COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) – Panicked travelers stampeded off a Saudi airliner during a bomb-scare evacuation Thursday at Sri Lanka’s international airport, with one person killed and dozens injured.

Authorities said there was no initial indication that Tamil Tiger rebels were involved, though the apparent hoax came after the guerrillas rejected the Colombo airport as a possible site for crucial cease-fire talks – a fresh blow to the country’s fragile peace process.

The Saudi Air flight, carrying 430 passengers and 22 crew, was taxiing on the runway for takeoff when the pilot received a call from the control tower about a bomb threat, said Sri Lankan air force spokesman Ajantha de Silva.

The plane stopped, the emergency doors opened and passengers poured out. A woman wearing a traditional Muslim gown and headscarf died after hitting her head on the tarmac when she slid down the escape shoot, said airport duty manager D. Atthanayake and a hospital official.

Authorities searching the plane found no explosives; they were also checking luggage for bomb materials. The airport was not closed, though some flights were delayed. “It’s most probably a hoax,” de Silva said.

At least 20 people were admitted to hospitals and 75 others suffered bruises, the air force spokesman said. Passengers who escaped injury were taken to nearby hotels since it was not certain when the flight would be cleared for takeoff, the airport duty manager said.

The Saudi Air Flight SV 781 was bound for the Saudi cities of Riyadh and Jiddah. De Silva said there was no evidence of Tamil Tiger rebel involvement in the bomb scare but that investigations were continuing. “Nothing can be ruled out at this stage,” he said.

The Tamil Tigers began fighting in 1983 to create a separate homeland for Tamils in the north and east, claiming discrimination by the majority Sinhalese. They agreed to settle for autonomy after signing a Norwegian cease-fire with the government in February 2002.

Yet subsequent peace talks broke down over rebel demands for greater autonomy, and violence has increased in recent months in the northeast. On Thursday, suspected rebels threw a grenade into a police jeep, killing two police officers and wounding six others in the volatile eastern town of Batticaloa, said regional police.

The Tamil Tigers agreed to talks after the government blamed them for the Aug. 12 assassination of Sri Lanka’s foreign minister, which pushed tensions to the breaking point. But both sides are having trouble agreeing on a venue.

In a meeting Wednesday with the rebels, Norwegian peace-brokers suggested the Colombo airport as a possible site for the talks. The Tigers rejected that, stating on a rebel Web site that the venue did not have appropriate security.

The government has insisted talks be held in Sri Lanka; rebels have suggested meeting in the Norwegian capital, Oslo.

In July 2001, Tamil Tiger rebels destroyed a dozen commercial and military aircraft at the airport in an attack that left 22 people, including 14 rebels, dead.



Associated Press writer Ruwan Weerakoon contributed to this report.



On the Net:

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AP-ES-09-08-05 1010EDT


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