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Land Mine Explosion in Sri Lanka Rips Apart Bus, Killing 64 People

By Shimali Senanayake 
and Somini Sengupta
THE NEW YORK TIMES


COLOMBO, SRI LANKA

A land-mine explosion ripped through a passenger bus early Thursday in northern Sri Lanka, killing at least 64 people and wounding 86, in the most serious attack on civilians since the government and its ethnic rebel foes signed a cease-fire agreement four years ago.

Hours later, Sri Lankan military forces pounded rebel posts in the island’s north and east by sea, land and air, according to independent monitors and guerrilla officials. The military said simply that its forces had taken “deterrent” measures. The government was swift to blame the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam for the attack on the civilian bus, which the rebels in turn promptly denied, pointing at the government instead.

The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, which documents truce violations, said it had not yet determined who was responsible for the bus attack.

The greater uncertainty now is whether Thursday’s deadly events mark the beginning of full-scale war. Despite growing violence, neither side has been willing to explicitly renounce the crippled February 2002 cease-fire accord.

“The substance of the peace process has been completely eroded,” said Jehan Perera of the Colombo-based National Peace Council, an independent research and advocacy group. “Only the outer trappings remain.”

Thursday’s violence come after the collapse of scheduled talks between the warring parties. The government and rebel delegations spent a week in Oslo, Norway, in what was supposed to be a Norwegian-brokered discussion on the role of European-led truce monitors. The Tamil Tigers pulled out even before talks began. They complained about the composition of the government delegation.

The latest violence also follows several months of carnage between Sri Lankan soldiers, Tamil Tiger guerrillas and a breakaway faction in the east, called the Karuna group. Over the last several months, fighting has emptied villages in the northeast. A bomb went off in a busy market in the eastern port town of Trincomalee last April.

The same month, the Tamil Tiger rebels — better known here as the LTTE, the abbreviation of the group’s full name — were accused of the attempted assassination of Sri Lanka’s army chief inside the heavily fortified military headquarters here in the capital. That attack, carried out by a suicide bomber, was followed by a series of airstrikes on rebel posts near Sampur, on the northeastern coast.

Since April, 500 people have been killed in the conflict, mostly civilians, according to the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission. Thursday’s killings represented by far the largest civilian death toll since the 2002 truce.

The Tamil Tigers on Thursday accused the government of having bombed rebel-held Kilinochchi, the northern town that serves as the guerrilla headquarters, as well as Sampur and Mullaitivu, both strategic eastern coastal installations for the Tamil Tiger naval fleet. The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission said it also witnessed artillery fire from the Sri Lankan army and navy.

“Known LTTE targets are being taken as a deterrent measure,” a Sri Lankan military spokesman, Brig. Prasad Samarasinghe, said Thursday afternoon without elaborating.