Associated France Press 15/6/2006
Suspected rebel landmine kills 64 in Sri Lanka, army shells Tigers
by Amal Jayasinghe
COLOMBO (AFP) - A landmine which ripped through a bus has killed 64 passengers and injured 39 in the deadliest attack on civilians in Sri Lanka since a 2002 truce, sparking military strikes on Tamil rebel positions.
The military launched long-range artillery retaliation after blaming the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for the carnage in an ethnic Sinhalese district in the island's North-Central province.
The rebels denied involvement in the blast and said it was aimed at discrediting them.
The spiralling violence renewed fears that the island is sliding back to war after peace broker Norway last week failed to arrange a face-to-face meeting between Colombo and the LTTE.
Policy Planning Minister Keheliya Rambukwella, the government's spokesman on defence-related issues, said at least 58 people including two Buddhist monks were killed while another 45 escaped with injuries.
Hospital sources said six more people had died in hospital, raising to 64 the total number of dead.
The bus packed with villagers was heading to Kebitigollewa town when it was torn apart by the powerful blast. Casualties were high as it was overcrowded with people travelling to a weekly market, Rambukwella said.
"This is a most barbaric terrorist act of the Tigers," he said, accusing the LTTE of carrying out the attack.
"It was not a case of a mistaken target where they thought soldiers were travelling in this bus," Rambukwella told a press conference.
"The military does not use this route and the LTTE knew that it was a civilian bus," the minister said.
"This is not a declaration of war but an act of terrorism. As far as the peace process and the ceasefire agreement are concerned, they are still on, but we have to re-look at it seriously in a proper context."
The separatists also condemned the blast.
"The LTTE condemns this attack on the civilian bus," they said in a statement. "Directly targeting civilians, as the Kebitigollewa Claymore attack has, cannot be justified under any circumstances."
Military spokesman Prasad Samarasinghe said the bus was hit by a Claymore mine, or a side charger, which overturned the vehicle and sent it crashing down the road for about 25 metres (yards). Women and children were among the victims.
The attack took place in the district of Anuradhapura, 200 kilometres (125 miles) north of Colombo.
Retaliatory shelling targeted rebel positions at Sampur in the eastern district of Trincomalee, military officials said, adding that they did not have details of any casualties or damage.
The military carried out air strikes on positions in the same area in April after a suicide bomb attack at army headquarters in Colombo.
The rebels said air strikes were also launched against the LTTE-controlled Mullaitivu area but military officials would neither confirm nor deny the claim.
A spate of recent bomb attacks have targeted security forces as well as civilians and have been officially blamed on Tamil Tiger guerrillas waging a campaign for independence.
A surge in violence has left at least 720 people since December, according to official figures.
The blast follows the return to the island on Wednesday of leaders of the LTTE after planned talks in Oslo with Sri Lankan government officials failed to take place.
The rebels refused to sit at the table with a Sri Lankan delegation for what had been billed as two days of talks to discuss ways of ensuring the safety of Scandinavians monitoring the truce.
The government and the Tigers have accused each other of stepping up attacks despite the Norwegian-arranged truce that was the centrepiece of internationally-backed peace efforts in the island.
Peace hopes all but vanished after Norway failed to bring the opposing parties to the table for two days of talks on June 8 and 9.
Diplomatic sources say Norway is now looking for an exit after spending six years attempting to broker peace in the island, where more than 60,000 people have been killed in three decades of fighting.
"There is at the present time no room for a Norwegian initiative in the peace process," Norwegian envoy Erik Solheim told AFP in Oslo last week after failing to get the Tigers to negotiate.