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The Associated Press: Political supporters clash in streets of Sri Lanka

[AP, Wednesday, 10 February 2010 09:20 No Comment]

Government supporters hurled stones at opposition activists protesting the arrest of their defeated presidential candidate in Sri Lanka’s capital Wednesday, in scattered street battles that prompted volleys of tear gas from police.

The clashes began outside the country’s Supreme Court, where opposition supporters had gathered to protest the arrest of former army chief Sarath Fonseka, who was taken into custody by military police Monday on sedition charges.

The opposition says the detention is illegal and an attempt to harass them ahead of new parliamentary elections scheduled for April 8.

Government supporters — who decided to hold a counter rally at the Supreme Court — threw rocks and chased away the opposition demonstrators. Police were deployed in the area but did not intervene until opposition members started fighting back. They then shot tear gas into the crowd of opposition supporters.

"We were walking peacefully when we were attacked by government goons," said Marina Abdeen, an opposition supporter.

An Associated Press photographer said some opposition members had bloody head wounds.

The clash is the first salvo in what promises to be a bruising pre-election period leading up to the parliamentary poll. It follows an acrimonious presidential election in which President Mahinda Rajapaksa secured a landslide victory over Fonseka.

One-time allies, Fonseka and Rajapaksa were both considered heroes by Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority for crushing the Tamil Tiger rebels, who were fighting for a homeland for minority Tamils. However, their relationship deteriorated after the war ended in May.

Opposition members said Tuesday that they would launch a series of countrywide protests following the Fonseka’s detention.

The arrest will of the former army chief will likely serve as a warning to others who might seek to challenge the ruling party’s grip on power. Already, media rights groups rank Sri Lanka among the most dangerous places in the world for dissenting journalists.

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