Images: Sri Lankan refugees
AP
Ethnic Tamil civilians, who escaped from areas controlled by Tamil fighters, are registered with the military at a transit center close to Vavuniya, 131 miles northeast of Colombo on Sunday.
updated 2/9/2009 9:42:14 AM ET 2009-02-09T14:42:14

A suspected rebel suicide bomber killed 20 soldiers and eight civilians when she blew herself up Monday at a facility where government forces were processing Sri Lankans fleeing the northern war zone, the military said.

The bombing was the first major suicide attack in Sri Lanka in more than a month and led to fears the Tamil Tiger separatists — boxed in by the military and on the verge of defeat — will increasingly turn to guerrilla warfare in their battle against government forces.

Following a string of victories, the military backed the rebels into a small strip of land on the northeastern coast, where the Red Cross estimates 250,000 civilians are also trapped.

The military has accused the rebels of holding the civilians as human shields and called for noncombatants to flee to government-controlled areas. The rebels have accused the government of indiscriminately shelling the war zone, leading to increasing civilian casualties.

On Monday morning, more than 800 civilians had crossed the front lines and were being searched by soldiers before being sent to camps farther south, military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said.

When the attacker was frisked, she set off the bomb she was wearing, killing 28 people, he said. The blast also wounded 24 troops and 40 civilians, he said.

Footage run on state television showed a child in a purple checked dress lying lifeless on the ground. Other civilians lay dead nearby. Plastic chairs they were apparently sitting in as they waited to be processed were overturned, and blood stained the ground.

"The LTTE is now desperate because they don't have any control over the civilians now," Nanayakkara said, calling the rebels by the initials of their formal name, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. "They wanted to stop these people coming in."

Confirmation of the attack was not available because independent journalists were barred from the war zone.

The United Nations condemned the bombing.

"We deplore the loss of civilian life in this targeted killing. It's a blow for people who have suffered so much," U.N. resident coordinator Neil Buhne said.

The attack appeared aimed at one of the military's weak points, the processing of the masses of civilians trying to flee the area. It also highlighted concerns that the rebels were trying to blend in with the civilian population, so they can fight on using insurgent tactics.

Civilians fleeing war zone
The military has said the flow of civilians out of the war zone has increased in recent days, with 4,700 fleeing Sunday, bringing the total number of noncombatants to escape the war zone to 20,000 this year, Nanayakkara said.

With most communication to the north severed, the rebels could not be reached for comment.

The rebels have been accused of more than 200 suicide attacks and are listed as a terror group by the United States and the European Union.

The Tamil Tigers have been fighting since 1983 for a separate state for the nation's ethnic Tamil minority after decades of marginalization at the hands of governments controlled by the Sinhalese majority. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the fighting.

Nobel peace laureate Jose Ramos-Horta, the president of East Timor, called on both sides to agree to an immediate cease-fire, to allow aid groups and independent journalists full access to the conflict zone and to begin immediate talks for a political resolution to the conflict. He also offered himself as a potential mediator if needed.

Also Monday, the air force hit a camouflaged building inland where the rebels' sea wing hid its craft, Nanayakkara said. "The place was destroyed," he said.

The military also reported killing 34 rebels who tried to break through the front lines Saturday in an armored truck.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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