Sri Lankans Bury Victims of Bus Attack
KRISHAN FRANCIS and MATTHEW ROSENBERG
Associated Press Writer
KABITHIGOLLEWA, Sri Lanka (AP) _ Fifty-six men, women and children killed in a suspected rebel attack were buried Friday in mass graves _ each wrapped in a white sari or sarong, red paper flowers in their open palms.
Some 60 miles to the northeast, air force jets and army artillery pounded Tamil Tiger rebels for a second day. The fighting leaves Sri Lanka's future as uncertain as it's been in the four years since a cease-fire ended the grinding battles that marked two decades of civil war in this island nation.
The bombardment was provoked by a bus bombing Thursday that killed 56 people _ the worst single act of violence since the 2002 cease-fire.
Thousands of mourners paid their respects as the bodies _ including those of 15 children and a monk _ were interred in three mass graves at the funeral paid for by the government.
Children carrying garlands of flowers led the procession that carried the bodies to the public cemetery in Kabithigollewa, a town about 180 miles northeast of the capital, Colombo. Policemen and soldiers armed with assault rifles stood guard along the route.
Distraught relatives and friends cried and comforted each other as they looked at their loved ones' bodies for the last time, before lowering the coffins side-by-side into the long pits and each throwing in a handful of soil.
Police fired a gun salute for the victims before bulldozers trundled in to fill the pits. Buddhist monks and Roman Catholic priests led prayers, and white and black flags fluttered in surrounding towns to signify mourning.
The government blamed the Tigers for the bus attack. The rebels countered by insisting the air and artillery strikes near a key rebel stronghold showed the Sri Lankan military was on a war footing.
Friday's bombardment was the latest in a bloody back-and-forth that has many here readily acknowledging the truce is in tatters _ even if the government and rebels insist they are committed to the peace process.
Air force jets dropped bombs and the army lobbed artillery shells around the town of Kilinochchi and at Tiger bases near the eastern ports of Batticaloa and Trincomalee, said Thorfinnur Omarsson, spokesman for the Nordic mission that monitors the truce.
``We don't know if this is just a limited response or if it might be a move to inflict real damage'' on the rebels, Omarsson told The Associated Press.
Tiger leader Seevaratnam Puleedevan said Friday morning that at least eight bombs already had been dropped near Kilinochchi. He could not provide casualty figures.
``I think the Sri Lankan government, by launching the air raids, is showing that they are ready for war,'' he said, adding the insurgents would ``take appropriate action'' in response.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the rebels' formal name, began fighting in the 1970s for a separate homeland in the north and the east, where most of the country's 3.2 million Hindu Tamils live, because of discrimination at the hands of the 14 million Sinhalese, who are largely Buddhist.
The struggle intensified after anti-Tamil riots in 1983, and more than 65,000 people were killed before the cease-fire.
But peace talks to build on the truce quickly faltered, and sporadic shootings and bombings in and around Tiger strongholds have grown into near-daily violence.
A year ago, Sri Lankans were calling the conflict a ``shadow war.'' Nowadays, many are simply calling it war, even if the country has not returned to the major battles of years past.
``If it is dangerous for me to go on the bus to visit my family in Jaffna'' _ a northern, largely Tamil city controlled by the government _ ``then maybe we are at war,'' said F. Prasanna, a 32-year-old shopper in Colombo.
The peace monitors say violations by both sides have spiked in recent months, and nearly 700 people, more than half of them civilians, have died since December, when the Tigers killed 12 sailors in the first major attack since the truce.
``The cease-fire exists only in name because the two sides say there is a cease-fire,'' said Jehan Perera of the independent National Peace Council.
``I would call this an undeclared war _ but it is also not a full-scale war,'' he said. ``There is no attempt to change the boundaries, to move the lines of control.''
During the declared war, the Tigers carved out large swaths of territory in the north and east, effectively creating an independent state complete with courts, medical clinics and even police speed traps. They finance their state with taxes collected from residents and donations from the Tamil diaspora in Western Europe and North America.
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Published: Fri Jun 16 14:38:58 EDT 2006