COLOMBO (Reuters) - A suspected Tamil Tiger suicide bomber killed at least 10 people and wounded 35, including Sri Lanka’s telecommunications minister, during a Muslim festival in the Indian Ocean island’s south on Tuesday, officials said.
The blast happened in front of a mosque in Godapitiya in Matara district, about 160 km (100 miles) south of the capital, Colombo, during a festival to celebrate the birthday of Prophet Mohammad.
“Six ministers were there and terrorists used this opportunity to target us. Only one minister, Mahinda Wijesekara, got injured. Seven bodies have been found at the spot,” Oil Resources Minister A.H.M. Fowzie told Reuters from the scene.
Wijesekara is minister for post and telecommunications.
“Around 35 injured had been admitted to hospital and among them four are seriously injured. The minister is in the ICU and we are making arrangements to airlift him to Colombo,” Matara hospital’s director, Dr. Aruna Jayasekara, told Reuters.
A defense spokesman, Lakshman Hullugalle, said 10 people were killed and he blamed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
“It is a suicide blast so it must be the LTTE,” he said. The Tigers could not be reached for comment.
The Sri Lankan military has cornered the Tigers in about 45 square km (20 sq miles) of the northeastern coast and is confident of defeating them as a conventional force in a short period.
But the Tigers have always had the capacity to strike far from the war zone using unconventional tactics, and analysts say they expect that to continue in the near future.
The air force said it had dispatched a helicopter with a medical team to the site of the latest blast to treat the critically wounded and bring them back to Colombo if necessary.
“There were pieces of legs and hands inside the mosque’s grounds. Around 15 bodies were there at the spot. There was blood all over the place,” said M.A.M. Mashahir, a school principal chaperoning 30 students to the celebration.
The Tigers are on U.S., EU, Canadian and Indian terrorist lists for their widespread use of suicide bombs during a separatist conflict that has raged off and on since 1983.
The army said it had killed 195 Tigers who tried to counterattack over the weekend.
The only thing slowing the current military offensive against the Tigers is the presence of tens of thousands of civilians trapped by the rebels in a 12-km coastal no-fire zone.
The Red Cross estimates there are 150,000 people in the no-fire zone. The government says there are no more than 70,000.
The International Crisis Group (ICG) think-tank in a report this week urged the Tigers to stop using people as human shields.
“It has been defeated and must surrender. Its current actions demonstrate its utter disregard for the people it claims to want to liberate,” the report says.
The United Nations has urged the Tigers to stop firing from inside the no-fire zone and to let people go free, while asking the government to throttle back its assault.
“It must not pursue a strategy of annihilation. The Sri Lankan government must hold off on the final assault to allow adequate supplies of food, water and medical aid to reach the civilian population,” the ICG report said.
The government has promised safe passage to civilians to escape, and says it has slowed down the military offensive to ensure civilians are not harmed. It denies LTTE allegations it targets civilians but acknowledges some may have been killed.
Writing by Bryson Hull; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani