At least 92 Sri Lankan naval personnel were killed yesterday in a suspected suicide attack by the Tamil Tiger rebels. A truck packed with explosives rammed a convoy of about 15 buses carrying sailors from the naval port of Trincomalee.
It was the deadliest single suicide attack in a year that has seen Sri Lanka return to civil war in all but name, and comes less than a week after 129 Sri Lankan soldiers were killed in a single day of fighting with the Tigers.
The Sri Lankan navy said the sailors killed going on leave or returning from it at the time of the attack, and described it as a "cold-blooded massacre". The Tigers refused to confirm or deny they were behind the attack but said it was "justified".
The killings overshadowed a diplomatic drive this week to restart the peace process. A Japanese envoy was in Sri Lanka yesterday and the Norwegian chief negotiator is due later in the week.
After the scale of yesterday's attack, there will be grave fears over the future of new talks between the government and the Tigers scheduled in Switzerland this month.
At least 2,000 people have been killed in violence between the government and the Tigers this year, according to European monitors overseeing a 2002 ceasefire that is now in tatters.
The suicide attack took place near the town of Habarana, site of a transit camp for the Sri Lankan military. The convoy of 15 navy buses had stopped near the town and many of the sailors had got out when a truck rammed the convoy.
The truck must have been packed with a huge amount of explosives: the force of the blast was so great that 13 of the 15 buses were damaged, and rescuers were still searching the wreckage for survivors last night. The navy said the death toll could rise because many of the bodies had been obliterated. They said at least 150 sailors had been injured.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) commonly known as the Tamil Tigers were the pioneers of suicide bombing as a tactic, long before al-Qa'ida and other groups adopted it. Suicide bombings are carried out by a tightly knit and extremely disciplined unit known as the Black Tigers.
President Mahinda Rajapakse's office said the attack was "further proof of the LTTE's unmitigated commitment to violence to achieve its ends and was in total disregard of international demands for it to abandon violence and seek peaceful means to achieve its goals".
The Sri Lankan military said: "This inhuman act is a clear revenge by the terrorists on the navy who inflicted successive defeats for LTTE against their attempts of smuggling arms and explosives".
But the reality is that the Sri Lankan military is struggling to contain the Tigers. Yesterday's large death toll comes only days after the army appeared to walk into a trap, when it launched a major offensive last week on Tiger positions in the north.
At least 129 soldiers were killed, and the army had to abandon the offensive after a single day of fighting. It was a major setback after the military scored a success by capturing the town of Sampur from the rebels.
Diplomats and analysts agree that the Tigers have clearly tried to goad the Sri Lankan military back to war with a series of attacks on the military since December last year, often on convoys, such as yesterday. But international goodwill towards the government has been sorely tested since it launched a series of ground offensives against the Tigers which have raised the stakes significantly.
The Tigers have been fighting for two decades for a separate homeland for Tamils in the north and east of Sri Lanka, although they now say they would accept some form of autonomy. Although a ceasefire was agreed in 2002, peace talks quickly broke down, and diplomats have been scrambling to restart them as the country slipped back towards war.
The government has also faced pressure over the deaths of 17 local aid workers for the French NGO Action Contre La Faim, who were found dead in their office after an outbreak of fighting in the town of Muttur, where they were working on tsunami relief.
European ceasefire monitors have accused government forces of responsibility, as have relatives of the murdered relief workers. The government vehemently denies the accusation.
This week, the bodies of 15 are to be exhumed in the presence of Australian investigators, as part of an inquiry into who was responsible for their deaths.
Major Tamil attacks
21 May 1991
Suicide bomber kills Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, during a visit to Tamil Nadu in revenge for his support of Sri Lanka. 18 civilians also killed
1 May 1993
Tamil Tigers assassinate President Ranasinghe Premadasa during a May Day parade
24 October 1994
Opposition politician, Gamini Dissanayaka, killed with 58 bystanders by a female suicide bomber in Colombo
31 January 1996
91 killed and more than 1,400 injured when a Tamil suicide bomber detonates a truck at Colombo's Central Bank
25 April 2006
One week after pulling out of peace talks, rebels bomb Sri Lankan army headquarters in Colombo, and wound the head of the army, Sarath Fonseka
5 June 2006
64 civilians, many children, killed by a mine attack on a bus
26 June 2006
Suicide bomber kills top Sri Lankan General Parami Kulatunga in Colombo
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