- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 21, 2009

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka | Two rebel aircraft launched a surprise raid on the Sri Lankan capital late Friday, an act of defiance by the beleaguered Tamil Tiger rebels in the face of a punishing military offensive in the north.

The military shot down both planes, one of which crashed into a government office building, killing one person and wounding at least 40 others.

The raid was an embarrassment for the government, which has driven the rebels out of most of their northern strongholds and said it was on the verge of destroying the group.

The attack was the first air raid here since the rebels bombed a power station on the outskirts of the city in October.

The military said two weeks ago that it had captured the rebels’ last hidden airstrip in the north, effectively grounding its tiny air force. But the raid Friday proved the Tamil Tigers retain the ability to launch paralyzing attacks across the country, even as their ground forces are under siege in a small patch of territory in the northeast.

Two of the rebels’ planes approached the capital just after 9:30 p.m., military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said.

The government immediately shut off all power in the capital, and searchlights criss-crossed the sky. Anti-aircraft fire rippled across the city, tracer rounds flew overhead, and flares lit up the night.

Anti-aircraft fire hit one of the planes, which crashed into a tax office in the center of the city, said the air force spokesman, Wing Commander Janaka Nanayakkara. The crash killed one person and wounded 43 others, said Dr. Hector Weerasinghe of Colombo National Hospital.

The second plane was shot down near an air force base in the town of Katunayake, the military said.

Witnesses at the international airport north of the capital said they heard explosions and anti-aircraft fire and were herded into the lobby, but the facility was apparently not attacked.

The rebels are believed to have three or four light aircraft, which they have used sporadically for surprise raids on military bases and other facilities.

Their most brazen attack, two years ago, targeted the air force base next to the airport and killed three airmen. In October 2007, rebel planes pounded an air base in the northern town of Anuradhapura as suicide attackers raided the base from the ground in an assault that destroyed eight government aircraft.

The Tamil Tigers have been fighting since 1983 for an independent state for minority Tamils after decades of marginalization by the Sinhalese majority. The government has vowed to destroy the group and end the war, which has killed more than 70,000 people.

Friday’s air raid came amid rising concern for civilian casualties in the northern war zone.

The activist group Human Rights Watch said civilian deaths have skyrocketed in the past two months as government forces indiscriminately shelled the war zone and the rebels fired on families trying to flee.

The New York-based rights group said some 2,000 civilians have died in the recent fighting and called on both sides to immediately stop “the ongoing slaughter of civilians.”

About 14,000 Tamils from across Europe, meanwhile, protested in Geneva in front of the United Nations on Friday, demanding that the global body intervene to stop the bloodshed in northern Sri Lanka.

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