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Sri Lankan police protect sand miners and threaten protesting priest and villagers

Sri Lankan police threatened residents of a Mannar village including the local priest when they protested against Sinhalese people illegally extracting sand from the village.

Residents of Thottaveli have for several years complained of illegal sand mining causing environmental damage to the area and leaving villages prone to flooding and soil erosion.

While local authorities including the divisional and district councils have repeatedly denied giving permission for sand extraction the problem has persisted due to the perpetrators producing ambiguous permits for other purposes, obtained from southern politicians.

In this latest incident on Wednesday, villagers, led by parish priest Father Alexander Benno Silva, confronted the sand miners. Following a verbal exchange, the miners initially agreed to refrain from extracting the sand.

However, a short while later, the extraction vehicles returned, this time with a police escort.

The villagers once again took to the streets and carried out a road-block to prevent the sand mining from taking place.

During a confrontation with police, one officer pushed Father Benno to prevent him from getting on his motorcycle, and continued to verbally threaten him and other residents while filming the women that were protesting.

As tensions were heightening, senior priests from the Mannar diocese and the head of the Mannar police station went to the village and attempted to defuse the situation.

The offending police officer was made to apologise to Father Benno, although villagers continued to criticise the police for protecting the sand miners.

The problem of sand mining continues to grow across the North-East, causing worsening relations between police and communities.

Tamil groups say the police use the issue as a guise to target and surveillance communities, accusing police departments of taking bribes to protect actual perpetrators.

In 2017, an unarmed Tamil man was shot dead by police in Vadamarachchi during a purported confrontation about sand mining.