Blasts hit Sri Lankan town

October 19, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- Powerful explosions rocked a southern tourist and port town in Sri Lanka yesterday when suicide bombers detonated two boats packed with explosives near a naval base. The terrorist attack, the first on Sri Lanka's southern coast, was attributed to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the militant separatist group.

The Tigers have been battling the government for years, demanding the creation of an independent state in the northern and eastern parts of the country, where the Tamil minority is predominant. The attack yesterday raised fears of worsening anti-Tamil feeling among the Sinhalese majority in the south. The navy said 15 rebels were killed in the explosion of the two boats, along with one sailor. Some civilians outside the port were injured when the rebels opened fire from their boats before the explosions, the navy said.

Popular resort

The attack yesterday took place just off the coastal town of Galle, a resort popular with foreign tourists that is located about 70 miles south of Colombo, the capital. Galle was hit hard by the Asian tsunami in December 2004, but until yesterday it had been unscathed by Sri Lanka's civil war, which has been largely confined to the Tamil-majority areas.

After the attack, angry mobs attacked Tamil-owned shops in the town, throwing stones and smashing windows.

"There was broken glass and pots and pans trashed around in a Tamil- owned restaurant," said Thomas Alperin, a New Yorker working on tsunami reconstruction in the area.

At least two jewelry shops were damaged before shopkeepers could pull down their shutters, a Galle resident said. The police fired into the air to disperse the crowds, and shortly afterward a curfew was ordered.

`Failed miserably'

"The LTTE wanted to create some kind of backlash in this very sensitive Sinhalese-majority area," said Keheliya Rambukwella, the government's chief defense spokesman, referring to the Tigers. "Their other motive may have been to hit economic and commercial interests by targeting this popular tourist destination. They failed miserably."

Rebel groups made no immediate comment on the attacks and issued no claim of responsibility. In reprisal for the attacks, the government ordered airstrikes on Tiger strongholds in the eastern part of the island nation.

Keerethi de Silva, senior superintendent of the Galle police, said that search operations were in progress to root out any rebels who may have infiltrated the town. Sporadic gunfire was heard.

In all, five boats approached the naval base near the harbor, moving through a swarm of civilian fishing vessels, according to D.K.P. Dassanayake, a navy spokesman. Three of the five were spotted, attacked and destroyed, Dassanayake said, but the other two slipped through and were set off close to the base, damaging two government vessels.

`It was very scary'

Vijitha Liyanage, a procurement officer with Catholic Relief Services, saw the explosions. "There were so many blasts, and we saw black smoke bellowing from the direction of the navy camp," he said. "It was very scary, as we have not experienced something like this in Galle."

The attack followed by two days another suicide bomb attack against the navy, when a truck packed with explosives was rammed into a convoy of vehicles, killing nearly 100 people, mostly sailors.

The two sides in the civil war are scheduled to resume peace talks on Oct. 28 in Geneva, after an eight-month hiatus. Rambukwella said there had been no change in the government's commitment to take part in the talks.

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