Police action leaves Sri Lankan city seething

RAMBUKKANA: Dried bloodstains and empty cartridges mark the ground where a sudden crackdown by the Sri Lankan police ended with the first fatality of weeks of anti-government demonstrations.
Dozens of spontaneous demonstrations had broken out around the island on Tuesday, with angry crowds blocking roads with burning tires in protest at yet another massive rise in fuel costs.
In the central city of Rambukkana, a small assembly during the day grew into a huge crowd that halted traffic along a major highway and railway linking Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, and the central city of Kandy.
Residents told AFP the situation remained calm until police fired tear gas to clear the way for tankers delivering a cargo of fuel – one of the many goods made scarce by the economic crisis in Sri Lanka.
“When the mob was treated with tear gas, they retaliated by throwing stones,” said Cyril, the owner of a hotel near the crash site.
“Then the police started shooting.”
By the time the protesters dispersed, a 42-year-old man was dead and nearly 30 others were injured, including several officers who were injured when the crowd pelted smoldering gas canisters at the police column.
Authorities have imposed a curfew that was still in effect on Wednesday. Most shops were closed, but a defiant crowd returned to the street to denounce the murder.
The government has promised an impartial investigation into the incident and crime scene investigators arrived on Wednesday to take stock of the shattered glass, stones and bullet casings lying at the site.
Police said they were forced to intervene when the mob threatened to set one of the tankers on fire, an account rejected by opposition lawmakers and witnesses alike.
“There was no reason for the police to shoot – the protesters had blocked the railway lines, but there was no violence,” Vasanta Kumara, a local chef, told AFP.
Kumara returned to the crime scene on Wednesday to find his wallet, which he said had been lost when he was repeatedly clubbed to death as officers in riot gear made their way through the crowd.
“I begged the police not to hit me, but they didn’t listen,” he said.
“I am very disappointed. This government is too arrogant to care about its people.”
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who has endured weeks of angry calls to resign over his government’s handling of the crisis, said he was “deeply saddened” by the clash.
“The right of Sri Lankan citizens to protest peacefully will not be hindered,” he added on Twitter.
Tuesday’s death – a father of two – also sparked international condemnation from US and British ambassadors.
Like the rest of Sri Lanka, the people of Rambukkana have endured months of prolonged power outages, along with shortages of food, fuel and other necessities, while the country’s painful economic downturn has steadily worsened.
Tuesday’s deadly showdown has only doubled anger against authorities.
“Mr. President… get out and stop this violence,” Swarnajothi, a Buddhist monk from the area, told AFP.
“Please, get off and leave us alone.”

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