A Sri Lankan suicide bomber killed 26 people at an ancient tourist town today, including a popular retired army general who was the main opposition party's provincial leader.
The blast, immediately blamed by the government on the rebel Tamil Tigers, also injured at least 80 people, the military said.
The bomber struck during the opening of a new office for the opposition United National Party (UNP) in the north central town of Anuradhapura, 200 kilometres north of the capital Colombo, attended by retired Major-General Janaka Perera.
"A suicide bomber went inside and exploded. My senior officer there said 22 people were killed, and among the dead were Janaka Perera and his wife," Deputy Inspector General K P P Pathirana told Reuters. Hospital officials later raised the death toll to 26.
Last month Perera unsuccessfully ran to be North Central Province's chief minister, a powerful position that was seen as a stepping stone to help him challenge for his party's leadership.
The military said the blast was the latest carried out by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who are credited with perfecting suicide bombing during a 25-year war to establish a separate homeland for the country's Tamil minority.
"It was an LTTE suicide attack," military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said.
The UNP said it was not sure who was responsible, but said Perera had been threatened by the LTTE and government allies including a breakaway Tiger faction that became a political party last year and has been accused of rights abuses.
"The government had opened up the opportunities to kill him by not providing security despite repeated requests," UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake told reporters.
"He was a prominent general who fought against LTTE and is a popular character."
Perera gained fame after he was credited with turning the tide against a Tiger onslaught that almost saw the government lose control of the northern Jaffna Peninsula in 2000.
Anuradhapura is huge tourist draw and home to some of Sri Lankan Buddhism's holiest sites. For a millennium it was the seat of the kingdom of the Sinhalese, who make up 75 per cent of the Indian Ocean island's 21 million people.
It has many ancient ruins, but also major military operations to supply the war zone further north.
Every government since independence from Britain in 1948 has been led by the Sinhalese, and Tamils for years have complained of marginalisation and broken promises, which helped spark the LTTE-led war in 1983.
The LTTE, among the world's most resilient and ruthless insurgencies, has been blamed for killing many politicians including rival Tamils over the years.
The rebels could not be reached for comment, but have rarely claimed responsibility for such bombings.