A Tamil Tiger suicide bomber triggered a blast inside offices of the main opposition party in Sri Lanka yesterday, killing at least 27 people, including a senior retired general, officials said.
The attack in the northern town of Anuradhapura came as the Sri Lankan military appeared on the verge of capturing the Tigers’ key headquarters as part of a major offensive in the drawn-out ethnic conflict.
“The LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] set off a suicide explosion. There are a large number of casualties. At least 27 are dead and 80 injured,” said military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara.
The blast killed the provincial head of the United National Party (UNP), retired army general Janaka Perera, who was attending a ceremony to open the offices when the attack occurred.
Officials said it was likely he had been directly targeted by the blast, which left many of the dead slumped beside overturned blue plastic chairs put out for the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Perera, whose wife was also killed, was a prominent war veteran credited with some of the army’s biggest victories over the Tigers, including a 1996 battle in which 200 rebels were killed with the loss of just one soldier.
The UNP officially supports a negotiated settlement with the Tigers and says the current offensive is being used by the government for political ends.
The UNP said it was not sure who was responsible, but said Perera had been threatened by the LTTE and government allies including a breakaway Tiger faction that became a political party last year and has been accused of rights abuses.
“The government had opened up the opportunities to kill him by not providing security despite repeated requests,” UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake told reporters.
“He was a prominent general who fought against LTTE and is a popular character.”
The UNP’s Ranil Wickremesinghe was prime minister in February 2002 when Colombo and Tiger rebels negotiated their peace deal, brokered by Norway, which finally collapsed earlier this year.
Among those killed yesterday was a female television reporter filming the opening ceremony, said her employer, the privately run Sirasa network.
Anuradhapura is huge tourist draw and home to some of Sri Lankan Buddhism’s holiest sites. For a millennium it was the seat of the kingdom of the Sinhalese, who make up 75 percent of the Indian Ocean island’s 21 million people.
Sri Lanka’s army chief Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka announced at the weekend that his troops were within 2km of the northern rebel headquarters in Kilinochchi.
Losing control of Kilinochchi would be a major blow to the Tigers, who took up arms in 1972, demanding minority rights. In 1976 they raised the stakes, demanding a separate Tamil state.
As the political capital of the LTTE’s northern mini-state, Kilinochchi is where the rebels have hosted visiting foreign dignitaries and peace brokers.
The Tigers, who are known for their trademark suicide attacks, have put up only intermittent resistance to the military forces advancing on several fronts in the north of Sri Lanka.
But defense analysts recently warned that the Tigers still had suicide attackers who could be deployed with devastating effect.
“[The] Tigers could be facing the biggest defeat since 1995, but you can’t ignore their ability to carry out suicide attacks,” one analyst, who declined to be named, said at the weekend.
Foreign aid workers who evacuated the northern region three weeks ago said most residents of Kilinochchi had fled as the fighting moved closer.
Fighting across the northern frontier on Sunday left at least 13 Tigers and two soldiers dead, the defense ministry said yesterday.
Since the Colombo government formally revoked the moribund truce in January, 7,196 Tigers have been killed, according to the military, which places its own losses at 704 soldiers.
The casualty figures cannot be independently verified.
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