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Sri Lanka suicide bombing kills 28

A suspected Tamil Tiger detonates herself at a processing center for residents trying to escape the war zone.

February 10, 2009|Mark Magnier

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA — A suspected Tamil Tiger suicide bomber blew herself up in northern Sri Lanka on Monday at a processing center for displaced residents fleeing the war zone, killing 28 people and wounding dozens, the military said.

The attack in Vishwamadu comes as the rebel group -- which experts say pioneered the use of suicide vests as part of its three-decade fight for a Tamil homeland -- finds itself encircled and increasingly desperate.

The female bomber, who has not been identified, had been in line several hours when Sri Lankan soldiers approached to check her and other people's identity, at which point she detonated her vest, said Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara, a Sri Lankan military spokesman. He said 20 soldiers and eight civilians were killed.

"This shows the LTTE is desperate," Nanayakkara said, using the abbreviation of the group's official name, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Because of the tight controls on journalists entering the war zone, the attack could not be independently confirmed.

Footage on state-run television showed the body of a girl in a purple dress, large pools of blood on the ground and the wounded being put in the back of a truck.

In recent weeks, the Sri Lankan government has come under pressure from the international community to halt its offensive so an estimated 250,000 civilians trapped by the fighting can move out of the crossfire.

The government has refused, saying that any cessation would allow the Tigers to escape along with the displaced, or give them time to regroup. Tamils are a minority in Sri Lanka, which is composed primarily of Sinhalese. The U.S. and the European Union have labeled the Tigers a terrorist group.

Colombo, the capital, had the feel of an armed camp Monday, a full-moon-festival holiday, with army checkpoints every couple of hundred yards and high-caliber guns positioned on rooftops and at strategic intersections behind green-sandbag barriers.

Traveling even a short distance by vehicle often meant stopping repeatedly to show identification and answer detailed questions on the purpose of the travel.

Rohan Gunaratna, head of the Singapore-based International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, said the Tigers were mounting attacks such as the suicide bombing to show they are viable and to bolster their morale.

"I believe they will do more such attacks," he said. "They don't mind inflicting fatalities among civilians to send the message that they're fighting back."

The Tigers have seen the territory under their control reduced to less than 100 square miles from more than 7,000 a year ago as the government offensive has surged.

Beate Arnestad, a Norwegian filmmaker who made a 2007 documentary on two female Tamil Tiger suicide bombers, said those she met had been part of the Tigers for most of their lives, having been kidnapped, handed over to the group or run away to the join the group at a young age.

The young women had known little but conflict for most of their lives, Arnestad said, and were highly obedient to their commanders, who strictly controlled the information they received. She said she found them extremely fit, dedicated, intelligent and very proud of being part of the elite Black Tigers suicide squad. Arnestad said they would have been overachievers in a more conventional environment.

"They were brought up on the front lines and are children of war," she said. "They think the Tigers saved them, that the Tigers are the only way to have freedom, prosperity. They can't really think for themselves."

The Sri Lankan government recently said its quarter-century battle against the Tigers was all but over. But Gunaratna said he didn't think it would be that easy.

"The fight with the LTTE is far from over," he said. "It has entered a different stage and they are cornered. But over the next few months, the fighting will be in the jungle."

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mark.magnier@latimes.com

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Pavitra Ramaswamy in The Times' New Delhi Bureau contributed to this report.

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