A roadside bomb tore through a Sri Lankan bus killing 24 people and wounding dozens on Wednesday, officials said, as a 6-year ceasefire formally expires between the government and Tamil Tiger rebels.
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, about 240km east of the capital Colombo.
However hospital officials said they were treating only four children for minor injuries, and that 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.
A second blast targeted an army armoured personnel carrier 20km south of the first attack, wounding three soldiers, the military said.
The bus attack in the town of Buttala in the central district of Moneragala was the latest in a series of roadside bomb attacks blamed on the rebels, who are fighting to create an independent state in the island’s north and east.
”Twenty-three people were killed and 67 wounded [in the bus attack],” said military spokesperson Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara. ”They are all civilians.” Another civilian died on his way to hospital, a doctor said.
”The terrorists were desperate in that area and are now targeting civilians,” Nanayakkara said.
One bus passenger described hearing a firefight after the blast.
”I was on my way to take my one-and-a-half-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 TMLalani 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, but routinely deny involvement.
Sri Lanka’s bourse fell 1,6% on the news to six-month lows, though traders said investors had been expecting violence.
”Investors expected this, so there is no panic selling. But investors are seen selling their holdings and leaving the market,” said Vaijra Premawardhana, head of research at Lanka Orix Securities.
A 2002 ceasefire, which broke down on the ground two years ago, formally ends later on Wednesday after President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government announced a fortnight ago it was scrapping the pact, triggering fears that the fighting will deepen.
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 said both sides had repeatedly violated the terms of the ceasefire agreement.
About 70 000 people have been killed since the war erupted in 1983, and the toll climbs daily. – Reuters