Anusha Ondaatjie and Paul Tighe, Bloomberg
Colombo/Sydney: Sri Lanka’s Bandaranaike international airport closed briefly in response to an alert that the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam were carrying out a second air raid on a nearby military base within a month.
Air defenses were activated late yesterday at the Katunayake base, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the capital, Colombo, after the reported sighting of suspicious aircraft, the Defense Ministry said. No attack occurred.
Sri Lankan air force jets earlier yesterday bombed a base near the LTTE headquarters at Kilinochchi in the north where “a number of high-profile terrorists” gathered, the ministry said in a statement. The bombs struck a suburb of the town, wounding two civilians, TamilNet reported on its Web site, citing unidentified officials in Kilinochchi.
The Tamil Tigers, who have been fighting for two decades for a separate homeland in the north and east of the island nation, revealed their air wing in a 26 March raid on the Katunayake base that killed three air force personnel. The attack prompted India to boost radar stations on the coast of Tamil Nadu state, across the waters from Sri Lanka.
The air alert yesterday occurred at about 11 pm Sri Lankan time, said Upali Rajapakse, a military spokesman. Air force personnel fired anti-aircraft guns, the British Broadcasting Corp. reported. Power was cut in Colombo and two civilian passenger aircraft diverted from the nearby international airport before the alert was lifted an hour later, the BBC said. The airport is now operating as usual, the Defense Ministry said.
The LTTE carried out an attack three days ago on the Palalai military complex in the northern Jaffna peninsula, saying two light aircraft dropped bombs on the base. Sri Lanka’s military said anti-aircraft fire forced the planes away from the complex before any bombs were dropped.
The existence of an LTTE air wing threatens Sri Lanka, India and the region, Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa said earlier this month. The government has set up a toll free number which the public can call to give information about the rebel air wing or sightings of aircraft, according to the president’s office.
The LTTE smuggled about five propeller-driven aircraft into the country and built military airstrips following the 2002 cease-fire, the Defense Ministry said earlier this week, blaming the failure to stop the transfer of equipment on “lax security measures” under former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s administration.
The LTTE, classified as a terrorist group by the U.S., the European Union and India, has an estimated 12,000 fighters, including a 4,000-strong naval force known as the Sea Tigers.
— With reporting by Theresa Barry in Washington