Sri Lanka’s President Chandrika Kumaratunga declared a state of emergency today, hours after her foreign minister, an ethnic Tamil who led efforts to ban the Tamil Tiger rebels as a terrorist organisation, was assassinated at his home.
The military blamed Tamil rebels for the killing, putting the island’s already fragile peace process further at risk.
Lakshman Kadirgamar, 73, who was shot in the head and heart about 11pm last night (6pm Irish time), died in the National Hospital after midnight.
“A state of national emergency has been declared to facilitate enhanced security measures and effective investigations of this act of wanton terror,” President Kumaratunga’s office said in a statement.
“The president appeals for calm and restraint in the face of this grave and cowardly attack.”
During a state of emergency, authorities have the power to detain without charge anybody suspected of involvement in terrorist activities, and to search and demolish buildings.
As dawn broke over Colombo, dozens of military trucks moved into the city and soldiers took up positions at major intersections.
The military is checking all vehicles coming in and out of the capital, Brigadier Daya Ratnayake said, adding that helicopters and planes had been deployed to monitor the movement of Tiger rebels.
Navy patrol boats were also ordered to guard the coastline, some of which is controlled by the Tigers.
Late last night, elite soldiers and policemen cordoned off the area where the killing occurred, conducting house-to-house searches. Two people were arrested at a nearby house.
Police officer Nimal Lewke said two snipers had hidden in a building near Kadirgamar’s heavily-guarded home in Colombo’s diplomatic district and fired through a ventilation hole in an upper floor.
Police found cheese and chocolates they ate while waiting for their target, along with a grenade launcher thought to have been intended for use as a back up weapon.
Ratnayake, who said police last week arrested two Tamil men who were shooting video in the area, blamed the rebels for the killing.
“We have reasons to believe that he was killed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamileelam,” Ratnayake said. “He was always under threat.”
But Justice Minister John Seneviratne was more cautious.
“We can’t say as yet who’s behind this, but the minister had been getting threats,” he said.
An Oxford-educated lawyer, Kadirgamar led an international campaign against the Tigers, who remain on terrorist lists in five countries, including the United States and Britain.
Long considered a top Tamil rebel assassination target, Kadirgamar had strongly supported a negotiated peace settlement.
A spokesman for the rebels declined to say if the group was responsible.
“I’m waiting for a reaction from our leaders,” Daya Master said by telephone from the rebel-controlled town of Kilinochchi.
But, he added, government officials “always put the blame on the LTT whenever such things happen.”
A website sympathetic to the guerrillas said the slain minister obstructed the rebel cause.
“In short Kadirgamar was responsible for our stagnated campaign in the international scene,” the pro-rebel Nitharsanam website said.
President Kumaratunga, meanwhile, hailed Kadirgamar as a national hero.
“He waged a relentless struggle against terrorism in all its forms, despite continuous threats to his life,” she said in the statement, blaming his killing on “political foes … determined to undermine attempts toward a negotiated political solution to the ethnic conflict”.
Rebel attacks against Sri Lankan political leaders were once common. Kumaratunga was gravely wounded in a 1999 assassination attempt. Police blamed Tamil rebels for that attack, which killed 26 people.
Such high-level attacks stopped after a February 2002 ceasefire, but tensions have recently increased between the government and the rebels.
Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu of the independent think-tank the Centre for Policy Alternative said moves toward a lasting peace between the two sides will be difficult with the Tigers now suspected in the assassination.
“We are now exposed to greater risks,” Saravanamuttu said.
The Tamil Tigers began fighting in 1983 for a separate homeland for ethnic Tamils in the country’s north and east, claiming discrimination by the majority Sinhalese. The conflict killed nearly 65,000 people before the Norway-brokered ceasefire.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice denounced the assassination as “a vicious act of terror, which the United States strongly condemns”.
Rice urged Sri Lankans not to let the assassination lead to a resumption of civil war.
India today called the assassination a “terrorist crime” and reiterated its support to the island nation's fight against forces seeking to undermine its unity.