Weliweriya Shooting: Rising death toll feared as many remain critical

The death toll from Thursday's army shooting is feared to reach at least to seven by Sunday as six more deaths were reported from several government hospitals in the western province. Many other victims who remain in critical condition, are still being kept under tight watch at the intensive care units.

The bloody episode unfolded when the Army, equipped with assault rifles and anti-riot gear, was deployed on Thursday (01) to disperse over 4000 unarmed protesters at Rathupaswala, Weliweriya, 20 kilometres north east of Colombo. The protest was staged against the waste from a rubber glove-making plant that has contaminated the groundwater supply in the area, depriving more than 10,000 families access to drinking water. According to the residents, the families have been demanding for more than a month that government authorities close down the factory but to no avail.

The Sunday Times' reported that two have died upon admission to Wathupitiwala Base Hospital on Thursday while two others succumbed to their injuries while being treated at the General Hospital in Gamapaha. Two more victims including a teenage student who were kept in the Neurosurgical Unit at the National Hospital in Colombo also died during the weekend. The latter two victims with severe head injuries were identified as Ravishan Perera (19), an advance level student at St. Peters College in Udugampola and Nilantha Pushpakumara (27), an apparel factory  worker who died on Sunday afternoon. But the unconfirmed reports say that the final toll can likely be much higher than the official figures.

'Already dead'

Speaking to JDS, an eye witness who wishes to remain anonymous said that the Army arriving in Buffel troop carriers shot indiscriminately at the crowds, forcing them to run for cover.

'Most of us ran towards Weliweriya Helenwatte area, desperately seeking cover as the troops rained bullets on us. Two bullets missed me and hit my father and Ravishan was hit by a third one' he said.

'We were not able to drag Ravishan with us, as we realised that the troops were shooting from all sides, virtually surrounding us. But when finally we managed to carry him to the nearby wood, I saw the bullet had entered his forehead and exited through the back of his skull. We took him to Radavana Rural Hospital, even though I was convinced that he was already dead' he further said.

Scribes assaulted

The army has been also accused of assaulting several journalists who were at the scene causing serious injuries and smashing their camera equipments. At least four media personnel were beaten by the armed soldiers while trying to cover the brutal crackdown of protest.

'I saw soldiers attacking one photo journalist and smashing his camera on the ground' said one journalist speaking under condition of anonymity.

'We were on top of a roof when a group of gun-wielding masked soldiers ordered us to get down. Once we came down, they assaulted us with poles while calling us 'media dogs' he told the JDS via phone.

'The attacks were indiscriminate. First they fired at the street lamps so that no one can see what is happening. Afterwards, everyone, including women, men, children and even pregnant mothers were badly beaten up. When we managed to slip away and hide in a house, the soldiers tried to break the door. We thought that they are going to kill all of us. First they opened fire on the crowd and then fired tear gas preventing anyone from reaching the wounded'.

The photo journalist Shanuka Kulasekara of 'Ada' newspaper, Deepa Adhikari and Upali Ranaweera of 'Lankadeepa' and Sunil Sri Lanka of Lakbima newspaper were among the journalists who were assaulted.

Concealing truth

The local media rights group, the Free Media Movement condemned the attack as 'outrageous and barbaric'.

'Many in the south believed the myth that the military offensives in the north were conducted with utmost care and concern for civilian safety. The present tragedy comes as a price for not only turning a blind eye to what happened in the north and east, but even for forgetting our own massacres in the South in the early seventies and late eighties' said the group's spokesman Sunil Jayasekara.

'The true intention of the attack on journalists was to conceal the truth and prevent them from reporting what happened' he said.

Student laid to rest

Meanwhile the funeral of Akila Dinesh Jayawardane, 17 year old student at Yakkala Chandrajothi Vidyalaya who died after being shot by the army on Thursday, was held today under a heavy military presence. The family was given strict instruction by the authorities about the funeral proceedings and plain-clothed police and military intelligence officers were deployed at the site. Despite the restrictions, thousands attended the funeral to pay their respect to the slain student.

'Around 2000 uniformed troops were deployed in the area in addition to hundreds of plain-clothed officers. Sadly though, all those who spoke at the funeral meeting failed to mention the cause of his death' said a resident who was present at the funeral.

Image: Grief stricken mother of the slain student Akila Dinesh Jayawardane, moans as he lays in his coffin.



Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

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