Colombo: Dual Tamil Tiger air raids on Sri Lanka's capital and a northern military base show the guerrillas are not out of the fight despite the government's confidence it is close to ending the 25-year-old civil war.
Analysts said the raids by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam's (LTTE) ramshackle air wing followed a familiar pattern of giving the rebels a morale boost when they appeared under pressure in the northern war zone.
The military has been steadily advancing into Tiger-held territory in northern Sri Lanka with the aim of ending one of Asia's oldest insurgencies.
The military on Wednesday said troops had captured the Jayapuram area after heavy clashes. The Tigers are fighting to create a separate homeland for Sri Lankan Tamils, many of whom complain of marginalisation by successive governments led by the Sinhalese majority since independence from Britain in 1948.
"When the Tigers are under pressure militarily up north, they try to divert attention to southern or central parts and hit where the government is weak," Eurasia Group analyst Maria Kuusisto said.
"They understand that these are going to be psychologically and strategically good targets to attack." The rebel raid at the Kelanitissa power station in Colombo late on Tuesday started a fire and killed one person who died of a heart attack and wounded two, hospital officials said. The military said an attack on the Thalladi army camp an hour earlier wounded three people.
Primitive planes, as a plane appeared on radar heading south to Colombo, authorities shut off the lights and scrambled jets then anti-aircraft fire streaked the sky off the capital's shoreline.
The pro-rebel web site www.TamilNet.com on Wednesday said the Kelanitissa raid killed a turbine operator and knocked out two turbines and two air coolers, citing unidentified sources.
The government earlier had said only two coolers were hit. TamilNet also said the attack at Thalladi, in Mannar district near the war zone about 250 km (155 miles) north of Colombo, caused heavy damage. The military said it barely caused any.
Colombo-based defence analyst Iqbal Athas said the latest strike by the Tamileelam Air Force, or "Air Tigers", showed the resilience of what is widely regarded as one of the world's most ruthless and effective guerrilla groups. "However primitive, their air ability remains.
They have been able to demonstrate nine times that they can carry out a sortie and get away, and on all of those occasions the air force has not been able to neutralize them," Athas said. The air force has been embarassed and frustrated by its inability to stop the propeller-drive two-seater planes despite vastly superior supersonic jets and radar.
The military has said it believes the Tigers' air wing, which debuted in March 2007 with a bombing run on the military air base inside Colombo's international airport, consists of three Czech-made Zlin-143 aircraft.
The last raid was in September, when the military said it had shot down one of the planes after it attacked a military base in Vavuniya, near the frontlines. The Tigers denied that and no evidence has ever been made public by either side.