President Dingiri Banda Wijetunga declared an indefinite curfew nationwide and the presidential election was indefinitely postponed. The armed forces were put on alert to prevent riots.
'It was a human bomb,' a senior military officer said. 'There was a person in the crowd in the second or third row who had explosives. Then there was a blast which was carried forward towards the stage.'
The government indefinitely postponed a second round of peace talks with Tamil rebels following the attack, in a suburb of Colombo. The attack took place shortly after Mr Dissanayake, 52, the opposition's candidate in the presidential election on 9 November, addressed the crowd. The general secretary of Mr Dissnayake's United National Party, Gamini Wijesekera, and two former ministers were among the dead. 'Dissanayake died on admission to hospital,' police said. A hospital official said there were 50 dead at the mortuary.
Mr Dissanayake was the main challenger to the Prime Minister, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, for the presidency. He had just finished speaking around midnight when the bomb exploded. 'He spoke for about 15 minutes at about 12.15am and returned to his seat when the explosion occurred,' said a journalist at the meeting. The journalist said he saw about 15 people lying dead on the platform. 'I saw Dissanayake and others being taken away in cars,' he said.
Police could not say who was responsible for the attack, but suspicion pointed to Tamil guerrillas. President Ranasinghe Premadasa and another top opposition leader, Lalith Athulathmudali, who led a breakaway group from the UNP with Mr Dissanayake in 1991, were killed by suspected Tamil rebels in May and April last year.
On Friday, a bomb was flung at Mr Dissanayake's residence at Kandy. No one was hurt. The opposition leader recently said that he was under threat from Tamil guerrillas and his security had been intensified.