A suicide assassin detonated a bomb at an election rally outside Colombo late Sunday, killing about 50 people, including the opposition candidate for president and top leaders of his party.
The assassination of Gamini Dissanayake came just 2 1/2 weeks before the election and just one day before peace talks were to resume with Tamil guerrillas to end the country’s 11-year-old civil war.
Dissanayake was an outspoken critic of the talks that began this month, and the government had warned him three weeks ago that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eemal would try to kill him.
The talks scheduled for today were called off, government delegate Navin Gunaratne said. No new date was set. The election has been postponed.
The bomb ripped through the rally on the outskirts of Colombo shortly before midnight. Dissanayake had just finished speaking and was stepping off the stage to greet supporters.
“Police believe this was the work of a suicide bomber,” military spokesman Gemunu Kulatunga said.
“The bomb was apparently at the front of the stage,” said Weerasooriya Wickrema, campaign manager of Dissanayake’s United National Party. “It was a very powerful bomb.”
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, and police said it was too early to say who set the blast. But the Tigers have a long history of assassinations and suicide bombings.
The same kind of explosive was used by a suicide bomber last year to kill President Ranasinghe Premadasa. The Tigers were blamed for that attack but have denied responsibility.
The rebels were also blamed for the May, 1991, assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the killings of dozens of Sri Lankan politicians and military leaders.
A hospital official said about 50 bodies had been brought to General Hospital in Colombo following Sunday’s blast. A Defense Ministry spokesman, speaking on condition of anonymity, said more than 200 people were wounded.
Among the others killed were the United National Party’s general secretary, two former Cabinet ministers and a member of Parliament, Wickrema said.
In an emergency meeting early today, Prime Minister Chandrika Kumaratunga’s Cabinet decided to postpone the Nov. 9 election, in which she was to stand as a candidate for the ruling alliance.
The armed forces were put on alert, and the government reimposed emergency measures giving the army and police a free hand to maintain law and order. The measures, in place for 11 years, had been lifted in August.
The Tigers have been fighting since 1983 for an independent homeland for the Tamil minority in the north and east of Sri Lanka, where they say they are discriminated against by the Sinhalese majority. The Tamils make up about 18% of Sri Lanka’s 17 million people.
The new peace talks, to be held in the guerrilla stronghold of Jaffna, were to focus on a cease-fire and the opening of a land route for supplies to the rebel-held Jaffna peninsula, one of the guerrilla negotiators, who asked not to be identified, said earlier Sunday.
The first round was held Oct. 12-14 and in Jaffna, 185 miles north of Colombo. Those discussions centered on economic issues and the repairing of roads, canals, schools and hospitals ravaged by the war, which has killed more than 34,000 people.