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Sunday, 29 July, 2001, 02:06 GMT 03:06 UK
Sri Lanka renews hopeless war
Airbus at airport
The attack signalled an end to the peace process
The devastating raid by Tamil Tiger guerrillas on Sri Lanka's only international airport and an adjacent military air base led to the deaths of 18 people and the destruction of several aircraft. But as Frances Harrison reports, the incident heralds a new cycle of violence on the island and highlights the plight of the young Tamils who went to certain death in the attack.

It began with a phone call at four in the morning saying local residents near the airport had heard gunshots.

I reluctantly dragged myself out of bed thinking it must be some drunken brawl involving army deserters or drug dealers.

Tourists who'd never expected to encounter gunfire, grenades and anti tank weapons exploding around them - seemed to do all the right things instinctively

Soon it became apparent this was an attack on the air force base and that could only mean one thing - the involvement of Tamil Tiger rebels.

That they should strike now was a surprise - for months there has been a tacit understanding that the rebels would not hit civilian targets in the south of the island because of a Norwegian sponsored peace initiative.

This attack signals that the peace process is at an end - and it is back to the depressing monotony of a war that neither side can win.

Sensible tourists

Soon the telephones in my office were ringing out of control - scores of holiday makers had been caught up in a fierce gunbattle at the airport.

Many tourists remain traumatised by the experience
They gave graphic accounts of their escape but what struck me is how sensible they had been - taking cover in ditches, helping each other out, breaking through the perimeter fence to get away from the firing and walking several miles to safety.

Tourists who had never expected to encounter gunfire, grenades and anti-tank weapons exploding around them - seemed to do all the right things instinctively.

None of the tourists was hurt though many remained traumatised by the experience - some saying later they were scared to go back to the airport to fly home much as they wanted to get out of the country.

Suicide mission

But looking back on it I think the most shocking aspect of this attack is that the 14 young Tamil men who carried it out must have known they were going to their deaths.

Airport officials with body of guerrilla
The guerrillas could not have hoped to come out alive
It was a mission they could not hope to come out of alive - a suicide mission - indeed some of them did commit suicide - literally blowing themselves up to evade capture. The charred and decapitated bodies stand witness to that.

The Tamil Tiger rebel group specialises in suicide attacks - over the years they have carried out more than all other rebel groups in the world put together.

Earlier this month the organisation celebrated what they call Black Tiger day - the anniversary of their first suicide bombing.

The rebels' radio station, known as Voice of Tigers - which broadcasts clandestinely from the jungles of northern Sri Lanka - proudly announced that 217 Tigers had carried out suicide missions during the two-decade conflict here.


What is shocking is that so many young men and women feel their lives are so hopeless that they are willing not just to risk them but knowingly to walk to their deaths wearing jackets packed with explosives.

It was a sad scene - an empty bottle of coke and some wrapping papers - there was nothing special or personal about this last meal of comrades about to die

It is a sad indictment of the Sri Lankan Government that it can offer these people no glimmer of a better future and it is a sad indictment of the rebel group that it encourages such wanton sacrifice - or some would say that it brainwashes its young people so effectively.

In Sri Lanka it is thought that the suicide bombers, or Black Tigers as they're known, are generally orphans - their parents having died in this seemingly interminable war.

Brought up in the fold of the rebel group they are encouraged to give their lives for their new guardians - exploiting their vulnerability.

One newspaper printed a picture of the detritus - supposedly left over from a picnic the rebels had before they launched the attack - a sort of last supper.

It was a sad scene - an empty bottle of coke and some wrapping papers - there was nothing special or personal about this last meal of comrades about to die.

Immune to violence

That is not to diminish the sacrifice of the military on duty - seven of whom were killed fending off the attack.

Weeping relatives
The war killed an average of 13 people per day last year
But the deaths seemed to be taken for granted - this is a country where last year on average 13 people were killed every day in the civil war.

People in the Paradise Island are inured to violence and anyway it rarely touches people's lives in the capital.

Sri Lanka's civil war is fought mainly in the north and east of the island - the areas claimed by the Tigers as the Tamil homeland.

Unless they send their boys to fight in the army, most members of the majority Sinhalese community only feel the war in their pockets - the cost of living constantly rising because of the need to buy more sophisticated weapons.

But for the people living in the conflict areas this latest attack on the airport can only spell bad news - dashed hopes of peace and fighting with a renewed intensity.

See also:

24 Jul 01 | UK
'All hell broke loose'
24 Jul 01 | South Asia
In pictures: Sri Lanka attack
25 Jul 01 | Business
Sri Lanka's economy reels after raid
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