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14 Killed in Sri Lanka Suicide Bombing

In southern Sri Lanka, at least 14 people have been killed and 35 others wounded in a suicide blast near a mosque. A senior minister was among those injured. The blast took place as the military mounts a final push to crush Tamil Tiger rebels, who have been fighting for an independent Tamil homeland.

Police say the explosion occurred Tuesday morning, when several ministers and local residents were taking part in a procession going toward a mosque in Matara District. The procession was being held during a Muslim festival to mark Prophet Mohammed's birthday. The district is 160 kilometers south of Colombo.

Minister for Posts and Telecommunications Mahinda Wijesekara is among those injured.

Defense spokesman Lakshman Hullagalle blames the blast on Tamil Tiger rebels, also known as the LTTE.

"LTTE terrorists, they are at a very desperate moment, when they are losing all their territory in the north, so they may be doing certain things like this to make [create] uncertainty…. Now they are unable to come into the high-security zones, so they may be taking any target to make people panic and uncertain," said Hullagalle.

The government airlifted a team of doctors to help treat the injured at the local hospital.

Observers say the latest blast shows that the Tamil Tiger rebels retain their ability to strike at targets far away from their traditional strongholds, despite the massive reverses they have suffered in the last year. Suicide attacks are a hallmark of the rebels.

The government says the rebels are now confined to a 40-square kilometer strip of territory and says the military is in the "final phase" of an operation to crush them.

Both sides have made claims and counterclaims about the fighting, in recent days. The government says 250 rebels have been killed since Thursday. The rebels say 100 soldiers have been killed. The pro-rebel Tamilnet website also reports at least 74 civilians - many of them children - have been killed, and 100 others wounded in army shelling since Monday. The government denies that the military campaign is resulting in civilian casualties.

Defense spokesman Lakshman Hullagalle says the military is moving to protect the thousands of civilians who remain trapped in the war zone with the rebels.

"Because of this civilian shield … we can't make any artillery attack or any attack. We are trying to open up a passage where the civilians can come and, if they are given a slight chance, we know they will come to the government-controlled area," said Hullagalle.

Reporters are barred from the war zone, making independent verification of the fighting difficult. This is the first time that the government appears to be on the verge of defeating the rebels since the civil war erupted in 1983.