Sri Lanka on brink of civil war after killing of general

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The Independent Online

A suicide bomber killed Sri Lanka's third-highest ranking general yesterday in an attack that will send shivers through a nation already on the brink of a return to civil war.

The bomber rammed his motorcycle into Major-General Parami Kulatunga's car as it waited in rush-hour traffic outside a military base in the suburbs of Colombo. Tamil Tiger rebels are widely believed to have been behind the killing, although they denied responsibility.

In what may be a sign of the fear that the growing cycle of attack and counter-attack is dragging Sri Lanka ever closer to all-out civil war, the government held back from retaliation. It had swiftly responded to previous attacks blamed on the Tigers with air strikes on their positions, but as night fell, hours after the attack, there had still been no military reaction.

The street where the general's car was hit was crowded, and parents ran out, afraid that their children might have been caught in the blast while on their way to school. No children were believed to have been hurt, but Maj-Gen Kulatunga's driver, a guard and a civilian passer-by were killed. Five bystanders were injured. Reporters found the severed head of the bomber lying 50 metres down the street. This was a rare occasion when the violence reached the doorstep of Colombo, and it will unnerve Sri Lankans.

Maj-Gen Kulatunga was a veteran who led several operations against the Tigers in the north-east. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have been fighting for two decades for autonomy for Sri Lanka's Tamils. A shaky ceasefire has held since 2002, but in recent months it has all but disintegrated. Almost 700 people, more than half of them civilians, have been killed in violence since April.

The use of a suicide bomber in the attack pointed to the Tigers. It was the LTTE which pioneered the use of suicide bombers long before the emergence of al-Qa'ida.