By Norman Palihawadana and Sarath de Silva
Seven persons including five prisoners and two jailers were killed when a group of gunmen dressed in police style uniforms launched an audacious daytime attack on a prison bus at Ethanamadala in Kalutara around 8.30 am yesterday.
Among the dead was notorious underworld kingpin Aruna Udayashantha alias Kaduwela Samayan, police said. The prisoners who died in the attack were henchmen of the underworld leader, police claimed.
Nine prison officers injured in the attack had been admitted to hospital, police said.
The inmates were being transported from the Kalutara Prison, where they were on remand pending trial for various crimes, to the Kaduwela Magistrate court to appear in a case against them when the attack took place.
The attackers blocked the prison bus by barricading the road with a van in a wooded area about two kilometres from the prison.
They had been clad in what looked like police uniforms and armed with assault rifles and revolvers, survivors told the police.
About 15 gunmen had taken part in the attack, they said.
A senior police officer said that yesterday’s ambush was the deadliest gang-related attack in the country in recent times.
Police Spokesman Priyantha Jayakody said investigations had already revealed that the attack was due to gang rivalries.
Other suspects killed in the attack have been identified as Thilak Mallika, Prasanna Sampath, Kelum Priyankara, and Prasanna Kumara. The prison officers who perished in the attack were S. Santhiyagam and jailer S.R. Wijeratne.
Police said the attack had lasted for about ten minutes. The van used to block the prison bus had been left at the crime scene, police said.
Prisons Minister DM Swaminathan said the prisons Department had repeatedly asked for police protection when notorious criminals were transported, but there had been no positive response. Had there been sufficient police presence the incident could have been averted, he said.
The Minister said that he had appointed a special committee to investigate the daring attack.
Senior police officers who spoke on condition of anonymity said that there was no need for police protection. The prison officials who transported them had their own measures to meet threats. They were trained in the use of firearms and all of them carried T-56 weapons. Why the prison guards had failed to respond to the threat and let the attackers escape should be investigated, a senior police officer said.
Aruna Udayashantha alias Kaduwela Samayan and his cohorts were on remand for attempted murder and plotting murder, prison sources said. An orphan, he had been adopted by a teacher couple who taught at Ranala Primary school.
Aruna had first got addicted to ganja and then graduated to heroin. He had spent all the money earned by his adopted parents on drugs. He had served a prison sentence for attacking a group of young men at Kaduwela sometime back. He was again imprisoned for killing a businessman on a 500,000-rupee contract at Pettah. Police said that Aruna had been suspected of involvement in nearly 20 killings. He was nabbed with a T56 assault rifle by Mirihana Special Investigation Unit several months ago and remanded. While he was being escorted to the Kaduwela Magistrate court on Sept. 23, 2015 an unknown gunman shot at him but he escaped with injuries.
When the news of Aruna being killed was aired on radio, many people had come out on the streets in Kaduwela and Ranala and lit fire crackers and partied to celebrate the killing, police said.