Bombs Set Sri Lanka’s Two Main Oil Depots Ablaze
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) _ Explosions tore through Sri Lanka’s two main oil depots today, sending clouds of smoke billowing through Colombo and causing thousands of people to flee. At least 25 people were killed in fighting at the two sites.
The government blamed the bombing on Tamil rebels, who may have been trying to disrupt a 3-day-old military offensive against the rebel stronghold of Jaffna in the north.
But Anuruddha Ratwatte, the deputy defense minister, claimed in a radio interview that the destruction of the oil depots would not halt the offensive.
Columns of smoke illuminated by flames rose into the sky from two of five huge storage tanks containing diesel and kerosene at the main Kolonnawa storage depot outside Colombo, while a fire burned out of control at the smaller Orugodawatte tanks one mile away.
Together, the two depots store all the petroleum brought into the country. Sri Lanka has no oil of its own and relies on imports from Middle Eastern nations.
The intense heat kept firefighters from approaching, and the government asked neighboring India for help in fighting the fires.
The government told people in radio and television broadcasts not to panic and to stay in their homes. Officials called a curfew in Colombo and surrounding areas until Saturday morning.
But thousands of people fled with suitcases and bundles of belongings. Many took refuge in temples or camped in the streets, while others stayed with friends or relatives away from the depots.
At least 23 security personnel and two rebels were killed in fighting around the depots. At least 37 people, including a British journalist, were wounded.
``Four attackers arrived in a lorry, overpowered guards and planted explosives on the tanks. One of them blew himself up,″ said H.M.G.B. Kotakadeniya, deputy inspector-general of police.
Police blamed Tamil Tiger rebels fighting for a homeland in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. The guerrillas frequently target sites of economic importance.
Police recovered a rocket launcher near the Kolonnawa depot, and at a checkpoint in another part of the city seized a truck with explosives, which they said was used in the attacks. The driver was arrested.
Military intelligence had earlier warned that the Kolonnawa oil storage tanks were being targeted by the rebels, and security had been tightened.
The value of the tanks destroyed was estimated at $9.6 million and the oil destroyed was worth about $19.2 million, said Anil Obeysekere, chairman of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation.
Police sealed off gas stations as tens of thousands of panicked motorists rushed to fill up, fearing a shortage.
The government asked foreign airlines to avoid refueling in Colombo to avoid a possible shortage of aviation fuel, said P.M. Fernando, operations director of Colombo airport.
The attack came as thousands of government troops were launching attacks near the rebel stronghold of Jaffna, 185 miles north of the capital. The offensive has killed at least 53 soldiers and 131 rebels.
More than 36,000 people have been killed since 1983, when the Tamil guerrillas, who claim they suffer discrimination from the majority Sinhalese, began fighting for a homeland.