■Gota says villagers were provoked by political elements
■CCD to conduct inquiries into allegations of army attack on protestors
■Residents claim security forces stormed Catholic church where demonstrators took refuge
■Blood stains and bullet marks visible at St. Anthony’s parish Weliweriya
■Ground water test results due in 10 days: Minister
■Opposition Leader tours area, expresses concern
By Dharisha Bastians
Residents and authorities yesterday traded blame for the breakout of a mini war in the Gampaha District late Thursday night after a protest by residents in the area demanding clean water took a deadly turn.
At least one person was killed and dozens injured in the clashes that erupted between demonstrators and troops deployed to clear the New Kandy Road in Weliweriya town on Thursday night. Twelve security forces personnel, including the Officer in Charge of the Weliweriya Police Station were also injured in the clashes.
Residents charged that troops advanced on demonstrators firing into the crowd. “They fired tear gas at us to make us disperse and then they shot those who were fleeing,” one Weliweriya resident told Daily FT on condition of anonymity fearing reprisals.
Others claimed protestors who had taken refuge at St. Anthony’s Church nearby were beaten by security forces personnel who stormed the premises later that night.
Residents claimed that during a power blackout from about 9:30 p.m. on Thursday night, security forces personnel blocked side roads and conducted search operations looking for demonstrators. Seven people with severe assault wounds were arrested and bailed out yesterday by the St. Anthony’s Parish Priest Fr. Lakpriya Nonis. Police forensic teams were conducting initial investigations into blood stains, bullet holes and damage to property visible inside the church premises. The villagers of Weliweriya and Rathupaswela have been agitating for a closure of a Hayleys owned factory in the area they claim has contaminated the ground water in the area.
Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa claimed the villagers of the small town in Gampaha had been provoked by elements with vested interest into what he called “needless confrontations.” The Weliweriya drinking water dispute was settled satisfactorily and the protesting public were satisfied with the solution offered to close a factory which allegedly caused the contamination, but those with political motives provoked some of the residents to stage protests, the Government Information Department quoted the Defence Secretary as saying.
Elite police teams will probe the allegations that the military fired at protestors using live ammunition, Western Province Senior DIG Anura Senanayake pledged in the shell-shocked town yesterday. “The Colombo Crimes Division will take over the investigation. We do not believe it was the villagers who provoked the military personnel. We believe it was an external group trying to cause trouble,” the DIG told reporters in Weliweriya.
Gampaha District MP and Minister of Passenger Transport Lasantha Alagiyawanna said that testing of the ground water in the area the cause of the contamination will be determined by results due in 10 days.
“Till then, the Government will continue providing the Rathupaswela area with drinking water and keep those measures in place,” the Minister said.
Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe also visited the besieged town last morning, together with MPs John Amaratunge and Ruwan Wijewardane. Wickremesinghe held brief discussions with the Weliweriya police and spoke to residents during his visit.
The US Embassy in Colombo issued a brief statement about the clashes in Weliweriya, urging restraint on all sides. “The US Embassy is concerned about the violence in yesterday’s protest in Weliweriya, and urges the Government of Sri Lanka to respect the rights of people to protest peacefully, and urges restraint from all sides,” the statement said.