Heavily-armed commandoes of the Sri Lankan Army seized control of the over-crowded city prison here in the early hours of Saturday, where a seven-hour stand off between prisoners and the security forces left at least 27 dead and more than 40 injured.

The toll could go up because some of the injured are critical. The Army handed over control of the prison to the civilian authorities on Saturday. The jail officials then began a block-by-block screening to account for inmates and search for weapons taken away from the armoury.

Welikada witnessed a prisoner uprising in January this year. Vavuniya and Galle prisons too have witnessed clashes in the recent past, raising fundamental questions over jail management systems.

As was reported exclusively in The Hindu, the Army stormed the complex just before Friday midnight and shot its way through the prisoner resistance. The prisoners had driven out officials and were in charge of the Welikada prison from about 5 pm on Friday.

This is the worst prison uprising in Sri Lanka in the recent past, and was devoid of any ethnic linkages — unlike the riots in ‘Black July’ of 1983 when Tamils prisoners were targeted by the Sinhalese convicts inside. This time, it was a surprise check to detect prohibited substances in prison wards on Friday that led to resentment. The ‘inhumane manner’ in which the Special Task Force (STF), a para-military force, carried out the operation agitated led to prisoners getting agitated, one insider told this reporter.

Indian Prisoners safe

The 34 Indian convicts and the five remand prisoners in Welikada prison were safe, said the High Commission. “The High Commission has been constantly monitoring the situation since the time the clashes broke out. The Sri Lankan authorities have told us that the Indian prisoners are safe,” High Commissioner of India to Sri Lanka Ashok K Kantha, told The Hindu.

The High Commission had also deputed a senior diplomat to meet prison officials and ascertain the situation in Welikada. “Our main concern is the welfare of Indian prisoners,” he added. Mr. Kantha was in touch with Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Foreign Secretary K.Amunugama, on the welfare of the Indian prisoners.

The High Commission has sought consular access to the prisoners, but this demand has not been acceded to. “We are in touch [with the Sri Lankan officials.] We want to individually ascertain that the prisoners are safe. Hence we have sought access to the prisoners,” said Mr. Kantha. “Sri Lankan officials have told us that this [consular access] will not be possible now as screening of the prison complex was in progress for missing weapons and prisoners,” he added.

India had put in writing a formal request for accessing its nationals. Only after Welikada returns to ‘business as usual’ mode will the access be granted, said one official. This process could take a “few days”.

The prisoners have been without food or water since Friday afternoon. There are more than 4000 prisoners in the facility.

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