Sri Lankan air force bombs rebel-held areas after explosion kills 64 people
KABITHIGOLLEWA, Sri Lanka -- A powerful land mine ripped through a packed bus in northern Sri Lanka on Thursday, killing at least 64 people in the worst act of violence since a 2002 cease-fire.
Sri Lanka's air force responded by bombing rebel-held areas in the northeast.
The government blamed the Tamil Tiger rebels for blowing up the bus -- crowded with commuters and schoolchildren -- but the rebels strongly denied responsibility.
Thursday's violence came during nearly a year of renewed fighting that began with last summer's assassination of Sri Lanka's foreign minister. With the cease-fire already shaky, the explosion has brought the fractured country even closer to full-scale war.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States condemned what it termed a terrorist attack and called for resumed negotiations.
"This vicious attack bears all the hallmarks of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam," and violates the cease-fire agreement, McCormack said. "The Tamil Tigers must renounce terror and enter into direct negotiations with the Sri Lankan government."
The explosion tore through the bus in a crowded part of the northern town of Kabithigollewa at around 8 a.m. It was believed to have been caused by two land mines hanging from a tree and detonated from a remote position, military spokesman Brig. Prasad Samarasinghe said. Rigging mines to trees or bicycles is a common Tiger tactic, so that the ground does not absorb as much of the force of a blast.
The area around Kabithigollewa was frequently the site of violence when all-out war shook the island.
"The blasts hit the middle of the bus and it overturned, trapping passengers," said Bandula Seneviratne, a Sri Lankan photographer who was among the first to reach the scene, about 130 miles northeast of Colombo.
Hours later, the pro-rebel TamilNet Web site said two jets bombed areas in the north of the country, but it provided no other details. Samarasinghe confirmed the bombings, saying the air force was taking limited deterrent action.
Rebel commanders met quickly to map out their next move.
"Our Central Command is discussing about possible defensive measures we need to take to protect our Tamil people," senior rebel leader Seevaratnam Puleedevan told The Associated Press from the rebel town of Kilinochchi.
He said the air raids have left "a lot of casualties," but gave no figures.
A doctor at the hospital where the bus victims were taken, S.B. Bothota, said 15 schoolchildren were among the 64 dead. Another 78 people were wounded, he said.
At the hospital morgue, bodies of the victims were laid in rows. Some victims were relatives of a policeman killed Monday, apparently by rebels. They were heading to the slain man's funeral when the explosion tore through their bus.
"I lost my entire family of 13," said one man, whose relatives were among those traveling to the funeral. "My wife, mother, two children ... are dead," said the man, who identified himself only as Priyantha. He wept as he searched among bodies for his relatives.
Officials said it was not clear if the bus was targeted because many passengers were going to the funeral.
Samarasinghe blamed the Tigers for the explosion, saying their "motive is to create terror." Police said the victims were primarily ethnic Sinhalese.
But Puleedevan countered the government's accusation by suggesting the attack could be "the work of forces seeking to create ethnic tension between the Sinhalese and the Tamil population."
"The Liberation Tigers condemn the attack on civilians in strongest possible terms," Puleedevan was quoted as saying by TamilNet.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam fought for 20 years to carve out a separate homeland in Sri Lanka's north and east for the country's 3.2 million minority Tamils, who are largely Hindu. The majority of Sri Lankans are Sinhalese Buddhists.
The Tigers now control large parts of the island's north and east, where they have their own de facto state.
A cease-fire four years ago ended large-scale fighting, but violence has persisted, intensifying following the assassination last August of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. The government blamed the killing on the Tigers.
Four months later, the Tigers killed 12 navy sailors -- the first major attack in four years -- and the situation on the ground has only deteriorated since then, with violence that has left more than 600 soldiers, rebels and civilians dead.
Both sides have blamed the other for the renewed violence, and the Tigers also routinely blame a breakaway rebel faction for attacks on civilians. Diplomatic efforts to quell the violence and get the peace process back on track have not progressed very far.
The Tigers pulled out of peace talks in April, and then last week scuttled negotiations by refusing to meet representatives of the government side after arriving in Oslo, Norway, the venue for the talks.