COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Sri Lanka’s government said today that 12 minority Tamils were arrested during overnight raids in connection with the slaying of the nation’s foreign minister, a killing that officials blamed on the Tamil Tiger rebels and warned could rupture the island’s fragile peace process.
The raids took place in and around the capital, Colombo, and netted 11 Tamil men and one Tamil woman, said Brig. Daya Ratnayake, the spokesman for the defense ministry.
“It was a part of joint operation by the army, the navy and the police,” said Ratnayake. “They are being interrogated, but at this moment of time we don’t want to say anything.”
Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, 73, an ethnic Tamil who led efforts to ban the Tigers as a terrorist organization but later backed peace efforts, was shot in the head and chest late Friday after finishing a swim at his home.
The military blamed the Tamil Tiger rebels for the assassination, but the separatist group insisted it was not responsible.
On Saturday, soldiers scoured the capital for suspects, and helicopters and military jets patrolled over rebel-controlled territory, though the government said it had not taken steps to break the cease-fire with the Liberation Tigers of Tamileelam.
An official who leads government peace efforts, Jayantha Dhanapala, called Kadirgamar’s slaying “a grave setback to the peace process.”
“Restarting (the peace process) will be seriously undermined,” he told reporters.
The Tigers began fighting in 1983 for a separate homeland for ethnic Tamils, claiming discrimination by the majority Sinhalese. The civil war killed nearly 65,000 people in the country of 19 million before a Norwegian-brokered cease-fire in 2002.
Subsequent peace talks broke down, however, over rebel demands for greater autonomy in the areas under their control in eastern and northern Sri Lanka.
The rebels’ political chief denied any role in the killing and criticized officials for “hastily blaming” the group.
“We also know that there are factions within the Sri Lankan armed forces operating with a hidden agenda to sabotage the cease-fire agreement,” said S.P. Tamilselvan. He urged the government to thoroughly investigate the killing.
Sri Lankan officials were skeptical.
“We find it extremely difficult to accept the denial,” government spokesman Nimal Siripala de Silva told reporters. “It’s very, very difficult to accept.”
Still, he said the government would take no action to violate the truce.
Police Inspector General Chandra Fernando said six shots were fired at Kadirgamar by one or two snipers, and three bullets hit him. The assassins fired through a hole they had made in a building opposite Kadirgamar’s house, in Colombo’s diplomatic district.
Police said they found cheese and chocolates that the snipers ate while waiting for their target, along with a grenade launcher, apparently intended as a backup weapon.
Several people were detained for questioning, but Fernando refused to say how many. “It can be seven to 70,” he said.
The state of emergency declared by President Chandrika Kumaratunga empowered authorities to detain without charge anyone suspected of taking part in terrorist activities and to search and demolish buildings.
She appealed to Sri Lankans “for calm and restraint in the face of this grave and cowardly attack.”