February 1, 1996 in Nation/World

Suicide Bomber Kills 52 In Sri Lanka More Than 1,000 Injured As Car Explodes In Financial District

Kenneth J. Cooper The Washington Post

A dogged suicide bomber rammed a truck loaded with explosives into the front of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka Wednesday, killing at least 52 people, injuring more than 1,000 and damaging a dozen office buildings in the capital’s busy financial district.

Officials blamed the bold attack on Sri Lanka’s economic heart on ethnic Tamil separatists who have been fighting for a dozen years to establish an independent homeland in the north and east of this island nation off the southern tip of India. Authorities said they arrested two members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the guerrilla force that the army flushed from its northern stronghold of Jaffna in December.

The Tigers have waged a civil war to form a separate state that would protect the minority Tamils, who are mostly Hindus, from discrimination by the majority Sinhalese, who are predominantly Buddhists. The current government has proposed a political solution that would give more power to provincial governments and at the same time has moved to crush the armed rebellion with a rejuvenated army. The guerrillas have responded to their battlefield losses by trying to shift attention away from the northern front. Wednesday’s attack was the fourth terrorist bombing here attributed to the Tamil separatists since August.

The powerful blast heard around this seaside capital of 600,000 Wednesday morning dug an eight-foot crater, which later filled with the crumbled facade of the nine-story Central Bank. Rescue workers found dozens of bodies amid twisted rubble and shattered glass covering the downtown street. Black smoke from fires in the bank and nearby office buildings billowed over the Indian Ocean as stunned office workers stumbled outside wearing bloodstained shirts and saris.

“We saw cars burning. I ran as far as possible from the area. As I was running, there was a second explosion. That caused more panic,” business executive H.D. Peiris told The Associated Press.

Two Central Bank employees who work on the third floor of a 15-story building across the street said they came to the window after hearing gunshots and saw two men wearing wraparound sarongs fire rifles at the bank, causing bystanders to drop to the street. The two employees then watched the suicide bomber rapidly shift gears for four or five minutes in a determined effort to ram his truck through a security barricade in front of the bank. Military sources quoted by the Reuter news agency estimated that the vehicle carried 440 pounds of explosives.

“He had some problems entering the building. He was just herking and jerking trying to get in. … He was entering all the gears possible,” said A.R.A. Mihindukulasuriya, a deputy director of the bank.

State-run radio reported that more than 800 employees were at work in the triple towers of the Central Bank and another 2,000 people were in the Ceylinco Building across the street, where Mihindukulasuriya works. “The Central Bank has been the prime target,” he said.

In past years at least, Sri Lanka’s currency reserves have been stored in a basement vault of the Central Bank. Its governor, A.S. Jayawardene, said Wednesday night that the bank’s assets are safe and vowed that its financial transactions would not be interrupted.

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