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Two suicide bombers Friday detonated a van filled with explosives at the headquarters for government operations against Tamil reb-els, killing at least 51 people and wounding 120, military officials said.

The government, whose figures are often conservative, gave a preliminary toll of 20 people killed, most soldiers, and 50 injured.There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but the government suspected Tamil rebels.

The blast devastated a military barracks and blew the roof off the command center's main office across the street. It left a crater in the street 6 feet deep and 20 feet in diameter. Hundreds of people ran screaming in panic through the streets of the residential neighborhood in the capital.

Walter Fernando, a deputy secretary in the Defense Ministry, said two men tried to drive into the command center and detonated the explosives when they were stopped by sentries at the gate.

He said at least 155 pounds of plastic explosives were used. At least six sentries and the two men in the van were killed instantly, he said.

Fernando said the Tamil Tiger guerrillas were the main suspects. An earlier government statement blamed the attack on "separatist terrorists," the term it uses for the Tamil Tigers.

"There are no other Tamil separatist terrorists operating in Sri Lanka at the moment except the Tamil Tigers," said Bradman Weera-koon, foreign affairs adviser to President Ranasinghe Premadasa.

Sathasivam Krishnakumar, a spokesman for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, said he did not know anything about the bombing. He was contacted at the guerrilla group's political office in London.

A senior military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said 35 or 37 soldiers and at least 16 civilians were killed. He said between 120 and 150 people were injured.

The explosion blew the tile roof off the administrative headquarters of the Joint Operations Command, the government nerve center for the war against the Tigers, who have demonstrated experience in sophisticated bomb-making.