K Venkataramanan in Colombo
An Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam suicide squad struck devastatingly at Sri Lanka's highly protected military airbase and civilian airport in Colombo, damaging a dozen aircraft, killing three Air Force men and losing nine cadres in a pre-dawn assault on Monday.
Elite Special Forces personnel were engaged in a relentless gunbattle for over six hours, after over 20 militants breached the security cordon to launch a 'surprise' attack at the Katunayake Air Force base and damaged three combat jets, two helicopter gunships and three trainer aircraft.
Later, the assailants fired at civilian aircraft on the tarmac of the adjoining Bandaranaike International Airport, damaging four airbuses of Sri Lankan Airlines. The national carrier suffered a major loss, as the damaged aircraft included three A-340s and one A-330 airbus.
The airport was shut down and civilians were evacuated, as the bustling airport premises turned into a war zone within minutes after the militants launched rocket propelled grenades and fired from assault weapons.
The Air Force personnel sought to repulse the attack and reinforcements were rushed in by the army soon after.
Defence sources said one militant blew himself up to destroy an Israeli-made Kfir jet, while eight others were gunned down by the security forces. Three airmen were killed and eight others wounded in the early gunbattle.
An ammunition dump and fuel storage tanks were also blown up. Sri Lanka's national carrier, Sri Lanka Airlines lost five airbus aircraft that were parked in the airport, airlines officials said.
Banderanaike International Airport, which adjoins the Katunayake military base, was shut down, he said.
The spokesman said one of the attackers blasted explosives inside the airport terminal building but the extent of the damage was yet to be ascertained.
The authorities have clamped an indefinite curfew in and around the airport and passengers leaving the country were stopped a kilometre away and turned back by the military, he said.
Meanwhile, Sri Lankan Airlines officials said International flights to Sri Lanka were diverted to India because of heavy fighting at the international airport.
Flights from Sydney have been diverted to Madras while those from London were being diverted to Dubai, airline officials said.
Explosions, automatic weapons fire and pistol shots were heard more than four hours after the initial attack.
Officials said passengers and workers trapped in the airport were being evacuated in an orderly manner under tight military escort. The attack coincided with the anniversary of the July 1983 anti-Tamil riots in Colombo, leaving hundreds killed.
It is widely believed to have heralded the begining of the 18-year-old civil war.
Meanwhile, LTTE on Tuesday owned responsibility for the airport attack and claimed it was a 'success'.
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