Dharmasiri Senanayake, the Information Minister, said talks with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had been postponed indefinitely after the assassination by a suspected LTTE suicide bomber. A resumption of talks with the group would depend on the outcome of an investigation into the carnage.
So far security forces have identified two possible suspects for the attack, which left severed limbs, fragments of flesh and debris strewn across a blood-soaked area the size of a tennis court. One is a woman whose severed head was found on top of a two-storey building near the blast; the other is a crippled man, whose badly mutilated body was found near a pair of crutches. The Tigers used disabled bombers to disarm suspicion during a suicide attack last month on a naval vessel which killed 25 sailors.
The candidate had just finished addressing the rally in a Colombo suburb when the bomb went off. 'Dissanayake clasped his hands and his last words were 'I wanted to say goodnight, but now I say good morning' . . . The time was 12.10am,' a witness said. Another member of the audience said he saw 40 to 50 people blown off the stage. Police said a jacket, similar to the one worn by the woman who killed the former Indian prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, had been found.
Dissanayake, the 52-year- old leader of the island's Opposition United National Party, joins a lengthening list of South Asian politicians - including the Sri Lankan president, Ranasinghe Premadasa, and Rajiv Gandhi - killed by suicide bombers presumed to be acting on LTTE orders.
If so, it highlights the movement's illogicality as well as its deadliness, because Dissanayake's death badly damages the fragile peace initiative begun by the new government of Chandrika Kumaratunga. The second round of peace talks with the Tamil Tigers was scheduled for today.
A Reuters cameraman, speaking by telephone from the northern Tamil stronghold of Jaffna, reported that Tiger leaders said they were 'not involved' in the killing.
Security sources and analysts in Colombo said they were keeping an open mind, but only the Tigers with their Black Tiger suicide squads had the determination and capacity for such attacks.
The assassinated politician had also reported receiving threats from the rebels. Last Friday a bomb was thrown at his constituency home in Kandy, but no one was hurt.
Peace negotiators were given an ecstatic reception when they arrived in Jaffna earlier this month. Although the LTTE leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, was absent both sides appeared keen to end the 11-year conflict that has cost more than 30,000 lives.
Yet the Tigers have shown often enough that they have long memories.
Dissanayake was architect of the 1987 Indo-Lanka accord, which sent Indian peace-keepers to the Jaffna peninsula on a bloody but futile campaign to suppress the guerrillas. He was also widely held responsible for the burning of the Jaffna Library in 1981, in which 10,000 priceless Dravidian manuscripts were destroyed: an act of cultural vandalism which few have forgiven.
Although the opposition will probably name Ranil Wickremasinghe, the former prime minister, as their candidate, next month's elections are a formality.
Both main parties have agreed to abolish the executive presidency, introduced by Junius Jayawardene in 1978, and revert to the old parliamentary system. That would make Mrs Kumaratunga, who is the Prime Minister, head of state, but the necessary constitutional amendments have not been passed in time.
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