Military defends killings during prison riot

Sri Lanka’s military defended its soldiers who have been accused of massacring prisoners during a jail riot last week, saying the inmates were heavily armed and posed a public danger.

The main opposition party has accused security forces of murdering in “cold blood” at least 11 of the 27 inmates at the maximum-security Welikada jail in the capital Colombo during a riot that erupted late Friday.

“I reject these allegations (of a massacre) completely,” military spokesman Ruwan Wanigasooriya told AFP, adding that there was “stiff resistance” from prisoners armed with assault rifles looted from the prison armory.

“If we had not gone in, there was a risk of 4,000 convicts escaping and posing a bigger danger,” he said.

Opposition lawmaker Anura Kumara Dissanayake asked the government to take disciplinary action against officers who ordered paramilitary police Special Task Force commandos into the prison to search for drugs and mobile phones.

The riot, which lasted into the early hours of Saturday, erupted during the search.

The Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) asked the U.N. Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Christof Heyns, to press Colombo to ensure those responsible for the killings be brought to justice.

The AHRC said family members received calls from convicts saying they were being taken for questioning early on Saturday, several hours after 16 convicts had been killed.

Military spokesman Wanigasooriya denied security forces were responsible for any excesses. He insisted that troops were deployed at the request of the police in line with the law.

The main opposition United National Party on Sunday called for a parliamentary investigation into the prison riot — the worst in decades.

The UNP said 16 convicts were killed late Friday evening while 11 more had been gunned down early Saturday after troops were called in.

Police said autopsies had been conducted on 22 out of the 27 convicts, but the reports will not be released. The bodies were released to next of kin and some funerals were held on Monday.

One convict remains on the run, police say. Seven others who escaped on Friday night were arrested almost immediately.

During the riot, inmates climbed onto the roof and fired at troops and police. Elite STF units swapped fire with inmates for several hours while soldiers arrived in armored personnel carriers.

Forty-three people, including 13 police commandos, four soldiers and two civilians, were injured.

Friday’s violence was the worst prison riot in Sri Lanka since 1983, when more than 50 ethnic Tamil prisoners were massacred at the same jail by Sinhalese convicts during anti-Tamil riots that gripped the country. (AFP)