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Suspected Tamil Suiced Bomber May Have Hurt Sri Lankan Peace

By John-Thor Dahlburg
Los Angeles Times
NEW DELHI, India

Once again, a suicide bomber may have blown to pieces chances that peace can be restored in the near term to violence-wracked Sri Lanka.

Police and military investigators said they suspect a woman with a bomb hidden inside her jacket or a man on crutches wearing explosives on a belt in the massacre just after midnight Sunday of the top opposition candidate for president, Gamini Dissanayake, and more than 50 officials and supporters of his party.

Both of those suicide-bombing techniques have been used in the past in attacks blamed on Tamil separatists, who are also widely blamed for the latest attack.

The blast sprayed people attending a nighttime political rally in the capital, Colombo, with ball bearings or shrapnel.

"Violence has struck again as the nation moves towards peace and normalcy," said Prime Minister Chandrika Bandaranaike Kuma-ratunga of the leftist People's Alliance, who had faced a serious challenge from Dissanayake in her campaign for the presidency.

In accordance with Sri Lankan law, Commissioner of Elections R.K. Chandrananda De Silva gave Dissanayake's United National Party three days to submit the name of a new candidate to replace the UNP's flamboyant 52-year-old standard-bearer.

President Dingiri Banda Wijetunga, denouncing the deaths of his fellow UNP members as a "cowardly and dastardly act," reimposed an 11-year-old state of emergency that had been lifted only recently.

The powerful explosion during an election rally in a marketplace killed the candidate, 17 members of the presidential security division who had been assigned to protect him, and several top party officials, including UNP General Secretary Gamini Wijesekara, two former ministers and the party's top organizer for Colombo, officials said.

Hundreds of other people suffered cuts and bruises, and 75 were hurt seriously, police said. The death toll was put as high as 52, though hospital officials had said some bodies were so badly maimed that an exact count was difficult.

Witnesses said the explosion occurred about 10 minutes after midnight Sunday after Dissanayake, conscious of the hour, jokingly concluded a campaign speech by saying, "Instead of saying good night, I wish you all a very good morning." He turned to return to his chair.

"There was a big flash and a huge explosion, when I looked up there was no one on the stage," remembered a woman who escaped unhurt, but whose skirt was smeared with the blood of others.