One dead in Sri Lanka shooting as political crisis escalates

One person has been killed and two others wounded in Sri Lanka‘s capital, Colombo, when the bodyguard of a cabinet minister under ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe opened fire at a crowd of protesters. 

The shooting on Sunday came amid a constitutional crisis triggered by President Maithripala Sirisena’s sacking of the prime minister and his cabinet.

Ruwan Gunasekara, a police spokesperson, told reporters that a bodyguard for Arjuna Ranatunga, Wickremesinghe’s petroleum minister, fired live rounds at a crowd of people loyal to Sirisena when they attempted to prevent the dismissed minister from entering his office at the state-run Ceylon Petroleum Corporation.

A 34-year-old man was killed in the incident, according to the police.

The guard who opened fire was arrested and a probe was now under way, the police said. 

The shooting was the first incident of serious violence since Sirisena’s Friday decision to replace Wickremesinghe with Mahinda Rajapaksa, a former president accused of human rights abuses and corruption. 

WATCH: Sacked Sri Lanka PM given ‘deadline’ to vacate residence (2:23)

Wickeremesinghe, 69, insists his sacking was unconstitutional and has called for an emergency parliament sitting to prove he still commanded a majority in parliament.

But Sirisena has suspended parliament until November 16 in an apparent bid to shore up support for Rajapaksa’s appointment.

Speaker Karu Jayasuriya recognised Wickremesinghe as the lawful prime minister earlier on Sunday, and asked the president to back the sacked leader’s request to retain the “rights and privileges” of his office until another candidate could prove a majority in parliament. 

“I consider the said request to be a democratic and fair request,” the parliament speaker said in a letter to Sirisena. 

Jayasuriya, a member of Wickeremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP), also urged Sirisena to reconsider his decision to suspend parliament, saying the decision has “serious and undesirable consequences” for Sri Lanka. 

According to the website of Sri Lanka’s parliament, Wickremesinghe’s UNP has 106 seats in the 225-member House, while Sirisena’s UPFA has 95.

Supporters of the sacked PM gathered outside his official residence in Colombo [Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters] 

Constitutional crisis

Wickremesinghe has meanwhile resisted moves to evict him from his official residence, defiantly summoning allies for a crisis meeting as hundreds of his supporters, including Buddhist monks, amassed outside the colonial-era residence in Colombo on Sunday. 

His opponents said they will ask the police to seek a court order to evict the sacked prime minister, threatening to escalate the standoff as neighbours and Western nations asked all sides to exercise restraint and respect the constitution. 

Sirisena has reportedly withdrawn Wickremesinghe’s security detail and official cars. 

The pair joined forces ahead of a 2015 presidential election to defeat Rajapaksa, who ended Sri Lanka’s decades long civil war against Tamil separatists.

But relations between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe have soured amid disagreements over economic policy and administration of the government.

‘Past abusive practices’

Elsewhere in the country, Rajapaksa, the newly-appointed prime minister, travelled to a highly venerated temple in the central district of Kandy to seek blessings from monks ahead of naming a new cabinet.

Human Rights Watch said Rajapaksa’s return to power has raised fears about a recurrence of “past abusive practices”. 

Meenakshi Ganguly, the New York-based rights group’s South Asia director, noted Sirisena came to power promising good governance and accountability for alleged atrocities committed at the close of the country’s bloody civil war in 2009. 

“Sirisena made that promise to the victims of the war, to the Tamil people. And now in this surprise move, he has brought back the very person he ran against,” she told Al Jazeera. 

“This is very concerning for victims of human rights violations, especially those who have come out and spoken out against Rajapaksa’s government. Now they are going to be very worried about their own security.”

Mahinda Rajapakse ended Sri Lanka’s decades long war against Tamil separatists [Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP]

Meanwhile, journalists at state-run media have alleged intimidation from Rajapaksa’s supporters, and AFP news agency said loyalists of the former president now control the headquarters of two state-run television channels.

Privately-run newspapers on Sunday described Sirisena’s move against Wickremesinghe as a “constitutional coup”.

India said it was “closely following” events in Colombo.

“As a democracy and a close friendly neighbour, we hope that democratic values and the constitutional process will be respected,” Raveesh Kumar, India’s foreign ministry spokesperson, said on Sunday.

The United States and European Union ambassadors in Colombo have called on the Sri Lankan rivals to follow the constitution and avoid violence.  

China’s ambassador to Colombo met separately with Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe on Saturday, officials said. Colombo-based Western diplomats also met with Wickremesinghe for a briefing on the sacking.

Rathindra Kuruwita contributed to this report from Colombo

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