News Above the Noise/The Christian Science Monitor Electronic Edition
October 17, 1997

Bombing's Fallout Adds to Gloom Hanging Over Sri Lanka

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  • Tamil Tigers Linked to Fatal Blast in Sri Lanka (Oct. 16)

    COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- Vijay Gunawardene stood silently for a long time Thursday, staring at the acres of rubble and twisted steel left by a huge truck bomb that devastated several showpiece buildings on Wednesday morning and left 18 people dead, more than 110 wounded and Sri Lanka's 18 million people in a renewed state of shock.

    Finally, Gunawardene, a 44-year-old Sri Lankan pharmaceutical salesman, offered a view characteristic of the gloom that has settled on this island nation after 14 years of guerrilla conflict.

    "This is an endless war," he said, muffling his voice so as not to disturb the cathedral-like stillness among crowds of people who had gathered in vigil near the blackened crater where half a ton of high explosives detonated beneath rice bags in the back of the truck.

    About 50,000 people are estimated to have died in the conflict between government forces and the Tamil Tigers, an ethnic separatist group that was included in a list of 30 organizations formally identified as foreign terrorist groups by the State Department last week.

    At least half the dead have been civilians, as were all but three victims of the latest blast, who included parking lot attendants, hotel workers and passers-by, as well as a 78-year-old Buddhist monk killed when one of the attackers tossed a grenade into a nearby temple.

    Following their usual practice, the Tamil Tigers disclaimed any responsibility for the blast in a statement issued from their offices in London. But Gunawardene offered his own verdict on an explosion that destroyed the facades and lower-floor interiors of three five-star hotels and severely damaged the 39-story World Trade Center tower.

    "You cannot deal with a man like this," Gunawardene said, referring to Velupillai Prabhakaran, the fisherman's son who commands the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, as the rebel group calls itself.

    Prabhakaran has held unrelentingly to his goal of an independent state for the 3 million Tamils who live in Sri Lanka, and is currently leading Tiger units in a five-month battle with government forces for a strategic road in northern Sri Lanka that has killed at least 2,000 fighters on the two sides.

    Gunawardene added, "You can't talk to Prabhakaran, you can't defeat him, you can't concede to him, you can only go on fighting him, and suffer more and more disasters like this."

    Preliminary estimates of the cost of repairing the damage from the blast ran into tens of millions of dollars, not counting the larger sums expected to be lost from a new collapse in tourism that had begun to rise again recently after a slump caused by previous bombings.

    Because the damaged hotels -- the Inter-Continental, the Galadari and the Hilton -- are favored by foreigners, for the first time in years of bombings significant casualties, though no deaths, occurred among foreign tourists and businessmen.

    Of the 36 foreigners taken to hospital with injuries from flying glass and other debris, seven were Americans. Only one of these, Steven Baker, identified as chairman of the Lanka Bell telephone company, was hospitalized overnight. Other casualties included five of the attackers, at least two of whom were said to have committed suicide, one by swallowing a cyanide capsule and another by detonating a body vest packed with explosives, when cornered by Sri Lankan troops.

    The suicides were one clue pointing to the Tamil Tigers as responsible for the blast. Suicide attacks have been a Tiger tactic from the beginning of their struggle in the 1980s. In 1991, after India had deployed then withdrawn a military force in Sri Lanka that battled the Tigers, a Tiger suicide bomber assassinated Rajiv Gandhi, India's former prime minister, during an election rally outside Madras.

    The latest blast appeared typical of the meticulously planned bombings the Tigers have mounted before, including an attack in January 1996 that destroyed the Central Bank building, killing more than 80 people and wounding 1,400.

    Between 15 and 20 youths were said to have taken part on Wednesday, including some who were aboard the truck as it turned into the Galadari hotel parking lot at 7:10 a.m., then leapt out to shoot dead four unarmed parking lot attendants manning a barrier. Other attackers fanned out through the area, firing rocket-propelled grenades, throwing grenades and firing automatic rifles, apparently to deter any counterattack by Sri Lankan troops that would impede the attackers' escape.

    One attacker was shot dead by Sri Lankan troops on a nearby railway line, and three others were cornered in the offices of a government-owned publishing house, where they held out for nearly 12 hours before two of the three committed suicide and the third was shot dead.

    The government was quick to issue a statement avowing that security measures in Colombo were adequate. President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who has led the ethnic Sinhalese majority on the island in offering broad autonomy for the Tamils, but not a separate state, played down the severity of the blast.

    "The situation was swiftly brought under control," she said. "The city of Colombo is perfectly normal."

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