COLOMBO (Reuters) - A roadside bomb ripped through a Sri Lankan bus killing 26 people and wounding dozens on Wednesday, officials said, as a six-year ceasefire between the government and Tamil Tiger rebels officially expired.
The Ministry of Defence said a large number of schoolchildren were on the bus at the time of the blast in the central district of Moneragala, around 150 miles east of the capital Colombo.
Hospital officials said they were treating seven children for minor injuries while a 14-year-old girl who suffered a head wound was flown to Colombo and was in intensive care. They said no children were killed.
Schools in the surrounding province of Uva were temporarily closed following the attack, which the military blamed on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
The attack, in the town of Buttala, was the latest in a series of roadside bomb blasts blamed on the rebels, fighting to create an independent state in the island’s north and east.
“This is a brazen demonstration to the whole world of (the Tigers’) unchanged commitment to terrorism and the absolute rejection of democracy and all norms of civilized behavior, in the pursuit of its unacceptable goal of separation, which threatens the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka,” President Mahinda Rajapaksa said in a statement.
The Defence Ministry posted photographs of blood-soaked corpses of some victims on its Web site. Local television broadcast footage of the bus, showing bloodstains on the floor and personal belongings strewn inside and out.
Government defense spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said Tiger fighters shot five farmers dead in the area as they fled after the attack.
A second blast targeted an army armored personnel carrier 12 miles south of the first attack, wounding three soldiers, the military said.
A 2002 ceasefire, which broke down on the ground two years ago, formally ended on Wednesday evening after Rajapaksa’s government announced a fortnight ago it was scrapping the pact, triggering fears that the fighting will worsen.
Rambukwella said the military’s aim was to eliminate shadowy rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran as part of a declared plan to defeat the rebels by the end of the year.
One bus passenger described hearing a firefight after the bus blast.
“I was on my way to take my 1-1/2-month-old baby to the doctor. I heard a loud noise and I thought it was a bomb, so I went under the seat of the bus with my baby and we heard firing for about five minutes,” 27-year-old housewife T.M Lalani told Reuters from Buttala hospital.
“Everybody was screaming and I saw people on the ground in a bloodbath,” she added. “My leg got injured from pieces of glass. Luckily my baby has not got any injuries.”
The Tigers were not immediately available for comment on the blast, which bore the hallmarks of previous rebel attacks. They routinely deny involvement.
Sri Lanka’s bourse fell 2.1 percent on the news to six-month lows, though traders said investors had been expecting violence.
“We expect the market to come further down after today’s end of the ceasefire agreement as more incidents are expected,” said Harsha Fernando, CEO at SC Securities in Colombo.
Around 70,000 people have been killed since the war erupted in 1983.
The government argues the rebels simply used the peace pact to buy time to regroup and rearm and that they were not sincere about talking peace.
Nordic truce monitors, who the government have asked to leave the country, say both sides repeatedly violated the terms of the ceasefire agreement.
(Additional reporting by Shihar Aneez; Writing by Simon Gardner; editing by Elizabeth Piper)
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