COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Tamil rebels launched their first airstrike in the nearly quarter-decade conflict with Sri Lanka's government, using two small planes to bomb an air base outside the capital and killing at least three officers, officials said.
Tamil Tiger rebels said the early-morning air raid, which also wounded 16 personnel at the base about 20 miles northwest of Colombo, was aimed at halting what they called "indiscriminate" aerial bombing of Tamil areas and warned of more attacks.
It was not immediately clear what kind of planes were used or where the rebels obtained them. Air force spokesman Group Capt. Ajantha Silva described them as light aircraft, and said it was the first airstrike by the Tigers.
Several witnesses reported gunfire and flashes at the base.
"There has been no major damage to our aircraft or the installation," Silva said, adding that a detailed assessment would be possible only after daybreak.
The Defense Ministry issued a statement.
"Around 00:45 a.m. (0715 GNT Monday) a light air craft of the LTTE tried to attack the Katunayake air force camp targeting the fighter aircraft. 02 x Bombs were fallen near the engineering section of the base and no damages to the aircraft. Air Defense system was activated. Three Airmen were killed and 16 injured."
The discrepancy in number of aircraft involved could not be reconciled.
Rebel spokesman Rasiah Ilanthirayan, speaking to The Associated Press by telephone from the northern rebel stronghold of Kilinochchi, said the "two attack aircraft" returned safely after bombing the Sri Lankan air force base, calling it the "the first major aerial attack by the Tigers."
"The attack is not only pre-emptive but also to safeguard our people from indiscriminate bombing by the (Sri Lanka Air Force)," Ilanthirayan said, adding that air force attacks in northern Sri Lanka had killed and wounded civilians and damaged their property.
"Other Sri Lanka military installations will also be targets of our future attacks," he said, but did not elaborate.
The adjacent international airport was not hit, but it closed briefly before resuming operations, said a duty officer at the airport.
The rebels, formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, staged a devastating attack on the same air base in July 2001 and destroyed six civilian jets and over a dozen military planes. About 18 Tiger suicide fighters were involved in the ground attack, which also killed half a dozen security personnel.
The Tigers in 1983 launched their fight to create an independent homeland for the country's 3.1 million minority Tamils after decades of discrimination by the majority Sinhalese.
A Norway-brokered cease-fire signed in 2002 slowed the violence, but hostilities spiked again in late 2005, with more than 4,000 fighters and civilians killed in the last 15 months, according to European cease-fire monitors.
While both sides have not officially withdrawn from the cease-fire, soaring violence has rendered the agreement valid only on paper.
An estimated 65,000 people were killed in fighting before the cease-fire.