COLOMBO: Sri Lanka's military was called in to quell the worst prison riot in nearly three decades that left at least 27 people dead and 43 wounded, officials said Saturday.
Heavily armed troops moved overnight into the maximum security Welikada prison, the main jail in the island, to restore order after hours of gunbattle between inmates and police commandos, military officials said. "Police requested our assistance and we deployed troops at the Welikada prison," army spokesman Ruwan Wanigasooriya said. "We have recovered a large quantity of weapons from prison wards and search operations are underway."
The overnight toll rose as three more succumbed to their injuries following intense gunbattles between rioting inmates and police Special Task Force (STF) commandos who carried out a search Friday for drugs and smuggled mobile phones. Prison authorities said the situation at the country's main jail was under control and the authorities were in the process of recovering weapons the inmates had taken from a prison armoury that had been stormed during the riot.
"Inmates have hidden some of the weapons inside their wards and we are now searching for them," prison commissioner P. W. Koddippili told reporters. He gave no further details. A military officer at the scene on Friday night told AFP that inmates had initially grabbed weapons from STF commandos and engaged in deadly gunbattles. "Sixteen people have been killed and another 43 are being treated by this morning," Colombo National hospital director Anil Jasinghe told AFP.
"Among those in hospital are 13 STF personnel, four soldiers and one civilian bystander." During the rioting, some of the convicts had tried to escape and were shot by security forces, witnesses said adding that teargas too had been fired at rioting prisoners. Some of the inmates got onto a roof and fired at troops and police on the ground while a handful had tried to escape in a hijacked three-wheel taxi. It was not immediately clear if any convicts managed to escape.
Police and troops fired back with intermittent gun fire heard for at least three hours, witnesses said. Army troops used armoured personnel carriers to move in reinforcements as inmates kept on firing, witnesses said.
Afghan, Indian and Pakistani inmates were also at the same jail, but none of them had been taken to hospital. Friday's violence was the worst prison riot since July 1983 when more than 50 ethnic Tamil prisoners were massacred at the same jail by majority Sinhalese prisoners during anti-Tamil riots that had gripped the country. The identity of Friday's victims was not immediately clear, but witnesses said the dead appeared to be mainly inmates. A hospital source, however said, a jail guard was also among those killed.
"The STF search inside the prison went on for about five hours and they recovered a lot of contraband," another security official told AFP. "As commandos were completing their raid, the inmates turned on them." The stand off between rioting inmates and security personnel lasted several hours. Convicts left the roof as the area plunged in darkness after the authorities switched off electricity.
Jasinghe said the head of the STF, deputy inspector-general R. M. Ranawana, had suffered gunshot injuries and was being treated at the hospital. There was similar violence at the same penitentiary in January when 25 inmates and four guards were wounded. In 2010, more than 50 police and prison guards were wounded in a riot during another raid to seize illegal mobile phones.