COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka’s navy forced a fleeing Tamil Tiger plane to turn back in barrages of anti-aircraft fire amid growing speculation over the whereabouts of the separatist group’s elusive leader, military sources said on Wednesday.
Also on Wednesday, the military set up a 32 square km (12 sq mile) safe zone between the frontline and Tiger-held areas, for what aid agencies say are 230,000 people trapped in the combat.
“We are not there because if we are, the Tigers won’t let people come there. We will not fire artillery into that area,” military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said.
With a military onslaught shrinking the territory held by Tigers by the day, one of the biggest questions remaining is where leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran is hiding and how he might try to escape Sri Lanka.
The small plane -- one of three the military says the Tigers have in their tiny air wing -- was spotted flying out to sea from near the eastern port of Mullaittivu late on Tuesday.
“The military had observed the aircraft coming from the north and after half an hour it was seen by an eastern naval patrol. They fired at it so it could not leave the country,” a military source told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
Two other military sources confirmed the account to Reuters. All three said the current location of the airplane was unknown.
The air force would only say that observers briefly spotted what appeared to be an airplane’s running lights.
“We had identified a light at very high altitude for some time in between Mullaittivu and Challai,” Air force spokesman Wing Commander Janaka Nanayakkara said. “The evidence and altitude made it hard to make a decision about what it was.”
The Tigers have carried out nine attacks with their fleet of Czech-made, single-engine planes, and so far Sri Lanka’s air force jets have been unable to intercept them.
The jets are based far from the war zone near the capital Colombo, and the Tigers tend to fly their planes low enough to avoid radar.
Navy fast attack boats have set up a heavy blockade off the northeastern shoreline around Mullaittivu, the last major town the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) still hold, to keep Prabhakaran and other top Tiger commanders from fleeing.
Last week, the army’s commander, Lieutenant-General Sarath Fonseka said Prabhakaran may have fled the island already and could be hiding somewhere in southeast Asia, where the Tigers have supporters and had run weapons-smuggling operations.
Local media reported intelligence intercepts indicated that foreign countries may be plotting to help him escape by submarine. The countries involved were not named and Reuters was unable to substantiate those reports.
Fonseka has said he hopes to finish the ground war by mid-April. The Tigers are now cornered in about 450 square km (175 sq miles) of the Indian Ocean island’s northeastern jungles.
Rights watchdogs say the Tigers will not let civilians leave the war zone and force them to fight or build defences. The LTTE denies that. Around 2,000 refugees have fled since last week.
Foreshadowing the kind of hit-and-run attacks many expect to continue even if the army routs the Tigers, two people were killed and 11 wounded in a blast on Wednesday in the formerly LTTE-held city of Batticaloa.
Police blamed the LTTE, who could not be reached for comment.
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