1 dead, 12 wounded in shooting at Sri Lanka election rally
Masked gunmen opened fire at an election rally headlined by Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake in Sri Lanka’s capital Friday, killing a woman and wounding 12 other ruling party activists, police said.
The attackers sprayed bullets into the crowd of 500 to 600 people drumming up support for the ruling United National Party (UNP), marking the first major violence ahead of the Aug. 17 parliamentary elections.
While there was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack in Colombo, Karunanayake blamed supporters of former strongman president Mahinda Rajapakse who is looking to stage a comeback at the polls.
“The gunmen traveled in two vehicles and escaped in the same vehicles after the shooting spree,” police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera told AFP.
“A woman was killed and 12 wounded persons have been admitted to the Colombo National hospital.”
Hospital sources said two of the victims were in a “very critical” condition.
The minister said he was “seconds away” from the shooting although initial police reports said he had just left the area when gunmen got off two vehicles and opened fire indiscriminately.
“I was seconds away — or about 20 feet (6 meters) from the incident,” Karunanayake told reporters in Colombo.
“This is nothing but an act of political terrorism sponsored by the opposition led by Rajapakse.”
During his decade in power, Rajapakse was accused of presiding over an administration riddled with corruption and widespread rights abuses.
Karunanayake said the shooting had broken out while his supporters were lighting firecrackers, ex- acerbating the sense of panic and confusion.
Bullets amid Crackers
“While the crackers were going off the four masked men got off a blackcolored car and opened fire,” the minister said. “People realized what had happened when several people started falling and were bleeding.”
The 52-year-old finance minister is one of the most senior members of the UNP, which backed Sirisena in January’s presidential election.
Sirisena had been a supporter of Rajapakse’s United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and is the nominal leader the former president’s party even though the two men are now estranged.
Karunanayake had initiated several probes into alleged frauds by members of the Rajapakse regime.
Police said investigators cordoned off the Bloemendhal area where the shooting took place and launched a search for the two getaway vehicles.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s deputy Harsha de Silva expressed shock and vowed not to allow a return to violence.
“I’m in shock and in disbelief at the shooting incident at Ravi’s event,” de Silva said on Twitter.
“No one will be allowed to reverse what we achieved on 8th January,” he said, referring to Sirisena’s presidential election triumph.
Soon after assuming office, Sirisena invited the UNP to form a minority government after sacking Rajapakse’s cabinet.
Sri Lanka has a long history of political violence at election time.
President Ranasinghe Premadasa was killed in a suicide bomb attack during an election rally in 1993 while Chandrika Kumaratunga, another president, lost her right eye in 1999 during her re-election bid.
This year’s campaign had been largely peaceful and local election monitors expressed surprise at Friday’s shooting.
“We are puzzled by this
latest turn of events in Colombo because so far it has been relatively calm and even the level of violence in other areas has been very low,” said Keerthi Tennakoon, head of the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE).
CaFFE said there had been about 55 clashes since Sirisena dissolved parliament on June 26 and called elections a year ahead of schedule but this was the first armed incident.
There was no immediate response from a group of around 70 international observers.
Almost all previous elections have been marred by allegations that government workers colluded with the ruling party to give them an undue advantage.
Ahead of January’s presidential poll, election chief Mahinda Deshapriya had ordered police to shoot anyone trying to disrupt the vote.
While the presidential election passed off relatively peacefully, a Sirisena supporter was killed in a drive-by shooting.