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Sri Lankan president killedin bomb attack

By
IQBAL ATHAS

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- President Ranasinghe Premadasa was killed Saturday along with bodyguards and several other people in a suicide bomb attack by a lone cyclist during a May Day rally in the capital, authorities said. He was 69.

The midday downtown bombing by an unknown assailant blew apart the bodies of Premadasa and several other people nearby, leaving corpses and limbs strewn across the street.

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No group immediately claimed responsibility for the president's assassination.

Sri Lanka's state-run Lankapuvath news agency quoted unnamed police officials as saying the country's Tamil Tiger separatists were involved in the killing, although the Tiger guerrillas said the assassination was 'not our work.'

The slaying came one week after Premadasa's principal political opponent, Lalith W. Athulathmudali, was assassinated. Critics had blamed the president for Athulathmudali's killing.

Prime Minister Dingiri Banda Wijetunga, 71, was sworn in Saturday as acting president and troops imposed a curfew on the capital.

Details of the attack and the number of people killed along with Premadasa remained unclear amid the scattered wreckage and body parts left by the blast.

Various reports said the suicide bomber either walked up to the president or rode a motorcycle or a bicycle.

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A senior Sri Lankan security source said the bomber, strapped with explosives and carrying a transistor radio in one hand, rode on a pedal cycle and rammed into Premadasa.

The attack occurred shortly after noon as Premadasa stepped from his official vehicle at the Armour Street intersection in northern Colombo to lead marchers in the May Day celebration, the security source said.

Indian news agencies and radio quoted Evance Coorey, a spokesman for Premadasa's office, as saying the assassin was riding a motorcycle. Coorey said he was with the president in the procession and stepped aside to make a telephone call when he heard a 'thundering blast.'

The marchers were scheduled to follow a 4 -mile route from Colombo's Sugathadasa sports stadium to the Gall Face Green, a promenade overlooking the Indian Ocean, where Premadasa's ruling United National Party planned to hold a rally.

The source said Premadasa's body was very badly mutiliated. His personal physician, Dr. H.H.R. Samarasinghe, identified him at the morgue of Colombo's General Hospital by his leg and mangled face, the source said.

A deputy inspector-general of police earlier removed a gold necklace from the president's mutiliated neck.

The government announced Saturday evening that a curfew imposed at 3:20 p.m. would be relaxed at 6 a.m. Sunday.

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The government also announced that Premadasa's state funeral, with full military honors, will take place Thursday at Colombo's Independence Square.

The exact number of deaths in the bombing remained unknown. Colombo police initially said an estimated 30 people were killed, including police officers, presidential aides and bodyguards. They later said 13 bodies were found intact amid strewn limbs and other body parts.

All-India Radio quoted a Sri Lankan government communique as saying the attack killed 10 other people, including two presidential bodyguards.

The killing was the second assassination of a Sri Lankan head of government. In 1959, Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike was assassinated by a Buddhist monk.

Under the Sri Lankan Constitution, the prime minister will act as president for four weeks, during which time Parliament will elect one of its members as the new president to serve the remainder of Premadasa's term of office.

In Washington, President Clinton condemned 'this brutal act of terrorism,' and expressed hope that 'the people of Sri Lanka will join together at this difficult time...to underscore their support for their democratic institutions.'

Premadasa became president of the small island nation in January 1989 after the retirement of long-serving President Junius R. Jayewardene.

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A devout Buddhist, Premadasa was Sri Lanka's first president to belong to a low caste.

Premadasa, a native of Colombo, was elected to the national Parliament for the first time in 1977. One year later, Jayewardene surprised the nation by appointing him prime minister.

Premadasa was known as a hard-line politician who ordered major military crackdowns against Sinhalese militants and guerrillas belonging to the country's Tamil minority.

Sri Lanka, which attained its independence from Britain in 1948 and became a republic in 1972, has been torn by bloody ethnic and politicial violence for the past decade. Tens of thousands of people have perished in the violence.

A London-based spokesman of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam told United Press International by telephone that the LTTE separatist organization was not responsible for the president's assassination.

'We are not involved in this,' the Tamil guerrilla spokesman said. 'This assassination is not our work.'

The Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corp. announced Premadasa's death at 5:10 p.m. and proceeded to broadcast mournful music.

The SLBC earlier interrupted its regular programs to announce 'several suicide bombers have entered the city and already one serious bomb explosion has taken place.'

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A presidential secretariat source said it took nearly two hours for security officials to discover parts of Premadasa's body and confirm his death. Officials earlier said they believed surviving security men might have whisked the president away to safety.

The SLBC urged the thousands who gathered in the city for May Day celebrations to disperse peacefully and return to their homes immediately.

Moments before the radio announcement telephone lines in the city went dead, cutting off all communications, authorities said.

Jayewardene, who cut short a visit to New Delhi upon news of the assassination, said he was shocked at the 'dastardly murder' of his protege and successor.

Ruling party members had blamed the Tamil Tigers for the assasination of Athulathmudali, Premadasa's chief political opponent, but the slain politician's followers claimed the president was behind the killing.

Premadasa spearheaded a major military offensive against the Tamil Tigers. Athulathmudali, as national security minister under Jayewardene, coordinated a major military campaign against the Tigers.

Athulathmudali served in Premadasa's Cabinet but rebelled and sponsored an unsuccessful impeachment motion in Parliament against him. During Athulathmudali's funeral last Wednesday, mourners carried placards saying, 'Premadasa is a murderer.'

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