Troops guard Colombo prison after riot

Island's worst such incident since 1983 leaves at least 27 dead; inmates turn on police during a search for drugs and phones

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 November, 2012, 5:52am


A bullet-riddled taxi and a bloodstained road were mute testimony yesterday to Sri Lanka's worst prison riot in three decades, in which 27 people died and 43 were injured in a gun battle.

The gunfight at Colombo's maximum-security Welikada prison between guards and prisoners erupted late on Friday during a police search for drugs and smuggled mobile phones.

It sounded like "there was a mini-war at the prison", said nearby resident Mahinda Perera.

The sounds of shooting caused panic in the capital, still recovering from decades of ethnic war that ended in 2009.

Murderers and other convicts serving life terms fired assault rifles that they had grabbed from a prison armoury, which they broke into after overpowering 25 guards.

Bare-bodied inmates climbed to the roof and attacked police commandos ringing the penitentiary. "The police should have known there would be trouble - they were not prepared," a prison guard said.

Sri Lanka's elite police Special Task Force swapped fire with inmates for several hours until calm was restored early yesterday, leaving bodies of the dead - mostly prisoners - strewn around the sprawling premises.

Army troops who were later called in used armoured personnel carriers to enter the prison as convicts fired at them.

"Bullets were flying all over," an army officer who asked to remain unnamed said.

"The area is now calm," army spokesman Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya said yesterday.

Most of the dead were believed to be inmates. But officials said one guard may have died in the violence - the worst prison riot since 1983, when more than 50 ethnic Tamil prisoners were massacred at the same jail by majority Sinhalese prisoners during anti-Tamil unrest.

The head of the Special Task Force, deputy inspector-general R. M. Ranawana, had just told a radio station his forces had seized a large haul of phones before he was hit by a bullet.

Ranawana was in intensive care yesterday recovering from surgery, hospital director Anil Jasinghe said.

A news photographer also suffered a bullet wound while capturing the scene, which evoked memories of gun battles in the capital at the height of fighting with Tamil rebels.

Authorities closed the road to the prison to avert civilian casualties during the riot. When the road reopened yesterday, a blood-splattered three-wheel taxi stood outside the gates.

Police said half a dozen convicts had hijacked the vehicle to make a getaway but were killed.

Prisons minister Chandrasiri Gajadeera said the prison headquarters inside the grounds suffered extensive damage. Meanwhile, Colombo police chief Anura Senanayake said the decision to send in troops saved lives.

"There could have been a bigger disaster if the inmates had got hold of the bigger armoury at the prison. By killing the prisoners who were armed, we prevented a much bigger disaster," he said.