A Surprise Attack by Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers

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Lakruwan Wanniarachchi / AFP / Getty

Sri Lankan airforce guard the wreckage of a Tamil Tiger light aircraft at Katunayake, near the international airport on February 20, 2009.

The Sri Lankan Army announced with some fanfare two weeks ago that it had destroyed the last air strip used by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), its adversary in a 25-year-long conflict that appears to be coming to an end. However, the Tigers made it clear tonight, with an air attack punching into the heart of the capital, that it's not over yet.

The assault began at about 11 p.m. local time, when two light aircraft burst into Colombo. One bomb hit the Inland Revenue Department, but the real target may have been the Sri Lankan Air Force building, which is directly behind it. The government of Sri Lanka says that 27 people were injured and two people died; other sources reported that has many as 40 people were injured. Both planes were shot down, one of them crashing down next to Colombo's international airport, according to the Sri Lankan government.

This is not the first time that the LTTE, which is fighting for a separate homeland for ethnic Tamils, has targeted the Sri Lankan Air Force headquarters. On Jan. 1, the same day that the Army announced the capture of Kilinochchi, the Tigers' de facto capital in northern Sri Lanka, a suicide bomber killed three military personnel in the building, which sits among a cluster of government offices in Colombo's Fort neighborhood, one of the busiest in the city. This is also not the first time that the LTTE has struck Colombo by air. The Tigers started using aerial bombing as a tactic in March 2007, with an attack on another air force base near the airport.

What all these attacks have in common is their psychological impact. The 2007 air strike established that the LTTE had become the first guerrilla organization in the world to have its own air force. These aren't fighter planes, however. They are light propeller planes reportedly put together from parts smuggled into the country. But they are enough to carry out small-scale bombing raids. "Even though the government claimed that the Tiger's air attacks inflicted little damage, the psychological advantage the LTTE has won has served to significantly boost the rebels' morale and could embolden them to step up attacks," wrote New Delhi-based defense analyst Animesh Roul on the website International Relations and Security Network. The Jan. 1 suicide bomb, furthermore, showed the world that, even after losing its capital, the LTTE was still capable of striking the government's capital, hundreds of miles away.

Tonight's bombing raid came as the world's media clustered in Colombo to cover what many expected to be the end of a conflict that began in earnest in 1983. The Army contends that it has cornered the LTTE in a shrinking patch of territory around Mullativu on the northeastern coast. With this attack — using a do-it-yourself plane and a couple of bombs — the whole city was plunged into darkness (the power was cut) and fear, as tracer bullets and anti-aircraft fire punctured the sky. With two planes down, this might be the last sortie from the Tamil Eelam Air Force; but it may be the beginning of a new phase of guerrilla warfare in Colombo.