COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Dressed as travelers, the 13 men at the roadside stand drank tea, ate snacks, chatted, read newspapers and waited for 9:45 p.m.
That’s when the power was scheduled to go out Monday night in Katunayake, where Sri Lanka’s only international airport is located. A tropical island, Sri Lanka depends on rain to generate electricity, and the recent lack of monsoons has forced rolling power cuts.
That’s when the Tamil Tiger rebels made their move.
Taking advantage of the darkness, the rebels headed to an abandoned soccer field next to Katunayake Air Base, 19 miles north of the capital of Colombo. There they began stealthy preparations that culminated six hours later in a devastating attack on the base and the airport that left all of them dead.
They destroyed or damaged 14 military aircraft and passenger planes, killed seven military personnel and struck a hard blow to Sri Lanka’s tourist-based economy.
Piece by piece, area residents, policemen, military officers and taxi drivers filled in the picture of how it happened: the fiercest attack in the 18 years since the rebels began fighting for a homeland for Sri Lanka’s 3.2 million ethnic Tamil minority.
The power cut had not affected the air base because of generators and emergency lines. But the lack of light on the outskirts gave the rebels a chance to reach the edge of the base without being seen.
There, they cut the barbed wire fence and got inside with three machine guns, four 40mm rocket-propelled grenade launchers, eight explosive charges, 66mm shoulder-fired anti-tank weapons and bags full of ammunition.
Inside, the rebels broke into smaller groups and placed explosives on the military aircraft. Then they waited.
At 3:30 a.m. Tuesday, the shooting began. The rebels attacked the air base and the adjoining Bandaranaike International Airport, destroying half of the state-run Sri Lankan Airlines’ planes.
Now, officials said they are investigating, hoping to fill in the gaps. A court of inquiry, headed by a vice air marshal, has been appointed, and President Chandrika Kumaratunga has also ordered a top-level probe.
"We have ordered a through investigation into the security lapses," Civil Aviation Minister Jeyraj Fernandopulle said Wednesday. "Especially, how the men moved around with a miniarmory on them."
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