Gunfire at Sri Lanka prison as riot death toll hits eight

Special Task Force personnel at Mahara prison on the outskirts of Colombo, on Nov 30, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

COLOMBO (AFP) - Sri Lankan prison guards shot dead eight inmates and wounded at least 71 others in a riot sparked by anger over rising coronavirus infections, officials said Monday (Nov 30).

Sri Lanka's prisons have seen weeks of unrest as the number of Covid-19 cases soared and authorities banned visits.

Two inmates have died of the disease, and more than 1,200 guards and prisoners have been infected, officials say.

Inmates at the high-security Mahara jail outside Colombo fought with guards through Sunday night after setting fire to the kitchens and an administrative block, and taking two wardens hostage, residents and police said.

On Monday, intermittent gunfire rang out as around 800 security force members - including some 200 police commandos - retook control.

Prison Reforms Minister Sudarshini Fernandopulle said they had no choice but to open fire to prevent a break-out.

"Unfortunately, eight inmates have been killed," Mr Fernandopulle told parliament.

"Prison authorities have moved in and taken full control, but the inmates have caused extensive damage to property."

Medical sources said 71 inmates were admitted to the nearby Ragama hospital, mostly with gunshot wounds.

"The two officers have been rescued and hospitalised," police spokesman Ajith Rohana said.

The riot at the overcrowded jail, holding nearly 10,000 prisoners, began when inmates broke out of their cells to protest after the number of coronavirus infections passed 180, officials said.

Last week authorities banned prison visits and staff from travelling across the country as the number of cases increased.

At the same time, a prisoner was killed when he fell while trying to scale the wall of a jail in central Bogambara region.

The number of Covid-19 deaths across Sri Lanka has increased six-fold this month to 116, while infections have more than doubled to 23,484.

The South Asian island nation of 21 million people eased a three-month curfew on June 28, but a second wave hit in October prompting tighter restrictions.

A riot at Sri Lanka's main Welikada prison in 2012 saw 27 inmates killed by police commandos, who have since been accused of execution-style murders.

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