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The Times: Rebel bombers’ World Cup air raid

EXTRACT: Local officials said that two bombs hit the Kolonnawa facility, destroying an oil storage tank, while the other two hit the Shell terminal, destroying a security hut and starting a fire that lasted 45 minutes.

April 30, 2007
Jeremy Page, South Asia Correspondent

The Tamil Tigers carried out its third air raid in just over a month yesterday, bombing fuel depots in Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, as thousands of people watched the cricket World Cup final on outdoor screens.

Fans watching the game in parks, hotels and bars scrambled for cover as Sri Lankan authorities cut power in the city and antiaircraft fire lit up the sky minutes before the raid at 1.50am local time.

“We thought it was firecrackers at first because [Sanath] Jayasuriya had scored three fours in an over,” said Sirial Ranasinghe, 41, a travel agent who was watching the game in a hotel garden in Colombo.

“One moment we were all cheering and partying and then the screen went dead and we heard gunfire and explosions.” Passengers boarding aircraft were called back to the terminals and air traffic was blocked for an hour. Cathay Pacific Airways and Emirates Airlines suspended all flights to Colombo until further notice.

The attack appeared to be designed to catch Sri Lanka’s armed forces off guard while an estimated 14 million of its 19.5 million people watched the final between Sri Lanka and Australia in Barbados.

It was the third time that the Tigers had deployed its tiny air force, exposing the country’s porous air defences and shaking confidence in the Sri Lankan economy.

The Tigers unveiled its air capability in March with a raid on a military airbase next to Colombo’s airport – their first aerial attack since they began fighting for an independent homeland in 1983.

That was followed by another air raid on a military base in northern Sri Lanka last week, which killed six soldiers. The rebels’ air force is thought to consist of between two and five Czech-made Zlin-143 twin-propeller aircraft which were smuggled to the Indian Ocean island in pieces.

Irasaiah Ilanthirayan, a Tiger spokesman, said that two of the aircraft had dropped a total of four bombs on two facilities that supplied fuel to the Sri Lankan Air Force.

The Tigers’ first target was a state-run oil depot in the suburb of Kolonnawa, about three miles north of Colombo city centre, while the second was a Shell gas depot in the suburb of Muthurajawela, he said.

Local officials said that two bombs hit the Kolonnawa facility, destroying an oil storage tank, while the other two hit the Shell terminal, destroying a security hut and starting a fire that lasted 45 minutes.

Doctors said that five people were wounded in the antiaircraft barrage. Lakshman Hulu-galle, a Defence Ministry spokesman, told The Times that there had been no casualties, no damage at Kolonnawa, and only minor damage at the Shell facilities.

He admitted that the Tigers’ air capability was a “new thing” for Sri Lankan forces and that they were still devising a strategy to deal with it but he denied they had been distracted by the World Cup.

“Although there was interest in the cricket, our security forces were very alert, ” he said. “Colombo is 100 per cent safe.” The Tigers had declared a ceasefire for Sri Lanka’s semi-final match against New Zealand but did not make a similar announcement for the final.

Cricket is wildly popular in Sri Lanka and one of the few things that bridges the divide between its ethnic Tamil minority, which is mostly Hindu, and the Sinhalese majority, which is mostly Buddhist.

Blue-sky thinking

— First World War pilots often had to improvise. One, Rex Warneford, used the only weapon he had – his carbine – to attack a Zeppelin

— Others often threw bombs out of their cockpits by hand, but Louis Strange invented a way to attach the bombs to Jaffna racks on his wings and drop them by pulling a wire

— In January 1974 Eddie Gallagher and Rose Dugdale hijacked a helicopter and used it to drop IRA bombs in milk churns on Strabane RUC station. They failed to detonate

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/asia/article1722868.ece

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