At least 24 civilians were killed and dozens wounded Wednesday in a suspected Tamil Tiger bomb attack on a crowded bus in southern Sri Lanka, officials said, as the island's ceasefire was set to end.
|Sri Lankan soldiers patrol on a street in Colombo, January 16, 2008|
The defense ministry said the bus packed with schoolchildren was hit by a powerful Claymore-type mine -- a bomb packed with explosives and ball-bearings. It also said the bus was shot at after the blast.
"Police sources said that the terrorists have exploded a Claymore mine targeting the bus and subsequently opened fire at the survivors," the ministry said in a statement.
More than 60 people were also wounded in the blast, which took place at Weliara, 230 kilometres (150 miles) southeast of the capital Colombo.
Eight were reported to be in critical condition, and the government appealed for blood donors.
A local hospital official, Sumith Rajasuriya, said he had seen eight schoolchildren admitted for treatment.
"Schools in the area have been closed indefinitely," said Vijith Vijithamuni Soysa, the chief minister of Uva Province.
The defense ministry said an army vehicle in the area was hit in a second attack, and again blamed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) -- who are know to occasionally strike in the far south of the island.
It also called the rebels, who want to carve out a separate homeland for Tamils in the north and east of the ethnic Sinhalese-majority tropical island, "a ruthless terrorist outfit notorious for crimes against women and children."
The attacks came as a 2002 Norwegian-brokered truce, which was in practice dead anyway, was set to officially end at midnight Wednesday.
The Norwegian-led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), set up to keep an eye on the truce, was closing up and set to pull out later Wednesday.
The government withdrew from the ceasefire two weeks ago, arguing that there was no point in attempting to negotiate with "terrorists" and that the Tigers had merely used the ceasefire to smuggle in more weapons.
Sri Lankan defense officials are convinced they have the upper hand in the long-running conflict, and have said peace is only possible when they kill the LTTE's leaders and capture their northern mini-state.
The decades-old conflict has left tens of thousands of people dead.
The attack also came amid an escalation in fighting in the north, with Colombo claiming it has killed 405 rebels since the start of the month against 20 soldiers killed. More fighting was reported Wednesday in the northeast.
The island's military began the New Year with a vow to crush the Tigers by June, and set a target to kill 3,000 guerrillas in the first six months of the year.
But casualty claims are almost impossible to verify, as Sri Lankan authorities routinely prevent journalists and diplomats from traveling to frontlines or the northern jungles controlled by the LTTE.
A week ago, Sri Lanka's nation building minister D. M. Dassanayake was killed in a roadside bombing near Colombo that was blamed on the rebels.
Both sides have accused each other of killing civilians including children. Two months ago a Sri Lankan army commando unit was accused of killing 11 schoolchildren in a Claymore attack in the north.