COLOMBO (Reuters) - A suspected Tamil Tiger suicide bomber blew herself up in a packed railway station in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo on Sunday, killing 11 people and wounding 92, the military said.
The blast, on the eve of ceremonies to mark the troubled Indian Ocean island nation’s 60th anniversary of independence from former colonial ruler Britain, came hours after a crude bomb went off in a zoo in the capital, wounding four visitors.
The government pinned both attacks on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who are fighting for an independent state in the north and east of the island in a new and increasingly violent chapter of a 25-year civil war.
An official who answered the phone at the Tigers’ peace secretariat in the northern rebel stronghold of Kilinochchi said he knew nothing about an attack, and rang off. The insurgents routinely deny involvement in attacks and have in the past denied targeting civilians.
“When I came out of the ticket counter office, I saw a police officer running with blood on his chest,” said Ravindra, a ticket counter officer at Fort railway station in central Colombo, Sri Lanka’s main railway hub.
“I saw seven people, including a woman, were lying on the platform.”
Local television showed footage of bodies lying in pools of blood. One young man’s body was torn apart by the blast.
Four compartments of a train at the island’s main railway station were badly damaged. Shattered glass and shrapnel were scattered around.
Military officials said the suicide bomber may have come to the capital intending to target a VIP, but panicked when she saw security checks being carried out and instead tried to kill as many civilians as possible.
Hospital authorities said a 12-year-old girl was among the dead and some children were wounded. Anil Jasinghe, director of the national hospital, said 10 people were in critical condition. The military said two teenagers were killed.
Transport Minister Dallas Alahapperuma, visiting the scene, said security at railway stations would be increased and appealed to commuters to be more vigilant. “We are at the last stage of the war. So we have to expect more than this,” he said.
Hours before the railway station bombing, a crude bomb went off in a zoo, wounding four visitors. No animals were hurt in the blast near a bird enclosure. Heavily armed troops could be seen standing near ostriches and zebras.
Fighting between the Sri Lankan military and LTTE rebels has intensified since the government scrapped a six-year-old ceasefire last month, saying the rebels were using it to rebuild and re-arm and were not sincere about peace talks.
“These reprehensible acts, which bear all the hallmarks of the LTTE, clearly targeted innocent civilians to foster an atmosphere of fear prior to Sri Lanka’s Independence Day celebrations,” the U.S. embassy said in an emailed statement.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government has been widely criticized by the international community for abandoning the truce pact and carrying out a string of offensives following a series of Tiger attacks.
Rajapaksa is due to oversee a demonstration of military might in the capital on Monday, when tanks and thousands of troops will parade, fighter jets will fly overhead and attack boats sail by to mark Independence Day.
On Saturday, a bombing that was also blamed on Tamil Tiger rebels killed 18 people and wounded more than 50 civilians in the town of Dambulla in central Sri Lanka.
On the battlefront, troops killed 46 rebels and lost two soldiers in clashes in the northern areas of Jaffna, Vavuniya and Polonnaruwa and Mannar in the northwest, the military said.
Independent verification of battle casualties is not possible, and analysts say both sides tend to exaggerate enemy losses. An estimated 70,000 people have been killed in a conflict that began in 1983.
Additional reporting by Shihar Aneez and Simon Gardner; Editing by Simon Gardner and Tim Pearce