Tamil Tigers attack Sri Lanka's international airport

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Tamil Tiger rebels armed with mortars attacked Sri Lanka's main airport and adjoining air force base Tuesday, damaging 11 military and passenger aircraft and shutting down the nation's only international transportation link.

Explosions, automatic weapons fire and pistol shots could be heard more than four hours after the attack, by reporters and air force troopers lying on the ground a few meters (yards) from the airport buildings.

International flights were diverted to India and the Maldives as passengers and workers were evacuated to nearby hotels, said officials at the airport's office in the capital, Colombo, 30 kilometers (18 miles) to the south.

Eight of the guerrillas were killed, said military spokesman Brig. Sanath Karunaratne. He said eight military aircraft and three Sri Lankan Airlines passenger planes were damaged.

The airport assault – the first conventional military attack by the rebels in the capital, is one of the boldest and most financially damaging attacks, and is sure to hit Sri Lanka's tourism industry hard.

Tourism, the country's main revenue earner, has continued in the southern and western part of the country, despite the fighting in the north and east. But an attack on the airport where tourists arrive for visits to tea estates, wildlife parks and beach resorts is sure to bring cancellations.

Passenger's relatives, blocked on the airport access road 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) from the airport, heard a huge explosion and the sound of the T–56 automatic weapons that the military uses. A short while later, there was a second explosion and the sound of pistol fire.

Military officials speaking on condition of anonymity told The Associated Press they believe the rebels may have planted bombs that were exploding as the fighting continued.

"There is firing going on inside the air base. They have shot at the (control) tower," said air force trooper Chaminda Kumara, who briefed reporters near the airport. "We are not sure of how many people (guerrillas) are inside, but there seemed to be a fair amount."

"A few of the airport staff and passengers are still within the airport building and we are giving them as much security as we can," Kumara said.

The attack on the airport came on the anniversary of July 23–24 riots in 1983, in which mobs of the Sinhalese majority killed 2000–3,000 minority Tamils. The riots were seen as retaliation for a July 22, 1983 attack by rebels, in which 13 soldiers were killed.

That attack, and the subsequent riots, are seen as the start of the 18–year war between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who are fighting for a separate Tamil state in the north and eastern portions of the island where most of the minority population live. More than 64,000 people have died in the war in this island nation of 18.6 million people off the southern coast of India.

The worst attack by the rebels was Jan. 31, 1996, when they exploded bombs in the World Trade Center in the central business district, killing 88 and wounding 1,400. Eight buildings, including the one that contained the central bank, were damaged.

The rebels mounted five attacks in Colombo last year, killing 71 people. All the attacks were carried out by suicide bombers supported by other rebels who carried weapons. Before Tuesday, there had been no military–type attack on the capital.

The damage to the aircraft will also hurt the government. It increased taxes and went into deeper debt last year to pay for new Kfir bombers from Israel, as well as fighter jets to bomb and strafe rebel positions in the northern war zone. The government launched a successful offensive that pushed the rebels back from a strategic land corridor the guerrillas had held, cutting off northern Jaffna Peninsula from the mainland.

The rebels declared a unilateral cease–fire at the start of this year, calling on the government to reciprocate as a step toward peace talks. The government rejected the offer, saying the cease–fire was a rebel ploy to regroup. A Norwegian attempt to bring the two sides to talks – the last were held five years ago – has stalled.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, known as Tamil Tigers, are outlawed as a terrorist group in the United States, Britain, India and Sri Lanka.

As dawn broke Tuesday, police ordered a curfew on the whole region around the airport, an area that includes two small towns and approximately 100,000 residents.