COLOMBO (Reuters) - Tamil Tiger light aircraft bombed an air force base by Colombo international airport before dawn on Monday, killing three airmen and wounding 16 in the first such air strike by the rebel group.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) warned similar attacks by its air wing would follow, threatening to deepen renewed conflict in the island state.
Airline and government officials said the civilian airport, 23 miles north of the capital Colombo, was not damaged but was closed for several hours following the attack.
The military said the bombs hit a barracks, and that none of its aircraft were damaged.
“A light Tiger aircraft flew over the air force base and dropped explosives. There have been two explosions. At the same time our air defenses activated and there is a search operation going on,” said air force spokesman Group Captain Ajantha de Silva.
The attack comes after weeks of air force raids on rebel targets in the north and east.
The Tigers, who say they are fighting for an independent state for minority Tamils in the north and east, last attacked the airport in 2001, the year before a cease-fire deal which has since collapsed.
In that attack half of Sri Lankan Airlines’ fleet of planes was destroyed.
They have since smuggled an estimated four light aircraft into the country in pieces and reassembled them.
“A couple of aircraft of Tamil Eelam Air Force have launched an attack on a Sri Lankan military airfield and hangars of military aircraft,” rebel military spokesman Rasiah Ilanthiraiyan said by telephone.
He said the aircraft had flown back to the Tigers’ northern stronghold after what he called a “successful mission”.
“It is not only pre-emptive, it is a measure to protect Tamil civilians from the genocidal aerial bombardments by Sri Lankan armed forces,” he told Reuters. “More attacks of the same nature will follow.”
Sri Lankan Airlines Chief Executive Officer Peter Hill said all inbound and outbound commercial flights were halted until 4:15 am (2245 GMT, Sunday).
“It will take another 24-36 hours for us to get fully back together,” Hill said. “The airlines and ourselves will be asking the government questions as to what they can do to prevent anything like this happening ever again ... as we asked back in 2001.”
The civil war has killed around 68,000 people since 1983 and has displaced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, many of whom are now living in refugee camps.