KANDY, Sri Lanka (AP) — Three suicide bombers crashed a truck through the gates of Sri Lanka’s holiest Buddhist temple Sunday and blew themselves up, killing eight other people, wounding 23 and sparking ethnic rioting.
The majority-Buddhist nation was stunned as word spread of the attack on the Temple of the Tooth, where a tooth that the faithful believe belonged to Buddha is kept. The government reassured a riled public Sunday that the tooth had not been harmed.
No one claimed responsibility for the bombing in Kandy, east of Colombo, which came just 10 days before Britain’s Prince Charles is to visit the shrine for celebrations of the 50th anniversary of independence from British rule.
But Sri Lanka’s top general and Deputy Defense Minister Gen. Anuruddha Ratawatte blamed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the main group fighting to carve out an ethnic Tamil homeland on this Indian Ocean island.
The Defense Ministry said the dead included three rebels and eight Sri Lankan civilians.
For 15 years, the rebels have waged war on behalf of Sri Lanka’s minority Tamils, claiming discrimination by the majority Sinhalese. While most Tamils are Hindu and Sinhalese generally are Buddhist, the civil war is fueled more by ethnicity than religion.
The bombers sped toward the Temple of the Tooth in a truck, firing at soldiers manning road blocks, defense spokesman Col. R.P. Vitana said. They crashed the truck through the temple’s gate, where it exploded at 6:10 a.m., he said. Witnesses heard two blasts.
Hours later, a mob of enraged Sinhalese burned down a Hindu cultural center in Kandy, but no one was hurt, said a police official, who spoke on condition he not be identified. Police fired tear gas to disperse the mob.
The military deployed extra troops in Colombo and elsewhere in the nation, to check any Sinhalese backlash.
The Tamil rebels have launched dozens of bombings since the civil war began, the most devastating of which was an October 1997 attack on the 39-story World Trade Center that killed 18 people and wounded 105.
In all, 51,000 people have died in the fighting.