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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

55 Die in Colombo Truck Bomb

COLOMBO -- Suicide truck bombers struck at the heart of Sri Lanka's capital Colombo on Wednesday, sowing carnage and destruction in a daring attack in which at least 55 people died and hundreds were wounded.


"Fifty-five dead bodies have been counted at the General Hospital," Health Minister A.H.M. Fowzie said from the capital's main hospital.


Fowzie said 1,030 wounded were being treated, and the rest had been discharged, while state television Rupavahini said 1,253 had been wounded, and 970 of them were still in hospital, with around 100 still in serious condition.


The explosion occurred in mid-morning when three people jumped from a moving three-wheel truck outside the Central Bank building and began firing at random, a senior military official said.


The truck sped on to smash into an iron gate at the entrance of the bank, a three-tower complex some 500 meters from the office of President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, which escaped unscathed.


The truck exploded at impact, leaving a huge crater outside the bank, which manages the finances of the country.


Fires set off in the central bank and nearby buildings were finally doused about six hours after the killer bomb exploded at 10.45 a.m. local time.


Rescuers picking their way through crumpled cars, blackened concrete and smashed glass had found one man still alive in the rubble, firefighters at the scene said.


"It has to be [the Tamil Tigers]. Who else would have done a thing like this?" military spokesman Brigadier Sarath Munasinghe said when asked about the attack.


Police said they arrested two Tamil suspects fleeing the scene in a commandeered scooter-rickshaw. Police sources said a manhunt had been launched for members of a rebel Tamil Tigers hit team suspected of involvement in the blast.


Military sources said the truck was packed with 200 kilograms of explosive and was driven by a suspected suicide Tiger.


Intelligence sources had been saying for weeks a suicide squad from the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) planned an attack in Colombo.


Tamil Tiger officials at the group's offices in London said they had no information on the blast. Responding to Munasinghe's comments, LTTE official Shanthan said: "That's the usual story."


The rebel Tiger Radio said the blast could have been carried out by government security forces. Monitored in the frontline government-held Tamil town of Vavuniya, it said: "Military analysts have said it is the work of the security forces." It did not say which analysts it was quoting.


However, if the attack was by the Tamil Tigers, it would be devastating retaliation for the loss last December of their headquarters Jaffna to a big government offensive.


It was clearly aimed at the island's financial heart. The central bank shares the neighborhood with the presidential secretariat, an international bank, five-star hotels, airline offices and the stock exchange. Among the badly damaged buildings was one, opposite the central bank, where Reuters has its offices.


Small stalls outside the bank building which sell newspapers, cigarettes and soft drinks and usually attract crowds of people at any one time bore the brunt of the explosion and disappeared in the rubble.


Eyewitnesses reported two explosions -- a small one followed quickly by a massive blast -- and more gunfire.


"There was a huge explosion and a huge black ball of smoke and fire came rushing at me. I was thrown back by the blast and I fell over a table," said Ravi Jayasuriya, a broker in one of the buildings on Janadhipathi Mawatha, the street on which the central bank and the presidential secretariat are located.


The blast threw the whole area, packed with pedestrians and vehicles at the time, into chaos.


Helicopters flew overhead, some dropping water on fires in buildings and others trying to pick survivors from rooftops.


On the ground, firemen, using turntable ladders, pulled screaming office workers from the upper floors of buildings, some with holes in their facades and enveloped in black smoke.