By BHARATHA MALLAWARACHI
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — A suicide bomber attacked government ministers leading a procession to mark a Muslim festival in southern Sri Lanka on Tuesday, killing 14 people and severely wounding one of the officials.
The government blamed Tamil Tiger separatists for the blast, which wounded 45 other people, saying the rebels had grown desperate in the face of an army offensive that has driven them close to defeat after more than 25 years of civil war.
If the work of the Tigers, the assault shows the guerrillas can still launch strikes far from their traditional strongholds in the north and east even as they face battlefield defeat.
As the military has pushed the rebels into an ever-shrinking sliver of territory in the north, human rights and aid groups have voiced concern for the fate of the tens of thousands of civilians trapped in the pocket. Heavy artillery attacks Tuesday killed at least 49 ethnic Tamil civilians and wounded hundreds of others, the top government health official in the war zone said.
While fighting rages in the north, the suicide attacker struck in the southern town of Akuressa as six ministers led a procession toward a mosque for a ceremony to commemorate the prophet Mohammed's birthday.
Television footage showed men in white robes and caps slowly parading down the street before the blast sent them running in all directions. Afterward, charred bodies lay scattered among their torn clothes and severed limbs just outside the mosque compound's gates.
"I heard a huge sound, and then I saw people had fallen everywhere. They were covered with blood and flesh, and the wounded people were screaming," Ahamed Nafri, 29, said by telephone from the hospital in the nearby town of Matara.
Police and bystanders hauled the badly bleeding Minister of Posts and Telecommunications Mahinda Wijesekara into a van. He was later flown to the capital for treatment to a head wound.
Dr. Hector Weerasinghe, the director of Colombo National Hospital, said the minister underwent three hours of surgery and was still in serious condition late Tuesday.
The government said the attack killed 14 people and wounded 45 more.
The attack came as government forces stood poised to rout the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam from their last stronghold in northeastern Sri Lanka after a 20-month offensive.
The rebels have fought since 1983 for an independent state for the Tamil minority, which suffered decades of marginalization at the hands of governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority. More than 70,000 people have been killed.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa's office said selecting a mosque on an Islamic festival for the attack showed the rebels "hatred" of Muslims and strengthened the government's resolve to defeat them.
There was no indication Muslims were specifically targeted on Tuesday. However, the Tamil Tigers used violence to drive many Muslims and ethnic Sinhalese from Tamil-dominated areas. In one of the bloodiest incidents, suspected rebels attacked a mosque in an eastern town in 1990 with guns, grenades and machetes, killing 140 worshippers.
Muslims, many of them descendants of Arab or Indian traders, make up about 7 percent of Sri Lanka's population. Many speak Tamil but the community has largely stayed out of the war.
With most communication to the north severed, rebel spokesmen could not be reached for comment.
In the northern war zone, Dr. Thurairaja Varatharajah, the top government health official there, said shell fire continued to hit a government designated civilian refuge Tuesday as heavy rains flooded trenches and forced families out into the open.
By the afternoon, 279 wounded civilians were brought to the makeshift hospital he runs in the area, and 43 of them died because of lack of adequate care, he said. Many of the wounded were being treated under trees in the rain. Another six bodies were brought to the hospital's morgue, he said.
Since the beginning of March, 1,205 wounded civilians were brought to the hospital and 218 people either died at the facility or were brought to the morgue by relatives, he said. However, many families have stopped bringing their dead to the hospital because of the shelling, health officials say.
The army denies shelling the area.
The top U.N. official in Sri Lanka reiterated the world body's call for a pause in the fighting to let the civilians flee.
"There are too many people too near heavy fighting. It's wrong," U.N. resident coordinator Neil Buhne said.
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