Powerful blast in Sri Lankan capital kills five people and wounds 26 others

COLOMBO - Suspected Tamil Tiger rebels set off a powerful roadside bomb in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo yesterday, killing at least five people and wounding 26 others.

The powerful Claymore mine - a fragmentation bomb packed with ball bearings - targeted an army bus transporting wounded soldiers, although hospital officials said most of the victims were civilians.

A police official at the scene said five people were killed in the attack - three of them died instantly, while two others died en route to the hospital.

Twenty-six more were injured and rushed to Colombo National Hospital, officials said. Seven of them were in critical conditions.

Hospital director Hector Weerasinghe said most of those killed or injured were civilians - with just one soldier reported killed and 11 hurt.

The mine went off as the army bus passed the low-budget Nippon Hotel in Colombo's commercial Slave Island area, where the military has several key installations.

"We suspect it was a roadside bomb," a police official at the scene said. "There are several civilian casualties. At least another civilian bus was also hit by the blast."

Sri Lanka's defence ministry blamed Tamil guerrillas, who have frequently used roadside bombs in their decades-old war for an independent homeland in the north and east of the ethnic Sinhalese-majority island.

The attack comes amid renewed heavy fighting in the north of the island, and after Sri Lanka's top military commanders vowed to push for victory against the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the new year.

"LTTE terrorists have carried out a cowardly bomb attack targeting civilians and an army bus carrying sick personnel," the defence ministry said.

It said the mine had been placed inside an air conditioning unit installed at the Nippon Hotel, which suffered extensive damage and counted some of its staff members as among those wounded.

Police and troops cordoned off the scene as forensic experts began sifting through the wreckage and rubble strewn across a four-lane highway. - Sapa-AFP