COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – A suspected Tamil Tiger homicide attacker bombed the opening ceremony of a marathon outside Sri Lanka's capital Sunday, killing a powerful government minister, a former Olympian and 10 others, the military said. Scores were wounded.
The bombing, the second this year to kill a senior government official, showed that while the rebels might be on the defensive against a military onslaught on their heartland in the north, they retained the ability to launch devastating attacks deep in government territory.
The rebels have fought since 1983 for an independent homeland for ethnic minority Tamils after decades of marginalization by governments run by the Sinhalese majority. More than 70,000 people have been killed.
On Sunday morning, scores of runners and onlookers gathered at the starting line of the marathon in Weliweriya, about 12 miles from Colombo, part of the national celebration of the upcoming Sinhalese New Year.
Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, the minister of highways and the ruling party's chief whip, approached the starting line with a flag he planned to wave to start the race when the bomb exploded, witnesses said.
"There was a sound of huge explosion and I saw a fireball," said Nishan Priyantha, a local journalist who was a few yards away from the blast, but escaped unhurt.
Television footage showed chaotic images of screaming people running through the bloodied streets.
"I saw severed heads, hands and legs," witness Nalin Warnasooriya told The Associated Press. "Blood and body parts were everywhere. It was a horrible scene."
Fernandopulle, an acid-tongued politician who acted as the government's chief political enforcer and was considered a top rebel target, died on the spot, said government spokesman Lakshman Hulugalle, blaming the rebels.
"I saw the minister's body. It had been torn into pieces below the waist and there were other bodies without heads and legs," Priyantha said by telephone.
Eleven others were killed — including former Olympic marathoner K.A. Karunaratne and national athletics coach Lakshman de Alwis — and more than 90 were wounded, he said.
Karunaratne competed in the 1992 Olympic marathon and the 1993 World Championships. He won gold in the marathon and 10,000 meters at the 1991 South Asian Games, defending his marathon title in 1993.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa condemned the attack as an act of savagery and vowed to push ahead with the war on the rebels.
"This dastardly act will not weaken our resolve to eradicate terrorism from our midst, and bring peace, harmony and democracy to all our people," he said in a statement.
Rebel spokesman Rasiah Ilanthirayan could not immediately be reached for comment. The group routinely denies attacks on civilians.
The rebels have been blamed for more than 240 suicide attacks in recent decades and are listed as a terror group by the United States, European Union and India.
The violence was part of a heavy increase in fighting in the country's civil war since the government officially ended a six-year cease-fire in January. The truce had been faltering for more than two years as escalating violence killed about 5,000 people.
The military has vowed to crush the rebels by the year's end, but diplomats and other observers say it is facing more resistance than it expected.
In January, Nation Building Minister D.M. Dassanayake was killed in a roadside bomb attack blamed on Tamil rebels. Two other lawmakers — from the opposition — were also killed this year. One was gunned down in the capital, Colombo, while the other died in a blast in the rebel-held north.