Sri Lanka opens eye in the sky on war zone

COLOMBO Mon Apr 20, 2009 4:20pm BST

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka's military on Monday opened up its aerial surveillance center to journalists for the first time, offering a glimpse of real-time footage from a battlefield usually off-limits to independent observers.

A handful of reporters were brought inside the Battle Management Center at air force headquarters in Colombo, from where controllers monitor video from Israeli-made unmanned drones and a Beechcraft reconnaissance airplane.

That real-time information is then fed to commanders fighting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) separatists.

In the Indian Ocean island's 25-year-old war, the fight on the battlefield has often been measured by how much propaganda mileage events there can garner to frame the conflict to a wider world that rarely spares it much thought.

With tens of thousands fleeing the war zone and major international pressure on the government to protect them, the military hastily called journalists to view what it said was a mix of live and recorded video of the morning's exodus.

"All of these small dots are human beings waiting to be checked," Vice Air Marshal Kolitha Gunatilleke told reporters, pointing to video on a widescreen monitor showing throngs of people around a few makeshift structures.

He then aimed a laser pointer at an adjacent screen with a Google Earth map to chalk out the 1.5 km (1 mile) path he said people had taken, crossing an earthen berm built by the Tigers and then wading through a lagoon to reach the army-held areas.

"I think the civilians saw the army was close and thought it was a safe route. Probably the civilians spied them because this is an open space," he said, making a circle with the laser pointer.

He then showed video he said was taken at about 8 a.m. (0230 GMT) from around 7,000 feet, which showed a stream of people running to reach the earth berm. They appeared much like a string of marching ants.

Another video taken earlier in the morning showed what he said was an LTTE vehicle firing a heavy weapon, its muzzle blast flaring black in gray image from an infrared camera.

Less than an hour before Gunatilleke had given President Mahinda Rajapaksa a similar briefing.

Sri Lanka's military has a reputation for keeping most outsiders away from its operations except via carefully organized trips to newly captured areas. Local media are allowed to the front, and Reuters got a visit in February.

For decades, the LTTE held the propaganda edge with an active web site, TV stations and a strong diaspora network it used to make its message known.

But Sri Lanka's military under the current government has rapidly made up ground through state media and dedicated personnel and web sites to shape its message.

Although there was no way to verify independently that the taped events matched what happened in the morning, Gunatilleke ordered the drone's pilot to move for a closer look at another area of the no-fire zone at the request of journalists.

That showed large numbers of people thronging on the beach, the surf washing up close to them.

(Editing by Jerry Norton)

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