Flight into terror | Daily News
22nd anniversary of LTTE attack on Lion Air Flight 602

Flight into terror

The Terrorist Investigation Unit conducting investigations at the site where the Lion Air plane crashed into the sea near Iranaitivu Island on September 29, 1998. (File Photo)
The Terrorist Investigation Unit conducting investigations at the site where the Lion Air plane crashed into the sea near Iranaitivu Island on September 29, 1998. (File Photo)

Twenty-two years ago on a day like this Lion Air Flight 602, Antonov An-24RV fell into the sea off the north-western coast of Sri Lanka following an attack by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). It was on September 29, 1998. It was long before the 2009 suicide air raid on Colombo which was an unsuccessful kamikaze-style suicide attack launched by the air wing of the LTTE on February 20, 2009.

The aircraft, Antonov An-24RV departed the Jaffna Airport with 48 passengers and a crew of seven; it disappeared from radar screens 10 minutes into the flight. Initial reports indicated that the plane had been shot down by LTTE terrorists using a MANPADS, which has since been confirmed. All aboard were presumed killed.

The Antonov An-24RV was leased from the Belarusian Company, Gomelavia to operate flight 602. It was captained by Anatoli Matochko and had six other crew, including a Sinhalese stewardess. There were 48 passengers, all Tamils, including 17 females and eight children.

The aircraft went missing 10 minutes after taking off from the Jaffna Airport at 1.40 pm on September 29, 1998 on a scheduled flight to Colombo. The pilot reported depressurization a short time before contact was lost. Following the downing of Flight LN 602, all civil aviation between Colombo and Jaffna was suspended for many months by the Sri Lanka Civil Aviation Authority.

Lion Air, the main operator of Colombo-Jaffna flights, received a warning letter a month before the incident from the LTTE Administrative Service, stating that if the airline continued to ignore a warning about carrying Sri Lanka Armed Forces personnel, it would be attacked after September 14. The airline closed its office in Jaffna four days before the incident.

In October 2012, the Sri Lanka Navy discovered wreckage which was believed to be the disintegrated parts of the missing Antonov on the sea bed off Iranaitivu Island. Information concerning the crash site was gained from a former LTTE cadre who had left Sri Lanka and was arrested on his return by the Police Terrorist Investigation Department. He confessed to having fired a missile at the aircraft from the island on the orders of Pottu Amman, a leading member of the LTTE.

The Navy salvaged the first pieces of the wreckage in May 2013, nearly 15 years after the event. Clothing and remains from 22 innocent victims recovered in the salvage operation were put on display in Jaffna for identification in January 2014. They lost their valuable lives while their loved ones still suffer due to the deaths of their parents, brothers, sisters, children and friends etc.

The LTTE hacked to death a large number of civilians belonging to all ethnicities and religions who lived in the North and the East, from time to time during the 30-year armed conflict. The villages located adjoining the areas held by the LTTE were known as ‘border villages’. These border villages were like a part of hell because devils could appear at any time and kill people. The people who lived in those border villages left their homes at night and spent the night in thick jungles and treetops in order to protect their lives from the LTTE. But, some such as the elderly, the sick, the disabled, infants and pregnant mothers could not do it. The LTTE cadres came at night and hacked them to death. They died in a very painful way after suffering for hours without being able to get help from outside. Maybe they died in the most painful way possible for a human being. But after 2015, arrangements were made to pay compensation to LTTE terrorists while ignoring innocent poor civilians who escaped from those massacres. The heroic armed soldiers who protected them were punished by the Yahapalana Government by imprisoning them and not giving bail. Even the families of those heroic soldiers were harassed.

Buddhist Bhikkus who lived in those border villages did not leave their temples because of the innocent poor people. They stayed back and faced the brutality of the LTTE while protecting people and priceless historical archaeological sites which provided concrete proof of real Sri Lankan history. The LTTE tried its best to fabricate a new Sri Lankan history in order to help their claim for the land but the ancient historical archaeological sites stood against those attempts, providing evidence for the true Sri Lankan history. Still, some Tamil politicians try to do so.

Suicide Bombing was a popular tactic of the LTTE between 1980 and 2000. The LTTE carried out 168 suicide attacks causing heavy damage to civilian, economic and military targets. The Sri Lankan economy and the Sri Lanka Army have been targeted on numerous occasions, including during a high-profile attack on the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) in 2001 that caused damage to several commercial airliners and military jets.

The LTTE was also responsible for an attack in 1998 on the holiest Buddhist shrine in Sri Lanka, and the UNESCO World Heritage Site Sri Dalada Maligawa that killed eight devotees. Other Buddhist shrines have been attacked, notably Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi and Sambuddhaloka Temple in Colombo. The LTTE hijacked a bus on May 14, 1985 and entered Anuradhapura. As the LTTE cadres entered the main bus station, they opened fire indiscriminately with automatic weapons killing and wounding many civilians who were waiting for buses. The LTTE cadres then drove to the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi and gunned down Buddhist Bhikkunis, Buddhist Bhikkus and civilians who were worshipping. Before they withdrew, the LTTE entered the National Park of Wilpattu and killed 18 Sinhalese in the forest reserve. The LTTE cadres massacred 146 Sinhalese men, women and children in Anuradhapura.

Heroic Armed Forces of Mother Lanka put an end to the brutal terrorism of the LTTE on May 18, 2009 under the leadership of the then President and the current Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and the then Defence Secretary and the current President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. They sacrificed over 26,000 precious young lives to save our Motherland. Several War Heroes became permanently disabled. The blood and sweat shed by them in order to protect innocent poor Sri Lankan people and the Motherland was underestimated during 2015 – 2019 period. Some of them were imprisoned for saving the Motherland and people’s lives. But, on November 16, 2019, Sri Lankans did justice for those precious lives lost and shattered.