Civil war fears after 64 die in Sri Lanka

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The Independent Online

At least 64 people were killed in a landmine attack on a packed civilian bus in Sri Lanka yesterday, sparking immediate fears that the blast, the worst single act of violence since the 2002 ceasefire, could push the island back into civil war.

The Sri Lankan government accused Tamil Tiger rebels of being behind the attack on the bus, and last night air strikes were under way near Kilinochchi, the Tigers' de facto capital.

The Tigers denied involvement in the bus attack, and said the government air strikes on Kilinochchi meant "they are showing they are ready for war".

Among the dead in the bus explosion were at least 13 children. The blast was huge, according to witnesses. "The bus was blown over," Chintha Irangani, a survivor, told reporters.

"There was blood and body parts everywhere. I fell unconscious. I saw my children's bodies at the hospital." All three of her children died.

"I lost my entire family of 13," a man who identified himself only as Priyantha said as he searched among the bodies for his relatives. " My wife, mother, two children ... are dead."

The attack took place near Anuradhapura, in northern Sri Lanka. The bus, which was severely overcrowded at the time ­ some reports said as many as 150 people were on board ­ was on a road which passes close to Tiger-controlled territory. The explosion was caused by one or two landmines which had been left in a tree, a known tactic to prevent the ground absorbing any of the blast. The mines were detonated by remote control as the bus passed, according to the Sri Lankan military.

The attack is the latest in a wave of violence since last December that has seen more than 600 people killed and the fragile ceasefire all but disintegrate. Many observers say a low-level civil war is already under way in Sri Lanka, but there will be fears that yesterday's violence could push it over the brink into all-out conflict.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eeelam (LTTE) immediately issued a statement denying they were behind yesterday's attack. "Directly targeting civilians ... cannot be justified under any circumstances," it said. S Puleedevan, a senior Tiger leader, said: "The Liberation Tigers condemn the attack on civilians in strongest possible terms."

He accused the Sri Lankan military of carrying out the attack using " paramilitary forces" ­ a reference to the breakaway Tiger faction led by Colonel Karuna, which has links to Sri Lankan security forces.

The Tamil Tigers have routinely denied being behind a series of attacks since December, but Western diplomats and independent observers have said their denials are not credible. Yesterday's attack used claymore mines, a weapon frequently used by the Tigers. "This is a barbaric act of the LTTE," Keheliya Rambukwella, a government spokesman, said. "Their aim is to provoke a backlash."

Observers have accused the Tigers of trying to push the island back into civil war after giving up on the peace process. Peace talks collapsed shortly after the ceasefire in 2002, and efforts to restart them this year appear to be failing.

Representatives of the government and the Tigers travelled to Oslo for negotiations, but the Tigers refused to meet the government delegates. Norway, which had mediated the talks, last week asked both sides to recommit to the truce. The government did so; the Tigers have yet to respond.

This is not the first time the violence has risen to the point where Sri Lanka seems on the brink of a return to all-out war. Last month the military carried out air strikes on Tiger positions in the east of the country after a suicide bomber attempted to assassinate the Sri Lankan army's chief of staff. Pressure from international diplomats forced both sides to pull back from the brink,but with violence escalating there will be fears over how much longer Sri Lanka can avoid a return to full-scale civil war.

Unhappy islanders: Tamils and Sinhalese

Why is Sri Lanka lurching back towards civil war?

A series of attacks, mostly on Sri Lankan military personnel, since December has left a 2002 ceasefire in tatters.

Who is behind the attacks?

The Sri Lankan government, Western diplomats and independent observers accuse the Tamil Tigers of responsibility, but the Tigers deny it.

Who are the Tamil Tigers?

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam are one of the world's most effective guerrilla organisations. They were exponents of the suicide bomb long before al-Qa'ida, and have fought for more than two decades against the Sri Lankan government.

What do they want?

Originally, an independent homeland for ethnic Tamils in north and east Sri Lanka. The Tigers say the Tamil minority has suffered repression from the ethnic Sinhalese majority. In recent years they have said they will accept autonomy.

Why have they abandoned the peace process?

They insist they have not. But observers say the Tigers may have given up hope of achieving anything from the peace process. Talks collapsed shortly after the 2002 ceasefire, and attempts to restart them this year have been unsuccessful.

Have tourists been affected?

Earlier this year British tourists were injured when their car was hit in a landmine attack. But most attacks have been away from the tourist beaches.

Is there any hope peace may hold?

The Norwegian mediators behind the ceasefire are working flat out to try to get both sides together for talks. There is considerable international pressure to prevent a return to war, but it remains to be seen whether it can be effective.