Colombo : An air force base in north-central Sri Lanka was hit by a combined air and ground attack by Tamil rebels early Monday, and a helicopter pursuing the rebels crashed, claiming the lives of the pilot, co-pilot and two gunners, military officials said.
They said six more security personnel and at least 20 rebels of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were killed in clashes at the camp.
Hours after the attack the air force pounded suspected Tamil rebel targets in the northern Kilinochchi district and claimed they had bombed one of the rebels’ training camps.
The defence ministry said in a statement that a small group of rebels tried to overrun the airbase in Anuradhapura, 180 km north of Colombo, in the early hours of Monday, but a counter-attack forced the rebels to flee.
Two rebel light aircraft dropped two bombs while another group attacked the base on the ground, sparking off a 45-minute battle.
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, 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 gunships, trainer craft and reconnaissance craft.”
At least 20 bodies of rebels who were killed in the counter-attack were reported scattered in the camp, the defence ministry said.
A curfew has been declared in the area to facilitate the search operation. There were no reports of arrests.
An air force helicopter attempting to pursue the rebel aircraft crashed when it tried to make an emergency landing in the area, air force spokesman Captain Ajantha Silva said.
The helicopter, a Bell-212, crashed in Mihintale, less than 10 km from the base which came under attack. Two MI-24 helicopters on the airbase were damaged in the rebel attack, Silva said.
“The situation has been brought under control, but search operations are in progress for the rebels who entered the area,” Silva said.
Five airmen and a soldier were killed and at least 18 airmen on guard were wounded in the attack, military sources said.
Investigations have revealed that some of the attackers had come through a lake close to the air base for the attack. The airbase is used for the ongoing military operations in the northern and eastern provinces.
Residents adjoining the airbase were seen fleeing their homes soon after the attack, but most were gradually returning, a local resident said by telephone.
Rebels used two light aircraft to carry out two separate attacks in March and April on an airbase adjoining Sri Lanka’s only international airport at Katunayaka, 35 km north of the capital, and on two oil installations respectively. Three deaths were caused in the strikes. The oil installations were damaged.
Rebels also used the aircraft to attack a military base in the north, killing at least six soldiers. Three weeks ago residents spotted a suspected rebel aircraft in the Anuradhapura district.
After the previous attacks the government claimed that it had the air capability to bring down the rebel planes. Government’s defence spokesman Minister Keheliya Rambukwella said the attack was a clear sign that there was no use discussing political solutions to the ethnic conflict and terrorism should be crushed.
Fighting in the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka has escalated in the last two years. A Norwegian backed ceasefire between the government and the LTTE has been virtually ignored and over 5,300 have been killed during the two-year period.