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The authorities say Mr Wijeratne, who was 59, had been travelling to his office when a remote-controlled bomb in a parked car was detonated during the morning rush hour.
Among those killed were five bodyguards protecting Mr Wijeratne.
Nimal Piyasiri, the owner of a hotel near to the blast, said: "I saw human hands and legs strewn all over and a number of vehicles ablaze. It was awful."
No one has admitted planting the bomb which also injured at least 73 people.
But suspicion has fallen on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), better known as the Tamil Tigers, who admitted carrying out two bomb attacks in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo in 1987 which killed 175 people.
Since 1983, in a civil war which has claimed the lives of 14,000 people, the rebel group has been fighting for an independent homeland in the north and east of the country.
The Tamils were a prosperous elite when Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, was ruled by the British.
The rebellion, the LTTE says, came about because of discrimination against their predominantly Hindu community by the majority Buddhist Sinhalese population who control the government and the military.
The Hindu community account for just under a fifth of Sri Lanka's 16 million people.
'All out for the LTTE'
Mr Wijeratne was leading the government's offensive against the LTTE and was also plantations and industry minister.
Known as a hardliner, he was regarded as President Ranasinghe Premadasa's second-in-command and had openly disagreed with the head of state who favoured peaceful negotiations with the militants.
In 1990, Mr Wijeratne told the Sri Lankan parliament: "I am going all out for the LTTE. I never do anything in half measures."
Since January, the army has driven the LTTE out of much of the east of Sri Lanka but has found it difficult capturing the group's headquarters.
Mr Wijeratne has also, with some success, urged the Indian authorities to crack down on militants based in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
Being near to Sri Lanka it is used by the Tigers as a base and source of arms and supplies.
Ranjan Wijeratne was posthumously promoted from a colonel of the Sri Lankan army to a general.
Following the attack, the LTTE denied killing Mr Wijeratne but said would be greeted with a sense of relief by the Tamil people.
The violence continued throughout the 1990s.
In April 1991, the former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated when a female LTTE suicide bomber blew herself up in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
Mr Gandhi became an enemy of the LTTE when, in 1987, he sent Indian peacekeeping forces to Sri Lanka in a disastrous attempt to impose peace in the country.
President Ranasinghe Premadasa was assassinated in May 1993 in an LTTE bomb attack.
By 2002, it was estimated the bitter civil war had claimed the lives of 65,000 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless.
In February of that year, the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE signed a permanent ceasefire agreement in a peace initiative sponsored by Norway.
In September 2002, the government agreed to a key rebel demand and lifted its ban on the LTTE.
In return the Tamils dropped their demands for a separate state.
The peace talks stalled in April 2003 and rising levels of violence have threatened the truce.
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