COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Three containers filled with explosives meant for road construction detonated outside a police station in eastern Sri Lanka, killing 25 people, most of them police officers, in a blast government officials called an accident.
Military spokesman Maj. Gen. Ubaya Medawala said he initially feared, incorrectly, that the death toll was as high as 60, in light of the enormity of the damage caused by Friday's blast.
Images of the blast on Maharaja Television showed the police station reduced to rubble. A nearby agriculture office crowded with farmers who had come to buy fertilizer was also completely destroyed and power to the area was cut off.
"There was a big blast and smoke all over, that's all. I didn't know what was happening," said S. Vathany, 42, a farmer.
Medawala said it was unclear what triggered the explosion of the containers, which were stored by the police station in the Batticaloa district for safety reasons.
The area was once controlled by the now-defeated Tamil Tiger rebels, who routinely carried out bombings against government and civilian targets during their 25-year insurgency.
The explosives, probably dynamite, were intended for blasting out rocks for a road construction project being carried out by a Chinese company, he said.
From time to time, workers came to the police premises remove small amounts of explosives from the containers. The blast occurred when the workers were taking out some of the explosives, Medawala said.
The blast killed 16 policemen and nine civilians — including two Chinese citizens — and wounded 52 others, he said. Among the civilian casualties were farmers visiting the agriculture office and passers by.
Thyagendra Senthuran, a doctor at Chenkalady hospital near the blast site, said he has received 15 dead bodies and 20 wounded people, many with severe head wounds.
"Still we are receiving bodies," he said.
K. Arasaratnam, a 49-year-old farmer, told The Associated Press from Batticaloa hospital that he was at the agriculture office when he heard a loud blast.
"Many people near me fell down and after some time I realized that I too was bleeding. Later ambulances came and brought us to hospital," he said.
Lakshman Hulugalla, a government spokesman, ruled out any possibility of sabotage, saying, "It is an accidental explosion."
The site of the blast, Karadiyanaru, is a small town in the former conflict zone in the east. The government has initiated a major construction drive there to build roads, reservoirs and other infrastructure following the end of the war with the Tamil Tigers last year.