The Special Report14th January 2001
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By Chandani KirindeThe rapid recruitment of men into the army and large-scale desertion has resulted in army deserters being involved in most of the serious crimes committed in the country ranging from bank robberies to organized crimes and murder.
According to Police sources there are around 30,000 deserters.
"All of them are weapon trained and have been involved in many serious crimes in recent months,'' a senior police official said.
According to an army spokesman, although recruits to the army have to produce a police report stating they have no record of criminal activity, a thorough background check on the recruits is not possible due to the large numbers.
"Before the late 80's, checks were carried out to determine the background of even the relatives of the recruits, but given the rapid growth of the army, it cannot be done now, the spokesman said.
Such background checks are now only carried out with regard to those who are recruited as officers.
Deserters have been linked to the spate of bank robberies that have taken place across the country in the past few months as well as to the activities of the underworld gangs.
A Navy deserter is one of the suspects wanted in connection with the killing of a 59 year old woman in her home at Peliyagoda on Monday.
On Wednesday, Kegalle Police recovered nearly 15 kilograms of robbed gold jewellery from the home of an army deserter in Hingurakgoda and took into custody three suspects of whom two were deserters.
In connection with the latest attempted robbery at the People's Bank branch at Battaramulla, Police have arrested six people including three army deserters and a policeman. Police are looking for two others including another deserter.
According to Thalangama Police OIC Crimes Anura Perera, the same gang has been involved in six bank heists, all in different branches of the People's Bank.
"The suspects confessed they only targeted state banks," he said.
Three members of the gang had entered the Bank around 11.30 a.m. and had tried to tackle the lone security guard at the entrance to the bank.
As the security guard had struggled with them, the men had decided to flee by which time the police were alerted and two of the men were arrested as they ran outside to make a getaway.
On getting information from them, Police arrested four others two from Madurankuliya in the Puttalam district and one from Suriyawewa.
The mastermind behind the robberies, an army deserter was arrested at Kottawa while he was on his way to meet his girl friend.
"He had not given the girl he was seeing for six months his full name or address. She only knew him as Wasantha. He had given her a mobile phone number of a friend in case of an emergency.
Police recovered two "Galkatas" and one hand grenade from the arrested gang members and a few pieces of stolen jewellery.
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Although in this instance, the bank robbery was averted, in past instances the banks were robbed.
In December, the Bank Manager and a security guard at the People's Bank branch at Padalangala in Embilipitiya were killed during a bank robbery.
The gang that attempted the robbery at Battaramulla last week is believed to be the same gang behind the Embilipitiya incident. They have also been linked to bank robberies in Athurugiriya and Nittambuwa .
Although many new security agreements have been discussed, they have been slow in implementation. Also the shotguns that are issued to security guards at banks are no match for the automatic weapons that many of the robbers carry.
Nearly 99 per cent of the weapons being used in the recent spate of crimes are believed to be those that disappeared during the time of the JVP insurrection in the late 80's and which have not been accounted for, according to army spokesman.
With increasing numbers of banks opening Branches islandwide, their large numbers and the locations being spread out to various areas also make them easy targets for robbers.
The People's Bank, which had only 81 branches in 1981, had expanded to 509 branches by 2000. As cost cutting measures, the banks have also decided to have one security guard per branch.
" For the past four to five years we have not recruited any new security guards. But given the recent incidents, we have to re -think this policy, " an official of the Bank who did not wish to be identified said.
He said the bank had decided to recruit security personnel from the private sector and would try to locate its branches close to Police stations, which would act as a deterrent against attempts to rob their banks.
It was January 8, and a busy day at the bank as the following day was a Poya holiday. About 100 customers were inside the People's Bank building at Battaramulla.
Mr.Prematunga always made it a habit to stand inside the Bank building as he believed that way he could prevent any attempt to rob the bank.
On that day he had also kept the gate of the bank premises half open as a precautionary measure. Mr.Prematunga had felt there could be an attempt to rob the bank given the large number of such incidents taking place all over the country.
"I am very alert all the time. My duty is to protect the money in the bank as well as the customers who come in there," Mr.Prematunga said in an interview with The Sunday Times.
On the day of the incident around 11.30 a.m., a man had walked upto Mr.Prematunga , lifted his shirt and pulled out a "galkatas" and pointed it at his head. Another man had held him by the side and taken his shot gun.
"I was frightened and the thought of my two children flashed across my mind at that moment. I suddenly gathered the strength to fight off the two men.
"I pushed the man who was holding me and he fell to the ground. The other man held the gun at me but I hit it with my hand.
The gun fell to the ground and I scrambled and picked up the bullet that had fallen out. The man then picked up the gun and hit me on my head with it.
" During the ensuing struggle, another man had entered the Manager's office and opened a drawer looking for the keys to the safe.
As the customers were alerted to what was happening, many had fled the building leaving behind passbooks, umbrellas, lunch packets and other personal belongings while some had hidden under the tables in the Manager's room, according to a Bank official who was an eyewitness.
Because of Mr.Prematunga's timely action, the robbers realizing their attempt would not succeed had fled the building and the Police subsequently arrested two of them.
A vigilant employee of the Bank who had managed to get out during the incident had alerted a Police jeep that was in the vicinity who in turn had radioed for help from both the Mulleriyawa and Talangama Police stations and were hence able to apprehend the suspects.
The robbers were also armed with a hand grenade, Police said. Mr.Prematunga who was bleeding profusely from his head was rushed to the Colombo National Hospital for treatment.
Mr.Prematunga, who is the father of two daughters, aged 12 and 8 said he would continue to serve the bank to the best of his ability and said he was happy he could carry out the duties entrusted to him.
He is still recovering from head wounds he received in the struggle with the culprits and said he continues to be traumatized by the memory of the man holding the gun to his head. Meanwhile a Bank official said Mr.Prematunga would be rewarded for his bravery.
The most recent gruesome incident was the killing of a 59-year-old woman who was throttled with a dog chain and then had her fingers cut off.
On that fateful day around 1.p.m. on January 8, H.A.Diana Silva who was alone at home heard some voices in the backyard of her house and opened the door to find out what was happening.
Three people had pounced on her and taken her forcibly into the house.
The woman had fought hard to set herself free when one of the intruders had put a dog chain round her neck and throttled her,while the other two stabbed her in the chest according to police.
They said the robbers had only taken away the victim's son's expensive wristwatch before getting away.
The victim was living with her 22-year-old son while her husband has been working in Bahrain for the past 20 years. He used to visit the victim once a year.
The house situated on the Kandy Road in Peliyagoda is adjacent to a Buddhist Temple. According to the Police a temple hand had alerted the chief priest on hearing the woman's cry for help. The priest in turn had informed the police.
The Police who arrived on the scene had rushed the victim to hospital but she had succumbed to her injuries on the way.
The son who works in Colombo was at his workplace when a relative informed him about the gruesome attack on his mother .
The three suspects included an airforce deserter, a relative of the victim and one of their friends.
The key suspect, the relative, surrendered to Police on January 10, while the other two are evading arrest.
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