Sri Lanka opposition candidate escapes stoning
Sri Lanka’s main opposition presidential candidate narrowly escaped a stoning by suspected pro-government activists at a rally Friday, but at least 20 of his supporters were seriously injured in the attack days ahead of the vote.
Rocks and stones were hurled into the crowd of some 20,000 people during a speech by Maithripala Sirisena, who is mounting a serious challenge against President Mahinda Rajapakse, on Friday evening.
Mobile phone footage of the rally shared on social media showed people trying to cover their heads and duck stones thrown from a nearby multi-storied building.
Several victims were seen in blood-splattered clothing and being helped into vehicles to be taken away to hospital.
The assault came as the European Union urged Sri Lankan authorities to ensure a peaceful campaign and a fair election, while monitors warned of an escalation of violence.
Sirisena said attackers targeted him as he addressed a rally at Pelmadulla, 120 kilometres (75 miles) south-east of the capital Colombo.
"This attack demonstrates the presidency’s democracy, good governance and how he protects election laws," Sirisena told reporters.
He blamed pro-government elements for unleashing the attack.
Sirisena said he was whisked away to safety by his bodyguards, but at least 20 people were injured in the incident.
It was not immediately clear how many were involved in the attack, but police said an investigation was underway and arrests were yet to be made.
– Colombo warns EU –
The attack came hours after Sri Lanka’s External Affairs ministry warned the European Union not to be "prescriptive" about next week’s elections after Colombo-based ambassadors urged the government to ensure a peaceful poll.
The ministry was responding to a statement issued earlier Friday by ambassadors that Sri Lankans should be "free to choose their leaders without violence or fear".
"Domestic elections are not for foreign government representatives to be prescriptive about, that too, a few days ahead of the polls," the ministry said in a terse statement.
It accused the diplomats of commenting "on an issue of a strictly domestic nature" and added that Sri Lanka was capable of holding free and fair elections.
Almost all recent elections have been marred by allegations of voter intimidation, abuse of state resources and other electoral malpractice.
The EU statement came a day after Sirisena told foreign envoys that he feared the government may deploy troops to block minority Tamils voting against Rajapakse, who came to power in 2005 and is South Asia’s longest-ruling leader.
Rajapakse is despised by many Tamils after overseeing the crushing end to a 37-year separatist rebellion in 2009 which sparked accusations of rights abuses.
Sirisena left the Rajapakse administration in November to become the main opposition candidate at the January 8 vote.
He has been endorsed by the Tamils’ largest political party, which accuses the incumbent of failing to pursue reconciliation in the wake of the conflict against the Tamil Tiger rebels which left some 100,000 dead.
Sirisena also has the support of Muslims, the second-largest religious majority in the country, and represents a serious threat to Rajapakse, who called the election two years ahead of schedule. (AFP)
This week, UN chief Ban Ki-moon urged the Sri Lankan government to ensure the elections are peaceful and that minorities, including Tamils and Muslims, are able to vote without fear.
The ruling party’s vote sank 21 points at a local election in September, suggesting that the president’s own popularity may be waning five years after he was credited with ending the long and bloody separatist war.