Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar was shot by a sniper outside his home in Colombo on Friday and died in hospital after emergency surgery, raising fears for the island’s increasingly shaky ceasefire.
Kadirgamar, 73, died at the National Hospital in Colombo where he had been admitted in serious condition after being shot from a long distance at his highly guarded residence at Wijerama Mawatte near London Place, Colombo-7, TamilNet reported.
A major security operation using helicopters was launched to catch the assailants with all roads leading to Colombo 7 area blocked by Sri Lanka armed forces, immediate reports said. Reuters quoted police sources as saying two people had been arrested in connection with the attack.
'We must rededicate ourselves to peace and ensuring that the cease-fire remains in force' - Condoleezza Rice
Tension prevails in Colombo following the assassination, TamilNet reported.
Early Saturday, President Chandrika Kumaratunga declared a state of emergency. Her spokesman Eric Fernando said the move would "facilitate the investigation process." The emergency law, used at the height of the conflict , allows authorities to detain without trial anybody suspected of involvement in terrorist activities.
The high profile killing has heightened fears for the Norwegian peace process and the February 2002 ceasefire, which has already been under strain amid a shadow war between Army-backed paramilitaries and the Liberation Tigers.
"It's completely insane, it is a major setback for the peace process," said Erik Solheim, the Norwegian Special Envoy to Sri Lanka.
"The identity (of the assassins) is not clear, but it is evident that suspicion will fall first on the Tamil Tigers," he told AFP in Oslo.
"The situation has deteriorated," Hagrup Haukland, chief of the cease-fire monitors told The Associated Press.
"It's a big, big blow to the cease-fire and the whole peace process irrespective of who is behind this."
He said it was "too early to speculate if there was going to be an outbreak of war," but added that he had informed all monitors stationed in district officers to be on the alert.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice condemned the assassination as a "senseless murder and vicious act of terror" and urged Sri Lankans not to let it lead to resumed civil war.
"Together, we must honor his memory by rededicating ourselves to peace and ensuring that the cease-fire remains in force," Rice said in a statement.
"We call on Sri Lankan citizens to remain calm and to continue on the path of peace," Reuters quoted a US State Department official as saying earlier.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said "we condemn this outrageous and barbaric act."
'It is too early to speculate if there is going to be an outbreak of war' - SLMM chief
A spokesman for UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said "he deplores in the strongest of terms this criminal and senseless act and hopes that the perpetrators will be found and brought to justice."
"Sri Lanka has lost a deeply respected statesman dedicated to peace and national unity," a statement quoted by AFP added.
"The secretary-general hopes that this tragedy will not weaken the commitment of the people of Sri Lanka to achieve a durable peace in the country."
Kadirgamar had come out of the swimming pool at his private residence and was hit in the head and chest, in the attack at around 11pm Friday, reports said.
President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse had rushed to the hospital while security was tightened around Colombo city, the Daily Mirror reported.
"The minister had just returned from a swim and was getting inside his home when he was shot," Inspector General of Police Chandra Fernando told the Associated Press.
He said there were two snipers hiding in buildings nearby. The Daily Mirror reported that a tripod and ammunition had been found in one.
IGP Fernando blamed the shooting on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the shooting, but tensions between the government and the Tigers have spiked recently amid a surge in violence in the volatile eastern region that has sometimes spilled into Colombo.
'Few Sinhalese expected a Tamil to pursue banning the LTTE with such devotion and energy'
Kadirgamar, was a confidante of President Kumaratunga, who appointed him foreign minister in April 2004. He had also been foreign minister in Kumaratunga’s previous governments, from 1995 to 2001.
He has consistently taken a hard line on the Tigers, campaigning internationally against them and arguing against making concessions to them in negotiations to end the civil war.
Kadirgamar led an international campaign to ban the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist organization and the LTTE are on terrorist lists in the United States, Britain and India.
One Indian columnist noted Saturday, "few Sinhalese expected a Tamil to pursue this objective with such devotion and energy."
Kadirgamar was a critic of the Norwegian-led peace process, questioning Oslo's impartiality and frequently protesting what he perceived as slights to Sri Lanka's sovereignty - the state-owned Daily News mourned him on Saturday as "a man who stood for peace, unity and the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka."
Kadirgamar is survived by his wife, Suganthie; and by two children, Ragi and Ajitha, from an earlier marriage, the Associated Press reported.