Separatist rebels firing guns and mortars attacked Sri Lanka's main airport and an air force base today, shutting down the nation's only international air link in one of their boldest attacks ever near the capital.
Incoming flights were diverted to other countries as authorities rushed passengers and workers out of the airport. But the fighting forced some noncombatants to remain behind.
Nine guerrillas and three soldiers were killed, while eight air force personnel were wounded, said military spokesman Brig. Sanath Karunaratne. He said two Airbus A320s and one Airbus A330 belonging to Sri Lanka Airlines were damaged, along with eight military aircraft--two Israeli-made Kfir jets, one MIG-27, three trainer aircraft and two helicopters.
The fighting continued past dawn today, more than four hours after it began. Reporters near the airport buildings heard several explosions and repeated bursts of automatic weapons fire.
A huge cloud of black smoke, apparently from a fuel tank explosion, covered the airport buildings.
"There is firing going on inside the air base. They have shot at the [control] tower," said air force trooper Chaminda Kumara, who briefed reporters. "A few of the airport staff and passengers are still within the airport building, and we are giving them as much security as we can."
Police sealed off the area around the airport, about 18 miles north of downtown Colombo, as the government asked people to remain home and stay calm.
It appeared to be the rebels' biggest military assault in the capital area since they began fighting for a separate homeland 18 years ago. Previous attacks in the area have mainly been car bombings and suicide attacks.
The assault on the airport came on the anniversary of July 23-24 riots in 1983. The deaths of more than 2,000 Tamils during the rioting contributed to the start of the rebels' 18-year insurgency.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have been fighting for a Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka's north and east, claiming discrimination at the hands of the majority Sinhalese.