Sri Lankan Civil War Spreads to Colombo
Fri February 15, 2008 13:04 EST .
RAVI NESSMAN - Associated Press Writer - COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - (AP) As a raging civil war killed thousands in the country's northeast, Sri Lankans in Colombo and other southern cities shopped, held picnics and cheered their children at soccer matches.
Now a recent wave of bombings has brought the devastation of the civil war to the heart of the capital, and many are scared to leave their homes. The bombings blamed on Tamil Tiger rebels have ripped through passenger buses and a department store and killed half a high school baseball team in a packed train station.
Normally overflowing buses travel half empty, parents whisk their children home after school and the government has appealed for tens of thousands of volunteers for a new civilian security force aimed at preventing more attacks.
``A bomb could go off at anytime,'' said Colombo resident Dilhar Gunasekara. ``Everyone is scared.''
The rebels, listed as a terror group by the United States and the European Union, have been fighting since 1983 for an independent homeland for minority Tamils in the north and east. For years, they were discriminated against by governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority.
The fighting, which has killed an estimated 70,000 people in this island nation in the Indian Ocean, largely ended after a 2002 cease-fire deal. But new violence erupted two years ago. In July, the government said it had driven the rebels from the east and turned its attention to the rebels' heartland in the north.
Although there was scattered violence in the south in recent years, much of it was far from Colombo and its approximately 800,000 residents, or targeted government and military leaders. Many residents of Colombo shrugged off the violence.
But that complacency was shattered Nov. 28 when a powerful bomb hidden in a package killed at least 17 people at a suburban department store. A string of attacks followed, culminating in the bombing of two buses in other towns and a suicide blast in Colombo's main train station in the days around the nation's 60th Independence Day on Feb. 4.
Rebel spokesman Rasiah Ilanthirayan did not answer repeated calls seeking comment. The group routinely denies responsibility for such attacks and accuses the government of targeting civilians in rebel-held territory.
Since the beginning of the year, 90 civilians have been killed and nearly 300 wounded in government-held territory, according to the military. Of those, 19 have been killed and 122 wounded in Colombo and its suburbs.
``When I leave home, I'm just not certain I'll make it back,'' said 34-year-old Bastian Bosco David, a small business owner, as he waited for a bus to Puttalam, about 75 miles north of Colombo.
Security forces have put up signs around Colombo calling for residents to report anything suspicious. Police have fenced off outdoor bus stations and begun searching passengers' bags as they enter.
Bus companies have instructed drivers to look under their vehicles and to ban bags from overhead racks to make it more difficult for an attacker to plant a bomb, said Gemunu Wijeratne, head of the private bus owners' association.
``All possible measures are being taken now,'' said Cabinet minister Keheliya Rambukwella.
Education officials, who canceled school for nearly a week after the most recent attacks, have banned public functions, held security briefings for students and debated whether to cancel popular cricket tournaments against rival schools or hold them without fans, said K.A.D. Punyadasa, principal of the Isipathana school. Parents have been recruited to search students' bags and patrol the school grounds.
Harold Pattikkara Bandarage used to let his 14-year-old son take the bus home from school. With the new violence though, he rearranged his work schedule at a Colombo university and now picks his son up every afternoon on his motorcycle during his lunch break, he said.
Bartenders and restaurateurs say business has plunged as people choose to stay home rather than brave public places. Bus owners say they have lost half their passengers and cannot find replacements for drivers who are quitting.
Rambukwella called the attacks a desperate move by rebels facing battlefield defeat to rally the Tamil community by sparking new ethnic violence in the capital. Top government officials have promised to crush the rebels by the end of this year.
Gunasekara, the Colombo resident, said she did not care whether the government signed a peace deal with the rebels or defeated them on the battlefield.
``Somehow or other the fighting and violence has got to come to an end,'' she said.Discuss this story
Published: Fri Feb 15 21:07:17 EST 2008