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British tourists wounded in Tamil Tiger bomb blast

Tamil rebels brought their secessionist war to the capital yesterday for the first time this year, exploding a bomb in the heart of Colombo and fighting a pitched battle in a government building. There were 15 dead and several Britons were among the 105 wounded.

The dead, all Sri Lankans, included four security guards shot by rebels as they forced their way into the parking lot of the luxury Galadari Hotel to set off a truck bomb, the army deputy chief of staff said. Four civilians and three Tamil rebels also died in street battles. An army commando was killed storming a government building where rebels holed up after the bombings.

The Galadari hotel is across the street from government offices that President Chandrika Kumaratunga rarely uses. She was at her home about a mile away when the blasts occurred.

The rebels drove a truck laden with explosives into the hotel car park, then fired a rocket-propelled grenade to set it off, the army said. The parking lot abuts the rear of Colombo's trade centre, twin 39-story towers that house the Colombo Stock Exchange and the Information Ministry. The complex, the tallest in Sri Lanka, was inaugurated on Sunday and was probably a main rebel target.

After the bomb blasts, three rebels took refuge in the five-story building that houses Sri Lanka's state-run newspapers. Sri Lankan army commandos lobbed grenades into the building and stormed inside. Shortly afterward workers emerged, but grenade and machine-gun fire continued inside for hours.

The truck-bomb and cyanide capsules are hallmarks of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the main rebel group that has been fighting since 1983 to carve out an independent homeland for Sri Lanka's Tamil minority.

The BBC reported that the Tigers denied responsibility for the attack. But the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ravinatha Aryasinha, blamed the Tigers, saying the attack proves they "do not care for international opinion or the safety of civilians, including foreigners who have nothing to do with the present conflict".

It was the first major terrorist attack this year in Colombo, where security has been stepped up as the war in the north with the Tamil rebels intensified.

Since May, the Tigers have suffered heavy losses in one of the conflict's biggest battles, defending the northern highway to the Jaffna Peninsula against a major military assault. The government says 2,000 people have died in the five-month battle.

Yesterday's explosions and gun battle were barely 200 yards from the site of the 1996 suicide-bombing of the Central Bank that killed 88 people and injured 1,400.

More than 50,000 people have been killed since the uprising began. Analysts said the attack was possibly a strong message from the LTTE that they cannot be left out of the government's efforts to end the war. The two sides are not speaking. - AP, Colombo