/ 22 October 2007

Sri Lanka rebel planes bomb air force base

The Tamil Tigers air wing bombed a north Sri Lanka air force base before dawn on Monday, the military said, while the Tigers said suicide fighters mounted their biggest ground assault since the two-decade civil war began.

The rebel air strike in the north-central district of Anuradhapura comes months after the Tigers’ first-ever air attacks using light aircraft smuggled into the country in pieces, and as near daily land, air and sea clashes occur.

Nine servicemen were killed inside the base and 20 others were wounded in the attack, while four crew aboard a helicopter gunship, scrambled to search the area, were killed when it crash-landed several kilometres away, the military said.

The crash was due to technical reasons and not rebel or friendly gunfire, it added.

Traders said the two-pronged attack was partly to blame for losses on the Colombo stock exchange, which closed provisionally 0,43% lower as worried small investors sold shares.

Twenty Tiger fighters were killed during a gun battle at the base, the government said. There were no independent accounts of what happened or how many people were killed. The Tiger aircraft escaped.

”We have found 20 bodies of LTTE cadres inside the base and we are doing a search operation to see if there are any more,” government defence spokesperson Keheliya Rambukwella said. ”This will not deviate us from the fight against terrorism.”

An air force spokesperson said two MI-24 helicopters and a training aircraft parked at the base were damaged in the attack. Residents in Anuradhapura, where police imposed a curfew, could still hear gunfire by early afternoon.

A search operation was under way around the air force base, one of Sri Lanka’s largest. Air force fighter jets retaliated with bombing raids on a suspected rebel air strip at the town of Iranamadu, inside Tiger territory.

The Tigers air wing of light aircraft bombed oil installations and an air base adjacent to the island’s only international airport earlier this year. The Tigers have warned more such attacks could follow. — Reuters