18 Dead in Sri Lanka Airport Attack
Officials in Sri Lanka are struggling to explain a devastating rebel attack on the country's main Air Force base and international airport early Tuesday. Eleven planes were destroyed on the ground and at least 18 people lost their lives in six hours of fighting. The government is retaliating with air strikes in the country's north and east.
The devastation at Sri Lanka's international airport is almost beyond comprehension. The charred remains of three Sri Lankan Airlines passenger jets dominate the tarmac near the airport terminal. Across the runway at the adjacent air force base, several fighter jets and helicopters lie in ruin. Military personnel faced hours of running gun battles with Tamil rebel fighters, who staged the attacks before dawn on Tuesday. By evening, fumes from teargas, jet fuel, and burning metal and rubber still lingered over the entire complex.
Speaking to reporters in front of the airport terminal, Sri Lanka's Aviation Minister Jeyraj Fernandopulle said that despite the shocking security lapse, arrangements at the airport would not be radically changed. "The security measures will remain the same," he said. "The Air Force will be guarding as usual, and they will increase their strength in the future." He also said the damage to aircraft alone exceeds $350 million, almost half of this embattled island nation's annual defense budget.
Authorities are still trying to figure out how an unknown number of rebels breached incredibly tight airport security. All of the dead rebels were well armed and equipped with suicide jackets, packed with explosives. Officers investigating the attack say the rebels used rocket propelled grenades and remotely detonated plastic explosives to destroy the aircraft.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam began their fight for a separate homeland for Sri Lankan Tamils in 1983. The war has claimed over 64,000 Sri Lankan lives and been marked by dramatic military and terrorist attacks by the rebels.
Airport Security officer M. Afreef was on duty during the attack. Standing amidst the burned remains of baggage under one of the destroyed passenger jets, he said the authorities' main goal was to protect the terrified civilians caught in what he called "the running battles" on the tarmac. "I heard a big blow up, you know. So immediately what we did was we took all precautions to evacuate the passengers first, because our main aim is to safeguard the passengers and the property," he said.
No serious injuries were reported among passengers and airport staff who were all evacuated by dawn.
Analysts say the destruction at the airport sends several messages to Sri Lanka's rulers and citizens. The Tigers reacted angrily to Sri Lankan air strikes against them last month and warned of serious consequences. Tuesday's attack shows that the warning was not an idle threat.
It also coincided with the so-called "Black July" anniversary. In July 1983, 400 to 600 people were killed in anti-Tamil riots in and around the capital Colombo.
A Norwegian-backed peace initiative had brought Sri Lanka high hopes for peace talks and stability in recent months, but today's attack along with recent weeks of political turmoil shows a country rapidly slipping back into conflict and chaos. In retaliation for Tuesday's carnage, Sri Lanka launched a fresh wave of air strikes by afternoon. Military sources say rebel positions in the North and East have been hit, though details of the destruction are not known.
Aviation officials claim that the airport will soon be back to normal with flights expected to resume Wednesday morning. But Tuesday's rampant destruction only seems to show that for Sri Lanka "normal" is a tragic and durable circle of violence.
source: VOANews.com, 24 July, 2001