A Sri Lankan military spokesman, Brigadier Sarath Munasinghe, blamed the bomb attack on Tamil separatist guerrillas. "It had to be the Tamil Tigers. Who else would have done such a thing like this?" he asked. The blast was seen as Tamil revenge against the army for having captured the main Tiger guerrilla base at Jaffna, on the north of the island, during a long and bloody campaign that ended last December.
Eyewitness accounts differed, but it appeared that a lorry carrying explosives managed to slip through the dozens of army checkpoints on roads leading into the Sri Lankan capital. Despite tight security, the capital has been rocked nearly 15 times by suicide bombers - the preferred weapon of the Tamil Tigers - in 12 years of ethnic war with the Sinhalese majority.
A driver and at least two others were in the lorry when it raced up to the central bank, on a busy thoroughfare next to the president's office, hotels and key government and military installations. Two of the suspected Tamil guerrillas jumped out and fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the bank's sentry box while the driver rammed his explosives-laden vehicle into the bank. Two youths wearing jackets filled with explosives were later arrested at the Fort railway station nearby. Police said the two suspects, who were also carrying automatic weapons, may have been the men who attacked the bank's security post.
The facade of the nine-storey building was blasted open. Smoke poured from fires in nearby buildings and glass rained in a deadly shower from 34-storey skyscrapers. Cars were somersaulted by the blast and burst into flames. What had been a busy, normal street a few seconds before was transformed into a devastated landscape. Dazed and bloodied survivors hobbled through a wreckage of mangled bodies, fire, glass shards, and twisted metal.
Office workers trapped on the upper floors of flaming buildings were lifted to safety by helicopters. Rescue officials said the death toll could rise far higher: the central bank building alone had nearly 3,000 workers.
As darkness fell, fears grew that Sinhalese mobs might descend on Tamil neighbourhoods and take their vengeance for yesterday's carnage.
The bomb may prompt the Australian cricket team to pull out of their World Cup match in Colombo on 17 February against Sri Lanka. But Sri Lankan officials said the match would go ahead as planned.
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