15 dead as bomb devastates business district

 

Colombo's business district was devastated by a truck bomb and gun battles yesterday, killing at least 15 people in one of the worst outbreaks of violence in Sri Lanka's capital in 14 years of civil war.

Hospital officials said at least 110 people, including 34 foreigners, were wounded in the explosion, which sent shards of glass and other debris flying over a wide area.

A security guard at the Galadari Hotel said: "I came out to see and there was this lorry in the car-park surrounded by about four or five armed people with bullet belts strapped around their bodies.

"I quickly ran in and asked the people in the hotel to get out. Within five minutes there was an explosion."

Military officials said guerrillas had jumped out of the truck in the car-park before the blast and fired at security forces with automatic weapons and shoulder-launched rockets.

Shooting went on for hours after the blast as troops tried to flush out pockets of rebels hiding in nearby buildings and beneath road level where a railway runs under a bridge.

Police said six employees of the Galadari Hotel were killed when the truck bomb exploded. Two other civilians in the vicinity were killed in the blast and a priest died in crossfire.

About 20 people were freed unharmed by troops after being trapped for some hours in Lake House, a government newspaper building, where at least three of about eight suspected Tamil Tiger gunmen fled after the blast.

After some hours of intermittent firing, troops reported that three guerrillas and one soldier had been killed.

Two of the guerrillas blew themselves up with explosives, officials said. The third was shot.

Fresh firing broke out later at the building, about 300 yards from the Hilton Hotel, and elsewhere when troops suspected other guerrillas might be holed up inside. No other guerrillas were found.

More than 12 hours after the blast, troops and police were still searching for an estimated five guerrillas who fled just before the blast occurred.

The President, Ms Chandrika Kumaratunga, condemned the bomb attack as the work of "inhuman terrorists" but said the search for peace would not be derailed.

The government blamed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam separatists for the bomb attack and subsequent gun battles, but a London spokesman for the group denied involvement. The LTTE are fighting for an independent state for minority Tamils in predominantly Sinhalese Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lankan High Commission in London later accused the British government of failing to do enough to stop the group from raising funds in the UK. It called on the UK to act against the LTTE.