COLOMBO: Sri Lankan troops were called in to quell a prison riot that left 27 dead and 43 wounded after gunbattles with inmates who seized weapons during a police search for contraband, authorities said Saturday.
Prisons Minister Chandrasiri Gajadeera said 11 dead bodies were recovered Saturday from Colombo's maximum security Welikada prison where inmates fought with elite police commandos who carried out the search on Friday.
"Sixteen bodies are at the hospital and another 11 were found in the prison today," Gajadeera told parliament. "I have appointed a three-member committee to investigate the incident."
Friday's violence was the worst prison riot since July 1983 when more than 50 ethnic Tamil prisoners were massacred at the same jail by majority Sinhalese prisoners during anti-Tamil riots that had gripped the country.
Army spokesman Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya said soldiers recovered six bodies of inmates from the prison on Saturday morning after the army was called to bring the situation at the jail under control.
"Police requested our assistance and we deployed troops...," Wanigasooriya told AFP. "We have recovered a large quantity of weapons from prison wards and search operations are underway."
Witnesses reported intense gunbattles lasting several hours between rioting inmates and police Special Task Force (STF) commandos who carried out a search for drugs and smuggled mobile phones.
Prisons minister said inmates had seized 82 weapons, including automatic assault rifles, after storming an armoury. He said there was extensive damage to the prison head quarters located within the same Welikada jail complex.
"Inmates have hidden some of the weapons inside their wards and we are now searching for them," prison commissioner P. W. Koddippili told reporters. He gave no further details.
A military officer at the scene on Friday night told AFP that inmates had initially grabbed weapons from STF commandos and engaged in deadly gunbattles.
"Sixteen people were already dead when they were brought to hospital last night and another 43 are being treated by this morning," Colombo National Hospital director Anil Jasinghe told AFP.
Officials said the 11 bodies recovered from prison wards on Saturday would be taken directly to a morgue for autopsies.
"Among those in hospital are 13 STF personnel, four soldiers and one civilian bystander," doctor Jasinghe said, adding that the head of the STF, deputy inspector-general R. M. Ranawana, was also wounded by gunfire.
Some of the inmates got onto a roof and fired at troops and police on the ground while a handful hijacked three-wheel auto rickshaw taxi which was stopped with heavy gunfire from security personnel.
It was not immediately clear if any convicts managed to escape.
Army troops used armoured personnel carriers to enter the facility, witnesses said.
Afghan, Indian and Pakistani inmates were also at the same jail, but they were unaffected, a prison source said adding that they were being held in a different section of the vast complex.
Witnesses said the dead appeared to be mainly inmates. A hospital source, however said, at least one jail guard was also among those killed.
"The STF search inside the prison went on for about five hours and they recovered a lot of contraband," another security official told AFP. "As commandos were completing their raid, the inmates turned on them."
There was similar violence at the same penitentiary in January when 25 inmates and four guards were wounded.
In 2010, more than 50 police and prison guards were wounded in a riot during another raid to seize illegal mobile phones.