Sri Lanka promises impartial probe after first death in weeks of protests

·3-min read

By Devjyot Ghoshal and Uditha Jayasinghe

RAMBUKKANA, Sri Lanka (Reuters) - Sri Lankan police will launch an "impartial and transparent" investigation into clashes with protesters after the first death in weeks of unrest over the government's handling of the economy, the president said on Wednesday.

Police fired live ammunition to scatter protesters on Tuesday in the town of Rambukkana, northeast of the commercial capital Colombo, killing one person and wounding a dozen.

Demonstrations have roiled the South Asian island nation of 22 million people for weeks, with people protesting at shortages of fuel and other items and prolonged power cuts.

The shooting broke out after protesters blocked a railway line and stopped a fuel tanker attempting to cross it, residents and a government minister said.

"Sri Lankan citizens' right to peacefully protest won't be hindered," President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said on Twitter.

Police would "carry out an impartial and transparent inquiry regarding the incident at Rambukkana which led to the tragedy for which I'm deeply saddened. I urge all citizens to refrain from violence as they protest".

Senior police spokesperson Ajith Rohana said a 20-member team had been formed to investigate the incident and one person had been arrested.

K.D. Chaminda Lakshan, 41, had gone to the petrol station at Rambukkana to fill his motorcycle when he got caught up in the clashes, his family said.

"I want justice for the crime committed against my father," his daughter, Piumi Upekshika Lakshani, said as mourners sat around the family's hillside home.

'RESPONSIBILITY WITH POLICE'

Rambukkana was calm on Wednesday with minimal security on the streets. A four-member police forensics team combed the area around the railway crossing.

Police also cordoned off part of the petrol station where violence also flared, including a small dusty, blood-stained patch. Rocks, ammunition casings and spent tear gas canisters were strewn about.

"One hundred percent, the responsibility is with the police," resident Indika Priyantha Kumara, 50, told Reuters.

"You can't blame the people," said Kumara, who had a bandage on his forehead for an injury he said was sustained in the clash.

The director of the Kegalle Teaching Hospital, Mihiri Priyangani, said 14 people were brought in and one died of his injuries. Three were in intensive care after surgery.

Twenty police were also brought in but had been transferred to the nearby town of Kandy, she said.

Public security minister Prasanna Ranatunga told parliament the shooting happened after protesters tried to set fire to the tanker.

"Police acted according to the law," he said. "This shooting happened after police did everything they could to bring this situation under control."

The first death in the largely peaceful protests came as Sri Lankan officials meet the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to discuss an emergency loan programme to tackle the shortages of fuel and other essentials.

The IMF said the discussions were at an early stage and any deal would require "adequate assurances" that Sri Lanka could resolve its unsustainable debt situation.

As the talks go on with the global lender, the country is getting billions of dollars in help from India and is in negotiations with China for more. It is also reaching out to Japan, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Qatar, Sri Lankan Foreign Minister G. L. Peiris said.

"Assistance by the IMF will take about six months to come to us and it will come in tranches," he told reporters. "During the intervening period, we need to find funds to keep our people supplied with essentials."

Peiris said India had already committed about $2.5 billion in support and talks were ongoing for a further $500 million for fuel purchases. Bangladesh could also agree to postpone repayment on a $450 million swap, Peiris said.

(Reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal in Rambukkana and Uditha Jayasinghe in Colombo; Additional reporting by David Lawder in Washington; Writing by Alasdair Pal and Krishna N. Das; Editing by Christopher Cushing, Robert Birsel, Nick Macfie and Alex Richardson)

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