COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lankan authorities on Tuesday arrested more than 100 people that threw rocks at police and soldiers who stopped them from chasing men thought to be “grease devils,” or nighttime prowlers who have sparked an island wide spate of deadly violence.
At least five people including a police officer have been killed over the past two weeks in bouts of vigilantism and clashes, prompting deployment of the army and opposition accusations that the government may use the panic to keep wartime emergency laws in place.
Roughly 40 “grease devil” incidents have been reported in nine districts of the country, mostly in areas inhabited by minority Muslim or Tamil people as the government and opposition trade blame over the crisis.
Traditionally, a “grease devil” was a thief who wore only underwear and smeared grease over his body to evade capture.
But it became known as a nocturnal assaulter after a series of ultimately unrelated murders of elderly women arose in a southern area populated by the majority Sinhalese people.
The latest clash, in the military-controlled northern city of Jaffna, followed a familiar pattern. People chased unidentified men thought to be “grease devils,” and then threw rocks at security forces who stopped them from pursuit.
“When the police searched the area for grease devils, people reacted angrily. So police took 100 people for questioning,” military spokesman Brigadier Nihal Hapuarachchi said. A total of 102 were later arrested.
Nevin Pathmadeva, senior superintendent of police in Jaffna, said 22 people including four police officers were injured.
Three area residents told Reuters the army shot into the air when they tried to chase the men, who ran into a nearby military camp. Police and soldiers later beat them with batons.
“I saw black-coloured grease men with bare bodies and underwear running into the army camp when the military blocked us from chasing them,” one of the three residents told Reuters.
All three spoke on condition of anonymity, for fear of angering the authorities. The government has warned of severe punishment for anyone spreading “grease devil” rumours.
Jaffna has been under military control since 1995, when the army wrested it back from the Tamil Tiger separatists. Sri Lanka defeated the Tigers in May 2009, ending a 25-year civil war.
Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s younger brother and a decorated infantry officer who was the architect of the war victory, said the security forces had nothing to do with the “grease devil” mayhem.
“Surrounding military camps and attacking the forces are terrorist acts. Our forces are capable of facing any threat after facing a 30-year brutal terrorist war. So do not try to joke with the forces,” he said at a meeting with leaders of mosques, which the government has said it will protect.
Sri Lanka has suffered from widespread impunity that has flourished amid three insurgencies since 1971, and public anger at ineffective policing has frequently turned violent.
“People in frustration have sought to take law in to their own hands,” the Women’s Action Network, a body of women’s groups working with victims of sexual violence in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, said in a statement.
Writing by Bryson Hull; Editing by Yoko Nishikawa