A suspected Tamil Tiger suicide bomber assassinated a senior Sri Lankan government minister Sunday in an attack that killed another 10 people and wounded 50 others, police and officials said.
Highways minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, 55, was presiding over a flag-raising ceremony in the town of Weliveriya outside of the capital Colombo when the blast ripped through the large gathering, police said.
"It was a suicide bombing of the Tigers," media minister Anura Yapa said.
Bloodied victims were rushed to hospital from the Kanthi Grounds where local residents had organised festivities to mark next week's traditional New Year.
Fernandopulle, regarded as a potential prime minister-in-waiting, was one of the most tightly-guarded politicians in the country, and was protected on Sunday by a ring of bodyguards.
Police said they suspected that a Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) cadre had infiltrated the gathering and detonated his or her explosives.
"The minister was raising the national flag to kick off the New Year celebrations when the blast occurred," a police officer at the scene said when contacted by telephone.
About 50 people were seriously wounded, while 11 people were thought killed, including the minister, the officer said.
Fernandopulle had been a vocal critic of the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels and was a member of Sri Lanka's failed peace talks with the guerrillas.
The defence ministry said the minister was assassinated in a "cowardly LTTE attack."
Fernandopulle becomes the second government politician to be killed this year. Nation building minister D.M. Dassanayake was also killed in a roadside bomb attack in the same district earlier this year.
The latest attack came as security forces remained locked in heavy combat with the Tamil Tigers in the north of the island where the defence ministry has been reporting a daily death toll among the guerrillas.
The figures given by both sides in the conflict cannot be independently verified as journalists and human rights groups are barred from front-line areas.
Sri Lanka pulled out of a six-year-old Norwegian arranged truce with the Tigers in January and since then fighting has further escalated.
The guerrillas have been accused of setting off a string of bomb attacks in Colombo and other areas targeting civilians and political figures.
The LTTE have been fighting for autonomy for ethnic minority Tamils in the Sinhalese-majority island's north and east since 1972, a conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people. (AFP)
Suspected suicide bomber kills Sri Lanka minister