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Cablegate: Sri Lanka: Colombo Airport to Suspend Night Operations In

VZCZCXRO5576
OO RUEHBI RUEHLMC
DE RUEHLM #0660/01 1241140
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
O 041140Z MAY 07
FM AMEMBASSY COLOMBO
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 5982
INFO RUCPDOC/USDOC WASHDC
RUEHNE/AMEMBASSY NEW DELHI 0930
RUEHKA/AMEMBASSY DHAKA 0079
RUEHIL/AMEMBASSY ISLAMABAD 7060
RUEHKT/AMEMBASSY KATHMANDU 5147
RUEHBK/AMEMBASSY BANGKOK 3178
RUEHGP/AMEMBASSY SINGAPORE 5689
RUEHLO/AMEMBASSY LONDON 3721
RUEHNY/AMEMBASSY OSLO 3793
RUEHKO/AMEMBASSY TOKYO 2874
RUEHKP/AMCONSUL KARACHI 2189
RUEHCG/AMCONSUL CHENNAI 7646
RUEHBI/AMCONSUL MUMBAI 5328
RUEHHK/AMCONSUL HONG KONG 0379
RUEATRS/DEPT OF TREASURY WASHDC
RUEHLMC/MILLENNIUM CHALLENGE CORPORATION
RHEFDIA/DIA WASHINGTON DC
RHEHAAA/NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL WASHINGTON DC
RUEHBS/USEU BRUSSELS

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 COLOMBO 000660

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE

SIPDIS

STATE FOR SCA/INS AND EEB/TRA/OTP
MCC FOR F REID, D NASSIRY AND E BURKE
BANGKOK AND SINGAPORE FOR TSA AND FAA

E.O 12958: N/A
TAGS: EAIR ECON EINV ETRD PTER CE

SUBJECT: SRI LANKA: COLOMBO AIRPORT TO SUSPEND NIGHT OPERATIONS IN
RESPONSE TO LTTE AIR ATTACKS

REF: A) COLOMBO 636 B) COLOMBO 630
C) COLOMBO 475 D) COLOMBO 637

1. (SBU) SUMMARY: Sri Lanka's Bandaranaike International Airport
(BIA) will suspend nighttime operations following a series of air
attacks by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), including
two in Colombo. Defense Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa made the
decision, seeking to reduce the possibility that travelers or
airplanes would be harmed in any future LTTE air attacks.
International airlines servicing Colombo pressed for the closure as
a safety precaution. As BIA is Sri Lanka's only international
airport, this move will have a negative impact on the tourism
industry. The effort to reduce the risk that travelers will be hurt
or seriously inconvenienced by LTTE attacks is a prudent, if
painful, measure. End summary.

MAIN AIRPORT TO CLOSE AT NIGHT FOR THREE MONTHS
--------------------------------------------- -----

2. (U) On May 3, Sri Lanka's Bandaranaike International Airport
(BIA) announced it would suspend night operations, effective May 10.
The airport will close between 2230 and 0430 hours each night for
the next three months. Any further extension, according to the
Civil Aviation Authority, would depend on the security situation.
This decision follows a series of air attacks by the Liberation
Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). On March 26, the LTTE conducted an
aerial attack on the Sri Lanka Air Force's Katunayake Base, with
which the BIA shares a runway. On April 26, anti-aircraft guns were
fired from Katunayake Base in response to a possible attack (which
did not materialize) that caused the airport to close briefly, and
on April 29, the LTTE targeted oil storage facilities outside
Colombo (refs A, B, and C).

DEFENSE SECRETARY MAKES THE CALL
--------------------------------

3. (SBU) Sri Lanka Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) sources told
Emboffs that Defense Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa made the
decision, with the concurrence of President Rajapaksa, to close the
airport at night. The government believed the step was necessary to
avert danger to air travelers caused by LTTE air attacks or military
defensive fire. According to the CAA, the decision was also
intended to minimize public inconvenience due to disruption of
flights. (Note: The three times the airport was forced to close
down in March and April, it diverted many incoming flights to India,
while flights on the ground were heavily delayed.) The CAA gave
international airlines a week to reschedule their Sri Lanka flights
to comply with the closure.

AUTHORITIES THINK AIRPORT IS SAFE; AIRLINES DISAGREE
--------------------------------------------- -------

4. (SBU) Following the April 29 LTTE air attack, airline
representatives and airport authorities convened the next day to
discuss airport security. An airline station manager told Econoff
that the Cathay Pacific country director spearheaded the night
closure proposal, which the other airlines unanimously supported.
The airport authorities, however, were reluctant to disrupt
operations, arguing that the airport remained safe. Apparently, the
Defense Minister shared the airlines' view. Cathay Pacific Airways
has again indefinitely ceased flights to Sri Lanka. Emirates
Airlines briefly suspended all flights after the April 29 attack,
but now plans to resume daytime flights. Other airlines have not
yet announced their plans.


COLOMBO 00000660 002 OF 002


NEGATIVE IMPACT ON TOURISM INDUSTRY
-----------------------------------

5. (SBU) The managing director of a leading Sri Lankan tourism
company told Econoff that airport authorities notified the Sri Lanka
Tourist Board that they were considering cessation of night
operations. The board opposed the move, but was not directly
involved in the discussions between the airlines and airport. The
director feared the move would have a major, negative impact on the
already-declining tourist industry (ref D).

COMMENT: AIRPORT CLOSURE PAINFUL BUT PRUDENT
--------------------------------------------

6. (SBU) The government has made a painful but prudent decision.
It cannot like having such a decision forced on it by the LTTE, but
the downsides were even worse. An LTTE bomb could have hit an
airliner on the ground; an LTTE plane could have collided with a
passenger plane in flight; or worst of all, government anti-aircraft
fire could have hit a civilian plane in the air. Any of these could
have produced great loss of life and property. The airport decision
means the government's losses are mainly in air travel-related
revenue and pride.
MOORE

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