Sri Lanka Military Says Jets Shot Down Rebel Plane
By RAVI NESSMAN
Associated Press Writer
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- Sri Lankan fighter jets shot down a small plane used by the Tamil Tigers' rudimentary air wing Tuesday during a rebel attack on a northern military base, the military said.
The destruction of the plane marked the first time government forces were able to bring down one of the Tamil Tiger aircraft, and it offers a huge morale boost to the government amid its massive offensive against the rebels' heartland in the north.
Though the rebel aircraft have rarely caused major damage, their repeated attacks -- and the military's inability to stop them -- have been a source of deep frustration and embarrassment for government forces.
The fighting began early Tuesday when the rebels launched an artillery barrage at the military base in the northern town of Vavuniya for more than one hour, military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said. The attack caused damages and injuries, but the extent of the destruction was not immediately known.
Amid the attack, two rebel aircraft flew over the base and dropped bombs on the airfield, he said.
The air force sent MiG interceptors into the skies to chase them back over rebel-held territory and shot one plane down over the rebel stronghold of Mullaitivu, Nanayakkara said.
"The pilot confirmed they destroyed one," he said.
The rebel-allied Web site TamilNet said there was no immediate indication a rebel plane was downed.
With communication all but cut with the northern areas, rebel spokesman Rasiah Ilanthirayan could not be reached for comment.
Independent verification of the fighting is difficult to obtain because most journalists are banned from the war zone. Both sides routinely exaggerate enemy losses and underreport their own.
The rebels carried out their first airstrike in March 2007, using a small propeller plane to bomb an air force base outside the capital, Colombo. The strike caused little damage, but had a deep psychological impact, adding a new weapon to the separatists' 25-year battle against the government.
Military analysts estimate the rebels had four planes they smuggled into Sri Lanka in pieces by boat and assembled in rebel-controlled areas. The military has repeatedly searched for the planes and their airstrips, but has been unable to locate them amid deep camouflage on the ground.
In recent weeks the military has made major gains against the rebels, seizing large swaths of territory and key rebel bases in the north.Discuss this story
Published: Mon Sep 8 22:17:57 EDT 2008