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02 March 2024

Sri Lanka eyes unity while nine people were killed in hospital hit

A Sri Lankan Tamil travels by bus to attend a demonstration held in support of government forces and denouncing Tamil Tigers for using civilians as a human shield. (AFP)


Sri Lanka has heightened its usually tight security ahead of national day celebrations even though the rebel Tamil Tigers have been brought to their knees for the first time in decades.
The island marks the 61st anniversary of independence from Britain Wednesday with a military parade while its security forces keep up their biggest and most successful drive so far against the Tigers in the northeast.
"We have information that about 16 suicide bombers may still be waiting for an opportunity to attack," spokesman Ranjith Gunasekera said. "We have taken maximum precautions to prevent bombings."
The 2009 celebrations are staged amid a military offensive to crush the once-invincible Tigers, which the defence ministry says has entered its final phase. The rebels are now cornered in a small patch of jungle.
The guerrillas, who three years ago controlled about 18,000 square kilometres (7,000 square miles), or one third of the country, have now been confined to an area smaller than 300 square kilometres.
The mini-state of the Tigers crumbled last month when troops overran Mullaittivu, the final urban centre in the hands of the Tigers, who failed to defend their territory despite vowing a bloodbath.
"The independence day this time has a special significance," said Lucien Rajakarunanayake, the head of President Mahinda's Rajapakse's press office. "The country is no longer divided. There is a great sense of patriotism and national unity."
Many expect Rajapakse to use the national day to declare that the state within a state has been smashed and that the country's territorial integrity has been restored after more than two decades.
He is also expected to call for national reconciliation in an ethnically divided nation where more than 70,000 people have been killed in the LTTE's drawn-out separatist campaign since 1972.
Rajapakse wants nothing short of total surrender from the Tigers, but he is willing to share power with the ethnic minority Tamils.
"People expect the president to declare that the country is finally free of Tigers when he makes his speech on the fourth of February," said R. Nilantha, an executive at a private radio station.
Colombo tailor Chandana Wijesekera said business had picked up, with officials and senior officers dressing up for the occasion.
"There is more enthusiasm this year among those in the security forces and the police," said Wijesekera. "We have more orders for new ceremonial uniforms from officers attending this year's celebrations."
A man selling the national Lion flag near Colombo's Town Council said he had never seen such brisk business in the city.
Despite the celebratory mood, the capital remains under a tight security blanket. Passengers travelling from the international airport to the city, a drive of 35 kilometres (21 miles), could be stopped at a dozen checkpoints.
Pedestrians are frisked and their belongings searched at random by heavily armed troops and police. The country is under a state of emergency, which gives wide powers to security forces to arrest and detain suspects.
"It is an inconvenience, but we are now used to this," said Gehard Mendis, an engineer at a computer company.
"The security is so tight in Colombo these days, it is better to spend the (national day) holidays outside Colombo," taxi driver Allen Nugera said, referring to additional checkpoints in Colombo.
Traffic is often held up in the capital for long periods to make way for politicians or military commanders.
The country's ethnic Tamils are a national minority, but they make up almost half of the city of Colombo's 650,000 population.
"The Tamils do not particularly feel that there is much to celebrate," said a Tamil resident who declined to be named. "There will have to be a big effort to heal the wounds after the war is over."


Nine killed in hospital hit in northern Sri Lanka

Meanwhile, the Red Cross says three artillery barrages have struck a hospital in Sri Lanka’s chaotic war zone, killing nine patients.
Dr. Thurairajah Varatharajah, the top government health official in the area, said the shells in at least two of the attacks Sunday appeared to have been fired by the Sri Lankan army.
He said they caused extensive damage to the overcrowded Puthukkudiyiruppu hospital.
Red Cross spokeswoman Sarasi Wijeratne said Monday the attacks killed nine people and wounded 20 others. The aid agency did not say which side fired the shells.
The UN confirmed the hospital was hit several times Sunday by artillery shells.
Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said the army was not responsible and blamed the Tamil Tiger rebels. (AP)