Colombo: Sri Lankan security forces are on high alert as Tamil Tiger rebels this week mark the 20th anniversary of their first-ever suicide attack with the threat of unleashing more deadly strikes.
The island’s prime minister has underlined fears that the ethnic Tamil guerrillas could be planning to celebrate with a bang, following the discovery in recent weeks of two trucks, each crammed with around a tonne of explosives.
“The explosives in the truck were enough to destroy half of Colombo,” Ratnasiri Wickremanayake told reporters shortly after the first truck bomb was found before it was detonated.
In their northern de facto state, the Tigers will light coconut oil lamps and hold Hindu services for at least 260 rebels -- more than a quarter of them women -- who have blown themselves up in the name of an independent homeland.
The first of these “Black Tigers” was a rebel known as Captain Miller, who drove a truck bomb into an army camp in the Jaffna peninsula on 5 July 1987, killing 40 soldiers.
Initially inspired by Islamic militants in the Middle East, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have earned a reputation as the world’s deadliest suicide bombers, claiming a long string of high-profile victims.
As a result, the group has attracted widespread international condemnation -- and been designated as a terrorist organisation by both the United States and the European Union.
Unlike their Islamic counterparts in the Al-Qaeda network, Tiger suicide operatives are driven by loyalty, and not religion. They are secular Hindus with a single-minded allegiance to their leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran.
“It is difficult to fight Black Tigers because they have no respect for life -- not even their own,” said retired army general Sarath Munasinghe.
He describes the Black Tigers as a “protective armour” for the 35-year-old campaign to create a separate state for the island nation’s ethnic Tamil minority.
The deadliest suicide attack took place on October 16 last year when a Black Tiger drove a truck bomb into a transit point where 350 sailors were waiting to board busses in north-central Sri Lanka. At least 116 of them were killed.
India banned the Tigers in 1992 after holding them responsible for the 1991 suicide bombing that killed former Indian premier Rajiv Gandhi, who as prime minister ordered Indian troops to disarm the rebels in 1987.
Twenty years on, the Tiger recruits keep coming -- and the chosen few are entertained to a last supper with the 52-year-old Prabhakaran as a high point of a short but effective military career.
Ever the masters of reinvention, the Tigers have now added an air force to their arsenal -- smuggling in light aircraft and bombing a military air base adjoining the island’s only international airport in March.
“Tigers are no doubt the masters of suicide bombings,” said defence analyst Namal Perera. “If they use their Black Tiger expertise with the new air wing, it could have a devastating impact on the conflict.”
A retired top air force official who asked not to be named said he believed that the Tigers could soon use a flying bomb, even though up to now they have struck from the air and then flown back to their bases.
The police and armed forces are understandably nervous.
“Measures are underway to heighten our alert during the Black Tiger week,” police spokesman Senior Deputy Inspector General Jayantha Wickramaratne told AFP. “We are taking all measures to eliminate the risk of terrorist attacks.”
“We are also seeking public cooperation for information regarding suspicious activity in their neighbourhoods.”