Operation Poomalai (Pūmālai, lit. "Flower Garland"), also known as Eagle Mission 4, was the codename assigned to a mission undertaken by the Indian Air Force to air-drop supplies over the besieged town of Jaffna in Sri Lanka on 4 June 1987 in support of Tamil Tigers during the Sri Lankan Civil War.
Jaffna was at the time under blockade by Sri Lankan troops as a part of Colombo's offensive against the Tamil separatist movement. Concerned over alleged violations of interests of the Tamils, who had broader support among the Tamil population of South India as well as the government, India attempted to negotiate a political settlement but the Indian offers had been rebuffed by Colombo. As civilian casualties grew, calls grew within India to intervene in what was increasingly seen in the Indian (and Tamil) media as a developing humanitarian crisis, especially with reports of aerial bombardment against rebel positions in civilian areas. The Indian Government under Rajiv Gandhi decided to attempt to deliver aid to the northern area of Sri Lanka as a symbolic act of support to the rebels. The first of these efforts, a small naval flotilla, was thwarted by the Sri Lankan Navy. Two days later, in a show of force, India mounted the airdrop over Jaffna.
The ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka can be traced to the independence of the island in 1948 from Britain. At the time a Sinhala majority government was instituted that passed legislation deemed discriminatory by the substantial Tamil minority population. In the 1970s two major Tamil parties united to form the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) that started agitating for a separate state of Tamil Eelam within the system in a federal structure in northern and eastern Sri Lanka that would grant the Tamils greater autonomy. Outside the TULF, however, factions advocating more radical and militant courses of action soon emerged, and the divisions started flaring into a violent civil war.
The first round of violence flared in 1983 when the killing of 13 Sri Lankan soldiers sparked anti-Tamil riots in which nearly 400 Tamils died. The riots only aided in the deterioration of the already worsening ethnic strife. The militant factions, notably the LTTE, at this time recruited in large numbers and continued building on popular Tamil dissent and stepped up the guerrilla activities. By May 1985 the guerrillas were strong enough to launch an attack on Anuradhapura, attacking the Bodhi Tree shrine – a sacred site for Buddhist Sinhalese – followed by a rampage through the town. At least 150 civilians died in the hour-long attack.
The government stepped up its campaign against the insurgency, and the Sri Lankan army in 1987 laid siege to the town of Jaffna, an LTTE stronghold, as part of its campaign against the Tamil bases. This resulted in large-scale civilian casualties and created a condition of humanitarian crisis. India, which had a substantial Tamil population in the southern part of the country, had been aiding the Tamil factions and particularly the LTTE and called on the Sri Lankan government to halt the offensive in an attempt to negotiate a political settlement. However, the Indian efforts were futile. Failing to negotiate an end to the crisis with Sri Lanka, India announced on 2 June 1987 that it wound send a convoy of unarmed ships to northern Sri Lanka to provide humanitarian assistance but this was intercepted by the Sri Lankan Navy and turned back.
Following the failure of the naval mission, the decision was made—both as a show of force to the Sri Lankan government of symbolic support for the Tamil rebels as well as an act to preserve the credibility of Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi among the country's Tamil population—by the Indian Government to carry out an airdrop of the humanitarian supplies, designated Operation Poomalai or Eagle Mission 4.
Mounted on the evening of 4 June 1987, the operation involved five An-32s of the Paratroop Training School in Agra, escorted by five Mirage 2000s of the No. 7 Squadron. At 2200 hrs on 02 June, 7 Squadron was directed to send a six aircraft detachment to Bangalore Airport, where they were re-directed to Yelahanka airbase north of the city. At the same time, under the supervision of the (then) Vice-Chief of Air Staff Air Marshal S. Raghavendran, five An-32s were loaded with the relief supplies and took off for Bangalore at 0800 hours. These were to fly out—led by Gp. Capt. B.K. Sunder, CO of Paratroop Training School—after dawn and carry out the supply drop under the cover of the Mirages, which were led by Wg. Cdr. Ajit Bhavnani, CO of No. 7 Squadron. A group of 35 national and international journalists also joined the flight. The Mirages were armed with two Matra Magic II AAMs as a measure against any opposition by the Sri Lankan Air Force, and also carried three drop tanks.
The Sri Lankan Ambassador to New Delhi was summoned to the Ministry of External Affairs at 1500 hours, where the message was conveyed by Minister of External Affairs Natwar Singh that the Indian Air Force would be flying a mission at 1600 hours to drop supplies over Jaffna. The ambassador was told that the aircraft were expected to complete their mission unhindered and any opposition by the Sri Lankan Air Force "would be met by force" by the escorting Mirage 2000s.
The first of the flights left Bangalore at 15:55 hours and flew towards the Coramandel coast, where they were met by four Mirage escorts. One Mirage stayed back acting as radio relay, along with two additional An-32s over Tamil Nadu, which acted as radio relay to Bangalore.
The flight leader attempted radio contact with Colombo ATC over the civilian air traffic radio channel at 1647 hours, but was unable to establish contact. The mission approached Jaffna peninsula at about 1650 hours and sighted Jaffna Town itself at 1700 hours. The aircraft descended from 12000 feet to about 1500 feet and carried out the drop at the drop zone about 7 km from the town of Jaffna. The aircraft then turned in a western direction, flying over Palay airbase before turning north, heading for the Indian coast.
Unopposed by Sri Lankan forces, the mission arrived back over Bangalore at 1813 hours, where they were greeted with much jubilation.
In the wake of Operation Poomalai, Sri Lanka accused India of violating its sovereignty. However, India defended its actions as a mercy mission in aid of what were termed as the deteriorating conditions of the civilian population, refusing at the time to rule out further missions. Within India, the actions were endorsed across the political diaspora In India, it was seen at the time as an act of support against the beleaguered and besieged Tamil population of the north – an opinion that was destined to undergo a drastic reversal after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE in 1991. At that time, Colombo deemed it as a blatant show of support for the Tamil Tigers. The total supply air dropped by India during the operation amounted to little over 25 tons, and this was clearly not sufficient to sustain a besieged city.
Faced with the possibility of an active Indian intervention, Sri Lankan President J. R. Jayewardene offered to hold talks with the Rajiv Gandhi government on future moves. The siege of Jaffna was soon lifted, followed by a round of negotiations that led to the signing of the Indo-Sri-Lankan accord on July 29, 1987 that brought a temporary truce. The terms of the truce specified that the Sri Lankan troops withdraw from the north and the Tamil rebels disarm, and saw the induction of the IPKF as a peace keeping force in Sri Lanka.
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