2009 suicide air raid on Colombo
|2009 suicide air raid on Colombo|
Colombo district within Sri Lanka
|Location||Colombo and near Katunayake International Airport, in Sri Lanka.|
|Date||February 20, 2009
9:46 pm – 10:30 pm (UTC+5.30)
|Murder-suicide, Suicide attack|
|Deaths||4 (including both pilots)|
|Perpetrators||Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.|
The 2009 suicide air raid on Colombo was an unsuccessful kamikaze-style suicide attack launched by the air wing of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam on February 20, 2009, targeting military locations in and around Colombo, Sri Lanka. It is speculated that the attacks were intended to be similar to the September 11 attacks, where aircraft were used as flying bombs and crashed directly into their targets. However the attacks failed as the Sri Lanka Air Force detected the two explosive packed aircraft and shot them down before they reached their targets. On the ground, two people died and over 50 were injured as a result of the attacks.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, also known as the LTTE or the Tamil Tigers, was a separatist militant organization that was fighting to create an independent Tamil state in the north and east of Sri Lanka. Between 1983 and 2009, they engaged in violent conflict with the military of Sri Lanka, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 70,000 people. During their campaign, the Tamil Tigers used a variety of controversial tactics, including the extensive use of suicide bombers. They were credited with inventing the suicide jacket, which has since been copied by Hamas and Islamic Jihad and by Iraqi insurgents. The Tamil Tigers are designated as a terrorist organization by 32 countries, including the United States, Canada, and the member nations of the European Union.
By 2002, the Tamil Tigers controlled an area of approximately 15,000 km2 in north and east Sri Lanka. At the time, facing increasing losses on the battlefield and international pressure to stop the fighting, both sides were persuaded to engage in internationally mediated peace talks. The much-hyped peace process carried on until July 2006, when the Tamil Tigers blocked a canal supplying water to an area under the control of the Sri Lankan government. The Sri Lanka Army initially launched an offensive to reopen the canal, and captured the waterway two weeks later. After the success of the operation, the Sri Lankan military expanded their offensive, gaining control of the entire Eastern Province in mid-2007, and confining the LTTE to an area of approximately 100 km2 by February 2009.
The first reports of aircraft being in the possession of the LTTE came in 1998, when the pro-LTTE website TamilNet reported that a Tiger aircraft sprinkled flowers over a cemetery in Mullaithivu. However the LTTE did not use aircraft as offensive weapons until March 2007, when they launched a surprise attack against Colombo using light aircraft to drop a bomb on the main airbase of the Sri Lanka Air Force. The LTTE are believed to have smuggled a number of light aircraft into Sri Lanka during the 2002–06 ceasefire period, and were first detected by UAVs of the Sri Lanka Air Force in 2005. Up to February 2009, the LTTE carried out seven other air attacks against government targets, with the Air Force claiming to have shot down a Tamil Tiger aircraft on one occasion.
The LTTE are believed to have used Zlín Z 143 aircraft, which are manufactured in the Czech Republic, for their attacks. The Z-143 is a single engine, low-winged monoplane, mainly used for training purposes. It is normally a four-seater, but is modified by the LTTE to carry four bombs on its undercarriage. The Tamil Tigers are the only group known to use Z-143s for military purposes.
With the Sri Lankan military on the verge of winning the war, the Tamil Tigers launched their first suicide air attack on the night of February 20, 2009. Two aircraft took off from a narrow road in Puthukkudiyirippu in the Mullaithivu District, and were sighted by Sri Lanka Army personnel operating along the front lines around 8:30 pm. The aircraft were soon detected by a Sri Lanka Air Force radar installation at Vavuniya. The aircraft, which had switched off their lights to avoid detection, proceeded towards Mannar and then southwards towards Colombo. Twenty minutes after the detection of the aircraft, an F-7 interceptor of the Sri Lanka Air Force was scrambled to intercept the planes, but was unable to do so due to the low altitude of the Tamil Tiger aircraft. The two Tamil Tiger aircraft then flew past the Bandaranaike International Airport, and three international flights were subsequently canceled. At 9:47 pm the aircraft entered airspace above Colombo, and air defense systems were activated. As a precaution, the power supply to the city of Colombo was cut, plunging the city into darkness.
As one of the aircraft circled over Colombo Harbor and took a turn over Galle Face Green, it was hit by anti-aircraft gunfire. At 9:51 pm it crashed into the 12th floor of the 15 story Inland Revenue Department (IRD) building, which is located on Sir Chittampalam Gardiner Mawatha. The impact triggered the explosives packed into the plane, setting part of the building on fire. Two people were killed and over 50 injured in the crash, and a military statement said "parts of strewn pieces of flesh said to be that of the Tiger pilot" were found inside the building. The engine of the plane was found on the 12th floor of the building.
Unable to proceed due to heavy anti-aircraft gunfire, the second aircraft headed back towards the Air Force base located next to Bandaranaike International Airport. However the aircraft was shot down before it reached the base, crashing at 9:59 pm. Six civilians were injured in the crash. The wreckage of the aircraft, along with the body of the pilot, was found by the military. The pilot had two cyanide capsules and a powerful bomb attached to him.
Investigations conducted at the crash sites indicated that for the first time, the Tamil Tiger aircraft were packed with explosives, rather than carrying bombs as they had previously done. It was estimated that there were 215 kg of C-4 plastic explosives inside each plane.
The Ministry of Defence released footage taken from an infrared Sri Lanka Navy surveillance camera of the aircraft crashing into the IRD building (see full video on YouTube). Meanwhile, the LTTE released pictures of who they claimed were the two cadres who flew the two aircraft, posing with the leader of the LTTE Velupillai Prabhakaran. They also released a letter allegedly written by one of the cadres urging other Tamils to join the LTTE and fight Sri Lanka.
There was concern among Sri Lankan media as to why the aircraft weren't intercepted before reaching the capital. An Air Force spokesman said since the Tamil Tiger craft were flying at extremely low height of around 300 feet (91 m), it was impossible for the fighter aircraft of the Air Force to engage them. He said that instead the Air Force was ready to shoot down the planes using anti-aircraft guns when they reached Colombo.
The military believes that the target of the first plane was either the Sri Lanka Air Force Headquarters, which was adjacent to the Inland Revenue Department building, or the President's House or Army Headquarters, which were also in the area. However after the aircraft was hit, the pilot lost control and crashed into the IRD building. The second aircraft is believed to have targeted aircraft hangars at the Air Force base at Katunayake. Given the amount of explosives packed inside the aircraft, there could have been severe devastation if they had hit their targets.
Although the Tamil Tigers claimed in a statement that they had launched successful air raids against Sri Lanka Air Force installations, the attacks are largely seen as failures. However they did send out a message that the Tamil Tigers were still capable of launching attacks against Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government called the attacks a "desperate attempt by the LTTE to bring it into the limelight at a time when it was facing a disgraceful defeat" on the battlefield, and a spokesman said "any terrorist organization would not use their most priced [sic] military asset on a destructive mission until the very end".
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- Video of plane crashing into IRD building, via YouTube
- Text of the letter said to have been written by one of the pilots