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Akuressa attack rattles government

Mahinda Rajapakse - New security concerns
and Ranil Wickremesinghe - Under seige

Last Tuesday, March 10 was a holy day for many Sri Lankans. As a full moon Poya day and the date of the Milad Ul Nabi festival which marks the birth of the Prophet Mohammed - it was a significant date for both Buddhists and Muslims.

By 8. 15 am, people were already gathered at the Godapitiya Jumma Mosque grounds in Akuressa to celebrate the important Islamic festival while non Muslims too had gathered in the vicinity of the mosque to witness the grand celebration.

Scheduled to participate in the celebration were senior Ministers A.H.M. Fowzie, Mahinda Wijesekera, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardene, Pandu Bandaranayake, Chandrasiri Gajadheera and Ameer Ali. 

The ministers arriving from Colombo were to be joined by Southern Province Chief Minister and SLFP Akuressa Organiser, H.G. Sirsena, his son and Southern Provincial Councillor Manoj Sirisena and Matara District Secretary Mrs. S.K. Atukorale.

Ministers arrive

The ministers arrived at approximately 10.30 am and joined the head of the procession which was making its way towards the mosque. A push bicycle was traveling in the opposite direction despite gestures by organisers to clear the road. The bicycle however swiftly moved closer to the ministers.

The procession was just passing a group of traditional dancers when a deafening boom was heard. Most attendees in their innocence believed at first that the noise was that of fireworks as the ceremony was about to begin.

But in seconds it was clear that a human bomb had struck again. There were people covered with blood, others with burns and cuts lay on the floor in a state of shock, unable to comprehend that they had just been fortunate enough to escape death.

Minister Mahinda Wijesekera had fallen on the asphalt bleeding profusely from his head. He was quickly helped into a van by a group of people.

Minister Mahinda Yapa Abeywardene had a few injuries, but his diligent security men quickly escorted him across the road, physically pushed him into a nearby house and firmly shut the door.

"I couldn't tell you what it was like. We honestly though it was the fireworks until we saw the blood and strewn metal," Minister A.H.M. Fowzie told this column.

Other ministers also suffered minor injuries in the Akuressa blast which ultimately left 45 injured and 14 dead.

Meanwhile, President Mahinda Rajapakse was at Temple Trees where the Poya sermon, a tradition since he assumed office had just drawn to a close. The President was speaking to some of his invitees when Additional Secretary Gamini Senarath rushed to his side to whisper that an explosion had taken place at a ceremony attended by several ministers.


The President's eyes mirrored his shock and he quickly inquired as to who were there.  Rajapakse then issued orders that a special medical team be rushed to Akuressa.

President Rajapakse fired a telephone call next to Health Ministry Secretary Athula Kahandaliyanage and ordered that everything be promptly arranged to airlift the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications, Mahinda Wijesekra who was critically injured to Colombo.

Among those who were in Matara but fortunate enough to be away from the scene of the explosion were Ministers Bandula Gunawardena and Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene. Media Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene was attending a Poya Day programme sponsored by ITN held at a temple nearby while Commerce Minister Bandula Gunawardena was officiating another event organised by the Sanasa Bank.

Hearing of the incident, both of them rushed to the Akuressa venue to witness the debris and destruction.

Just as they reached the venue, the helicopter bearing neurosurgeon Sunil Perera and four other medical experts reached the Matara Uyanwatta Stadium. Dr. Perera immediately scanned injured Minister Wijesekera but ruled out emergency surgery at the Matara National Hospital due to a lack of facilities and possible risk.

Having explained the situation, he suggested that Minister Wijesekera be promptly flown to Colombo.

No fuel

As is customary in Sri Lanka however things didn't go according to plan. It soon became clear that the aircraft lacked sufficient fuel to return to Colombo.  Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene quickly ordered that the aircraft be flown to Koggala Air Force Base for refueling.

In the meantime, the doctors attended to the injured and prepared to airlift Minister Wijesekera, Akuressa Organiser H.G. Sirisena and Manoj Sirisena. The two ministers who arrived to lend a helping were also flown to Colombo.

Within half an hour, the medical team and the patients reached Colombo and were rushed to the Colombo National Hospital where Director National Hospital, Dr. Hector Weerasinghe awaited their arrival, having taken all the necessary steps to immediately admit the patients and to commence surgeries.

Minister Wijesekera underwent immediate surgery lasting four hours and was subsequently transferred to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) where he remains under observation. He was initially reported to be in a critical condition but doctors are pleased with his progress so far.

That night, the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) had two special visitors. President Mahinda Rajapakse and First Lady Shiranthi visited Minster Wijesekera at around 7.30 pm.

By then, H.G. Sirisena had regained consciousness and was able to exchange a few words with the President who wished him a speedy recovery and left.

New instructions

The President immediately issued instructions that no minister should hereafter attend any public ceremony of national level without Defence Ministry approval and that local organisers should obtain permission from the nearest police station.

The President also informed the ministers who were gathered at Temple Trees that it was obvious that the LTTE was bent on revenge which called for extra precautions.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking story of the entire incident was that of Gishan Dilroy (40), a personal bodyguard of Minister Mahinda Wijesekera who was instantly killed in the explosion. 

When the telephone call was made to his home to inform of his death, it was his mother who answered the telephone. Hearing the news she suffered a heart attack and died. He and his mother both made their final journey on Thursday.

On Wednesday, Transport Minister Dulles Alahapperuma and Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services Minister, Rishard Bathiudeen visited the hospital to speak to the injured. The latter also handed over cheques of Rs.10, 000 to the injured while those who lost lives were paid Rs. 100,000 as compensation.

Meanwhile, Police Spokesperson SSP Ranjith Gunasekara told this column that the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) had taken over investigations into the Akuressa bombing with four special police teams conducting separate investigations.

Political battles

While the Akuressa bombing shocked the nation anew, the political battles continued unabated within the two main political parties.

Divided to the core and facing imminent break up is the main opposition United National Party (UNP) with two camps now clearly emerging.     

The UNP rebels who earlier demanded a special group meeting want to turn the March 16 parliamentary group meeting into something of a mini battle. The reason for their new belligerence is the stoic refusal of the party leadership to respond to their demand and moves by the incumbent leader to create two new assistant leader posts to be filled by Ranil Wickremesinghe loyalists.

The rebellious group met at the parliamentary rest room on March 5 to discuss future action. Attending the meeting were two neutral members, Kabir Hashim and Party Vice President, Jayawickrema Perera. Hashim wanted to know whether it was possible to tow a moderate line without making the factions visible which would prove detrimental to the party as it prepares for a crucial election.

Rebel strategy

He also asked the rebels as to what course of action they would take in the event their demand - namely Wickremesinghe relinquishing the party leader post - does not take place. The members explained that they would be compelled to boycott working committee meetings, parliamentary group meetings and finally parliament itself to show their protest.

MP Johnston Fernando said if Wickremesinghe refuses to step down, the rebel MPs would not attend any discussion even if they were summoned.

While the meeting was in progress, Sergeant-at-Arms, Anil Samarasekera rushed into the rest room. When the MPs asked why, Samarasekera said he was informed that there was an exchange of blows inside the rest room and he came to check. MP Dayasiri Jayasekera informed him there was no such thing and somebody had given him a dead rope.

There were other curious members dropping by too. SLMC's Fausal Cassim was one such, and he was invited to be seated while the members held discussions.

Next there was UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake who apologised for opening the room door with no knowledge of a meeting in progress. While opening the door, MP Lakshman Seneviratne requested him to be seated and said, "We know you cannot comment. But we are fine if you sit and observe."

Leadership change

The MPs spoke about the need to have a leadership change as well as constitutional amendments to ensure inner party democracy. They openly spoke of appointing Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya as the interim leader and to recognise both S.B. Dissanayake and Sajith Premadasa as deputy leaders.

Jayawickrema Perera and Kabir Hashim persistently asked who in their opinion should be the next leader to which they offered no direct answer.

They however insisted that Wickremesinghe should relinquish the party leadership first and blamed the incumbent for not building a second tier of leadership in the party.

Further they critiqued Wickremesinghe for bringing in Karu Jayasuriya back when there was a call within the party to elevate both Dissanayake and Premadasa to higher positions.

The MPs also alleged that if a snap presidential election is called, the UNP would suffer a severe defeat. Besides, they felt another leader should be groomed immediately to take over the campaign when a general election is announced.

"Such a person will need time to consolidate his position and to work with the team. That appointment should be made immediately," said Lakshman Seneviratne.

In the meantime, the Wickremesinghe camp is also not without options. Those close to the party leadership have now mooted two assistant leader posts be created. The two names that are touted are those of senior members, Vajira Abeywardene and Ravi Karunanayake.

Economic situation

Meanwhile, Ranil Wickremesinghe last week discussed the prevailing economic doom with some of the party frontliners. He brought to their notice that the government that spoke of a culture of non-borrowing from lending organisations has now resorted to requesting a bail out package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Wickemesinghe also told his Economic Affairs Committee that Central Bank Governor, Nivard Cabraal had offered wrong information oftentimes and misdirected the national economy that it was inadequate to merely call for a parliamentary debate on Cabraal but also to study the imprudent decisions made by the Central Bank in the recent past through a special committee.

It was noted by Ravi Karunanayake that parties that threatened to pull the plug off the World Bank were now maintaining silence while the government continued to borrow at high interest rates.

"It is the same Cabraal who made a public statement on January 18 that Sri Lanka's economy was stable and unaffected by the global meltdown. But now he had written to the IMF requesting US$ 1900 million," Wickremesinghe noted.

Losers out

In the meantime, the UNP has taken a decision to remove all electoral organisers who fail to secure their electorates at forthcoming elections. The rebels are now questioning this decision whether it applies to the party leadership that has now set a record of losing consecutive elections.

In the UPFA too, things are far from peaceful. There is a cold war brewing between candidates Thilanga Sumathipala and Duminda Silva as they both silently vie for the top post. There is also the former chief minister of the province, Reginald Cooray appealing to his electorate to ensure he polls the highest preferences to achieve the same target.

But Silva had a head start with a tsunami-like poster and cutout campaign, only to have them removed by a special presidential directive.

Silva last week attended a reception organised to welcome him at the Maligawatte Housing Scheme. Presidential Advisor A.H.M Azwer also attended it. The former UNP parliamentarian during his speech remarked that he was coming from Temple Trees. Next he inferred that he understood why President showered praise on the young candidate at Temple Trees. "It is because he is likely to be the chief minister," he said.

Short-lived joy

Silva beamed, but his happiness was momentary. President Rajapakse was livid when he heard that Azwer made such a faux pas especially when the party has not made a final decision on the top slot.

Last Wednesday, Rajapakse summoned all WPC candidates and issued a few warnings. He told them not to resort to cut throatism and not to attack candidates representing constituent parties such as the JHU and NFF. But he made no reference to the UNP dissidents extending support to the government. "We are in a partnership. Don't attack partners," the President warned.






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