15 die as LTTE attacks Sri Lankan air base


Colombo : An elite squad of Tamil Tiger guerrillas carried out a combined air and ground attack on a major Sri Lankan air force base before dawn Monday, leaving five airmen and 10 rebels dead, media reports said.

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The deadly 3.20 a.m. assault took by surprise the large number of military personnel at the base in Anuradhapura district, which adjoins the troubled north and is located about 200 km north of Colombo.

An official statement quoting military sources said: “A group of LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) terrorists infiltrated into the air base … and launched (the) attack at around 3 a.m.”

As the ground attack was on, an LTTE light aircraft dropped one or two bombs at the base around 4 a.m., the statement said. It gave no details about casualties.

LTTE military spokesman Rasiyha Illanthiriyan said this was the first time the Tigers had carried out a combined air and ground attack.

In a statement to IANS, the spokesman said: “A combined unit of 21 Black Tigers attacked the Anuradhapura air base, the largest operations logistic base in Sri Lanka” Black Tigers are the LTTE’s suicide bombers.

He said logistic facilities and eight aircraft belonging to the Sri Lanka Air Force were destroyed in the attack. These included helicopter gunship, trainer craft and reconnaissance craft.”

Xinhua quoted military officials as saying that five air force personnel including two pilots were killed in the surprise attack.

DPA reported that at least 10 rebels were also killed as the military counter- attacked. DPA put the air force personnel dead at four. At least 18 airmen were reportedly injured.

The defence ministry said the rebels were forced to flee after the military counter attacked. The bodies of the rebels were reported scattered in the camp.

Curfew has been declared in the area to facilitate a search operation, but there were no reports of arrests.

An air force helicopter attempting to pursue the rebel aircraft crashed when it attempted to make an emergency landing, air force spokesman Captain Ajantha Silva said.

The helicopter, a Bell 212, went down at Mihintale, less than 10 km from the base under attack. Two Mi-24 helicopters at the base were damaged by the Tigers, Silva said.

“The situation has been brought under control but search operations are in progress for the rebels,” Silva said.

An airman and a soldier were killed and at least 18 airmen on guard were wounded in the attack, a military source said.

The airbase is used for the military operations against the LTTE in the northern and eastern provinces.

Residents adjoining the airbase fled their homes soon after the attack, but most later gradually returned, a resident said by telephone.

The LTTE used two light aircraft to carry out two separate attacks in March and April on an airbase adjoining Sri Lanka’s only international airport north of Colombo and on two oil installations respectively.

Three deaths were caused in the strikes on the airbase. The oil installations were damaged.

The rebels also used the aircraft to attack a military base in the north, killing at least six soldiers. Three weeks ago residents had spotted a suspected rebel aircraft in Anuradhapura district.

After the previous attacks, the government claimed it had the air capability to bring down the rebel planes.

Fighting in the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka has escalated in the past two years. A Norwegian backed ceasefire between the government and the LTTE has been virtually ignored and over 5,300 have been killed over two years.

Claiming discrimination at the hands of the Sinhala majority, the LTTE has been fighting the government since the mid-1980s to establish a separate homeland for the Tamil minority in the north and east.