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Sri Lanka peace in jeopardy

Once again, a suicide bomber may have blown to pieces chances that peace can be restored in the near term to violence-wracked Sri Lanka.

Police and military investigators said they suspect a woman with a bomb hidden inside her jacket or a man on crutches wearing explosives on a belt in the massacre just after midnight Sunday. The top opposition candidate for president, Gamini Dissanayake, and 52 other political supporters and guards were killed.

Both of those suicide-bombing techniques have been used in the past in attacks blamed on Tamil separatists, who are also widely blamed for the latest attack.

The blast sprayed ball bearings or shrapnel at people attending a nighttime political rally in the capital, Colombo.

"Violence has struck again as the nation moves toward peace and normalcy," said Prime Minister Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga of the leftist People's Alliance, who had faced a serious challenge from Dissanayake in her campaign for the presidency.

In accordance with Sri Lankan law, Commissioner of Elections R. K. Chandrananda De Silva gave Dissanayake's United National Party three days to submit the name of a new candidate to replace its flamboyant 52-year-old standard bearer.

In a telephone interview, De Silva said he didn't think the act of mass political murder presaged a general resurgence of violence that would make free and fair elections impossible in the island nation off India's southern tip.

President Dingiri Banda Wijetunga, denouncing the deaths of his fellow UNP members as a "cowardly and dastardly act," reimposed an 11-year-old state of emergency that had been lifted only recently.

The government on Monday also canceled a second round of peace talks with the Tamil rebels that were scheduled to begin in Jaffna, 185 miles north of Colombo. Officials said the talks would be postponed indefinitely until an inquiry establishes who was behind Dissanayake's murder.

Fears were widespread that outraged members of the island nation's majority Sinhalese community might seek vengeance on minority Tamils.

"We're all waiting to seek what happens," said Neelan Tiruchelvam, an ethnic Tamil who is director of the Colombo-based International Center for Ethnic Studies. "The country is in a state of shock."

Since 1983, in an ethnic war that has cost at least 30,000 lives, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have been waging a fierce struggle for a separate homeland in the north and east for the largely Hindu Tamils, who make up about 18 percent of the predominantly Buddhist population of 17-million.

Across the capital, troops set up checkpoints and searched arriving vehicles. However, as night fell, no new incidents of violence were reported.

The powerful explosion during an election rally in a marketplace of Colombo's Grandpass district killed the candidate, 17 guards who had been assigned to protect him and several top party officials.

Hundreds of other people suffered cuts and bruises, and 75 people were hurt seriously, police said. The death toll was 52 as of Monday evening.

Witnesses said the explosion occurred about 10 minutes after midnight Sunday after Dissanayake, conscious of the hour, concluded a campaign speech by joking, "Instead of saying good night, I wish you all a very good morning."

"There was a big flash and a huge explosion, when I looked up there was no one on the stage," remembered a woman who escaped unhurt.

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