Agence France Presse – 2007-05-04 07:44:34
COLOMBO (April 30, 2007) — Tamil Tiger planes bombed fuel depots around Sri Lanka’s capital early yesterday, briefly plunging Colombo into darkness and sending cricket fans watching the World Cup final running for cover.
As explosions were heard and the night sky lit up with anti-aircraft fire, fans scrambled to leave parks and hotels where giant screens showing Sri Lanka playing Australia in the final in Barbados were switched off.
Officials said a fuel storage tank was destroyed in the raid.
Flights at the island’s only international airport were disrupted as the air defense systems kicked in, officials said, adding that one Indian plane was turned back while several departing flights were delayed.
Emirates Airlines and Hong Kong’s flag carrier Cathay Pacific suspended flights to Sri Lanka. “For Emirates, the safety of its passengers is of paramount importance,” a spokesman for the Dubai-based carrier said, adding that the situation would be reviewed within a day. However, the airline plans to operate a relief flight for any stranded passengers.
Cathay Pacific suspended flights to Colombo indefinitely.
It was the third time the separatist rebels have used light aircraft to hit military targets. The Bandaranaike International Airport shares a runway with the adjoining military base where war planes are parked.
“It was total panic because we initially thought it was fireworks,” said Zaithoon Bin Ahamed who was partying with friends at a Colombo rugby club.
“Organizers were asking people to stay calm, but people were getting nervous over the constant sounds of gunfire. No one really knew what was going on,” said Kamini Edward, who was at a hotel watching the game which Australia won.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) planes targeted two petroleum storage depots at the Colombo suburb of Kolonnawa and Muthurajawela, on the way to the airport, rebel spokesman Rasiah Ilanthiriyan said.
The Defense Ministry confirmed that the two facilities — one state-owned and the other run by multinational Shell — were hit by four Tiger bombs, but only two exploded at the Shell depot.
Officials at the Kolonnawa storage depot said one of the bombs scored a direct hit and destroyed a storage tank holding heavy furnace oil. “The bomb had a lot of ball bearings which acted as pellets,” an official at the facility said. “However, it did not have the capability to ignite a huge fire.” The second bomb exploded in a marsh without causing any damage.
The Tigers said they staged the air attack after Sri Lankan warplanes hit the rebel-held region of Kilinochchi, 330 km north of here.
“We sent two squadrons to target facilities that provide fuel to military aircraft after two Sri Lankan Air Force jets bombed a suburb of Kilinochchi,” Ilanthiriyan said. Within an hour, the Tigers scrambled their aircraft to attack targets in Colombo and returned to their secret location inside rebel-held territory two hours later, he added.
Doctors said nine people were wounded by anti-aircraft fire.
Sri Lanka deployed supersonic jets to hit back, Air Force spokesman Ajantha Silva said. “We have identified the locations where those (Tiger) aircraft landed and have bombed them successfully,” Silva said.
The Tigers carried out their first ever airstrike last month and followed it with a second last week on the Palaly military complex in the north of the country.
The guerrillas attacked the Kolonnawa oil facility with suicide bombers in October 1995.
The Tigers are believed to be operating five Czech-built Zlin-143 aircraft smuggled onto the island in pieces and reassembled.