- The Washington Times - Friday, May 11, 2007

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — This Indian Ocean country’s only international airport was closed to night flights Thursday, in line with new security measures against raids by rebel Tamil Tiger aircraft, an airport official said.

As the last commercial flight for the day left for neighboring India, the authorities closed the check-in counters and the only runway at Bandaranaike International Airport, some 22 miles north of Colombo, the capital, officials said. “Airplanes will not be able to come in or take off, but all other aspects will be fully functional,” Sri Lanka’s civil aviation chief Parakrama Dissanayake told AFP.

He said air traffic controllers would remain at their posts in case of emergencies, including emergency landings by planes needing to stop in Sri Lanka.

Mr. Dissanayake said many Sri Lankans due to board flights when the airport reopened early yesterday were already camping in the airport lobby.

“Passengers coming from the provinces are sleeping in the corridors,” a spokesman at the airport said. “They are staying overnight for a flight to the Middle East tomorrow morning.”

The authorities feared that Tamil Tiger rebels, who are fighting for an independent Tamil homeland, could use the cover of civilian aircraft to enter the airport’s air space and draw fire from ground troops.

Airlines feared getting caught in anti-aircraft fire directed against rebel aircraft, which since March have carried out nighttime bombing raids.

A top U.S. official, Richard Boucher, assistant secretary of state for Central and South Asian affairs, was one of the first affected by the nighttime closure of the airport.

Mr. Boucher cancelled a dinner meeting with prominent Sri Lankan personalities and rushed to the airport just before it closed, diplomats said.

Under the new security measures, the airport will remain shut at night from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Travel agents said several major airlines had yet to finalize their new schedules, leaving many travellers scrambling for flights in and out of Colombo.

The airport shares a runway with the Sri Lankan air force, which has been targeted by Tamil Tiger rebels, causing some flights to be diverted to the southern Indian city of Chennai.

Airlines use Sri Lanka as a transit point for travel between Europe and East Asia. Passengers from the Maldives, a key tourist destination, regularly fly via Colombo, which is regarded as a regional hub.

The Tamil Tiger rebels have been fighting for a separate homeland since 1972. But the air raids are a new development, and the rebels are thought to be using light aircraft smuggled onto the island in pieces.

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