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Colombo - Heavily-armed troops guarded Sri Lanka's lone maximum security prison on Saturday after helping to crush the country's worst jail riot in three decades, which left 27 people dead and 43 wounded.
Army spokesman Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya said the soldiers handed back the sprawling Welikada jail in the capital Colombo to the prisons department after ensuring calm had been restored following Friday's riot.
“We have withdrawn troops from the prison, but we are still maintaining a presence along the perimeter,” Wanigasooriya told AFP.
Prisons Minister Chandrasiri Gajadeera said 11 of the dead were recovered from the prison where inmates fought with elite police commandos who were carrying out a search for drugs and mobile phones on Friday evening.
“Sixteen bodies are at the hospital and another 11 were found in the prison today,” Gajadeera told parliament Saturday. “I have appointed a three-member committee to investigate the incident.”
Friday's violence was the worst prison riot since July 1983 when more than 50 ethnic Tamil prisoners were massacred at the same jail by majority Sinhalese prisoners during anti-Tamil riots that had gripped the country.
A number of inmates climbed onto the prison roof and fired at troops and police on the ground while a handful hijacked a three-wheel auto rickshaw taxi which was stopped by heavy gunfire from security personnel.
Inside the jail there were intense gun-battles lasting several hours between rioting inmates and the police Special Task Force (STF) commandos who had been drafted in to carry out the search.
The prisons minister said inmates seized 82 weapons, including automatic assault rifles, after storming an armoury and grabbing weapons from commandos. They were all later recovered.
The rioting caused extensive damage to the prison headquarters inside the jail complex.
“Sixteen people were already dead when they were brought to hospital last night and another 43 are being treated,” Colombo National Hospital director Anil Jasinghe told AFP.
Officials said the 11 bodies recovered from the prison Saturday would be taken to a morgue for autopsies.
“Among those in hospital are 13 STF personnel, four soldiers and one civilian bystander,” Dr Jasinghe said, adding gunfire also wounded the head of the STF, deputy inspector-general R. M. Ranawana.
It was not immediately clear if any convicts managed to escape.
Afghan, Indian and Pakistani inmates being held at the jail were unaffected, a prison source said, adding that they were being held in a different wing.
Witnesses said the dead appeared to be mainly inmates but a hospital source said at least one jail guard was among the dead.
“The STF search inside the prison went on for about five hours and they recovered a lot of contraband,” another security official told AFP. “As commandos were completing their raid, the inmates turned on them.”
There was similar violence at the same penitentiary on January when 25 inmates and four guards were wounded.
In 2010, more than 50 police and prison guards were wounded in a riot during another raid to seize illegal mobile phones. - Sapa-AFP