The Tamil Tigers launched a ground and air assault on an air force base in northern Sri Lanka early yesterday, military officials said, in one of the most brazen rebel attacks on a military target in months.
The attack on the air base in Anuradhapura wounded eight airmen and damaged two helicopters on the ground, the military said. However officials in the local morgue reported that the bodies of at least two airmen were brought there after the attack. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Hours later, a helicopter involved in searching for the attackers crashed because of mechanical failure, killing the four airmen aboard, the military said.
The attack began about 3:20am when a small group of rebels invaded the air base about 60km south of rebel territory, said military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara. Soon after, two rebel planes dropped two bombs on the base, he said.
Residents living near the base reported hearing loud explosions throughout the morning and seeing repeated barrages of anti-aircraft fire coming from the base.
The fighting lasted about two hours and the air force sent teams into the surrounding area to search for the attackers, he said.
Rebel spokesman Rasiah Ilanthirayan said the combined air and land attack targeted the military's "biggest logistics base," which supplied government troops along the front lines with rebel-held territory.
"There was significant damage," he said, declining to say whether any rebel fighters were killed.
The Tamil Tigers stunned the military in March when they launched their first ever air assault, bombing an air force base near Colombo. They carried out several more attacks, including a strike on a fuel refinery and gasoline storage site, but they have not waged an air strike in nearly six months.
Over the past month, violence has escalated between troops and rebels facing each other across the front lines separating the government-controlled area from the Tigers' mini state in part of northern Sri Lanka.
However, last week the rebels infiltrated a wildlife park far south of their home base and attacked a military camp there, killing seven soldiers.
The rebels have been fighting since 1983 for an independent homeland for Sri Lanka's minority ethnic Tamils after decades of discrimination at the hands of the Sinhalese majority. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the fighting, 5,000 since a 2002 cease-fire broke down in 2005.
In July, the government declared it had ousted the rebels from eastern Sri Lanka, forcing them to flee to their main base in the north of the Indian Ocean island nation. The rebels vowed to retaliate, but had waged no major assaults since then.
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