Military raids Sri Lanka protest camps, leaders arrested

Protesters say some were “brutally assaulted” after soldiers descended on the Colombo sieges in the early hours of Friday morning.

Colombo, Sri Lanka – The Sri Lankan military has taken control of the presidential secretariat in Colombo, after what members of the country’s protest movement have described for months as a “brutal attack.”

During the night, soldiers also destroyed tents at the adjacent GotaGoGama protest site, arrested several protest leaders, and cordoned off the area along with about 100 protesters.

The military assault came hours after protesters withdrew from the camp outside Temple Trees, the prime minister’s official residence, on Thursday. The protesters had already announced their intention to withdraw from the presidential secretariat on July 22.

“Around midnight, we heard a large contingent of military men heading towards GotaGoGama and suddenly we saw them running towards the presidential secretariat,” Nipun Charaka Jayasekara, a young protester, told Al Jazeera.

“Shortly thereafter they cordoned off the area and brutally assaulted the peaceful protesters as if we were thugs.”

He suffered minor injuries, he said, while trying to flee military repression.

When the military attack began, Jayasekara broadcast it live, but later lost his phone in the chaos.

“Some were very badly attacked; inhumanly assaulted as if they had no heart. We have nowhere to go now. We are locked in GotaGoGama. I have nothing now; not even my phone. I am now using an old phone now. I am left with only my clothes,” he said.

An estimated 10 protesters were seriously injured after being attacked.

The assault on the protest sites came after Ranil Wickremesinghe, a six-time prime minister, was sworn in as the country’s new president. His predecessor, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, had fled the country after weeks of protests sparked by the country’s economic collapse and growing public anger at Rajapaksa’s longstanding political influence.

The Sri Lanka Bar Association said it had been made aware of the raids and that there had been arrests.

“The authorities must ensure everyone’s safety and their whereabouts must be made known,” the association’s president, Saliya Peiris, said in a statement. “I have tried to communicate with the IGP (Inspector General of Police) and I also sent a message to the Army Commander. The unnecessary use of brute force will not help this country or its international image.”

Sara Hulton, the British High Commissioner for Sri Lanka, said she was “very concerned” by reports of the raids. “We have made clear the importance of the right to peaceful protest,” she wrote on Twitter.

“Deeply concerned by actions taken against protesters at Galle Face in the middle of the night. We urge the authorities for restraint and immediate access to medical care for the injured,” said Julie Chung, US Ambassador to Sri Lanka.

‘Sea of Soldiers’

Protester Anjana Bandarawatta told Al Jazeera of the chaos as the armed forces swooped in.

“There was no warning at all. The military suddenly entered and chased us away by assaulting us and shouting with obscene language,” she said. “There may be 200 protesters, but the whole area looks like a sea of soldiers.”

Shabeer Mohamed, a young protest leader, said he was assaulted by an air force officer while reporting the attack live on social media.

“He came from behind and hit me on the head and knocked over my mobile phone while I was broadcasting live. Several other people were also assaulted when they were doing live broadcasts,” Shabeer Mohamed told Al Jazeera.

“GotaGoGama has been closed and no journalist is allowed to enter.”

Several people broadcast the assault live on social media, but broadcasts stopped several times and were thought to be interrupted by authorities.

Video footage shared on social media showed soldiers approaching the protest site and backing away from a man as he yelled “media, media, BBC.” They then continued to inspect the tents erected by the protesters.

Melani Gunathilake, a leader of the protest movement, was detained by troops when she was walking towards the GotaGoGama site together with a friend of hers. When she took some photos of the scene, a soldier took her phone and deleted the images, she told Al Jazeera.

When his friend questioned him, the troops also detained him.

A young protester, who did not want to give his name, said he was “grabbed” by air force personnel who put a rifle to his head.

“Look around you, these are your last hours, you will only live a little longer,” he said and forcibly led me to an adjacent street, beating regularly,” the protester said.

“On a side street, I was ordered to kneel along with four other protesters. As we waited there, we were constantly beaten and abused with foul language. They even jumped me with their military boots. And they took all of our phones and ordered all phones to be reset. I have wounds on my lips and face; my whole body hurts. Several hours later, around 5 in the morning, an older guy arrived and ordered others to stop beating and tend to the wounded. He also spoke very well to us,” the protester added.

“However, I’m not sure if they were genuine air force personnel; They all wore uniforms with masks, but no one had their official numbers or badges on.”

Several protest leaders, including lawyer Nuwan Bopage, activist Lahiru Silva, Anuranga and a disabled soldier, are among those confirmed to have been kidnapped by the military, according to other movement leaders.

“After the announcement that the protesters planned to hand over the Presidential Secretariat to the government on July 22 at 2:00 p.m. m., in the early morning hours of the 22nd, shortly after 1:00 a.m. m., a large number of armed forces cordoned off GotaGoGama from all sides and began to attack. unarmed protesters,” said a statement from protest leaders.

“The IT Center, the Disabled Soldiers Tent, the Community Kitchen that fed hundreds of people every day for free, the SYU Tent, the Hearing Impaired Tent, the Gate Zero Tent, among others, have completely destroyed,” he added. .

Wickremesinghe on Friday named Dinesh Gunawardena, a Rajapaksa ally, as the country’s new prime minister. The cabinet is expected to be named later in the day.

After being elected by parliament, with the help of Rajapaksa’s supporters, he said that he would not allow any illegal activities such as occupying government premises or trying to overthrow the government.

“We publicly announced that we would be leaving tomorrow. We decided to give Ranil Wickremesinghe a try. They had no reason to do this other than to show off their power. Their intention was to intimidate and oppress the protest movement,” protester Jayasekara told Al Jazeera.

 

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