The government declared a curfew and sent troops on to the streets. Telephone lines were jammed as residents of the city called each other to break the news. The Prime Minister, Dingiri Banda Wijetunga, was appointed acting president and national mourning was declared until the funeral on Thursday.
Police said they suspected that separatist Tamil rebels who have fought a bloody campaign against the government, were responsible, but this was denied by a spokesman for Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Paris.
The carnage repeated sadly familiar scenes in Sri Lanka and the other nations of the sub-continent, where seven leaders have been assasinated in the post-colonial area.
Mr Premadasa's murder, only a week after that of a leading opposition figure, Lalith Athulathmudali, has shaken the political structure of the island, which has been in civil war for nearly a decade. The president was the second Sri Lankan leader to be assassinated, after S W R D Bandaranaike in 1959.
The bomber struck at 12.45pm while Mr Premadasa, who was 68, was taking part in the rally organised by the ruling United National Party. The presidential press secretary, Evans Cooray, said that, before the bombing, the president was in Armour Street. 'He was signalling to some senior ministers who were coming along in the procession. Then he directed a small procession that suddenly came from a by-road and asked them to join,' Mr Cooray said.
Mr Cooray was with the president, 10 to 12 bodyguards and some presidential advisers at the time. A call on his mobile telephone saved his life. State television showed pictures of a smiling Mr Premadasa, dressed in a green cap and shirt, the ruling party colour, and white sarong, moments before the blast. Police said 13 people, including Mr Premadasa's valet and a senior police superintendent, Ronnie Gunasinghe, died in the explosion. Several others were wounded. A badly disfigured body was found at the scene with wires attached to his clothing.
All last week Sri Lankans had been prophesying tragedy. Mr Athulathmudali's assassination sent shock waves and rumours through Colombo - most blaming the president.
Within hours of yesterday's explosion, an island-wide curfew drove cars from the streets, leaving only small knots of people on corners and a few stragglers making their way home.
At the place where the bomb went off - a junction in the oldest and busiest part of the city where Mr Premadasa launched his political career 37 years ago - there was little evidence of the explosion, other than shattered glass. Police said remains of bodies flung across the street had been cleared away.
By yesterday evening, it was still not known if any other politicians had been killed.
Initial reactions from Colombo's residents to the killing of a president who was deeply unpopular, for both economic and political reasons, were mixed. 'I'm happy that he's dead,' said Mohan Jayamanne, a taxi driver. 'Of course I'm not happy about a killing but he was bad for the ordinary man.'
But a Tamil shopkeeper said he was worried. 'Much trouble could come for us now. Premadasa kept law and order.'
Suspicion inevitably falls on the Tamil Tigers, who are known to use suicide squads. Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lanka's naval commander, Clancy Fernando, were killed in the last two years by suspected Tiger assassins with bombs strapped to their bodies.
At Mr Athulathmudali's funeral last Wednesday, the opposition leader Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike, asked what she thought of Sri Lanka's future as a democracy, said: 'This is another nail in the coffin of our democracy.' Many Sri Lankans feel now that the president's assassination, the fourth political murder in three years, may be the final nail.
Horror in paradise, page 15
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