioning system, ammunition, chocolates among other items.


The 14 Tigers who took part in the attack Police believe is in addition the one who was atop a tree serving as a forward observer to direct artillery fire. This is not the first time the LTTE had juggled with numbers to give the impression that all their cadres assigned for attacks had been killed.


They did so during the attack on the Air Force base in Anuradhapura. Last Tuesday's attack is no exception.


Thirteen soldiers, a civilian attached to the Army and a policeman were killed at the scene. Another police officer died at the Vavuniya hospital bringing the death toll to 16. Those wounded were: Army 24, Air Force 7 and Police 9.


The Sri Lanka Air Force claimed later on Tuesday that one of its Chinese built F-7 interceptor jets had destroyed one of the Air Tiger aircraft. Two officers of the Air Force, a security source said, were on hand at last Wednesday's National Security Council meeting to provide a brief on how the attack occurred.


Though the Air Force has no pictorial evidence either of the attack or the debris of the destroyed aircraft on the ground, an Air Force source told The Sunday Times "the pilot activated the firing mechanism only after his on board radar locked on the target. That was how the air-to-air missile was discharged. Thereafter, when he was taking a turn, he saw a huge ball of fire some 600 metres away." The source claimed the missile would not have been released automatically if the lock-in mechanism did not home in on the target.


However, the LTTE said its aircraft had "returned safely." Independent verification of both claims is not possible.

The attack on Vavuniya military complex has once again highlighted the woefully inadequate measures to ensure perimeter security in military installations.


Like during the attack on the Air Force base at Anuradhapura, the Tigers succeeded in infiltrating a major headquarters complex. With that, directing artillery fire and using aircraft primitive compared to the assets of the Air Force, they succeeded in creating an impact as they came under heavy pressure on the battlefronts in the Wanni.



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