Suicide bombing leaves 97 dead in Sri Lanka

Attack comes days before start of peace talks

October 17, 2006|By Henry Chu and Easwaran Rutnam | Henry Chu and Easwaran Rutnam,LOS ANGELES TIMES

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- Suicide bombers rammed a truck laden with explosives into a Sri Lankan naval bus convoy yesterday, killing 97 people and injuring more than 100 others days before peace talks scheduled between the government and Tamil Tiger rebels.

Most of the dead were sailors about to start vacation leave after serving in the violence-wracked east. Some civilians also were believed to be among the people killed in the attack, which occurred near the town of Habarana, in the center of this embattled island.

The Sri Lankan military responded last night by dispatching fighter jets to pound rebel positions in the northern part of the country, officials said. The extent of the air raids and resulting damage was not immediately known.

The suicide bombing was one of the deadliest such incidents to hit Sri Lanka since the signing of a 2002 cease-fire accord between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a militant group dedicated to establishing an independent homeland for the island's ethnic minority Tamils.

The truce raised hopes of a lasting resolution to the ethnic conflict that has engulfed Sri Lanka for most of the past 23 years, but spiraling violence since the end of last year essentially has rendered the agreement void.

The latest round of bloodshed came amid a flurry of diplomatic activity aimed at heading off a return to all-out civil war. A Japanese peace envoy is in Sri Lanka to push for a respite from the fighting, and Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Richard Boucher is expected to arrive later this week for a brief visit, in anticipation of talks between the government and the rebels scheduled for Oct. 28 and 29 in Switzerland.

That meeting is still on track, at least for the moment, but a successful outcome has sunk deeper into doubt in the face of intensified clashes between government security forces and the Tamil Tigers over the past week.

Fighting on the Jaffna peninsula in the north killed scores of combatants last week. On Sunday, the Sri Lankan navy attacked a rebel boat suspected of smuggling weapons off the northwest coast.

Yesterday's bombing was seen by some as retaliation for that incident.

Henry Chu and Easwaran Rutnam write for the Los Angeles Times.

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