COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka’s military shot down two Tamil Tiger airplanes flying a defiant air raid on the capital Colombo on Friday, and two people were killed when one plunged into a government building.
The attack is the latest proof of the Tigers’ ability to strike far from the war zone, where troops have rapidly encircled them in just 87 sq km (34 sq miles) of jungle and are within reach of ending a separatist war that began in 1983.
But the military also definitively proved it could down planes from a ramshackle air squadron that had flown nine previous sorties since debuting in 2007 — state TV showed footage of one of the downed planes and its dead pilot.
The military said that plane was gunned down by anti-aircraft fire over the international airport, while the other was shot and crashed into the Inland Revenue building in Colombo’s Fort area, near the Indian Ocean island’s main port. Two people were killed and at least 40 injured in the crash.
The thundering of anti-aircraft guns erupted over Colombo’s streets and tracer fire and spotlights lit up the skies, darkened after authorities cut the power when one plane was spotted on radar flying down the east coast.
“We have shot one down in Katunayake and found the wreckage and the body of the pilot,” defense spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said, referring to the international airport. Later, he said plane wreckage had been found at the tax building.
Hospital officials said 40 were injured, and the military said two people were killed at the Inland Revenue building.
“I saw a fireball entering the Inland Revenue building and the building caught fire,” a security guard at the neighboring TransAsia luxury hotel told Reuters Television.
State television showed the wreckage of the plane downed at the airport in a marsh right outside the airbase in the complex, its green and brown camouflaged body wrenched apart and its fuselage riddled with bullet holes.
Nearby lay the body of the mustachioed pilot, dressed in the LTTE’s trademark Tiger stripe combat fatigues.
It was a fitting site for the military to prove it had downed one of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s (LTTE) “Air Tigers”: the first flight in March 2007 attacked the same airbase and killed three airmen and wounded 16.
Reva Bhalla, head of geopolitical analysis at U.S. private intelligence firm Stratfor, said the LTTE likely wanted to use the planes before soldiers captured them — and make a point.
“This kind of attack serves the Tigers well in demonstrating they’re not a spent force after the beating they’ve gotten,” she said. “The psychological value is obvious, but that doesn’t mean the LTTE will be able to sustain a comeback any time soon.”
Although most of LTTE’s territory has been taken by the rapid military advance in the last year, troops have found seven airstrips but no planes. The military in September said it had downed a plane, but the wreckage was never found.
The fleet of propeller-driven planes is believed to be the only combat air wing operated by an insurgent group or any group on U.S. and E.U. terrorism lists, on which the LTTE appears.
Sri Lanka’s military has said the Tigers are flying three single-engine Zlin-143 light aircraft, believed smuggled onto the island in pieces and reassembled.
It is just one of many warfare innovations the Tigers demonstrated in a conflict that has killed 70,000 people and is Asia’s longest-running. The Tigers invented the suicide jacket - a bomb-laden vest — and used it in hundreds of bombings.
About 14,000 Tamils protested in Geneva on Friday against Sri Lanka’s drive to crush the guerrillas, who say they are fighting for an independent homeland for their ethnic minority group but have increasingly been accused of turning on their own people.
(For a factbox on the Tamil Tigers’ air wing, click on: [nLK254574])
Writing by Bryson Hull; editing by Philippa Fletcher