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SURFACE-TO-AIR MISSILES USED BY TAMIL SEPARATISTS

In a sharp and sudden escalation of Sri Lanka's ethnic blood bath, Tamil separatists used surface-to-air missiles for the first time to shoot down two air force transport planes, killing 97 people, officials said Saturday.

The back-to-back air disasters Friday evening and Saturday in the rebel-controlled Jaffna Peninsula were lethal, unexpected proof that government forces in the Indian Ocean island nation no longer have unchallenged mastery of the skies.The attacks also posed an urgent question for President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who must decide whether to try and revive peace talks with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam that collapsed with a resumption of fighting earlier this month, or go all-out on the battlefield.

Friday evening, a twin-engine Avro troop transport of the Sri Lankan air force crashed in flames while taking off from Palali military base in the northern Jaffna Peninsula, where for the past 12 years Liberation Tiger insurgents have been fighting for a separate homeland for the Tamil minority.

Sri Lankan military sources at first called the crash of the British-designed aircraft an accident. But Saturday, they confirmed widespread rumors that the plane had been hit by a missile.

All 45 aboard were killed, including the air force northern zone commander, Wing Cmdr. Roger Weerasinghe, officials said.

Ironically, the doomed Avro was also carrying the corpses of eight soldiers who had been killed by separatists in a Thursday night attack on a bunker on a small island off the Jaffna Peninsula.

Saturday, a second Avro was knocked down about 4 miles from Palali as it approached for a landing. This time, ground troops clearly saw the transport struck by a heat-seeking missile, Sri Lankan officials said.

A military communique said all 52 people on board, including three journalists from the state-run Lake House group of newspapers, were killed when the plane crashed about a mile from the base's defense perimeter.

The dead included 30 Sri Lankan army personnel, 12 from the air force, five from the navy and two policemen.