Rebel commandos fought their way inside Sri Lanka's two main oil depots yesterday, blowing up storage tanks and killing at least 20 guards before they escaped. The explosions apparently were carried out by the Tamil Tigers in retaliation against the army's three-day assault on the ethnic rebel stronghold in Jaffna, on the northern tip of the island.
In two simultaneous attacks before dawn, rebels stormed the country's two largest oil storage facilities on different sides of Colombo. "Four attackers arrived in a lorry, overpowered the guards and planted explosives on the tanks. One of the attackers blew himself up," said H M G B Kotadeniya, deputy inspector-general of police.
The Kolonnawa and Orugodawatte facilities hold virtually all of the country's imported petroleum.
The blazing tanks of fuel shrouded the city in black smoke, causing thousands of residents to flee their homes, fearing that the fire could spread and engulf the city. Some camped in temples, others huddled on the streets as the sound of gunfire echoed from the nearby depots.
The blazing oil tanks served to highlight the dilemma of Sri Lanka's President, Chandrika Kumaratunga: though her troops are scoring wins on the battlefields of Jaffna, that has not stopped the Tamil Tigers from dragging the war on to the streets of Colombo.
Many times during this 13-year ethnic war, Tamil suicide squads have slipped into the seaside capital, assassinating cabinet ministers, army generals and a president. They have threatened also to kill Ms Kumaratunga unless she calls off the military offensive against Jaffna.
As troops and fire-fighters rushed to the burning depots, the rebels opened fire, cutting down 23 soldiers and wounding 36 others. A BBC correspondent, George Arney, was reportedly injured in a gun battle.
Witnesses said police and army had mounted checkpoints across Colombo yesterday in hopes of capturing the bombers. So far, police have seized a rocket launcher and a truck laden with explosives.
The heat from the oil storage tanks was so fierce that fire-fighters had no choice but to watch helplessly as they burned out of control. Sri Lanka has appealed to India for help in putting out the fires. The government also imposed a 24-hour curfew, and state radio and television stations urged people not to flee. By late afternoon, many who had run away were starting to return.
Anuruddha Ratwatte, deputy defence minister, said that the explosions in the oil storage tanks would not hamper the army's offensive against the Tamil Tigers fighting for an independent state on the northern tip of the island. More than 35,000 troops are being hurled into battle against the Tamils, who have reportedly suffered heavy losses.