A bomb tore through a packed bus carrying mostly elderly Buddhist pilgrims yesterday in central Sri Lanka, killing 18 people and wounding 51 others, the military said.
The blast inside the bus occurred at 7am in Dambulla, a town about 150km northeast of the capital, Colombo, said military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara, blaming separatist Tamil Tiger rebels.
Bus driver Rohana Wijesiri said he was taking about 100 passengers, mainly elderly women, to the holy city of Anuradhapura.
"When we were passing Dambulla there was a huge blast and the door near my seat got blown away," Wijesiri said.
The top and sides of the bus were ripped apart by the force of the blast. A severed hand could be seen among the blood-stained bags, glass and other debris strewn several meters from the vehicle.
"I do not remember what happened next, but I was running on the road. I saw my conductor fallen on the ground. He too got up and started running with me" Wijesiri said.
"As it [the bus] came near me, I heard thunder. I got thrown away," said Kankeaarachige Michael, a 52-year-old businessman, who was standing by the road when the blast occurred.
"When I saw blood gushing out of my body, I realized its a bomb," Michael said at Dambulla Base Hospital where he was being treated. Michael lost an eye in the blast.
Nanayakkara initially said 20 people had died in the blast, but he later changed the official toll to 18 after gathering more information.
Violence has intensified on this Indian Ocean island, with more than 700 people killed since the government withdrew from a cease fire with Tamil rebels last month.
A spokesman for the rebels could not immediately be reached for comment. The group, listed as a terror organization by the US and EU, routinely denies responsibility for such attacks.
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa's spokesman condemned yesterday's attack.
"They [the rebels] are targeting innocent civilians as they face defeats in the battle front," Chandrapala Liyanage said.
Before dawn on Friday, the army attacked rebel bunkers in the northern Jaffna peninsula, triggering a battle that killed 10 guerrillas and two soldiers, Nanayakkara said. Six more soldiers were wounded, he said.
Civilians have borne the brunt of the violence over the past month with three attacks on passenger buses killing dozens, including many schoolchildren.
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