COLOMBO (Reuters) - Thousands of Sri Lankans besieged a government office in the port of Trincomalee on Monday, after an overnight clash outside a navy camp in the latest outbreak of violence related to growing panic over night prowlers dubbed “grease devils.”
Fear over nighttime assaults blamed on grease devils has intensified across rural Sri Lanka, leading to the deaths of at least four people last week. A political undercurrent has also accompanied the wave of panic, with the government and opposition trading blame over the phenomenon.
At least 30 incidents have been reported across seven districts since last month, primarily in areas inhabited by minority Muslim or Tamil people.
Historically, a grease devil was a thief who wore only underwear and covered his body in grease to make himself hard to grab if pursued after pilfering. But lately, the grease devil has become a nighttime prowler who frightens and attacks women.
At least seven were wounded fighting with police outside the navy base in Kinniya, after hundreds of mainly Muslim residents of the eastern coastal area demanded the navy hand over two men who tried to abduct a 28-year-old woman the night before.
“When we asked the navy to hand over the two culprits to us, they said those people were their men and cannot be released. So we started a protest and then the navy started shooting,” a resident told Reuters by phone on condition of anonymity, for fear of angering the authorities.
Residents pelted police with stones after they arrived at the camp, and 25 people were arrested. In response, thousands stormed the government agent’s office in nearby Trincomalee, demanding the release of the 25, which police later granted.
The Navy said that the protests were an attempt to disrupt naval operations designed to prevent illegal fishing, using the grease devil story as cover.
“A Navy vehicle had entered the detachment at midnight and people followed the vehicle were protesting in front of the gate demanding the release of the vehicle and the grease devils, Navy spokesman Commander Kosala Warnakulasuriya said.
Police blamed the fracas on a clash between rival groups.
The police say the grease devils are merely criminals taking advantage of traditional beliefs in spirits and devils in Sri Lanka’s rural areas. The government has mounted a campaign through state media denying the existence of grease devils.
State media on Monday blamed the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), or Peoples Liberation Front, that launched two violent insurgencies in 1971 and 1988-89 for starting the grease devil panic to discredit the government.
“It is suspicious that the government is using the phobia to extend the emergency and use extensive force to suppress the JVP and the agitation from the people,” a JVP statement said.
The Indian Ocean island nation two years ago defeated the separatist Tamil Tigers, but is under heavy Western pressure to abolish its wartime emergency regulations, which allow for warrantless arrest and detention.
Writing by Bryson Hull; Editing by Yoko Nishikawa