More than 60 killed in Sri Lanka bus blast

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The Independent Online

At least 62 people were killed today when a powerful land mine ripped through a bus packed with commuters and schoolchildren in northern Sri Lanka.

The explosion - described as "huge" by military spokesman Brig. Prasad Samarasinghe - was the worst single act of violence since the government and Tamil Tigers signed a cease-fire in 2002, and it renewed fears of a return to war.

Samarasinghe blamed the Tigers, saying their "motive is to create terror ". A policeman at the scene said the victims were primarily ethnic Sinhalese.

The rebels could not immediately be reached for comment, although they routinely deny involvement in attacks on civilians.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam fought for 20 years to carve out a separate homeland in Sri Lanka's north and east for the country's 3.2 million minority Tamils, who are largely Hindu. The majority of Sri Lankans are Sinhalese, most of whom are Buddhists.

A 2002 cease-fire ended large-scale fighting, but violence has persisted, intensifying in recent months, including rebel attacks on civilians.

But today's violence dwarfed recent attacks, and a doctor at the hospital where the victims bodies were taken, SB Bothota, said that 15 school children were among the 58 killed.

Another 78 people were wounded by the blast, which also hit bystanders in a crowded part of Kabithigollewa, a town in the northern Anuradhapura district, a predominately Sinhalese area that is also home to sizeable Tamil and Muslim communities.

Most of those killed and wounded in the blast were Sinhalese, said a police officer at the scene.

Kabithigollewa is near the north-eastern districts of Vavuniya and Trincomalee, flashpoints for violence in recent months between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan military.

Sri Lanka's air force bombed rebel-held areas in the north-east after the bus blast, the defence ministry said.

The pro-rebel TamilNet website said two jets bombed areas in the north but provided no further details.

Military spokesman Brig. Prasad Samarasinghe confirmed the bombings, saying the air force was taking deterrent action, but it would be limited.