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The BBC's Frances Harrison in Colombo
"They have found three bodies"
 real 28k

John Liddle, a British eyewitness
"We just ran like anything"
 real 56k

Tuesday, 24 July, 2001, 03:09 GMT 04:09 UK
Key Sri Lankan air base attacked
Smoke rises from a plane at Colombo's international airport
All flights from the airport have been suspended
At least eight people have been killed and several aircraft damaged in heavy fighting at a major Sri Lankan air force base.

Military spokesman Brigadier Sanath Karunaratne said that the base, 30km north of the capital Colombo, had come under attack from Tamil Tiger rebels using explosives and small arms.


There are military aircraft burning on the ground. It looks like a very major attack.

Military spokesman
He told the BBC that seven military and three civilian aircraft had been damaged as rebels attacked hangars in both the base and the nearby Bandaranaike international airport.

At least eight bodies of attackers have so far been found in the military base. At least one was found in the base's control tower.

There were said to be no casualties in the civilian airport, where passengers were evacuated to a nearby hotel.

All flights from the airport have been suspended, while incoming flights have been diverted to the southern Indian city of Madras.

Mr Karunaratne said fighting had ceased and a curfew declared in the surrounding area, but there have been more recent reports of gunfire. Security forces are searching for infiltrators.

BBC correspondent Frances Harrison says the attack bears all the hallmarks of the Tamil Tigers, and is the first major one to be blamed on the rebels this year.

Explosions

There were reports that at least two Israeli-built fighter jets and a helicopter were destroyed.

And eyewitnesses near the base said they had heard a series of massive explosions and could see a huge fire, which seemed to suggest that a fuel tank had been hit.

Tourists who arrived at the civilian airport at the time of the attack were told to get out and escaped through a hole in the fence.

The UK Foreign Office said 47 British nationals were among those caught up in the trouble.

None were injured but they said they had a terrifying escape.

One tourist, Sean Hill, described the ordeal as blind panic, with some members of his group diving into a ditch to save themselves.

Some reports say the air force had brought some new planes to the base the day before.

Blow to peace

And as the first attack outside the north or east of the country for several months, it appears to signal that the stalled peace process is at an end.

Norwegian-brokered efforts have been sidelined for several months, with the government refusing a Tiger demand to lift a ban on the group before any direct peace talks can start.

The attack coincides with the anniversary this week of Tamil race riots in 1983 which triggered the civil war.

The Tigers have been fighting since then for a separate state.

It is the first time the base has been attacked, though the Tigers have targeted the international airport in the past.

In 1986, 16 people were killed in an explosion on a plane owned by Air Lanka, then the national carrier.

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See also:

01 Jul 01 | South Asia
Senior Tamil Tiger killed
05 Jun 01 | South Asia
Tamil Tiger ambush kills six
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