- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 15, 2006

KABITHIGOLLEWA, Sri Lanka — A powerful land mine ripped through a packed bus in northern Sri Lanka yesterday, killing at least 64 persons in the worst act of violence since a 2002 cease-fire.

Sri Lanka’s air force responded by bombing rebel-held areas in the northeast.

The government blamed the Tamil Tiger rebels for the violence. The bus was crowded with commuters and schoolchildren, many of whom were on their way to attend a funeral for a slain police officer.

The cease-fire was shaken last summer with the assassination of Sri Lanka’s foreign minister, and the explosion brought the fractured country even closer to full-scale war.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States condemned what it termed a terrorist attack and called for resumed negotiations.

“This vicious attack bears all the hallmarks of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam” and violates the cease-fire agreement, Mr. McCormack said. “The Tamil Tigers must renounce terror and enter into direct negotiations with the Sri Lankan government.”

The explosion tore through the bus in a crowded part of the northern town of Kabithigollewa, about 130 miles northeast of the capital, Colombo, at about 8 a.m. It was thought to have been caused by two land mines hanging from a tree and detonated from a remote position, military spokesman Brig. Prasad Samarasinghe said. Rigging mines to trees or bicycles is a common Tiger tactic because it prevents the ground from absorbing much of the force of the blast.

A doctor at the hospital where the bus victims were taken, S.B. Bothota, said 15 schoolchildren were among the 64 dead. Another 78 persons were wounded, he said.

Hours later, the pro-rebel TamilNet Web site said two jets bombed areas in the north of the country. Brig. Samarasinghe confirmed the bombings, saying the air force was taking limited deterrent action.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam fought for 20 years to carve out a separate homeland in Sri Lanka’s north and east for the country’s 3.2 million minority Tamils, who are largely Hindu. The majority of Sri Lankans are Sinhalese Buddhists.

The Tigers now control large parts of the island’s north and east, where they have their own de-facto state.

The cease-fire four years ago ended large-scale fighting, but violence has persisted, intensifying after the assassination in August of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. The government blamed the killing on the Tigers.

Diplomatic efforts to quell the violence and get the peace process back on track have shown little progress. The Tigers pulled out of peace talks in April, and last week scuttled negotiations by refusing to meet with representatives of the government side after arriving in Oslo, the venue for the talks.

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