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Planes, tourists grounded after attack

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COLOMBO — Flights at Sri Lanka's only international airport picked up on Thursday, but schedules were still sketchy two days after an attack by Tamil rebels destroyed three airplanes and stranded thousands of tourists.

Airport officials said flights by airlines other than the national carrier had also begun with aircraft from Qatar Airlines and Pakistan International Airlines landing.

"We have several flights landing and flights to Dubai and Singapore," a SriLankan Airlines official said.

SriLankan Airlines Chief Executive Peter Hill said in a statement the company plans to set up hubs in Singapore and Dubai, where Emirates Airlines, which owns 40 percent of SriLankan, is based.

"We hope to establish hubs in both Dubai and Singapore and mount regular services between those two centres to enable us to feed customers from Colombo through the Middle East and onto Europe where we are unable to mount direct services," Hill said.

Subject to changes, the airline has planned two flights to Singapore as well as flights to Male, Tokyo, Madras, Frankfurt and Dubai on Friday.

The suicide attack by Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels left 20 dead and the burned remains of three SriLankan Airbus planes on one of the airport's two runway aprons.

The airport issued instructions saying planes could park on the remaining apron for only three hours and that "all aircraft had to be towed in and out of Apron Bravo with engines stopped."

It said all private flights and ad-hoc charter flights were banned until further notice.

Colombo and the airport area, about 30 km (20 miles) from the capital, began returning to normal on Thursday.

Besides the three destroyed planes, SriLankan Airlines also had three other Airbuses damaged, cutting its fleet in half.

Officials said it would take several days to clear the backlog of about 2,000 tourists who were affected by the attack.

Military officials said at least 13 Tamil rebels and seven military personnel were killed in the attack.

State television said seven suspects had been arrested and President Chandrika Kumaratunga appointed a high-ranking air force officer to head an inquiry.

Tourism officials have also been urged to start campaigns to try to reduce the damage from stories of passengers fleeing for their lives during the attack and images of charred planes that will wreak further damage to the island's tourist industry.

The United States and Britain have already urged their citizens to avoid non-essential travel to the island.

There has been no comment from the LTTE, which has been fighting for nearly two decades for a separate state in the north and east of the island.

An estimated 64,000 people have been killed in the conflict and Tuesday's attack—which also destroyed or damaged eight military aircraft—came on the anniversary of 1983 anti-Tamil riots that are considered the start of the country's ethnic war.