Indian envoy had narrow escape in Colombo blast
Dignitaries, including Indian High Commissioner Nirupama Rao, had a narrow escape in the grenade attack on a concert here that killed two people and injured 19 as Bollywood megastar Shah Rukh Khan made 20,000 star-struck fans rock by screaming "I love you, I love you."
By Christine Jayasinghe, IANS
Police cordoned off and combed the Race Course grounds, the venue of the concert, early Sunday. They found the grenade pin in the stands closest to the stage where Colombo's elite, including Rao, and other VIPs had sat at the sell-out show.
Minutes earlier, Khan had jumped into an open jeep for a round of the grounds to let the shrieking crowds have a close look at the screen idol.
"It is premature to speculate on possible suspects," senior superintendent of police Sarath Lugoda said, noting that eyewitnesses and some of the injured were being questioned.
A male photographer of a local Sinhalese daily and a female employee of a hotel were killed in the blast. Two children were among those injured, police said.
Indian cricket commentator and former captain Ravi Shastri's wife was reported to be among the injured.
Over 20,000 Hindi movie fans had scrambled hours ahead to throng the "Temptation 2004" concert, braving four police security checkpoints to see Khan and fellow performers Preity Zinta, Priyanka Chopra, Saif Ali Khan, Zayed Khan and Celina Jaitly.
"The crowd was ecstatic," said Chitra Kalpage, a fan who forked out Sri Lanka Rs.10,000 (nearly $100) for a vantage point in the front stands.
"People were packed like sardines. They were screaming and very enthusiastic. We were waiting for the big finale, but it never came."
Khan was gyrating through his last act, a medley of Hindi movie songs, amid a volley of fireworks and flashing lights when a loud bang was heard but it went largely unnoticed in the tumult.
Kalpage said the lights suddenly went out and an announcement was made asking people not to panic and to leave the grounds quietly.
"We didn't know what had happened till I read it in the newspapers this morning," she said.
The explosion went off some 15 minutes before the show was scheduled to close at 11:30 p.m. local time Saturday.
State radio said the attack was politically motivated and blamed it on the supporters of an unnamed opposition politician in the capital.
The show was nearly a non-starter when Buddhist monks began protesting days before that the date coincided with the first death anniversary of Gangodawila Soma Thera, a popular but controversial monk.
Monks belonging to the Soma Foundation sat outside the grounds, claiming to be on a fast and threatening to disrupt the show if it was not cancelled.
However, hours before the concert began, they dispersed after Khan sent a letter of apology saying the date had been fixed some time in advance and the organisers had not known of the death anniversary.
Colombo was under a strict security blanket, rarely seen in recent times, as supporters of Soma Foundation, in apparent disappointment that nothing dramatic was going to happen, tried to stop spectators reaching the venue.
Police fired teargas shells and sprayed the stone-throwing agitators with water to disperse them before the concert began.
Khan opened his show with a minute's silence in homage to Soma Thera. After that, "the show really rocked", said an Australian diplomat, adding that he had thoroughly enjoyed the performance.
Kalpage said spectators at the gala show were dazzled by the music, the lights, the stars' glitzy costumes, and especially by Khan's stage patter, Priyanka Chopra's singing and Saif Ali Khan's guitar routine.
"Everyone got their money's worth." Besides the Rs.10,000 tickets, the equivalent of a month's salary for an average white-collar worker here, people snapped up lower priced tickets at Rs.5,000, Rs.2,500 and Rs.1,500.
Another fan said he had never seen so many Sri Lankan women frenziedly shouting as they did when Shah Rukh Khan appeared onstage.
Khan thrilled local fans by saying that he would ask his friend, former ace cricketer Arjuna Ranatunga, to buy him a house in Colombo so that he could live here.
Khan and the rest of the troupe were rushed to Colombo International Airport ahead of schedule, although they were to leave anyway soon after the performance.