It all began on Friday (9) afternoon, with heavily armed Special Task Force (STF) personnel in search of banned items such as mobile phones, tobacco, alcohol, narcotics, etc among prisoners serving life and long sentences at Welikada jail. The search operation involving more than 200 STF personnel started around 2.00 pm from Ward ‘L’ which [...]


Prisoners at war

= 27 dead, 59 wounded as STF search operation misfires
= Inmates pushed to the wall lay siege to Welikada with weapons stolen from the armoury

It all began on Friday (9) afternoon, with heavily armed Special Task Force (STF) personnel in search of banned items such as mobile phones, tobacco, alcohol, narcotics, etc among prisoners serving life and long sentences at Welikada jail.

The search operation involving more than 200 STF personnel started around 2.00 pm from Ward ‘L’ which accommodates remand as well as convicted prisoners. It began smoothly without incident, until the STF moved towards the Chapel Block housing prisoners on death row.

The STF Commandant being rushed for emergency medical attention after being shot in the abdomen

According to inmates and prison officials, the clash erupted when the STF sought to tie the prisoners’ hands, which led to a heated standoff, and the rest is now known.

“When the situation got out of control, the STF fired tear gas into the cells and wards, when all hell broke loose with the prisoners resisting the STF,” a prisoner told the Sunday Times.

In the heightening chaos, inmates broke through one of the doors, into the prison’s armoury, and armed themselves, when the STF personnel opted to a tactical withdrawal. The standoff that started on the ground, soon reached roof level, as the prisoners virtually took over the entire jail, and were exchanging gunfire with the STF and military personnel who had surrounded the complex.

Some of the inmates were firing from the roof of the prisons while others fired from the cover of the buildings they were sheltering in.

As the clashes intensified, another police party led by Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of Police Anura Senanayake arrived at the scene, but was prevented by Prison officials from entering the premises, for fear of aggravating the situation.

Outside the prison, we witnessed the firing taking place, while vehicles and the public were still continuing to move along Baseline Road opposite the prisons. It was more than an hour after the clashes broke out that the road was sealed off.

Now, more than 250 STF personnel had surrounded the prison complex. Some 50 prisoners were seen on the roof of the prison, with three of them brandishing weapons and firing at random into the air, and onto the main road.

Among those firing were later identified as former army personnel now serving prison terms. An Army patrol including four motorcycles and a jeep arrived at that moment and tried entering the prison.

However, the prison guards outside the prison gates prevented the Army personnel from entering, as the guards felt they could handle the situation, while the involvement of the army would make things worse.
As the Army patrol left the scene, some of the prisoners descended from the roof and the situation seemed to calm down a little, at which point, police opened two lanes of Baseline Road to traffic.

Traffic flow continued for five minutes, when gunfire erupted through the main gate, aimed at the traffic and civilians on the road. The STF present outside, countered with a volley of bullets aimed at the Magazine main entrance. At this point, around 50 prisoners opened the main entrance gate from the inside. The prison guards guarding the gate had vacated the position.

Commandos prepare for an assault while prison guards try to talk prisoners down from the rooftop

The prisoners and the STF exchanged fire for a further 15 minutes, with some prisoners continuing to shoot from the rooftop. Silence followed this exchange of fire. When all seemed calm, a three-wheeler with around six prisoners shot out of the main entrance firing. Instantly, the STF returned fire killing five of them.
A weapon grabbed from the STF was found inside the three-wheeler.

Once the gunfire subsided, the prison’s power supply was cut off and the area was cloaked in darkness. A cry for help could be heard from the downed three-wheeler, but nothing could be done, as firing continued from within the prison. Heavy firing continued between the two groups for a further 15 minutes.

Thereafter the prisoners retreated, having suffered casualties of their own, at which point, the STF was able to investigate the downed three-wheeler, where they found one person still alive, as well as STF weapons among them. A little while later, heavy firing resumed again, which continued for a further 20 minutes. At this point, an Army contingent of 200 plus personnel along with four armoured cars and three jeeps arrived. This allowed the ambulances to recover the injured, but they too came under fire.

A Major General arrived on the scene. Ten minutes later, a squad of 30 commandos and four snipers arrived, outfitted with night vision equipment. The Army fired flares inside to light up the area, all the while exchanging fire. More troops were brought in.

Under cover of darkness, heavily armed Army personnel including sharp shooters, and backed by armoured cars, inched their way into the complex and brought an end to the siege. The standoff had lasted till the early hours of Saturday.

The siege resulted in 27 prison inmates dying and 59 wounded persons that included 10 STF personnel and a pedestrian with the rest being prisoners. Yesterday, Colombo’s Additional Magistrate visited the prisons for an inquiry and ordered the CID to file a full report on November 28.

Prisons minister makes statement in Parliament

By Chandani Kirinde

Prisons Reforms Minister Chandrasiri Gajadeera told Parliament yesterday that rampaging prisoners, using sedatives taken from the medicine store at the Welikda prison to smoothe their nerves, had indiscriminately opened fire on prison guards and troops who rushed in to quell the disturbances.

Hundreds of prisoners had broken free from their cells as the prison officials, aided by members of the Special Task Force (STF), were winding up a search operation of Friday evening, the Minister said in a special statement to Parliament.

The prisoners who broke free were from the two wards where around 900 “special category criminals’ were held, he said. The men had broken into the armoury at the Prison and seized 82 weapons, had fired indiscriminately and ignored repeated requests by prison officials to surrender.

The minister said that on three separate days, prisons officials had tried to search these wards as there was information prisoners were hiding forbidden goods but there was resistance and search operations were called off. On Friday, the prison officials got the assistance of the STF to back them for the search.

The Minister said there were 3,621 prisoners at Welikada and regular checks were carried out to ensure they did not have dangerous items in their possession.

He said that many items were recovered during the search and as officials were leaving the wards, the prisoners had broken free and attacked them.

The prisoners had then raided the armoury and removed weapons and started firing. Some had come out of the prison compound and fired at civilians before trying to flee in a three wheeler. The authorities had called in the army as the 25 prison officials in the compound could not control the prisoners.

When the army entered and issued a call to surrender, this too was ignored by the armed prisoners who continued to fire. In retaliatory fire by the army, at least eleven prisoners were killed. Sixteen more died after admission to the National Hospital on Friday night, the minister said.

All but five of the weapons had been recovered by yesterday afternoon while eleven prisoners surrendered.
A spokesperson for the Prisoners’ Welfare Association told the Sunday Times they were ready to provide counseling and other assistance to the families of the dead prisoners.

Welikada siege fatalities identified

10 of the prisoners killed had been identified by last afternoon. They are:

Condemned prisoners
01. Asurappulige Jothipala alias Kapila – Murder
02. Kankanamlage Malinda Nilerndra Palpola – Murder
03. D.S. Lester Silva- Murder Life-sentenced prisoner
04. Mohommed Vijeya Rohana alias Gundu- Drugs and Murder Remand prisoners
05. Harsha Sri Madakeerthi Perera alias Manju Sri Harsha – Suspect in killing of two Buddhist monks in Kotte
06. Nirmala Athapaththu – Drugs
07. Thushara Chandana alias Kalu Thushara – Hardcore criminal
08. Tissa Kumara – Rape suspect
09. Asfadeen
10. Malik Samila Perera alias Konda Samila – Hardcore criminal

Welikada’s foreign inmates safe

All foreign nationals housed inside Welikada Jail were yesterday reported to be safe, following Friday’s bloody mayhem that left scores dead and many more injured, an official of the External Affairs Ministry (EAM) said.

“According to information received from the Prison authorities, the foreign nationals, both convicts and those in remand pending trial, escaped the incident unhurt”, EAM Media Secretary Sarath Dissanayake told the Sunday Times.

He added that, foreign missions in Colombo have sought information on the wellbeing of their nationals currently in Welikada Jail.

An estimated 100 plus foreign nationals, mostly Asians, are currently behind bars at Welikada Jail. (LB)

Additional reports by Ranjith Perera, Amila Gamage, Susantha Liyanawatha, Mangala Weerasekera, Nilan Maligaspe, Nissanka Meegoda, Hasitha Kulesekera

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