KURESSA, Mar 10 – At least 15 people were killed and another 60 wounded on Tuesday in a suicide bomb attack in southern Sri Lanka that officials have blamed on Tamil Tiger rebels.
The attack targeted politicians attending a ceremony at a mosque in the town of Akuressa, and came as the rebels were steadily losing ground in the face of a fierce government offensive on their shrinking northeastern stronghold.
Postal Services Minister Mahinda Wijesekera was wounded in the head and airlifted to Colombo for emergency treatment, a spokeswoman for the National Hospital in the capital said.
Culture Minister Mahinda Yapa Abeywardene was initially listed as injured because he was covered in blood but was given the all-clear after the blood was found to have come from other victims.
"We were walking in a procession and just passing the entrance to the mosque when there was a blast. I thought it was a big firecracker," Abeywardene told AFP.
"My clothes were covered in blood and I started running. Later I realised that I was not hurt, but I had blood from someone who was hit in the blast."
Muslim men were playing hand drums and performing a dance when the bomber detonated the explosives in Akuressa, 160 kilometres south of Colombo, witnesses said.
The bodies of 10 people killed instantly lay outside the mosque as police cordoned off the area to allow forensic experts to sift through the carnage.
"We had just cleared the main entrance for VIPs when the blast went off," Chandrasiri Gajadeera, one of the politicians present, said. "I fell on the ground and was taken away by a security guard."
There were large crowds at the ceremony, held on a national holiday marking Milad-un-Nabi festival, or the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed.
Military spokesman Udaya Nanayakkara blamed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
"It is an LTTE suicide bombing," he said.
Police spokesman Ranjith Gunasekera said 15 people were killed and 60 were wounded. The victims were taken to two main hospitals in the area, which had not previously been hit by Tamil rebel attacks.
The government said the deaths only strengthened its resolve to finish off the Tigers, who are cornered in the northeast of the island.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility from the Tigers, but they carried out a similar strike in April 2008 which killed a government minister as he took part in celebrations ahead of the traditional New Year.
The pro-rebel Tamilnet website instead reported that at least 74 civilians – many of them children -had been killed and 100 others wounded on Monday and Tuesday in army shelling of the remaining LTTE-controlled territory.
The government insists it is trying to protect civilians and accuses the Tigers of using them as "human shields."
Military officials said heavy exchanges continued in the conflict zone Tuesday, after three days of fighting that left at least 250 rebels dead.
Two years ago, the Tigers – who have a long and bloody record of suicide attacks – controlled large swathes of the north and east of this South Asian island, but have suffered a series of major setbacks.
Sri Lankan authorities ban most journalists and aid workers from the entire north, meaning such claims cannot be verified.
The government withdrew from a Norwegian-brokered truce at the beginning of last year after accusing the Tigers of using the peace process to re-arm.