Sri Lanka says rebels attack air base in north

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COLOMBO, Oct 22 (Reuters) Tamil Tiger rebels attacked an air force base in northern Sri Lanka before dawn today and heavy explosions and gunfire could be heard, the Defence Ministry said.

The attack in the north-central district of Anuradhapura comes amid near daily land, sea and air clashes as a new chapter in a two decade civil war rages on.

''According to the available information, heavy explosions and firing of weapons are still going on,'' the Defence Ministry said on its Web site. There were no details of any casualties or damage, and the Tigers were not immediately available for comment.

Military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said a small group of rebels was attacking the base, but he had no further details.

''There is an attack in the base. There is a small group of LTTE fighters there,'' he said, referring to the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. ''It is definitely the LTTE.

Military sources said army and air force bases in the north had been warned to be on alert for a possible attack by the Tigers' air wing of light aircraft, which bombed oil installations and an air base adjacent to the island's only international airport earlier this year.

The 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 VP0532

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