Tamil Tiger Suicide Bomber Kills 28 at Refugee Camp

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 10, 2009

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, Feb. 9 -- A suspected female Tamil Tiger suicide bomber blew herself up while she was being frisked by soldiers processing civilians fleeing from Sri Lanka's northern war zone Monday, killing at least 28 people and wounding 60, the military said.

The blast took place at a crowded refugee camp in Vishvamadu, a town in the north of the Indian Ocean island which was recently captured by the military, part of its ongoing offensive to corner the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and end a 25-year war, said military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara. An estimated 20 soldiers were killed along with at least 8 women and children, he said.

"A large number of civilians are coming in seeking protection from the army," Nanayakkara said. "When we were checking this female -- by a woman soldier -- she exploded herself. It shows their desperation at this stage in the war."

The suicide attack also showed the complicated nature of the conflict along with increased concerns about the ever-shrinking space for civilians during the final battles of the war. The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that 250,000 people are trapped amid the fighting, although the government says that number is far lower. The rebels could not be reached for comment since communication to the north is severed. Journalists are not permitted to travel to the front lines of the war, so reports are difficult to verify.

"What we do know is that this northern population has been displaced several times and they are now cornered in a very small area. This now means these people have no space to go to," said Sophie Romanens, a Red Cross spokeswoman in Colombo. She added that 400 sick and wounded civilians who were moved from a shelled hospital last week still need to be moved to a functioning hospital. They are currently huddled in a community center in Puttumatalan, about three miles from the hospital.

"Many patients are outside," Romanens said. "They've had to hang IV drips from the trees. We are repeatedly asking both sides to grant safe passage so medical assistance can take place."

Civilians have been fleeing the war zone in recent days, with 4,700 leaving Sunday, bringing the total number to have escaped to 20,000 this year, Nanayakkara said.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa has refused U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's calls for a "temporary no-fire period" to allow more civilians to leave the combat zone. Rajapaksa warned rebels at a festive rally this weekend to surrender or face death. He called his effort "a humanitarian one," saying the government will protect civilians and that more lives will be saved if the war ends quickly.

"They must let the civilians go and then unconditionally give themselves up," the president said in the northwestern district of Kurunegala to cheering supporters, who handed him lotus flowers.

"I must warn them we will not halt our operations against terrorism until we reach our final objective," he added.

The Tamil Tigers have waged war since 1983 for a separate state for the nation's ethnic Tamil Hindu and Christian minorities, who claim decades of economic and racial discrimination at the hands of the governments controlled by the Buddhist Sinhalese majority. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the fighting; The palm-fringed island is a maze of checkpoints in the south, and the northern and eastern countryside is filled with charred huts and refugee camps.

The Tamil Tigers have a squad of elite forces known as the Black Tigers who are used for suicide missions. The Tigers are credited with pioneering the suicide jacket, a bomb-laden vest. The United States has labeled the Tigers a terrorist organization because of their use of hundreds of suicide blasts, increasingly in busy urban areas like railway stations and playgrounds.

In the past few months, the Sri Lankan military has boxed the Tamil Tigers into an increasingly tight corner on the island's northeast coast, where rebels operated a de-facto state-within-a-state. The government appears closer to winning the war than at almost any time since the insurgency began, according to some analysts.

Still, a military win would be just the first step in what will likely be an arduous process of healing a deeply split nation where many Tamils say they were treated as second-class citizens and with increasing suspicion, said Kumar Rupasinghe, chairman of the foundation for Co-Existence in Colombo.

"The problem is very tough since the traumatized northern population has had their fortunes tied to the Tigers for so long," Rupasinghe said. "We are pushing for a collective rehabilitation, with the government reaching out with economic and psycho-social programs. Otherwise, the camps can be converted into the next insurgency."

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