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Bus bomb kills 24 in Sri Lanka after heavy battles

At least 24 bus passengers were killed and 63 wounded in a bus bomb attack near Sri Lanka's capital on Friday, police said.

world Updated: Apr 25, 2008 21:48 IST

At least 24 bus passengers were killed and 63 wounded in a bus bomb attack near Sri Lanka's capital on Friday, police said as military sources reported 165 soldiers killed by Tamil separatists this week.

The bomb ripped through the overcrowded 50-seater vehicle as it pulled out of the Piliyandala bus station, near Colombo, a police spokesman said.

"At least 10 people died on the spot," a police official at the scene said. "Another 14 died on the way to hospital."

Doctors said 63 people were being treated at the Kalubovila hospital.

The bombing was the worst since a similar attack in January when 28 bus passengers were killed in the deep south of the island.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but the authorities have laid the blame for similar attacks on Tamil Tiger guerrillas who are fighting for independence in the island's north-east.

The latest attack came as military sources said 165 Sri Lankan soldiers were killed and 20 more went missing in a major battle with Tamil separatists this week.

The toll makes Wednesday's clash the bloodiest in recent years and saw the authorities extend "unofficial" press censorship to hospitals and funeral parlours, a media rights group said.

The death toll from the sources were far higher than official defence ministry casualty figures, who have long been accused of massaging the statistics.

The ministry said 43 soldiers died and 38 were missing from Wednesday's fighting in the northern peninsula of Jaffna.

"Some of the senior officers have been told that the army lost 185, including 20 who are still listed as missing," said a military source who declined to be named. "We are trying to establish the fate of the missing."

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on Thursday returned via the international Red Cross the bodies of 28 soldiers they had captured.

The government also reported killing more than 100 rebels and wounding 100 more in the pre-dawn offensive along the Muhamalai front lines on the peninsula.

The Tigers said only 25 of its fighters were killed.

Official defence ministry casualties reports and LTTE figures can seldom be verified because the government prevents journalists from visiting war zones and territory held by the rebels.

The ministry claims 3,105 rebels have been killed already this year -- more than intelligence estimates of the number of LTTE fighters, which was put at 3,000.

Wednesday's confrontation was by far the biggest battle since Colombo withdrew from a Norwegian-arranged truce in January.

The defence ministry said that the air force carried out aerial strikes against a suspected Tamil Tiger base in the northern mainland Friday. It gave no casualty figures, but said the bombed base was near a clandestine airfield operated by the guerrillas.

The Free Media Movement (FMM) said the authorities had prevented photographers taking pictures of military casualties moved to hospitals in the aftermath of the fighting.

Despite the heavy losses in Jaffna, troops made a fresh push into rebel-held territory in the north and captured the Catholic pilgrim town of Madhu, where a venerated shrine is located, the military said Friday.

There was no immediate comment from the LTTE.

The church, in the coastal Mannar district, has in the past provided a sanctuary for thousands of civilians sheltering from crossfire, the ministry said.

It accused the LTTE of turning the shrine into "a terror base by positioning its heavy guns around the church and using it as a barrack for its cadres" since they took control of the area in 1999.

But there were no reports of casualties from Madhu.

The LTTE have been fighting to carve out an independent homeland for Tamils since 1972. Tens of thousands have died on both sides in the conflict.