Bomb blast hits Sri Lanka city at critical stage in peace plan

A powerful bomb rocked the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, Monday as political leaders prepared to take up a controversial plan to bring peace to the war-torn island. Official reports at press time said that 32 people had been killed and more than 100 wounded in the blast near the central railroad station, only a few miles from the office of President Junius Jayewardene. It was feared the toll could rise.

The explosion came as Parliament was due to consider legislation today to carry out July's India-Sri Lanka peace agreement and grant a measure of autonomy to Tamils in the north and east provinces. The meeting was expected to prompt violence by opponents of the peace accord.

Tamil extremists have been fighting for an independent homeland in the north and east, and the pact aims to end the militants' four-year civil war against the Sinhalese-dominated government. Tamils claim they have faced discrimination for decades from the Sinhalese, who make up 80 percent of the 16 million population.

It was not immediately known who was responsible for the attack, though the government had feared attacks by Sinhalese extremists who are reluctant to grant more power to Tamils. Security forces had been on ``alert'' throughout southern Sri Lanka to prevent attempts by the banned Janata Vimukti Peramuna (JVP) to create trouble.

The JVP, which launched an abortive coup against the government in 1971, has gained new political momentum since the peace accord was signed. At the time, at least 70 people were killed in Sinhalese protests against the pact and the arrival of thousands of Indian troops.

Originally sent to Sri Lanka as a peacekeeping force, the Indian Army is embroiled in guerrilla fighting with Tamil militants who have refused to disarm under the peace pact.

Monday's blast coincided with intense efforts by Mr. Jayewardene to ensure passage of two bills to set up provincial councils in the north and east provinces. Sri Lanka's Supreme Court narrowly approved the legislation Sunday but called for some technical changes that, observers said, would make it more difficult to win passage. Jayewardene had scheduled an emergency Cabinet meeting Monday to consider these changes.

Last week, Jayewardene held talks with Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to ease Indian misgivings about the Sri Lankan legislation. The two sides reportedly disagreed over the appointment of governors to run the provincial councils and the resettlement of refugees who fled to India after widespread anti-Tamil rioting in 1983. However, at the end of the talks, both leaders said many of their differences had been resolved.

Mr. Gandhi has also continued to assure support for the peace accord from leaders in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu where Tamil militants were given refuge for nearly four years.

Through the powerful chief minister of the state, M.G. Ramachandran, the Tamil ``Tiger'' militants have asked India for a cease-fire in the fighting near their northern stronghold of Jaffna.

However, Gandhi insists the extremists first surrender their arms and endorse the peace plan. He also has defended his decision to launch the offensive, in which more than 250 Indian soldiers and 700 Tamil extremists have died.

``Unfortunately, the developments in Jaffna were not not of our making,'' Gandhi told the Indian Parliament Monday. ``There was no alternative to disarming the LTTE [`Tigers'], a brute that flouted all the norms of all civilizations.''

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