Firing by Sri Lankan para-military on Friday claimed the lives of at least a dozen prisoners in the capital’s over-crowded Welikada prison. “I saw three bodies in front of me,” one prisoner told The Hindu. Government sources could not confirm the number of dead.

Trouble began soon after 1 pm, when Special Task Force, a para-military outfit under the Defence Ministry tasked to unearth illegal equipment and prohibited substances in prisons, commenced its operations. “There was resentment among remand prisoners because they were stripped and beaten up,” one prisoner said. Clashes erupted as word spread about the ‘inhuman’ treatment.

According to sources, a battalion strength of STF men had been involved in the operation. But they were overwhelmed by the prisoners. It also did not help that the convict prisoners, who normally are drafted for work, came back to the prison premises, at the end of their work hours.

One news report said that 13 STF personnel apart from its Commanding Officer and a senior police official, were injured till evening. A large number of debilitating tear gas shells were lobbed into the prison premises, but this did not seem to deter the prisoners. The jail officials and STF beat a retreat, leaving the prisoners in charge.

By late evening, the STF and police had taken positions outside the prison. It appears the prisoners broke into the strong room and accessed the weapons.

At least four prisoners were firing from the roof top at one point, one eye-witness said. Several prisoners, especially the old, were felled by the tear-gas. Several more were injured in the firing. With the STF outside, there was no opportunity for any of the injured to access treatment.

The army was later called in and roads leading to the prison are closed. One estimate put the number of prisoners close to 5000. The stand off continued late into the night. The heavy rains and the firing made it impossible to get close to the prison later in the night. In the past, most such uprisings, like the one in Vavuniya a few months ago, were put down with a heavy hand.

Indian prisoners

Most Indian and Pakistani prisoners are lodged here. These include the 33 Indian convicts, whose papers for repatriation to Indian prisons is still being processed, more than two years after Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed an agreement on transfer of prisoners In June 2010. It is reliably learnt it is delay on the part of the Tamil Nadu police in submitting a report on address verification of the prisoners that is holding up the process. Kerala has completed this process.

The stand off between the Sri Lankan forces and prison inmates at Welikada continued into the night with no official entering the jail premises. Negotiations were on and appeared to have broken down close to midnight. Army had entered the premises and this reporter could hear shots being fired. The government version had placed the number of prisoners dead at eight, and the total number injured (including servicemen) at 35. A senior police official was operated on and was said to be stable.

According to one source, some inmates, who had raided the Armoury and had taken over about 200 weapons and ammunition, were indulging in firing practice earlier in the evening. They later saved up their ammunition to fight another day. Several prisoners have escaped.

Indo-Pak bonhomie

Most inmates have gone hungry since lunch after the clashes broke out. The store room had been laid to waste and all the wards were open as of midnight. In a rare act of bonhomie, the Indian prisoners, who form the largest number of convicted criminals from any country, have brought all foreigners into one cell. All the five Indian remand prisoners (fishermen from Rameswaram), two Pakistanis, three Iranians and one Afghan are together, but are aware of what would happen when the forces come down on them later tonight or in the early hours of Saturday.

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