Sri Lanka coach, former Olympic marathon runner killed in suicide attack

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- A suicide bomber killed 14 people at an opening ceremony for a marathon Sunday, including a government minister approaching the starting line, a 1992 Olympic runner and a national track coach. More than 90 others were wounded.

Officials blamed the bombing on the Tamil Tigers rebels. They have fought since 1983 for an independent homeland for the ethnic minority Tamils, marginalized for decades by successive governments run by majority ethnic Sinhalese.

The rebel group routinely denies attacks on civilians, and their spokesman could not be reached for comment.

The dead included Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, the minister of highways; Olympic marathoner K.A. Karunaratne; and coach Lakshman de Alwis, the government said.

Karunaratne competed in the 1993 world championships. He won the gold medal in the marathon and 10,000 meters at the 1991 South Asian Games. He successfully defended his marathon title in 1993.

Scores of runners and onlookers had gathered at the starting line of the marathon in Weliweriya, about 12 miles from the capital, Colombo, as part of the national celebration of the upcoming Sinhalese New Year.

Fernandopulle neared the line with a flag he planned to wave to start the race when the bomb exploded, witnesses said.

"There was a sound of huge explosion and I saw a fireball," said Nishan Priyantha, a local journalist who was a few yards away from the blast, but escaped unhurt.

Television footage showed chaotic images of screaming people running through the bloodied streets.

"I saw severed heads, hands and legs," witness Nalin Warnasooriya told The Associated Press. "Blood and body parts were everywhere. It was a horrible scene."

Fernandopulle, the government's chief political enforcer and considered a top rebel target, died on the spot, said government spokesman Lakshman Hulugalle.

"I saw the minister's body. It had been torn into pieces below the waist and there were other bodies without heads and legs," Priyantha said by telephone.

Fernandopulle was also a member of a government delegation involved in failed peace talks with Tamil rebels two years ago. The government said a funeral with state honors would be held for him Thursday.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa condemned the attack as an act of savagery and vowed to push ahead with the war on the rebels.

"This dastardly act will not weaken our resolve to eradicate terrorism from our midst, and bring peace, harmony and democracy to all our people," he said in a statement.

The bombing was the second this year to kill a senior government official. The violence comes amid a heavy increase in fighting in the country's civil war since the government officially ended a six-year cease-fire in January. The truce had been faltering for more than two years as escalating violence killed about 5,000 people.

The military has promised to crush the rebels by the year's end, but diplomats and other observers say it is facing more resistance than it expected.

The rebels have been blamed for more than 240 suicide attacks in recent decades and are listed as a terror group by the United States, the European Union and India. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the war.