Page last updated at 19:21 GMT, Friday, 25 April 2008 20:21 UK

Many dead in Sri Lanka bus blast

Injured survivor of bus blast is wheeled into Kalubowila hospital in Colombo - 25/4/2008
About 50 injured survivors of the explosion were rushed to two hospitals

At least 24 people have been killed and about 50 wounded by a bombing on a bus in the outskirts of the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, officials have said.

The blast happened during rush hour while the bus stopped to pick up passengers in the city's southern suburb of Piliyandala, they added.

A government spokesman blamed the Tamil Tiger rebel group.

Violence in Sri Lanka has intensified since January, when the government pulled out of a ceasefire agreement.

Earlier, the military said its troops had taken control of a church containing the country's most important Roman Catholic shrine.

The shrine lies on the front line in the town of Madhu in the northern Mannar region.

Both sides in the conflict have recently accused each other of shelling the revered complex, and photographs have shown considerable damage.

'Cowardly act'

The government spokesman, Lakshman Hulugalle, told the BBC that a parcel bomb was left inside the vehicle packed with people returning home from work.

It is horrible, I saw many people laying on the ground
RB Dharmasiry

The bomb exploded as the bus pulled away from a stop, blowing off the roof and shattering windows on the bus and those of nearby buildings, reports said.

"There was a massive explosion, I couldn't open my eyes. There was black smoke everywhere, there was blood pouring from my head," Ananda Ratnasiri, the bus driver, told AFP news agency.

Mr Hulugalle blamed the Tamil Tigers for what he called a "cowardly attack on civilians".

A police spokesman said 10 people died on the spot and another 14 died while being taken to hospital. A child and a Buddhist monk were among the dead.

Fifty-two wounded people were being treated at two hospitals, the spokesman added.

Witnesses described a large fireball coming out of the bus.

"It is horrible, I saw many people laying on the ground," RB Dharmasiry told the Associated Press news agency.


The remains of the bus

The rebels, who are fighting for an independent state for the Tamil minority, have not commented on the blast.

This is the first attack where there has been major loss of life since 6 April, when a suicide bomber killed 14 people, including a government minister, in the western district of Grampaha.

In February, two separate attacks on buses killed at least 20 in northern Sri Lanka and injured 18 people in a Colombo suburb.

The attack comes as government forces continue a campaign against the Tigers in territory they control in the north of the island.

On Wednesday, the two sides fought a fierce battle in the Jaffna peninsula. The military said it left more than 80 soldiers dead or missing but insisted the rebels had lost even more fighters, as well as their first line of defences.

The rebels said they had repulsed the military's advance and inflicted a defeat on the government forces.

At least 70,000 people have died since the civil war began in 1983.

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