NUGEGODA, Sri Lanka - Ethnic Tamil separatists set off a bomb at a popular department store in a suburb of the capital yesterday, killing 17 people in a rare attack targeting civilians, the Sri Lankan military said.
The blast, which came just hours after a suicide bomber tried to kill a Cabinet minister, showed that the Tamil Tiger rebels are still capable of striking deep in government territory despite months of punishing military attacks on their power base in the north.
The attacks occurred a day after the rebels said that 22 civilians, including 11 schoolchildren, were killed inside rebel-controlled territory. They blamed the military, but the government denied responsibility for the roadside bombing that killed the children.
Fearing yesterday's bombings were only the first in a wave of rebel attacks, officials ordered all schools to close for the rest of the week in Western Province, which includes Colombo, the capital.
"The general public should be extra vigilant about their surroundings, especially in trains, buses, crowded areas and even in schools," police spokesman Jayantha Wickremarathna said.
The explosion at the four-story No Limits department store occurred after a security guard became suspicious of a package left with him for safekeeping and called over a police officer. The package exploded when they tried to open it, a military spokesman, Udaya Nanayakkara, said.
He blamed the Tamil Tiger rebels, who have been fighting since 1983 to carve out a homeland for ethnic Tamils in this island nation just off India's southern tip. The rebels accuse the Sinhalese majority of discrimination.
The blast hit as commuters crowded a nearby bus stop during rush hour. Police and firefighters were searching the rubble for more bodies late yesterday. At least 17 people died and dozens were injured, the military said.
Yesterday morning, a suicide bomber blew herself up at Sri Lanka's social services ministry in the heart of Colombo in an unsuccessful attempt to kill the agency's minister, Douglas Devananda, who leads an ethnic Tamil party considered a rival to the rebels, the military said.
Devananda, the target of repeated assassination attempts, was not injured, but the blast killed one of his staff members and injured two others, officials said. The bomber also died.