In an unprecedented campaign to ferret out lurking LTTE operatives, the Sri Lankan police swooped down on scores of lodges in Colombo and its suburbs at the crack of dawn on Thursday, and whisked away hundreds of Tamil guests from the troubled Northern and Eastern Provinces.
Official sources said that 376 Tamils, including 85 women, were taken away in buses to be sent back to their homes in the North-East.
This is the first time that Tamils from the North-East have been actually sent back to their homes forcibly. Earlier, small numbers of Tamil terrorist suspects would be taken to the police stations, investigated, and detained or left off. An all-city sweep of the sort which took place on Thursday, has never occurred before, local observers say.
Mano Ganesan, a Tamil member of parliament and head of the Civil Monitoring Mission, said that the Tamils were "forcibly" removed from the lodges and put in buses at Wellawatte, Bambalapitiya, Messenger Street and Pettah. Raids had been conducted in Wattala also.
Political sources said that the senior Muslim leader and West Province Governor, Alavi Mowlana, intervened, and requested the police to exercise some restraint.
In Pettah alone, there are 68 lodges, owned by Tamils and catering to fellow Tamils from the North-East and the tea plantations in Central Sri Lanka. Pettah is the city's main wholesale market and traditionally, it has had a strong Tamil and Muslim presence.
Most of the Tamil visitors from the North-East come to the capital for medical treatment, opportunities to acquire an education, or for getting visas to go abroad. Tamil sources say that, on any day, there would be at least 5,000 Tamils from the North-East in the lodges in and around Colombo.
Reasons For Ouster
Sri Lankan Police chief, Victor Perera, had said that those Tamils from the North-East who could not "adequately and legally' explain their coming to and staying on in Colombo, would be asked to go back to the North-East.
If transport was a problem, buses would be arranged, he offered. The buses would go as far as Omanthai in the North and Batticaloa in the East.
The Defence Ministry had also asked lodge owners to be "cautious" in giving out rooms to Tamils from the North-East and not to encourage guests from there to stay beyond a month or two.
The Defence Spokesman, Keheliya Rambukwella, said that these measures became necessary after the LTTE blasted two claymore mines in and around the capital in the recent past. The first went off near the harbour at Pettah, and the second near the Ratnamala military airport.
"Experience in the past 10 years shows that LTTE operatives use the lodges in the city to stay and plan out terrorist strikes," Rambukwella said on Wednesday.
Investigations in the past few days had brought out the fact that many visitors had lied to the police about the purpose of their stay in the capital, he said.
"In some cases, they said that they applied to foreign embassies for visas. But inquiries showed that these embassies had not received any such applications."
High Level Backing For Abductions Alleged
With abductions of Tamil and Muslim businessmen for ransom becomingthe order of the day in Colombo, the opposition United National Party (UNP) took up the matter in parliament on Wednesday.
UNP MP from Badulla, Lakshman Seneviratne, alleged that a DIG ofColombo; a former Air Force officer; and a member of the security team of a cabinet minister, were involved in the racket.
According to the Civil Monitoring Commission, over 70 Tamils were abducted in 2006-2007. Some were LTTE suspects, admittedly taken by the Security Forces in their "covert" anti-terrorist operations. But many were taken for ransom, by groups allegedly enjoying state support. Many returned after paying ransom, some were killed, and some
are still to come back.
Recently, Muslim businessmen have become the target. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader and cabinet minister, Rauff Hakeem, took up the issue in parliament on Wednesday, and said that there was a "fear psychosis" among Muslim businessmen.
Some were thinking of leaving the country, he said. Some Tamils too have been toying with the idea, business sources say.
UNP MP Seneviratne said that given the gravity of the problem,parliament should appoint a committee to go into the abduction wave.
However, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the government defence Spokesman, Keheliya Rambukwella, maintain that the allegations are mostly "false" and are made by the opposition parties, NGOs and even reputed foreign organisations with the aim of discrediting the government and Sri Lanka in the eyes of the world.