Krishan Francis, AP
Colombo: Tamil Tiger rebels used at least one small propeller plane to bomb a Sri Lankan air force base outside the capital in the separatists’ first airstrike in their quarter-century fight against the government. Three airmen were killed.
The attack early Monday had limited military significance, leaving aircraft on the ground unscathed. But it had great psychological impact, showing the rebels have a new weapon they can use to strike deep inside the southern heartland of Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority.
The airstrike “adds a new dimension to the two-decade separatist war,” said Iqbal Athas of Janes Defense Weekly. “So far the Tigers have fought only in the sea and land but the very fact that they have used their air capabilities, however limited they may be, has enhanced the threat factor which the security forces need to be mindful of.”
The government retaliated with air raids on rebel positions in northern Sri Lanka. No casualties were reported.
There were indications the rebel attack could harm the country’s lucrative tourism industry. The air base targeted was next to Sri Lanka’s international airport, and Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd announced it was indefinitely suspending its daily flights to and from Sri Lanka.
Britain’s Foreign Office warned travellers about the attack. But a spokesman for the Association of British Travel Agents, Sean Tipton, cautioned it was “too early to tell” if tourists would be scared off from Sri Lanka’s resorts, which are all in the south, far from most of the fighting.
Geoffrey Weill, a spokesman for Austrian Airlines, said the airline was still deciding whether to cancel its next flight to Colombo, scheduled for Wednesday.
The rebels started fighting in 1983 for an independent homeland for the country’s 3.1 million Tamils after decades of discrimination by Sinhalese. In the years since, they have pioneered the use of suicide bomb belts and slowly built up a navy of small gunboats.
Sporadic shootings and bombings have escalated into all-out war over the past 18 months in eastern and northern Sri Lanka, dashing hope for peace that followed a 2002 cease-fire.
“If someone can come in an aircraft and attack a place like the air force base, definitely they can hit anywhere in Sri Lanka,” said Lalantha Rasika, a 33-year-old businessman in Colombo.
The rebels’ pride showed in pictures posted on the pro-rebel Web site TamilNet.
In one, two men in light blue, tiger-striped uniforms — members of the newly formed Air Tigers unit — smile in the cockpit of a plane, one of them making a victory sign.
Sri Lankan officials said only one plane took part in Monday’s attack, but rebel spokesman Rasiah Ilanthirayan insisted there were two and warned of more air raids. Three bombs were dropped.
The rebels did not say what kind of aircraft was used, but a Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the plane was believed to be a Czech-made Ziln Z-143 — a single-propeller trainer that had been modified to carry bombs.
The rebels have long had an airstrip — bombed several times by Sri Lanka’s air force last year — in the bush outside their northern stronghold of Kilinochchi. There had been persistent rumours that they had acquired aircraft.
Another Western diplomat said Sri Lankan officials believe the aircraft appeared on the airport’s radar about 30 to 40 minutes before the attack, but air traffic controllers did not know what it was or that it was going to attack.
There were different theories on how the aircraft had been smuggled onto the island.
Sri Lanka’s former air force chief, retired Air Marshall Harry Goonetilleke, said the rebels might have broken the aircraft into parts and reassembled it here. “You can get in parts of a whole small aircraft in five or six packets,” he said.
But both diplomats said it was more likely the aircraft had been flown in under Sri Lanka’s limited radar coverage. One noted that reassembling an aircraft takes expertise the Tigers probably lack.
How they got the aircraft is another question. But the Tigers are known to operate a vast international fundraising and arms-procurement network, using the large Tamil diaspora in Europe, North America and Southeast Asia.
— Associated Press reporter Matthew Rosenberg in New Delhi, India, contributed to this report