08/07/2013, 00.00
SRI LANKA

Weliweriya: protesters seeking refuge in church mowed down by the army

by Melani Manel Perera
After a week of peaceful demands, the government deploys troops in Weliweriya to stop demonstrators asking for drinking water. Shooting to kill, soldiers fatally wound three young people and injure an additional 45. The Sisters of the Good Shepherd were threatened with death as they tried to protect the fleeing kids. The parish priest at St Anthony recalls the "utter fear".

Colombo (AsiaNews) - The people of Weliweriya are "still in shock" after soldiers attacked young people who were calling on the government to provide clean drinking water and stop pollution. During the standoff, soldiers fired on the Church of St Anthony. Some of them even aimed their machine guns at the upper torso of the mother superior in an attempt to get her to surrender protest organisers. The attack left three young men dead from gunshot wounds as they sought shelter in the church.

After a weeklong peaceful sit-in, the protest ended in a bloodbath on 1 August. Local residents had called on the authorities to shut down a textile factory that is polluting local rivers and to examine the water's toxicity level.

Unable to stop the demonstration, police called in the army. Once on the scene, the military expelled the media and told people to go home. At first, it was thought that the fighting had ended with 1 dead and 15 injured. Today, the real scale of the atrocity has become known.

The three people who died are Akila Dinesh (pictured), a 17-year-old Buddhist who was cremated in religious ceremony on Sunday; Ravinash Perera; an 18-year-old Catholic who will be buried this evening in Weliweriya; and Nilantha Pushpakumara, a 29-year-old father of a year-old child, who was able to call his wife from the Church of  St Anthony before he was killed. Forty-five other people were seriously injured.

Several eyewitnesses told AsiaNews that the soldiers fired on the crowd and chased a group of young people inside the Church of the Good Shepherd. Here, they started shooting at a wall to intimidate those present.

The attackers included police, soldiers, members of the government's special task force and even the 58th Brigade, which was stationed in the north of the country during the war against Tamil rebels.

Residents complain about the military's guerrilla tactics. "They came at dawn with special torches. What were they for?" some asked.

According to witnesses, the soldiers also fired on purpose at lampposts and destroyed the local generator just to create darkness in the area. Taking advantage of this, they launched went on manhunt.

"Where are the protesters?" some officers asked Sr Kanthi, mother superior of the convent. She told them that they were not in the church where "ordinary worshippers were instead reciting the rosary".

With their machine guns pointed straight at her, the soldiers threatened the nun and insulted her. "You Catholics are always doing these things," they said.

"We cannot tolerate these attacks on innocent young people," Sr Kanthi told AsiaNews.

As soldiers kept on beating the young protesters, the latter "were screaming from fear and pain,. We had never seen anything like it; it looked like a small war. I do not even know how many rosaries we recited to try to stop that tragic night."

"God has given every human life itself. We strongly condemn these killings and attacks committed by men against other men," said Fr Lakpriya Nonis, parish priest at St Anthony. "What is especially appalling is that they were chased into the church seeking refuge."

"Every issue can be resolved through dialogue," said Jagath Ananda Silva, secretary general of the Independent Education Employees Union, "but the government chose not to listen, and this has led to tragedy. Although there were provocations on the part of the protesters, a government cannot send in the army to shoot. It is a brutal and inhuman act that no one can tolerate."

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