Image:  Sri Lanka bus explosion
AP
Volunteers rescue a woman from the wreckage of a bus in Dambulla, about 90 miles northeast of Colombo, Sri Lanka, Saturday, Feb. 2.
updated 2/2/2008 5:16:37 AM ET 2008-02-02T10:16:37

A bomb tore through a bus packed with mostly elderly Buddhist pilgrims in central Sri Lanka Saturday, killing 18 people and wounding 51 others, the military said.

The military blamed separatist Tamil Tiger rebels for the blast in the bus at 7 a.m. in Dambulla, a town about 90 miles northeast of the capital, Colombo.

A spokesman for the rebels could not immediately be reached for comment. The group, listed as a terror organization by the U.S. and European Union, routinely denies responsibility for such attacks.

Bus driver Rohana Wijesiri said he was taking about 100 passengers, mainly elderly women, to the holy city of Anuradhapura.

"When we were passing Dambulla there was a huge blast and the door near my seat got blown away," Wijesiri said.

Vehicle ripped apart
The top and sides of the bus were ripped apart in the force of the blast. A severed hand could be seen among the bloodstained bags, glass and other debris strewn several yards from the vehicle.

"I do not remember what happened next, but I was running on the road. I saw my conductor fallen on the ground. He too got up and started running with me" Wijesiri said.

"As it (the bus) came near me, I heard thunder. I got thrown away," said Kankeaarachige Michael, a 52-year-old businessman, who was standing by the road when the blast occurred.

"When I saw blood gushing out of my body, I realized it's a bomb," Michael told The Associated Press at Dambulla Base Hospital, where he was being treated. Michael lost an eye in the blast.

Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara, initially said 20 people had died in the blast, but he changed the official toll to 18 after gathering more information.

Violence has intensified on this Indian Ocean island, with more than 700 people killed since the government withdrew from a cease-fire with Tamil rebels last month.

"They (the rebels) are targeting innocent civilians as they face defeats in the battle front," said Chandrapala Liyanage, President Mahinda Rajapaksa's spokesman.

Before dawn Friday, the army attacked rebel bunkers in the northern Jaffna peninsula, triggering a battle that killed 10 guerrillas and two soldiers, Nanayakkara said. Six more soldiers were wounded, he said.

Latest attack on passenger buses
Civilians have borne the brunt of the violence over the past month with three attacks on passenger buses killing dozens, including many schoolchildren.

On Jan. 16 a roadside bomb attack by suspected rebels on a bus near the southeastern town of Buttala killed 27 people. Last Tuesday 18 people were killed in a similar bus attack in the rebel-held north.

Dozens of other civilians were found hacked and shot to death in the southeast, and a mass grave was discovered with 16 bodies killed execution style in a north-central village.

The government and rebels blame each other for attacks against civilians.

The guerrillas have been fighting since 1983 for an independent state in the north and east for the country's ethnic Tamil minority after decades of being marginalized by Sinhalese-dominated governments. The fighting has killed more than 70,000 people.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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