COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lankan police fired tear gas and water cannon on Wednesday to stop unemployed graduate protesters entering a high security area near President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s official residence.
Rajapaksa has been riding a wave of popularity since the defeat of Tamil Tiger rebels in May ended a 25-year civil year, but is now coming under pressure from protests and strikes by trade and student unions ahead of elections in early 2010.
Unemployed graduates, who have been staging rolling protests for the past 29 days demanding decent jobs, said they were attacked by the police when the tried to go to the president’s house to meet him and discuss their problem.
“The Rajapaksa government’s police attacked us with tear gas and water cannons,” Dhammika Munasinghe, media spokesman for the Unemployed Graduate Union, told Reuters. “We will not move from this place up until we meet the president.”
After a stand-off of more than four hours, police fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannon to disperse the protesters, who caused a huge traffic jam in the commercial heart of Colombo.
A Reuters witness said at least 10 protesters were injured. The union said six graduates were hospitalised in the earlier clash.
Police said they were forced to use tear gas and water cannon to stop the protest march and defend themselves.
“They were trying to enter into a high security zone and they also attacked some police officers,” Nimal Mediwake, a police spokesman, said.
The protesters are backed by a Marxist opposition party, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), a former Rajapaksa ally that helped him to win the presidency in 2005.
Sri Lanka has a long history of protests and strikes by trade and student unions before elections, and the JVP is expected to use its widespread union influence to counter Rajapaksa’s post-war popularity in the run-up to national polls.
Editing by Alex Richardson