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Sri Lanka bomber targets ministers

A REBEL suicide bomber attacked a procession of Muslims celebrating a religious holiday in southern Sri Lanka yesterday, killing 14 people and critically wounding a government minister, officials said.

Officials blamed the Tamil Tigers for the blast, saying the rebels had grown desperate in the face of a relentless government offensive that has brought them to the brink of defeat after more than a quarter century of civil war.

The bomber appeared to have targeted six ministers as they led a procession toward a mosque in the town of Akuressa to celebrate Mawlid, which commemorates 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.

Charred, twisted bodies filled the street, their clothes nearly incinerated by the explosion 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 at a hospital in the nearby town of Matara.

Police and bystanders were seen lifting the badly bleeding Minister of Posts and Telecommunications Mahinda Wijesekara into a van.

Aruna Jayasekera, a doctor at the Matara hospital, said Wijesekera was in a critical condition and had been airlifted to the capital, Colombo, for surgery to remove "blood and foreign objects" from his brain.

Another 41 people wounded in the blast were being treated in Matara, he said.

The blast 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 government has vowed to crush the rebel group, but yesterday's suicide attack near the southern tip of the island - if the work of the Tamil Tigers - shows the guerrillas can still launch strikes far from their traditional strongholds in the north and east.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa's office said the attack exposed the Tamil Tigers as "not only a ruthless terrorist outfit but also one which has no regard or respect for religion."

More than 200 rebels and an unspecified number of soldiers have been killed in intense fighting in the north since last Thursday, the army said.

The TamilNet Website, quoting rebel radio, said at least 100 government soldiers were killed in fighting last Sunday.

TamilNet said army shelling has killed more than 300 civilians in recent days. Dr Thurairaja Varatharajah, the top government health official in the war zone, said heavy shelling continued yesterday while the army denies shelling the area.


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