Air strikes target Tamil Tigers after suicide blast

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The Independent Online

Sri Lankan military jets have launched air strikes against areas held by the Tamil Tigers after a suicide bomb attack targeting the country's senior military general.

The female bomber killed eight people and injured 27 others, including Lt-Gen Sarath Fonseka, said a military spokesman.

A rebel official and witnesses said the military responded within hours with air strikes and mortar fire in the guerrilla-held region of Trincomalee, 135 miles north-east of Colombo. "There are at least two aircraft dropping bombs into our areas and there is shelling from army camps near by," a rebel spokesman said by telephone from Trincomalee.

The Defence Ministry in Colombo declined to comment, but witnesses who live in nearby areas confirmed the air strikes and shelling. No reports of casualties or damage were immediately available.

Earlier, a Tamil Tiger female suicide, pretending to be pregnant to conceal explosives, triggered a blast near a car carrying Lt-Gen Fonseka, the commander of the army, at military headquarters in the capital. He suffered serious abdominal injuries, a hospital official said. He was operated on by 10 surgeons and his condition was stable, said Dr Hector Weerasinghe of Colombo's National Hospital.

The bomber died instantly. It was not clear whether she was included in the figure of eight dead.

The attack and apparent military retaliation are certain to put further pressure on the country's four-year-old ceasefire, which has been threatened by a wave of violence this month that has killed at least 89 people, including at least 43 soldiers and police.

European ceasefire monitors said the suicide attack "could jeopardise any possibility for future talks" between the government and the rebels. "This attack is yet another blow to the ceasefire agreement and the peace process," the monitors said in a statement.

Lt-Gen Fonseka, a battle-hardened soldier with 35 years in the infantry, was appointed after President Mahinda Rajapakse took office in November.

The suicide bomber was able to enter the area by presenting fake identification and saying she had an appointment for a pregnancy examination at the army hospital inside the complex, said other officials, speaking on condition of anonymity. There was no claim of responsibility. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, whose suicide bombers are known as Black Tigers, rarely admit such attacks.

The rebels staged their first suicide attack in July 1987, when a rebel, Captain Miller, drove a truckload of explosives into a military camp, killing 40 soldiers.

Since then, 240 other rebels have blown themselves up in attacks that killed the Sri Lankan president Ranasinghe Premadasa, the former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and dozens of others.

Last week, the rebels backed out of peace talks scheduled to start on Monday in Geneva, citing attacks on ethnic Tamil civilians and other disputes with the government.

A Norwegian-brokered ceasefire halted the war in 2002. More than 65,000 people were killed before the ceasefire was signed.AP