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Sri Lankans mourn death of assassinated minister

Lakshman Kadirgamar's body was carried through the streets on a catafalque decorated with gold. It was taken to Colombo's Independence Square, where it was cremated on a funeral pyre according to Buddhist tradition.

It was a meeting of two strands in Sri Lanka's history. The pomp of the long funeral procession, more than a mile through the streets of Colombo, was a hangover from the colonial past under British rule. Kadirgamar's bier was escorted by Sri Lankan soldiers slow-marching in white ceremonial uniforms and pith helmets, while one representative from each of the armed forces marched with their swords drawn and held behind their backs. A band played the funeral march.

But when they reached Independence Square, the Foreign Minister was cremated in a ceremony far more ancient than Western rites of burial. As his body was laid on the pyre, his relatives, dressed in white, the colour of mourning in south Asia, processed solemnly around it. The pyre was hidden behind white screens, white streamers flew from a pyramid of canvas built above it.

White banners flew all around the square. Then Mr Kadirgamar's male relatives took burning torches and lit the pyre. Slowly the fire grew. At first, all that was visible was clouds of smoke billowing out of the top of the pyre but eventually the flames leapt up and streamed from the pyre, devouring the white screens and leaving the satin cloth through which the coffin had been passed in tattered, glowing ruins.

The fear of the Sri Lankans who watched in silence was that their hopes of peace may be burning with those fires. It is not that Mr Kadirgamar, more than anyone else, could bring peace, but the manner of his death has exposed the fragility of the ceasefire and the ease with which the island could slip back into war.

In his funeral address, the Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, openly accused the Tamil Tiger rebels of being behind the killing.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who was also present at the funeral, blamed them in a televised address the night before. The Tigers have denied any involvement in the killing, and blamed renegade factions within the Sri Lankan establishment who want to wreck the ceasefire.

The Tigers have been fighting for two decades for an independent homeland for Sri Lanka's Tamils in the north, saying the rule of the Sinhalese majority has been repressive. But since 2002 a ceasefire has held, though the peace process broke down two years ago.

Mr Kadirgamar was accorded a full state funeral because it was he, more than anyone else, who extinguished international support for the Tigers. He campaigned internationally against them, and persuaded the US and the UK to name them as a banned "terrorist" organisation.

The Prime Minister called him a "national hero" in his funeral address. That was why, even though Mr Kadirgamar was nominally a member of Sri Lanka's Christian minority, he was accorded a Buddhist state funeral And that is why the Tigers are believed to have wanted him dead. But there remain questions over whether they were behind the killing or not.

Far-right factions in Colombo have seized on it as a rallying call to abandon the peace process and attempt to crush the Tigers. "Let's bury the Tigers", said posters in Colombo yesterday - but there is no sign Sri Lankan forces are any more capable of doing so than they were before the ceasefire.