Sri Lanka
Tamil rebels kill three in Colombo air strike
Mar 26, 2007 - 7:25:52 PM

Colombo, March 26 - Tamil rebels for the first time used aircraft to attack a Sri Lankan Air Force base adjoining Colombo's international airport, killing three airmen and injuring 17 others, military officials said Monday.

The government confirmed that a light aircraft dropped three bombs onto the airbase at Katunayaka, 23 km north of the capital, but did not hit the targeted air force fighter jets.

The government said the bombs had been dropped on an engineering section of the air base and that only two exploded.

Journalists have been denied access into the base to gain independent verification of the damage caused to the base, which is used to fly out Kfir and MiG-27 fighters to bomb rebel positions in the northern and eastern parts of the country.

'We are fighting with a group of terrorists - that has air capability,' Commerce Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle told reporters.

A five-member government committee is due to probe the attack and the successful escape, while the air force will conduct its own separate probe, he said.

The adjoining Bandaranaike International Airport, which was temporarily closed, resumed operations six hours after the attack, but most the flights had been delayed, an airport spokesman said.

The Tourist Board set up a special information desk to provide information about the passengers who may be stranded due to the flight delays.

At least seven flights heading to Sri Lanka were redirected to other airports, but have now been permitted to fly into the country. However, Hong Kong airline Cathay Pacific suspended its flights to and from Colombo until further notice.

Additional troops were moved into the area after the attack, which took place at 12:45 a.m. Monday.

Tamil rebels claimed that two aircraft had been used, but the air force says that only one plane had been used for the attack. It was the first-ever air attack by the rebels.

Military spokesman Rasaiah Illanthiriyan of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam confirmed the attack, and said the two planes took off from the rebel-controlled Wanni northern region and returned to their base.

He said the targets for the air strike were hangars where Sri Lankan air force Kfir and MiG-27 jets were parked. He threatened that other Sri Lanka military installations would be targets for future attacks.

The rebel pilots posed for photographs with rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran before the mission. Prabhakaran, who is in hiding, often poses for photographs with his cadres when they are about to undertake important missions, including suicide attacks.

Civilians living in the north-western coastal areas confirmed they had observed two-low flying aircraft shortly before the attack.

Police and naval officers conducted a search in the sea off Puttalam following reports that one of the planes had crashed, but found no traces.

Security forces were on full alert for further attacks in the wake of what rebels called a 'humiliating defeat' in recent military operations that recaptured some rebel-controlled areas in eastern Sri Lanka.

In July 2001, the same base and the international airport were attacked by Tamil rebels and at least six aircraft damaged. The rebels first indicated that they were in the possession of planes in 1998, but Monday was the first time they used them in an attack against security forces.

The use of aircraft marks a new direction in the decades-old conflict, and will force the government to provide additional security to military bases and government buildings, including parliament.

Security has been stepped up at the airport with additional security checks being maintained on passengers and visitors to the airport.

The rebels already have a unit known as the Sea Tigers that has carried out a series of deadly attacks against the navy.

Fighting between government forces and Tamil rebels has escalated in the last 15 months, with at least 4,000 deaths reported.

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