COLOMBO (AFP) — An outspoken ethnic Tamil opposition MP was shot dead during a New Year service at a Hindu temple in the Sri Lankan capital Tuesday, the third assassination of a minority legislator in two years.
Thiagarajah Maheswaran from the United National Party (UNP) was a vehement critic of the government's escalating war against Tamil Tiger rebels and a campaigner for the rights of Tamils in the Sinhalese-majority island.
"He had several bullet injuries including to the head," Colombo National Hospital spokeswoman Pushpa Soysa said. "Another 12 people who were wounded have been brought for treatment and one of them also died."
The killing came just two weeks after Colombo withdrew security from the MP, who later declared in parliament that the government would be responsible if anything happened to him.
The government has given no explanation why it withdrew his security detail but critics say it was to pressure the lawmaker to tone down his criticism of the administration's pursuit of its war against the Tamils.
Another Tamil legislator fearful of being killed said last week he would flee the island after the government slashed his number of bodyguards.
Sri Lanka's moderate Tamil politicians have become targets of both extremist Tigers as well as hardline elements backing the military campaign against the guerrillas.
The rebels do not tolerate any other representative speaking in the name of the Tamils, while Sinhalese hardliners believe any Tamil politician is a tool of the Tigers.
The assassination came as the government vowed to escalate its war with Tamil Tigers. The defence ministry reported at least 25 rebels had been killed in fresh fighting in the north of the island since Monday.
The government said a suspect had been arrested over the assassination inside the Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, the god of destruction, and was being treated in hospital. It was not known how he was injured.
Maheswaran represented the northern Jaffna peninsula controlled by the government but cut off from the rest of the island by Tiger-held territory.
Along with criticising the military's offensive against the guerrillas, he campaigned for human rights amid frequent reports of murders and disappearances in Jaffna, and for the release of Tamil detainees.
The MP, who would have turned 42 next week, survived a similar attack two years ago.
His killing at a place of worship revived memories of the 2005 shooting death of Tamil legislator Joseph Pararajasingham during a Christmas mass in the eastern Batticaloa district.
In November 2006, another Tamil MP, Nadarajah Raviraj, was gunned down as he drove out of his home in Colombo. Both killings remain unsolved.
Maheswaran's UNP blamed the government for Tuesday's assassination.
"The security of Mr. Maheswaran was withdrawn two weeks ago by the government despite repeated appeals that his life was in danger," UNP general secretary Tissa Attanayake said.
The gunman was believed to have been mingling with devotees when he pulled out a revolver and shot Maheswaran at close range.
"It's too early to point a finger at any suspects," a police official at the scene told reporters, adding an investigation was underway.
A witness said several shots were fired.
"There was a large crowd at the temple and suddenly we heard several bursts. First we thought it was crackers and then I saw several people falling," said devotee Ravi Kumar. "The service was underway when the shooting started."
Maheswaran, a former minister of Hindu religious affairs, was at the front of the congregation, he said.
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »