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Unrest spreads over night attacks by Sri Lankan ‘grease devils’

[guardian.co.uk, Wednesday, 24 August 2011 07:17 No Comment]

Vigilantes attempt to stop nocturnal prowlers blamed for murders, assaults and thefts

More than 40 incidents involving "grease devils" – nocturnal prowlers blamed for assaults and thefts – are being investigated as locals Sri Lankans take the law into their owns hands, chasing the perpetrators vigilante-style.

In the latest clash, in Jaffna, police arrested more than 100 people who threw rocks at authorities after they tried to stop them chasing grease devils. Twenty-two people were hurt. At least five people, including a police officer, have been killed in two weeks, prompting deployment of the army.

According to tradition, a grease devil was a thief who wore only underwear and smeared grease over his body to evade capture. The term is now used for night-time assailants following a series of ultimately unrelated murders of elderly women.

The latest clash, in the military-controlled northern city of Jaffna, followed a familiar pattern. People chased unidentified men thought to be grease devils, and then threw rocks at security forces who stopped them from pursuit.

"When the police searched the area for grease devils, people reacted angrily. So police took 100 people for questioning," said military spokesman Brigadier Nihal Hapuarachchi. A total of 102 were later arrested.

Nevin Pathmadeva, senior superintendent of police in Jaffna, said 22 people including four police officers were injured.

Three residents told Reuters the army shot into the air when they tried to chase the men, who ran into a nearby military camp. Police and soldiers later beat them with batons.

"I saw black-coloured grease men with bare bodies and underwear running into the army camp when the military blocked us from chasing them," one of the three residents told Reuters.

All three spoke on condition of anonymity, for fear of angering the authorities. The government has warned of severe punishment for anyone spreading grease devil rumours.

Jaffna has been under military control since 1995, when the army wrested it back from the Tamil Tiger separatists. Sri Lanka defeated the Tigers in May 2009, ending a 25-year civil war.

Defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s younger brother and a decorated infantry officer who was the architect of the victory, said the security forces had nothing to do with the grease devil violence.

"Surrounding military camps and attacking the forces are terrorist acts. Our forces are capable of facing any threat after facing a 30-year brutal terrorist war. So do not try to joke with the forces," he said at a meeting with leaders of mosques, which the government has said it will protect.

Sri Lanka has suffered from a widespread impunity that flourished amid the three insurgencies since 1971 – public anger at ineffective policing has frequently turned violent.

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