COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — In Asia's bloodiest and longest-running war, the fighting doesn't halt for the casting of ballots.
A spectacular suicide bomb attack here at a weekend campaign rally in advance of Tuesday's presidential election failed to kill the country's leader but underlined a larger point: After 16 years and 61,000 deaths, the country's savage ethnic war hasn't even begun to exhaust itself.
"They all want their pound of flesh," said Kingsley Swampillai, a Roman Catholic bishop in the eastern city of Batticaloa. "Everyone is sick of war, and nobody wants to give in."
The extended conflict between minority Tamils and the Sinhalese-dominated government mocks the best intentions of the politicians here who promise to heal a country already torn in two. In the north of this island off India's southern tip, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam are overrunning government forces. In the east, LTTE cadres have seized huge swaths of jungle and set up a virtual state.
In Colombo, the capital, Saturday's suicide attack shattered the calm of a city normally insulated from the tragedies of war. The rich and the middle class in this languid seaside town lead mostly normal lives, while village boys hungry for jobs do most of the fighting. The censored media report only good news, and an economy built on tourism and textiles hums along at a happy pace. Most of the politicians who preached moderation are dead, leaving behind a fractured society more than willing to keep the war alive.
"We live in a very schizophrenic society," said Sunila Abeysekera, a human rights advocate in Colombo. "We have all the elements of civilization--BMWs, KFC--but we have a history of violence, killing and torture."
On Sunday, soldiers swept the capital in search of accomplices and more suicide bombers. President Chandrika Kumaratunga was said to be recovering, although she was reported to have been blinded in her right eye. Officials said Tuesday's presidential election will go forward as planned, even as news of fresh military defeats trickled in from the front.
"I shall be up and about soon," the president said in a recorded message.
Assassination Effort Seen as Work of Rebels
The assassination attempt occurred late Saturday when a woman leaped over a barricade and tried to embrace the president. When Kumaratunga's bodyguards dragged the woman off, she detonated a bomb that was wrapped around her body. The explosion killed 22 people and wounded 110. At almost the same time, a grenade attack at an opposition rally north of the capital killed 11 people and injured 40.
Although no one claimed responsibility for the attacks, the assassination attempt seemed clearly the work of the LTTE, known here as the Tigers. Suspected LTTE suicide bombers killed Sri Lanka's president in 1993 and a presidential candidate a year later, and in 1991 Tigers blew up Indian Prime Minster Rajiv Gandhi. On Sunday, some Sri Lankans remarked that Kumaratunga might be the first target of an LTTE suicide bomber to have survived.
Indeed, the failed assassination attempt might have the unintended effect of strengthening Kumaratunga's candidacy. Until the weekend, the race between her and her main challenger, Ranil Wickremesinghe, appeared very tight. Kumaratunga, scion of a political dynasty, was elected five years ago on the promise of ending the war, but she saw her popularity slip as the military campaign against the Tigers foundered. Wickremesinghe had gained ground by offering to negotiate with the rebels. Now, many Sri Lankans believe that Kumaratunga will ride to victory on a wave of sympathy.
"The bombing will clearly affect the outcome of the election," said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, a leading Tamil intellectual in Colombo.
The fighting in Sri Lanka began in 1983, when militant Tamils--members of a mostly Hindu minority who chafed under the persecution of the mostly Buddhist Sinhalese--took up arms against the government. The LTTE rebels and their 45-year-old reclusive leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, are fighting for independence. The government, which dominates the south, refuses to grant it. Numerous attempts to negotiate a peaceful settlement have collapsed.
The Tigers occupy a stretch of Tamil-dominated land that runs north to south along the eastern coast. Estimated to number about 5,000, the rebel force ties up an army 30 times its size. A Tiger offensive last month rolled back two years' worth of government gains and now threatens Jaffna, the country's second-largest city.