Sri Lanka Tiger rebel plane bombs air force base

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COLOMBO, Oct 22 (Reuters) The Tamil Tigers' nascent air wing dropped two bombs on an air force base in north Sri Lanka before dawn today, the military said, but there were no immediate details of any casualties from the land and air attack.

The rebel air strike in the north-central district of Anuradhapura comes months after the Tigers' first ever air attacks using light aircraft smuggled into the country in pieces, and amid near daily land, air and sea clashes as renewed civil war grinds on.

''An LTTE aircraft has come and dropped two bombs on the base,'' said military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara. ''We have no details of any casualties.'' He said a small group of Tiger fighters had also attacked the base from the ground.

An air force spokesman said two MI-24 helicopters parked at the base were damaged in the attack, while another helicopter in the air was forced to make a crash landing. There were no details on the condition of the crew.

A search operation was underway around the air force base, one of Sri Lanka's largest.

The Tigers' air wing of light aircraft bombed oil installations and an air base adjacent to the island's only international airport earlier this year.

Today's attack in the north, where renewed civil war is now focused after troops drove the Tigers from bastions in the east of the island, comes after the military said dozens of Tigers were killed in heavy clashes in the north last week.

An estimated 5,000 people have been killed since early last year amid near daily land and sea clashes, ambushes and air strikes, taking the death toll since the conflict erupted in 1983 to around 70,000.

The Tigers seek to carve out an independent state in the north and east. The government rules that out and has instead vowed to evict the rebels from all territory they control.

While the government has had the upper hand in recent months, analysts say there is no clear winner on the horizon and fear the conflict could rumble on for years.

Counter-terrorism experts say there is no military solution to Sri Lanka's protracted conflict, and that the only hope is for both sides to reach a long-elusive political settlement.

Reuters RKM VP0625

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