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Sri Lanka: Tamil Tigers Launch First Ever Air Strike

Tamil Tiger rebels have launched their first ever air strike in Sri Lanka - bombing an air force base near Colombo. The raid killed three airmen and wounded 16 others. As Anjana Pasricha reports from VOA's South Asia bureau in New Delhi, the unexpected attack has raised worries that Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict will escalate.

Sri Lanka's military officials say Tamil rebels used a small plane to bomb the Katunayake air base - 30-kilometers northwest of Colombo.

Defense spokesman, Brigadier Prasad Samarasinghe, says there was loss of life, yet relatively little damage to the base. But he says security will be reviewed in light of this new means of rebel attack.

"Since this is the first time they have come in a small light aircraft, now air force will have all the other security measures," he said.

The air base had been devastated by a rebel attack in 2001, when suicide bombers destroyed military and civilian planes.

The country's only international airport, which is close to the air base, was closed for several hours as a precaution.

Tamil spokesman Rasiah Ilanthiraiyan is hailing the success of the rebels' first air attack - aimed at halting what the Tigers call "indiscriminate aerial bombing" of Tamil areas.

The rebels says they used two light fixed-wing aircraft, which returned safely. After the mission, they released pictures of their airborne unit, along with that of a single engine aircraft.

Heavy fighting resumed this past year - breaking a four-year ceasefire and killing at least four thousand people.

The unexpected rebel air raid comes after Sri Lanka's military had claimed several successes. The Tigers have recently lost territory in the east and are now fighting the army in their main stronghold in the north.

The head of Colombo's Center for Policy Alternatives, Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, questions the significance of the air attack for the rebels, also known as the LTTE (the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam).

"We have been given the impression that militarily the LTTE is on the defensive ... Psychologically this will of course have an impact on that," he said. "In substantive terms however, I do not think they have succeeded in doing a great deal of damage ... I am not quite sure if this kind of air strike is something that can be replicated."

There are fears the rebel air attack will trigger retaliatory strikes by the military and escalate the conflict. The minority Tamil rebels have been fighting for a separate homeland since 1983.