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4/28/2007

Sri Lanka on alert after new air raid threat from Tigers

Filed under: global islands,sri lanka — admin @ 7:25 am

Colombo: Sri Lanka was on high alert yesterday over the threat of another Tamil Tiger air attack, the morning after a suspicious aircraft forced the closure of the island’s only international airport.

“We are on alert. In fact, every day we are on alert now and we have beefed up our measures,” air force spokesman Ajantha Silva said.

Overnight on Thursday, the sky over the Katunayake international airport near Colombo – where government warplanes are also stationed, sharing a runway with civilian passenger jets – was lit up with anti-aircraft gunfire.

Authorities also switched off electricity to the capital so that potential targets would not be illuminated.

“Sri Lanka’s air force engaged its air defence weapons at a suspicious aircraft observed in the Katunayake sky,” the defence ministry said during the night. It said the “suspicious air move” was also detected by radar, but there was no rebel attack using the aircraft.

Mini-state

However, military bases south of the frontline dividing rebel-held territory from the rest of the island opened fire on Thursday night to prevent any air attack, military sources said.

The rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who have been fighting the government for 35 years and run a mini-state in the north of the island, bombed the Katunayake air base a month ago in their first ever air strike.

The separatist rebels also carried out a second air raid on the Palaly military complex in the island’s north on Tuesday.

A total of nine security personnel were killed and 30 wounded in the two air attacks by the Tigers, who are believed to have a small fleet of Czech-made Zlin Z-143 single-engined light aircraft.

The planes are believed to have been smuggled in pieces into the north of the island by boat, and can be flown from tiny makeshift airstrips in the jungle. The defence ministry has said that the Tigers possessed at least five light planes.

The LTTE attacks have also caused havoc for international passenger flights.

Overnight, two incoming Sri Lankan Airlines flights were diverted to the nearby south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, before continuing their journey yesterday morning, airport officials said.

Flights delayed

A Singapore Airlines aircraft, which was at the airport at the time the runway was shut down, was also delayed.

The attack alert came the day after Hong Kong carrier Cathay Pacific resumed flights to Colombo, which had been suspended after last month’s attack.

Immediately after last month’s attack, Emirates airline also stopped night flights to Colombo.

To make matters worse for Sri Lankan authorities, a helicopter gunship scrambled to detect the suspect plane ran into technical difficulties and crash-landed just outside Anuradhapura air base in the government-held north, military sources said. No one was seriously injured.

Sri Lanka’s civil conflict flared up in 1983 when Tamil separatists began fighting the government to create an independent homeland for ethnic minority Tamils who have suffered decades of discrimination by Sinhalese-dominated governments.

A Norway-brokered ceasefire signed in 2002 prevented large-scale fighting, but a resurgence of violence since 2005 has taken the death toll past 69,000.

Colombo — Sri Lankan navy sailors and separatist Tamil Tiger rebels battled in the country’s east yesterday, leaving three sailors dead, the military said.

Military spokesman Brigadier Prasad Samarasinghe said the rebels also suffered casualties. He gave no further details about the fighting.

The attack took place in the coastal village of Uppuveli in Trincomalee district, the site of a major Sri Lankan navy base and natural harbour.

On Thursday, soldiers attacked a car carrying Tamil Tiger rebels in the northwest, killing two insurgents, the military said.

The assault happened near the army’s defence line in Mannar district, said Lt Col Upali Rajapakse, a senior defence ministry official.

Rajapakse said he believed a local rebel leader was killed in the attack, but did not give his name. There was no immediate comment from Tigers.

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