COLOMBO (Reuters) - One person was killed and 13 wounded on Friday in a drive-by shooting at a Sri Lankan election rally attended by the finance minister, a further act of political violence in a nation still recovering from civil war.
Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake called the attack an “act of political terrorism” and blamed forces loyal to former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is attempting a comeback at next month’s general election.
“This act is a complete breach of democracy sponsored by a bankrupt opposition,” Karunanayake, who was unhurt in the attack, told a news conference hastily convened afterwards.
The minister told Reuters that four men sprayed bullets from a car driving past an outdoor rally in the capital attended by about 600 people.
The body of a woman was brought to Colombo National Hospital and 14 people were admitted with gunshot wounds. Four underwent surgery for serious injuries, a hospital official said.
Election monitors said this was the worst incident of poll-related violence since 2001.
Eight months after losing the presidency, the 69-year-old Rajapaksa - who in 2009 crushed an insurgency in the Tamil-speaking north - is appealing to the Buddhist Sinhalese majority to back his bid for the premiership.
Rajapaksa’s spokesman condemned the attack. “It’s a joke to accuse the leader who liberated the country and it’s a shame that a responsible minister is blaming president Rajapaksa even without proper police investigations,” Rohan Welivita said.
The former ally who ousted Rajapaksa in January, Maithripala Sirisena, has meanwhile thrown his weight behind the reformist coalition government - despite still leading Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).
That unresolved contest for supremacy, and a history of electoral violence dating back to the 26-year civil war, could endanger what has so far been a peaceful transition under the coalition government led by the United National Party (UNP).
“We can’t pin anybody responsible at this juncture. But definitely this is an anti-UNP act,” Kusal Perera, a columnist and director of the Centre for Social Democracy, a Colombo-based think tank, said of Friday’s incident.
“If somebody relates it to Rajapaksa, the question you have to ask is what is Rajapaksa going to gain from this. But if similar violence spreads all over the country, then we can pin it to some Rajapaksa elements.”
Additional reporting by Ranga Sirilal; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel and Douglas Busvine; Editing by Mark Heinrich