updated 2/20/2009 11:37:54 PM ET 2009-02-21T04:37:54

A brazen air raid by Sri Lanka's rebels over the capital left three dead and 43 wounded before the military was able to shoot down the attacking aircraft, the government said.

Tamil Tiger rebels sent two planes on the surprise raid Friday night before anti-aircraft fire shot both of them out of the sky, the military said.

The rebels said the planes intentionally crashed as part of a suicide attack on two air force installations.

One plane crashed into a government office building in the heart of Colombo, killing the pilot and a bystander and wounding more than 40 others. The other came down in a suburb, killing that pilot as well, the military said.

An embarrassment
The raid by the rebels' tiny air wing came amid an all-out army offensive that forced the rebels out of nearly all their strongholds in the north and left them on the brink of defeat in their quarter-century separatist war.

The raid was an embarrassment for the government, which said two weeks ago that it had seized all the rebels' airstrips, effectively grounding their small force of light aircraft.

However, military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said the failure to bomb any strategic targets was a defeat for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The rebels had used a series of successful air attacks in the past to boost their morale and humiliate the government.

"This is the end of the LTTE, that's all I can say," Nanayakkara said.

However, the attack also showed that the rebels were not ready to surrender, despite a military offensive that swept them from their de facto capital of Kilinochchi last month and then pushed them out of the rest of their strongholds and into a shrinking sliver of territory along the northeast coast.

Searchlights in the sky
The air raid started just after 9:30 p.m. The government immediately shut off all power in the capital, and searchlights crisscrossed the sky. Anti-aircraft fire rippled across the city as tracer rounds flew overhead and flares lit up the night.

Anti-aircraft fire hit one of the planes, which crashed into a tax office in the center of the city near the air force headquarters, said the air force spokesman, Wing Commander Janaka Nanayakkara. The crash killed two people, including the pilot, and wounded 43 others, health officials said.

All the front windows of the high-rise building were shattered, and furniture inside was charred and splintered.

"The army started firing, a loud explosion came from that building. Then I saw a big ball of fire," said a security guard who works nearby and gave his name as Ariyatillake.

Military officials at first said a rebel bomb had hit the building, but they later said they were mistaken and the explosion was caused by the crashing plane. An Associated Press photographer at the scene observed authorities removing debris they described as parts of an aircraft.

The second rebel plane was shot down near an air force base in the town of Katunayake, close to the international airport north of Colombo, Janaka Nanayakkara said.

Witnesses at the international airport said they heard explosions and anti-aircraft fire and were herded into the lobby.

Rebels call attack a success
The rebels said the raid was a suicide attack on the two air force installations and characterized it as a success, according to the rebel-affiliated TamilNet Web site.

The Web site showed a photo of the two pilots posing with rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, a rebel tradition for those about to carry out suicide attacks.

The attack was the first air raid here since October, when the rebels bombed a power station on the outskirts of the city.

The rebels were believed to have three or four light aircraft, which they have used sporadically to attack military bases and other facilities. The military was not sure how many remained, said Udaya Nanayakkara, the military spokesman.

Their most brazen attack two years ago targeted the air force base next to the airport and killed three airmen. In October 2007, rebel planes pounded an air base in the northern town of Anuradhapura as suicide attackers raided the base from the ground, in an assault that destroyed eight government aircraft.

The Tamil Tigers have been fighting since 1983 for an independent state for minority Tamils after decades of marginalization by the Sinhalese majority. The government has vowed to destroy the group and end the war, which has killed more than 70,000 people.

Friday's air raid came amid rising concern for civilian casualties in the northern war zone.

Human Rights Watch said civilian deaths have skyrocketed in the past two months as government forces indiscriminately shelled the war zone and the rebels fired on families trying to flee.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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