An x-ray shows nails in a hand of L.T. Ariyawathi, 49, who returned to Sri Lanka after 5 months as a maid in Saudi Arabia, in a hospital in Matara, 160 km south of Colombo. Image Credit: Reuters

Colombo: A Sri Lankan maid recovering from surgery to remove 19 nails from her body told doctors her Saudi employer heated the nails and hammered them into her body, an official said on Saturday.

Surgeons at Sri Lanka's southern Kamburupitiya hospital removed 19 out of a total of 24 nails - some two-inches long - and a needle that were in her arms, legs and forehead during a three-hour operation.

Hospital director Prabath Gajadeera said L.T. Ariyawathi, 49, told them her Saudi employer inflicted the injuries on her as a punishment because she found it difficult to communicate with those in the household.

"She said her employer heated the nails and then hammered them into her body," Gajadeera told AFP. "The nails were in her arms, legs and forehead."

He said the woman could not have driven the nails herself.

"It is clear someone else had to drive in the nails," he said. "We will in any case refer her to a psychiatrist for analysis before discharging her from hospital."

She was admitted to hospital last weekend after returning home complaining she was in great pain and unable to walk.

Surgeons at the hospital removed 13 big nails, each two-inches long, and six smaller ones, Gajadeera said.

He said the remaining nails were not immediately removed because the procedure might have resulted in serious nerve damage.

The woman, who travelled to Saudi Arabia in March, was deeply traumatised and unable to give full details initially, but was recovering quickly and would be discharged in about three days, the doctor said.

Officials said the government would pay her more than 3,000 dollars from a fund to help Sri Lankan migrant workers who are abused.

"A cheque for 100,000 rupees ($900) was given to her at the hospital," a spokesman for the foreign employment bureau said, with the balance to be paid soon after she leaves hospital.

The welfare fund also plans to build a home for Ariyawathi, a mother of three, who travelled to Saudi Arabia to earn money to upgrade her mud hut.

She told the local Lakbima Sinhalese language newspaper the husband and wife couple who employed her regularly beat her up and their seven children threatened to kill her.

After employing her for three months, the couple returned her to a job agent, asking him to repatriate her.

"The woman heated the nails and gave them to her husband who hammered them in," Ariyawathi said. "When I shouted in pain, their (seven) children would show me a knife and threaten to kill me."

Sri Lankan police have begun an investigation.

Officials said Sri Lanka was expected to formally take up the case of the housemaid with Saudi authorities shortly.

Some 1.8 million Sri Lankans are employed abroad of whom 70 percent are women. Most work as housemaids in the Middle East while smaller numbers work in Singapore and Hong Kong, seeking higher salaries than they would get at home.

Non-governmental organisations report frequent cases of employer abuse of maids who work abroad.