A powerful land mine ripped through a bus packed with commuters and schoolchildren in northern Sri Lanka today, killing at least 62 people.
Sri Lanka’s air force responded by bombing rebel-held areas in the north-east.
The army blamed the Tamil Tiger rebels for the bus explosion, but the rebels denied responsibility.
The explosion – described as “huge” by military spokesman Brig. Prasad Samarasinghe – was the worst single act of violence since the government and Tamil Tiger rebels signed a cease-fire in 2002, and renewed fears of a return to war.
The pro-rebel TamilNet website said two jets bombed areas in the north of the country after the explosion, but it provided no other details. Samarasinghe confirmed the bombings, saying the air force was taking deterrent action, but it will be limited.
A doctor at the hospital where the bodies from the explosion were taken, SB Bothota, said 15 schoolchildren were among the 62 killed. Another 78 people were wounded by the blast, which also hit bystanders in a crowded part of Kabithigollewa, a town in the northern Anuradhapura district.
Samarasinghe blamed the Tigers, saying their “motive is to create terror”. Police said the victims were primarily ethnic Sinhalese.
But a senior rebel leader countered the army accusation by suggesting the attack could be “the work of forces seeking to create ethnic tension between the Sinhalese and the Tamil population”.
“The Liberation Tigers condemn the attack on civilians in strongest possible terms,” Seevaratnam Puleedevan was quoted as saying by pro-rebel website TamilNet.
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, most of whom are Buddhists.
A cease-fire four years ago ended large-scale fighting, but violence has persisted, intensifying in the past several months and killing civilians. Both sides have blamed each other for the violence, and the Tigers also routinely blame a breakaway rebel faction for attacks on civilians.
Kabithigollewa is near the north-eastern districts of Vavuniya and Trincomalee, flash points for violence in recent months between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan military.