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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2642

I have a strong belief that Prabhakaran was seriously injured in the air attack – Sri Lanka Air Force Commander

By Ruwan Weerakoon for Asian Tribune

Colombo, 06 March, (Asian Tribune.com): Prabakaran was seriously injured after the air attack on his hide out on 26 November. After this attack Prabhakaran has never appeared in public. Even when Charles, one of his top leaders was killed Prabhakaran did not attend his funeral. What it is believes is that Prabhakaran is seriously injured and the person who used to move about freely is now in hiding nursing his injuries.Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke: “I have a strong belief that Prabhakaran was seriously injured in this attack. After this attack Prabhakaran has never appeared in public."Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke: “I have a strong belief that Prabhakaran was seriously injured in this attack. After this attack Prabhakaran has never appeared in public."

Air Force Commander Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke said that the target they took on November 26 was under surveillance from the air and based on this intelligence when compared with intelligence received from other sources made us believe that Prabhakaran was at this particular location.

He said, “I personally discussed this matter with the Secretary of Defence and we informed him that we knew the location of Prabhakaran and that they were away from civilian settlements in Killinochchi. So we decided to attack. We used Mig - 27 fighter Jets, and Kfir fighter Jets in the attack and we dropped about 20 bombs all of which hit their target.”

Air Force Commander further said, “I have a strong belief that Prabhakaran was seriously injured in this attack. After this attack Prabhakaran has never appeared in public. Even when Charles, one of his top leaders was killed Prabhakaran did not attend his funeral. What I firmly believe is that Prabhakaran is seriously injured and the person who used to move about freely is now in hiding nursing his injuries.”

On 17 February, the Air Force Commander Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke was interviewed at "Thulawa" political program on the ITN Televesion.

He was interviewed by the ITN’s Deputy General Manager News and current affair Mr. Sudarma Radaliyagoda in Sinhala Language. Excerpts of the interview here are the unofficial translated version of the interview;

Given below the full text of the interview:

Sudarma Radaliyagoda: At the beginning I would like to start by referring to my previous statement which was about a father and son commanding an Air Force. If I am correct, this would be a world record.

Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke: Yes, I think that this is the first time in the world that a father and a son have both commanded an Air Force. I am very happy to have reached the position my father held many years ago. I joined the Air Force from this very house and it is my fervent wish that when I leave this house, when I retire from the Air Force that the present conflict would have ended. As my father was in the Air Force, all my 51 years have been spent in an Air Force environment. I saw the Air Force at that time and I am happy to say that it has progressed over the years and is now at a very satisfactory level.

Question: What do you think about your younger brother Shirantha Goonethileke who sacrificed his life for the sake of the country while serving the Air Force? What can you remember about him?

Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke: He joined the Air Force 6 months after me. He was an excellent officer. A lot of people say that if he were alive, he would have been the Air Force Commander before me. Unfortunately on 29th April 1995 the aircraft he was piloting came under a missile attack by LTTE Terrorists and he lost his life in this incident. He flew fixed wing aircraft whilst I flew helicopters. In this war many parents have lost their children thus I believe that we should finish this war soon and therefore for the time being we have to put these incidents behind us and move forward.

Question: If we talk of the history of the Air Force, in 30 years of conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, on one side the Tamil civilians have become prisoners of the LTTE. Sinhala, Muslim and others have been traumatized. In this backdrop what do you perceive as the role and task of the Air Force?

Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke: The role of the Air Force is to use technology and precisely attack identified terrorist targets such as their fuel storage facilities, ammunition storages facilities and artillery guns with a view to destroy the terrorists ability to wage war. The leadership should be taken out. The relationship between the leadership and those cadres who have been forcibly recruited should be destroyed. Another role of the air force is to support the Army troops who are moving bravery forward and also to support the Navy when they require assistance. Above all our role as an air force will be to locate terrorist targets and to destroy their ability to wage war. In this regard we have had significant success.

Question: During the 30 odd years of the conflict there were reports in the media in the past that claimed that more civilians were killed in air strikes than terrorists. What was the reason for the targeting not being accurate? Were these reports accurate? Can you comment on this?

Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke: First of all I would like to say that at that time we faced certain unavoidable situations. We had the same level of technology and the same pilots then as we have now, but we did face certain difficulties at that time. However I would like to say that the Air Force has perfected the art of working as a team. I strongly believe in the saying ‘United we stand, divided we fall’. It is because of our unity and team work that we are successful in our operations now. At this point I would like to pay tribute to the pilots of our Air Force. The world at large does not see the work they do. They have an enormous responsibility of ensuring that the targets acquired by them are accurately acquired ensuring that only the intended targets hit and that innocent civilians are spared. In the recent past these pilots have been doing an excellent job in this regard. However much the LTTE complains about civilians being killed by air force bombings, they are yet to follow up these complaints by publishing believable photographs. Thus I would like once again to compliment the pilots and all those personnel from the other supporting branches and trades on a professional job done. The present success of the air force is purely a result of their efforts.

Question: From the Air how can you distinguish between a terrorist facility and a civilian settlement? How can you target the terrorists without error?

Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke: We have means of obtaining quite accurate intelligence from the air. We also have other detailed means of gathering intelligence from ground sources as well. Once we have collected and analyzed all available intelligence which includes details of civilians in the vicinity, we plan out the attack on terrorist targets. There have been instances where we have not acquired good targets because we had reports that there were civilians living in close proximity to the target.

Question: Recently there were accusations about Sencholai. Some segments of the media and Human rights organizations leveled accusations against the Air Force stating that what was bombed was a school. What are your comments on this?

Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke: Yes we were accused by a lot of people saying that the location or target taken was one where school children were following a course of training. However, we had this place under close watch using our UAV'S (Unmanned Arial Vehicles) for more the 2 1/2 months and we were able to confirm decisively that Sencholai was a training area for LTTE terrorists. What we do not know is whether the LTTE had forcibly recruited school girls and were training them at this camp. If this is the case I feel very sad, however I still maintain that at Sencholai the Air Force hit an identified LTTE terrorist’s training camp.

Question: When we speak about the victory in East the Tri Forces, STF and Police coordinated joint operations in East. What was your contribution for the victory in the East? What was the role of the Air Force in this achievement?

Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke: We initially started aerial attacks after the LTTE suicide attack on the Army Commander, we then continued taking identified targets gradually. During the operations in the East, we started targeting sea Tiger bases, bunkers, artillery, storages, Arms storages, gathering points of leaders from Muttur to Thoppigala. We completely destroyed these targets and because of this they could not coordinate their activities. This made it easier for Army troops to advance. We targeted around 200 tiger facilities in Muttur, Panachikani, Vakarai, Thoppigala as well as in Jaffna, and then back to Thoppigala. They lost their ability to coordinate and launch massive attacks.

Question: There was a major news which did the rounds both locally and internationally that Prabhakaran was injured or killed in a major air attack on November 26, 2007. Do you have any comments on this? Is he still alive? Was he injured in these attacks?

Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke: The target we took on November 26 was under surveillance from the air and based on this intelligence when compared with intelligence received from other sources made us believe that Prabhakaran was at this particular location. I personally discussed this matter with the Secretary of Defence and we informed him that we knew the location of Prabhakaran and that they were away from civilian settlements in Killinochchi. So we decided to attack. We used Mig - 27 fighter Jets, and Kfir fighter Jets in the attack and we dropped about 20 bombs all of which hit their target. I have a strong belief that Prabhakaran was seriously injured in this attack. After this attack Prabhakaran has never appeared in public. Even when Charles, one of his top leaders was killed Prabhakaran did not attend his funeral. What I firmly believe is that Prabhakaran is seriously injured and the person who used to move about freely is now in hiding nursing his injuries.

Question: In previous years we heard that the LTTE attacked our aircraft, but now we do not hear of such instances. Have we destroyed their capability? At one point the LTTE was termed an invincible organization. Now the situation has changed. What are your comments?

Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke:If you take into account the Air raids carried out on November 26th, the pilots faced stiff opposition from the LTTE anti aircraft fire, but nevertheless the pilots skillfully took out the targets. This was one way we confirmed that the target we took was indeed Prabhakaran’s hideout. In previous years when they brought in missiles and anti - Air Craft weapons we were not prepared for it, so we lost air craft and many pilots were killed but now we are fully prepared. We have fixed certain devices that mitigate these threats and there were instances last year when they had fired missiles but since we were prepared it didn't affect us in any way. They still do have anti aircraft weapons which they use at times when we take their targets.

Question: How can you confirm to us that Prabhakaran was present at that place on November 26 taking into account the anti - aircraft fire?

Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke:Now even when we raided the place where Tamilselvan was staying we didn't face any resistance from ground to air weapons. It is a known fact that, every place Prabhakaran visits, are protected by Anti-Air craft weapons. In addition we had a prior knowledge of such movements and also we received certain reports subsequently that Prabhakaran was injured. So when we consider all these reports and facts I believe that on November 26th our intended target was present at the scene.

Question: But recently the LTTE attacked the Anuradhapura Air base, lots of Air crafts were destroyed due to the attack. Was there no radar system in the vicinity of your base to provide you’ll with early Information about the attack?

Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke:When we considered the deployment of the Air Defence system, we gave priority to the protection of vulnerable installations of significant economic importance to the nation. So this system was established to cover Colombo and BIA Katunayaka initially. Even though we had radar coverage of Anuradhapura the other elements were not in place.

However we had aircraft on standby to be able to get airborne no sooner information of an intruder was known. However due to certain problems we faced from the point of ground security, the LTTE were able to enter the base and inflict damage to the aircraft before we could take off. In addition there was no time for the aircraft at Katunayake to be scrambled for interception and also we did not have the required aircraft to do so. That is the problem we had then. Now we have aircrafts. At Anuradhapura we lost 8 aircraft. Most of the aircraft destroyed were training aircraft. Despite claims to the contrary, the attack did not reduce the Sri Lanka Air Force’s attack capability.

Question: People say that the Sri Lanka Air Force gets support from other countries by way of equipment, weapons and some even say that we have pilots from foreign countries? They say that Russian pilots are conducting operations for the Air Force. Is it true that there are foreign pilots?

Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke:No, our pilots are all Sri Lankans. I am happy to say that they are doing their job very well. We have our own instructors who train our pilots. We have boys from villages, from Colombo and from all parts of the island. All of us in the Air Force are Sri Lankans. There is not one foreign pilot with us. I am proud to say that it is the children of mother Lanka who have been responsible for taking the targets accurately. We are not getting instructors from foreign countries. There are Sri Lankans who teach the pilots. We are proud of that.

Question: After you was appointed as the Air Force Commander, we have noticed that lots of attacks have been carried out and that the Air Force has been supporting the overall plan to destroy the LTTE organization in a big way. Are these joint operations and have these joint operations been instrumental in enabling the air force to accurately acquire targets?

Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke:Yes. That is a good question. I would like to state at the beginning that the joint operations we are conducting with the Army and the Navy are quite successful. If one speaks about the army, their offensive capability is at a very high level. In addition their moral too is also at a very high level. I don’t think too many people know of the travails of the soldier in the jungle. Despite difficult conditions they perform their task extremely well. I would like to state that the army is fighting today as it never has before with great dedication and efficiency. I believe that as a result of these operations by the army, the LTTE has lost its supply lines and are finding it difficult to sustain its operations. If you take the Navy, they have been very effective in cutting off the sea supply lines of the LTTE in the recent past. When I took command of the Air Force, we got together and decided that we needed to work together as a team and extend the fullest possible support (to joint operations). At the same time, we decided that we needed to increase our independent targeting air interdiction operations and also to increase the effectiveness of these interdiction operations. We started this present spate of operations with the attack on Mavil-aaru. From thereon there was no looking back. The number of air interdiction operations has increased many folds.

Question: Now from what you say, under the present leadership of the Commanders of the Army, Navy and Air Force the operations to eradicate terrorism is being taken forward. However we need another leadership which is political leadership. How is the support given by the Commander in chief the President? Do you all have good rapport with the President and is it through discussion with him that you’ll conduct operations?

Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke:First of all I like to say that His Excellency the President is giving us a good and effective leadership to end this war. In fact the President has given us a framework within which we have the freedom to work. I think it’s good for any force to have this freedom. If you went to the 'Dayata Kirula' Exhibition you’d have seen (a photograph of) His Excellency the President in a ''Kfir'' jet. This shows how involved he is with the air force. Also the Defense Secretary always supports us in every way. He is always with us. He has visited our bases on many an occasion to see for himself the level of security there. We have a very close and interactive relationship with the leadership. In the past we have had good Defenses Secretaries but we haven't had a Defense Secretary like this. It is an advantage for us. He served in the Army. He knows everything about the Air Force and the Navy. When we inform him about a specific piece of equipment we want he used to ask why, don't you need any other equipment also to do this. So he is giving us good support. The political leadership is very important to conduct this kind of a war. We couldn’t have done all what we have done without good leadership.

Question: In a country where there is conflict, do you see the need for the general public to know about everything that is going on?

Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke:Well it’s like this, as an example, a father, when teaching his child will not tell the child everything does he? There is always a time for things to be told. Likewise there are instances when if certain details are revealed to everyone, it may have an adverse impact on the moral of the person in the battle front. Sometimes whilst trying to keep the general public informed on every thing, the enemy is able to gather a lot of intelligence. The media will look at this from one point of view whilst we in the military will look at it from a different point of view. As human beings we all want to be kept informed of the world around us. However it is not always possible for a military to reveal all that happens. There are very valid reasons which also cannot be revealed either. If we reveal all information, there could be repercussions, on the other hand, if we don’t reveal all information this too could have its own repercussions. However the bottom line is that whatever information we give out has to be that which will not benefit the enemy. I think that the public in general once they reflect on this point will realize and understand that the military will only be able to release information which cannot be of advantage to the enemy.

Question: A number of media as well as Human Rights organizations have pointed a finger of accusation at the Sri Lankan military in the past. This seems to be going on continuously with allegations of human rights violations in the north against the Tamil population. In fact there were protest rallies today in front of the Fort railway station. Why is this so and how do you see these allegations?

Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke: I think if you ask from the people of the North you will find that they like it. These checks are there to increase their security. These measures have no effect on the general public, but they have an effect on the LTTE. These terrorists bring these issues up in a round-about manner and tout them as human rights violations which certain groups then take up.

However, when you have attacks on buses in the south and where the majority of the civilians killed were Sinhalese, then the incident in Mannar where a church was shelled causing extensive damage there was no outcry from these human rights organizations. One has to give thought to this fact. If you ask the public in Jaffna today I’d say they are happier with the forces today who afford them protection. If you ask them they will tell you. I do not like to talk more on this matter, we as the forces have a specific role to play. You have seen for yourself from the visuals of the attacks that there are no civilians in the vicinity of these targets. On a number of occasions you see reports of our aerial bombings having killed civilians. However they do not have pictures to substantiate their claims and another thing is that they do not follow up on these stories. It may well be a ploy by the terrorists to paint a different picture to the world.

Question: We have heard of the Iranamadu area and of the Iranamadu runway. We also heard about the Iranamadu tank which became famous when Anton Balasingham used it to land when entering Sri Lanka. Did you not see this as a symbolic gesture on the part of the LTTE? How actually did you see this?

Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke:This is why we said we needed an Air Defence network. From this instance onward we have been alert to the fact that like this the LTTE could also carry out other similar activity. However we took some time to install this network. We have it in place now. All elements of an Air Defence system are in place, we only need a few small additions which are not critical, and we are ready now.

Question: Is the Iranamadu runway still in existence?

Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke: Yes, it is. From time to time when we think it necessary we attack it.

Question: Is it not possible to find out exactly where these LTTE aircraft are? With the intelligence available at present can’t you target these aircraft accurately? The SLAF keeps taking a lot of identified LTTE targets but this target seems to be an illusive one.

Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke: Yes, we have tried very hard to ascertain the location of these aircraft, we know the general area where they are probably hiding these aircraft but we don’t know the exact location. We don’t have technology which would assist us in this regard. We are always hopeful that countries which have such technology will assist us in this regard as the fact that a terrorist organization is in possession of aircraft is not at all a healthy sign as this could start off as a trend amongst other such terrorist organizations in the world as well. Thus I’m confident that we will receive the assistance we require for this search. In addition I’m also confident that we will also get accurate information as to the location of these aircraft from the general Tamil public in the north as well. As it is we have received some information this way which we are in the process of investigating.

Question: It is a well known fact that the LTTE locates its bases in the jungles of Mullaithivu and Killinochchi. As these are in these jungles far from civilian settlements, there is a question in the minds of the general public as to why the Air Force cannot bomb these camps and completely destroy them? This is one of the reasons why there was a general opinion that the Air Force could not take on targets accurately.

Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke: Now this area you refer to is quite a large area. We do not and cannot keep bombing the entire jungles hoping that we would hit the terrorist camps spread out in the jungles. With the technology we have at our disposal at present, we are able to accurately identify LTTE positions in these areas and it is only these positions which we target. We get information from the Army, from the general public in the north and from our aerial reconnaissance sources from which we are able to identify accurately LTTE bases and positions. We are then able to take these targets out. In addition we have to have an effective use of the munitions we posses. Other than on identified targets we will not simply waste the resources we have by simply bombing the jungles with the hope that we will hit LTTE positions.

Question: You say that the Air Force now only takes targets which have been accurately identified but was there a period when this was not quite possible to achieve?

Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke: Well it is like this, there was a period where we did not get accurate intelligence, then we did not have the capability of gathering information from aerial sources like we do today and we did not get information from the general Tamil population in the North as we do today. Our capability to observe from the air is very much enhanced than it was before. If any one has any doubt in this regard, one has only to look at the attack in which Tamilselvan was targeted. From the air the target appears like a dot even so in this attack the pilots were able to execute a precise strike and take the exact location in which he was at the time.

Question: We have learned through some media that the Air Force uses Unmanned aircraft to gather information about a target and then launches attacks. Is this correct?

Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke:What we do is once we receive intelligence from sources, we dispatch a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) to the location and gather additional details of the target. All information gathered is then passed onto the pilots who will study the target, decide on the attack profile to be followed and then execute the mission. Thus what is very vital is the intelligence.

Question: Throughout the past two hours or so you expressed the requirement to eliminate the leader of the LTTE, Vellupillai Prabahakaran as you said if this is done the LTTE organization would then disintegrate. Can you elaborate on this?

Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke: Yes, I believe that if Prabahakaran and maybe a few top leaders, are eliminated, then the LTTE will not have the cohesiveness it had at one time. I believe that a lot of the members of the LTTE are there because of the ruthlessness of their leader. With him out of the way the LTTE as an organization would decline and crumble.

Question: Even though you state this, there are still suicide bombers about. If as you state they have got tired of this conflict why do you get persons still blowing themselves up for their cause? Don’t you think from the examples of the suicide bombers that the members of the LTTE still have a commitment to their cause?

Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke: The suicide bombers are made to believe that there deaths will achieve something good. They are promised martyrdom for their efforts. The suicide bombers which form a special group within the LTTE, are usually to use a bandied term ‘brain washed’ into believing that they will further their cause by blowing themselves up. This ability for the LTTE hierarchy to gain blind commitment from these members is possible due to their intense propaganda. I believe if we can eliminate this leadership and ensure the correct picture is put across to them they too will have second thoughts. However, you cannot take suicide bombers as an example and say that the entire LTTE organization has this fanatical zeal.

Question: You mentioned the fact that you hope that this conflict would be over before you go on retirement. Given the past history of the conflict, and the context it is placed in today, what sort of a timeframe do you envisage for destroying terrorism in Sri Lanka?

Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke: It is not practical to put a definite timeframe for the eradication of terrorism from the country. However I believe that it will be done before I go on retirement. However, having said that I must qualify this to state that the ongoing effort to eradicate terrorism must be allowed to go ahead unhindered as it is going on now. We must be happy with the present progress in this regard and if we go like this there will be an end to this problem in the very near future, and when this day dawns, then let us state that the problem has been eliminated.

Question: We saw a lot of persons leaving the forces during the period of the ceasefire. However now we see a lot of young people queuing up to join the forces. Why is this? Is it because they see an end to the war and a desire to help finish it as soon as possible? How do you see this?

Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke: I think it is because they see the forces working on a specific plan which has a definite focus. There is a definite plan for the eradication of terrorism. A plan for the country, a plan put forward and endorsed by the countries leadership. When one works according to a specific plan, one sees results and I think it is this that motivates the young people to join the forces today.

Question: At one time we had a lot of murmurings from the villages that their sons were being sent to the war to die and joining the forces was not something everyone endorsed as being positive. However, now the reversal has occurred. It is a common sight to see parents proudly stating that their sons or daughters have joined the forces and are defending the mother land. How do you see this change?

Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke: Yes, I see a lot of encouragement coming from the entire country at present. In fact after the Anuradhapura incident I was expecting a lot of negative comments from the country at large but I must say that I got a lot of calls from the general public urging me to treat this as only an incident in this war and that they were behind us all the way. This was, I must say is a very encouraging sign. We have a lot of support for what we are doing today.

Question: There was a time where people from the villages were complaining that it was only their sons who went to war and came back in body bags whilst the sons of the politicians and the ‘big shots’ were living in the lap of luxury. Having had a father who commandeered the Air Force, a brother who was killed in action and also having a President who has sent a son to the forces what do you have to say about this?

Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke: The example set by President in permitting his son to join the Navy is indeed a great one. At the highest level the example has been set, thus the country can only follow this. Today people from all walks of life are joining the forces.

Question: Yes now the President has allowed his son to joint the Navy, Your father permitted you and your brother to join the Air Force. How about you? If your son wanted to join the forces would you support his decision?

Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke: I have no objection to my son joining the forces if he wants to. In fact I would be proud if he would do so. However, he has to complete some exams yet. Once he finishes them and wants to join he may do so.

Question: Finally before we end I would like to ask you what message you intend to give the general public. What do you expect of them?

Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke: As Roshan Goonetileke, I would like to state that we have waged this war for more than 20 years and now we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. The chance to eradicate the scourge of terrorism from our country is here with us now. We have to seize this opportunity and finish this task quickly. W e need to do this in order to restore that condition of life which our generation enjoyed in our youth and in order for the country to prosper. A country where people of all communities can live together in peace and harmony. We have the chance of achieving this but what is required is a bit of patience.

The final stages are indeed the most vital of stages and we must be careful not to loose this window of opportunity by rash acts. The people of this country have suffered enough, let us not prolong that suffering. With the leadership given by our president I’m confident that we could pursue this to an end in the near future.

Our people are intelligent and disciplined a people who have been resilient over a period of time. A people who have withstood the provocations of the LTTE time and time again. We do not give up easily. We have youth who have only seen war and suffering throughout their lifetime. We have an responsibility to assist them in all ways possible. When the war is over we cannot say that all work will be over. No it is then that we as a nation will have work.

- Asian Tribune -

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