Sri Lankan fighter jets pounded a suspected Tamil Tiger camp in the northeast, the military said yesterday, but denied it was in retaliation for a suicide attack on a military convoy that killed at least 95 sailors the previous day.
The military said more than 150 people were wounded when a bomber rammed an explosives-laden truck into a convoy of buses near the town of Dambulla, about 150km northeast of the capital, Colombo, on Monday.
The attack -- condemned by the US -- was one of the deadliest insurgent attacks since a 2002 ceasefire temporarily halted the country's 19-year civil war, and cast doubt on peace talks scheduled for later this month.
The pro-rebel TamilNet Web site said the military launched airstrikes in northeastern Sri Lanka on Monday night, but claimed they hit civilian targets that left two girls, aged 1 and 12 dead, and 15 others wounded.
Military spokesman Brigadier Prasad Samarasinghe said the air force bombed rebel territory after the insurgents had launched artillery fire into a military camp.
"This was not in response to the suicide bomb, we responded to the artillery attack," Samarasinghe said yesterday.
Monday's suicide bombing attacked a convoy of military buses transporting sailors from the port town of Trincomalee who were going on leave. The military said they were unarmed.
The US condemned the attack and said it bore the hallmarks of separatist Tamil Tigers, formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack also called on both sides to cease violence, and show a renewed commitment to peace talks.
President Mahinda Rajapakse's office said in a statement that the attack "was further proof of the [Tiger's] unmitigated commitment to violence to achieve its ends and was in total disregard of international demands for it to abandon violence and seek peaceful means to achieve its goals."
The attack came shortly after a Japanese envoy held talks with the president amid intensified diplomatic efforts to strengthen the peace process between the government and rebels ahead of scheduled talks later this month in Switzerland.
It was not immediately clear what impact the attack would have on those talks. There was no comment from the rebels on the attack, although they routinely deny involvement.
The envoy, Yasushi Akashi, also planned to travel to the rebel stronghold in the north to talk with the Tiger leadership during his five days in Sri Lanka. A Japanese Embassy spokesman said he had no information yet on whether those plans would change following the attack.
Norwegian peace envoy Jon Hanssen-Bauer arrived in Colombo yesterday for talks with government officials and Tamil Tiger leaders, while US envoy Richard Boucher will make a two-day visit to Sri Lanka starting tomorrow.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan described the attack as "appalling" and urged a return to peace talks, according to UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric in New York.
A resurgence in fighting has left about 2,000 people dead this year, according to the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission.