9th January 2000

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Silent city

Late night operation brings city to a standstill

By Leon Berenger

A busy and crowded metropolis emptied quickly late Thursday evening with residents and home-bound office workers making a mad dash for the safety of their homes after the defence authorities in a surprise move clamped a curfew and then began hunting for suspected Tigers hiding in the city and immediate suburbs.

The curfew imposed at midnight on Thursday was mainly aimed at giving the Army and police an easier task to search known lodges, boarding houses and private residences.

Residents in the city and the suburb of Dehiwala-Galkissa were taken unawares at the turn of events and were forced to retreat early to their homes where the lights were turned down with an eerie silence falling over the capital.

The only sounds that broke the stillness of the night were those of engines of motor vehicles belonging to the police and military and the booted footsteps of the security force personnel making their way through the deserted streets.

The operation that ended at 12 noon on Friday with some 2500 people, including women, being detained in various locations in the city and suburbs.

The curfew which was initially intended to be lifted at 2p.m. on Friday was withdrawn one and half hours in advance apparently to allow the Muslim faithful to join in important prayers since it is the last Friday before Ramazan.

Almost all of those rounded up were from the pre-dominantly Tamil districts of the north and east. They were detained for further questioning as they could not produce proper national identification papers, and some of them were even in possession of altered and bogus identity cards, one senior policeman overseeing the operation said.

Most of them also could not give convincing reasons for their stay in the capital and in some cases they were caught lying, he said. Among those detained are around 200 young women who had arrived in the city from the north and east, he said.

The detainees will now be thoroughly screened to ascertain if they are linked to the Tamil Tiger rebels. Those found to be clean will be freed as early as possible without any charges, the official said.

In another added security precaution the detainees are being held in areas away from where they were arrested in a bid to prevent interference in investigations.

"This way it will be difficult for politicians and other influential figures to apply pressure on the local police stations where the suspects are being held," he added.

Thursday's surprise crackdown comes 48 hours after suspected rebels from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) launched a suicide bomb attack at the gate of the Prime Minister's office in the heart of the capital which left at least 15 people dead and some 65 others injured, some critically.

Earlier state intelligence reported that a large number of Tamil Tiger operatives had infiltrated the city from the north and east. Among the group were at least 12 suicide bombers, mainly females, sent to target key politicians in the government as well as prominent opposition figures.

Meanwhile residents nonetheless welcomed Thursday night's operation despite the inconvenience.

"If these security measures help in enhancing the safety of civilians from terror then it is most welcome and damn the inconvenience," is how Lalith of Second Lane, Dehiwala summed it up.

"There should be more such operations in future," he added while praising the soldiers and policemen for the decent and friendly manner in which they conducted the late night operation.

Curfew worsens container snarl

By Ayesha R. Rafiq

While the current uncertain security situation is causing large scale disruptions in many industries, the sudden curfew declared late on Thursday night intensified the slow downward trend in the container trade, a Customs official said.

A Customs official at the Sri Lanka Ports Authority said that during the past few weeks container traffic had been restricted, both as a security measure and as people were reluctant to either send or receive containers full of goods due to disruptions in traffic.

As a result of the sudden curfew all the container warehouses and stations at the ports remained closed as no officers could report for duty, the Customs official said.

The official said that there were no deliveries to warehouses and also that customers were greatly inconvenienced when they could not collect container loads which had arrived for them, as they could not pay the duty and clear the other red tape.

Only urgent export containers were accepted as they had to be shipped before a specific time period, the official said though he declined to describe the goods the containers were carrying.

Some freight forwarding companies also said their business was disrupted for the rest of the week as a late start on Friday meant they were unable to clear the necessary workload by the end of the day and would therefore have to wait until the next day to finish up the week's business.

The Customs official also said that due to the shortage of staff, the loading of containers onto ships was delayed, disrupting several scheduled operations.

Curfew a damper on their big day

By Faraza Farook

Weddings, engagements and other functions were cancelled or postponed on Friday with the sudden curfew being imposed and uncertainty looming about the security situation.

Bridal couples and their families were tensed wondering how things will turn out on the big day. While some decided to cancel their functions fearing that the situation might turn from bad to worse, others went ahead boldy, come what may.

However, for those who went ahead with their scheduled arangements, everything didn't turn out to be rosy. As soon as they heard of the curfew, family members had rushed to make sure that they obtained curfew passes.

"Everyone at home was in distress all night because the ceremony was to take place in the morning," said Aarthi whose brother was getting married.

In keeping with the tradition of leaving the home at the auspicious time which was around 9.30 a.m and on hearing the special anouncement made on television about issuing curfew passes for those having weddings, her sister had rushed to the police.

But, despite all her explanations, she had been turned away and asked to have the wedding after the curfew was lifted. "The police were unhelpful. There is little co-ordination between the TV anouncements made and the actions of the police," she said.

The sudden curfew not only caused inconvenience to those having functions but also to the staff in the respective hotels and halls.

The Colombo Hilton was short of staff in some of its departments as arrangements were not made for the next shift with the curfew being imposed suddenly. To avoid disruption of services some staff had to be transported to the hotel after obtaining curfew passes.

The people, while agreeing with the Government's move, were at the same time disappointed at their inefficiency to co-ordinate properly.

"Security operations are required but the Government should also have a plan to ensure that people are not inconvenienced," one guest at a wedding said.

Wedding cars and other transport on Friday were stopped and searched at the many checkpoints in the city.

At the Lanka Oberoi where one wedding took place, the hotel cut down the guest list predicting a low turnout. Arrangements for food etc. was made accordingly, a hotel spokesman said. At Hotel Janaki, a wedding scheduled to take place in the morning was postponed for the evening. The Taj too had a dinner cancelled and an engagement postponed.

While the guest turnout at some weddings were low, some functions had a good response despite the curfew.

Contradictory claims on Kumar killing

By Chris Kamalendran

Police are yet to make a breakthrough in the probe on the killing of ACTC leader Kumar Paonnmbalam amidst contradictory claims about the group responsible for it.

Till Friday night no significant progress had been made in arresting anybody responsible for the killing of the controversial politician at Ramakrishna Lane at Wellawatta on Wednesday morning.

Speculation about the responsibility for the killing varied from rival Tamil groups to and anti-LTTE groups, while others linked it to his strong criticism of government policy.

A hitherto unknown group has also claimed the responsibility for the assassination saying that he was a sympathiser of the LTTE.

A fax sent by a group calling itself the 'National Front Against Tigers' gave four main reasons for the assassination.

The fax ostensibly sent from a leading communications centre in Colombo, said the comments made against the President over the Tamil net and in the 'Ravaya' tabloid newspaper by Mr. Ponnambalam, allegedly acting as an agent of the LTTE, discrediting the armed forces and attempting to form a new Tamil front with the backing of the LTTE were the main reasons for assassinating him.

However Police said they did not have any idea about the group which is claiming responsibility for the killing. One of the clues which the police are following is about the person who allegedly travelled in Mr. Ponnambalam's vehicle.

Mr. Ponnambalam had received prior warnings about the person who allegedly travelled with him on that fateful day. The person had reportedly been in contact with Mr. Ponnambalam for the past two months and visited him regulary.

On Wednesday the man had called over at Mr. Ponnambalam's Queens Road residence and told the private security guard there that he wanted to speak to Mr. Ponnambalam. Thereafter he was allowed into the house.

Mr. Ponnambalm had told the family members that he would be back in half an hour. But he never returned.

In recent weeks and months Mr. Ponnambalam has been highly critical of government policy saying it had failed to meet the grievances or aspirations of the Tamil speaking people.

Heartbreak behind the headlines

By Tania Fernando and Avinda Amaratunga

We have just stepped into the 21st century where technology is developing, but yet day to day life seems to be uncertain. While we leave for work etc. with the intention of coming back, but sometimes fate seems to have something different in store for us.

W. A. Yamuna of the Prime Minister's office went to work as usual on Wednesday never knowing that she was going to be a victim of a suicide bomber.

Yamuna (29) of Makawitte, 2 km's from Ja-Ela, had not wanted to go to work on that fateful day, however her destiny seemed to have been sealed when she left home. She has been employed as a Police Constable for the last seven years, with five years at the Prime Minister's office and the previous two years at Police Headquarters.

When we went to the funeral house, Yamuna's body lay in a coffin, her bandaged face covered in a white veil. The evidence of the bomb impact clear to all those paying their respects.

After eight years of courtship she married her childhood sweetheart Lal Hettiarachchi two years ago, who is attached to the Presidential Security Division (PSD). When we spoke to him he seemed to be in total shock and was unable to come to terms with her tragic death.

He kept repeating what a friendly and caring person she was, which was also confirmed by others who were at her funeral. They said that her passion was to join the police force, which caused her death at such a young age. Lal felt that he had no future to look forward to without her and was not sure how he was going to face the bleak tomorrow.

Yamuna's mother who was also grief stricken said that she was in Yakkala, and had fainted in shock, when she got the message. Yamuna's distraught brother spoke to us about his younger sister, with whom he shared a close relationship. When he rushed to the scene of the blast he had found her bloodied body on the ground.

Yamuna's funeral was held yesterday with a large gathering of loved ones, relatives, friends and colleagues. It was clear to all how popular she had been because everyone around wanted to say something nice about her.

In another side of town in Ratmalana the grief stricken husband of Priyanthi Samaramala Wijeratne had just buried his wife when we visited him.

Priyanthi (38) was employed with the Police for the past 14 years with the last four years being in the Prime Minister's office and before at Police Headquarters.

She was married to D. F. Hemantha for the past ten years and they have two sons aged 9 and 3 1/2 years. Her youngest son whom she still breast feeds is unable to comprehend as to what has happened to his mother. When we saw him he was playing about with other cousins, but remembering suddenly he called out for his mother.

Hemantha said how on Wednesday he had received a call asking him to come to the Prime Minister's office, and when he visited all he saw of his wife was her feet and the rest of the body lying in a pool of blood.

That morning Priyanthi in the midst of having breakfast had volunteered along with Yamuna to check the suspected suicide bomber. Priyanthi being brave and duty conscious had gone forward, unaware that as she walked away from her meal she was walking to her death.

Priyanthi had on that day cuddled her eldest son before leaving for work, which was not an usual occurrence as it was her husband who took care of the children in the morning while his wife went about doing her morning chores.

Priyanthi and Yamuna were victims of a suicide bomber on Wedensday near the Prime Minister's office where 13 were killed and over 20 were injured.

While Priyanthi and Yamuna are just two brave females who have sacrificed their lives for you and me to go on with our daily routines, we must at this moment pause and think of the thousand other Yamuna's and Priyanthis who have in their own way sacrificed their lives.

Life is a rare treasure which most us tend to take for granted, but who could say when it will be stolen without a chance to say goodbye, and maybe leaving us with regrets of what we could or should not have done.

Mrs. World: Shivani fifth

By Ayesha R. Rafiq

Fifteen years after Mrs. Sri Lanka, Rosy Senanayake was judged Mrs. World, Sri Lanka has once again hit the international beauty pageant headlines when Shivani Wedanayake was placed fourth runner up at the Mrs. World contest held in Jerusalem recently.

It is also the first time in fifteen years that an Asian has ever been placed in the top five finalists. Mrs. Wedanayake participated with 48 other contestants.

Shivani who was presented a gold medal as a souvenir of her participation and triumph while expressing disappointment at not being able to bring home the crown was however happy that she had been able to come so close to victory.

'I feel that women's goals and aspirations shouldn't end after marriage, and it is when someone is a celebrity that they are noticed and are better able to help people. That is why I decided to take part in the contest', Shivani told The Sunday Times.

Mrs. America was judged Mrs. World 1999 while Mrs. Latvia, Cypress and Croatia were placed as the first, second and third runners up respectively.

Among the judges of the panel was first Mrs. World, Rosy Senanayake.

NMAT wants action plan against terror

By Nilika de Silva

A Declaration on Measures to Eliminate Terrorism was ratified at a conference organised by the National Movement Against Terrorism (NMAT) held at the BMICH last Tuesday.

The declaration drafted by the participants at the conference called upon the government to set in motion the Plan of Action suggested and stated that they offered the government their complete and unstinted support.

The declaration states: "Sri Lankans living here and abroad make the following appeal to all Sri Lankans and the international community. We do so out of love for this country, for the protection of its territorial integrity and its unitary status for the strengthening of our democratic institutions and for the achievement of an honourable peace."

Stressing the need to "comprehend that the on-going military conflict is not an ethnic conflict," the Declaration gives reasons for reaching such a conclusion.

"We appeal to all Sri Lankans and the international community to give deep and meaningful thought to the plight of this country and society, and co-operate voluntarily to eliminate terrorism," the Declaration stated.

"The conference was attended by Sri Lankan representatives living in 16 countries and a distinguished forum comprising professionals working in various fields in Sri Lanka.

The topics under discussion included the spread of terrorism, its economic impact and its development internationally with papers being presented by Professor Oliver Abeynaike, Prof. A.V. de S. Indraratna, Dr. Arjuna Zoysa and Dr. Rohan Gunaratne.

A book titled "Gonagala massacre" was also presented to the people by the NMAT at the conference.

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