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Tuesday, 24 July, 2001, 11:26 GMT 12:26 UK
'All hell broke loose'
Soldiers searching Colombo airport
Soldiers are continuing to search the airport
Jim Bellieni became separated from his wife and two children while dodging gunfire in a pre-dawn attack by Tamil rebels on a Sri Lankan airport.

He dashed out of the airport and sought shelter in an abandoned shed with other trapped Britons, including some who were disabled.

What we heard first was like an explosion and then we looked out and one of the planes was on fire - one of the military fighters - at which point it was just surreal and we just couldn't believe what was going on.

So we were there, mesmerised, when all of a sudden another one went up.

We looked around for airport staff or whatever who seemed to have vacated the premises rather sharpish and it was only due to a barman who showed me which way downstairs again that we managed to get out of there.

Once we got downstairs it was just mayhem. People were leaving suitcases and not knowing which way to turn and security services did absolutely nothing to help us.

They were just running around like headless chickens

Jim Bellieni
They were just running around like headless chickens. They were panicking - yeah, they were panicking alright.

But I don't think we had the time to panic, to be quite honest.

We got downstairs, we got outside and we managed to get ourselves across the road. We were trying to head for the way we came in but they just wouldn't let us go that way - they just seemed to try and force us back into the airport.

At which point we ran across the road - bearing in mind there were 15 people at this time - three disabled and two young children and when we finally did get across the road that is when all hell broke loose.

At one point I was hiding under a table with my three year-old daughter [in an abandoned shed] and there were tracer bullets coming through windows.

They were flying over our heads. The only other time I have seen a tracer bullet is on a film. We managed to make our way out the back window and then once again we were just in open territory

Once again we looked around to ask people for guidance - no-one to be seen - it was just us on our own.

We managed to make our way into a ditch at which point all hell broke loose

Jim Bellieni
We managed to make our way into a ditch at which point all hell broke loose. More explosions happened.

The fire was crimson with flame. We were in a ditch, which luckily enough was deep enough to conceal us properly.

Looking up above there was just the familiar sound of them whizzing through - tracer bullets, more mortars - at which point I got separated from my wife and two children - who I am glad to say I have tracked down now.

They are staying in another hotel and I am just waiting for them to be transferred.

We were in this ditch for about an hour. So it went on for about two hours - two and a half hours.

We managed to make to this ditch from the front [of the] airport and had to do it all on our own initiative. We couldn't move fast because of the people we were with.

It was worse than a war film because it was actually happening

Jim Bellieni
When we finally got into the ditch we managed to catch our breath and then try and regroup and try and make our way out of there.

Every time we tried - zing, zing, zing - that is all we could hear and it was just heads down again.

It was worse than a war film because it was actually happening.

The only reason why I am sounding so slightly calm now is because I have actually found them [my wife and children].

I managed to track them down by myself and that was due to trying to phone around and trying to get some of the local radio stations to help me.

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See also:

27 Apr 00 | South Asia
Sri Lanka: An unwinnable war?
02 May 00 | South Asia
Tamil Tigers: A fearsome force
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