/ 17 January 2008

Govt: Sri Lankan bus victims were shot

Sri Lanka’s military said on Thursday most of the 27 people killed in a bus ambush were shot by rebels as the passengers tried to flee rather than in the blast that struck the vehicle.

Wednesday’s attack came as a six-year truce between the state and rebels formally ended, paving the way for what analysts forecast will be a military push for the Tigers’ northern stronghold and a bloody escalation in a 25-year civil war.

The Tigers were not immediately available for comment on the ambush, but routinely deny involvement.

”There are now 27 people killed,” said military spokesperson Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara. ”There are now 49 people in hospital as others have been released after treatment.

The death toll was 26 late on Wednesday.

He said nine children were among the wounded, including a one-month-old baby, in the attack about 240km east of the capital Colombo.

”The terrorists opened fire at people getting down from the bus,” Nanayakkara added. ”Most were killed and injured due to gunfire, not the bomb.”

The attack, in the central town of Buttala, 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.

”This is a brazen demonstration to the whole world of [the Tigers’] unchanged commitment to terrorism and the absolute rejection of democracy and all norms of civilised behaviour, in the pursuit of its unacceptable goal of separation, which threatens the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka,” President Mahinda Rajapaksa said in a statement on Thursday.

The Defence Ministry posted photographs of blood-soaked corpses of some of the victims on its website. Local television broadcast footage of the bus, showing bloodstains on the floor and personal belongings strewn inside and out.

Nanayakkara said Tiger fighters shot dead six farmers in the area as they fled the bus attack. The attackers managed to escape.

A 2002 ceasefire, which broke down on the ground two years ago, formally ended on Wednesday evening after Rajapaksa’s government announced a fortnight ago it was scrapping the pact, triggering fears that the fighting will worsen.

Sri Lanka’s stock market fell 2,1% on Wednesday following the attack, and traders expect further losses if violence escalates as expected.

About 70 000 people have been killed since the war erupted in 1983.

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, who the government have asked to leave the country, say both sides repeatedly violated the terms of the ceasefire agreement. – Reuters