January 26, 1998
8 Killed in Truck Bombing at Kandy, Sri Lanka Buddhist Site
Unable to Beat Rebels, Sri Lanka Eases Stance (Nov. 5, 1997) Bombing's Fallout Adds to Gloom Hanging Over Sri Lanka (Oct. 17, 1997) 17 Die, 100 Wounded by Huge Bomb and Gunfire in Sri Lanka (Oct. 15, 1997) Sri Lanka Welcomes U.S. Listing of Terrorists (Oct. 10, 1997)
By ASSOCIATED PRESSANDY -- Three suicide bombers crashed a truck through the gates of Sri Lanka's holiest Buddhist temple here early today and blew themselves up, killing 8 other people, wounding 23 and setting off ethnic riots.
The nation, which is majority Buddhist, was stunned as word spread of the attack on the Temple of the Tooth, where a tooth that the faithful believe belonged to Buddha is kept. The Government reassured an enraged public today that the tooth had not been harmed.
The New York Times
Some Buddhist monks sitting in front of the temple sobbed and others chanted prayers in unison, while the army collected dismembered bodies. A 90-year-old Buddhist man, wearing the traditional Sinhalese white dress of sarong and shirt, said, "You terrorists, kill us, eat us, but don't attack our shrines where Buddha lives."
No one asserted responsibility for the bombing in Kandy, west of Colombo, the capital, which came just 10 days before Prince Charles of Britain is to visit the shrine for celebrations of the 50th anniversary of independence from British rule.
But Sri Lanka's Deputy Defense Minister, Gen. Anuruddha Ratawatte, attributed the attack to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the main group fighting to carve out an ethnic Tamil homeland on this Indian Ocean island.
A defense spokesman, Col. R. P. Vitana, said the bombers sped toward the temple in a truck, firing at soldiers manning road blocks. They then crashed the truck through the temple's gate, where it exploded at 6:10 A.M., he said. Witnesses heard two blasts.
The Defense Ministry said the dead included the three rebels and eight Sri Lankan civilians.
Hours later, a crowd of enraged Sinhalese burned down a Hindu cultural center in Kandy, but no one was hurt, said a police official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Police officers fired tear gas to disperse the crowd.
Crowds also set fire to three vehicles in Kandy, but the rioting did not spread.
The military deployed extra troops in Colombo and elsewhere in the country to check any further Sinhalese backlash.
While the 18th-century temple's roof and facade were damaged, the blasts did not harm the inner shrine that houses the tooth, Colonel Vitana said.
"There is no need to get upset since the tooth has not been harmed," said Minister of Cultural Affairs Lakshman Jayakody, who appeared live on state television.
The relic, brought to Sri Lanka from India in the fourth century, as Buddhism lost ground to Hinduism in that country, is an important symbol to Sinhalese nationalists. In ancient times, a ruler who failed to protect the tooth was seen as unfit to be king.
President Chandrika Kumaratunga visited Kandy later in the day and met with distraught monks. In Colombo, General Ratawatte, who is leading the military's fight against the Tamil Tigers, appealed to his countrymen to contain their anger and frustration.
"I request all the people in the country not to be demoralized and not to lose heart in a situation like this," he said in a statement. "Otherwise, we are going to give a victory to the rebels."
For 15 years, the rebels have waged war on behalf of Sri Lanka's minority Tamils, asserting discrimination by the majority Sinhalese. While most Tamils are Hindu and the Sinhalese are generally Buddhist, the civil war is fueled more by ethnicity than religion.
The long fight has drained the country's resources and created a climate of fear in much of the country. The capital, Colombo, and parts of northern and eastern Sri Lanka are studded with road blocks where security guards search vehicles and residents.
The temple attack will no doubt add to the deep ethnic divide, threatening the Government's campaign to convince the Tamils that they have a future within a unified Sri Lanka.
On Thursday, local government elections will be held for the first time in the northern Tamil heartland of Jaffna. After that, Parliament is expected to debate a new constitution that would give local councils significant autonomy -- a compromise between the Tamils' desire for independence and the Government's wish to keep the country intact.
The Tamil rebels have launched dozens of bomb attacks since the civil war began.
In all, 51,000 people have died in the fighting.