21 injured in clashes in Sri Lanka over China port deal
At least 21 people have been injured in violent clashes between Sri Lankan government supporters and villagers marching against what they say is a plan to take over private land for an industrial zone in which China will have a major stake.
Police used tear gas and water cannons to try to break up the clashes, which took place as Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was attending an opening ceremony for the industrial zone, near the port city of Hambantota, about 150 miles south east of the capital, Colombo.
The clashes began when government supporters started throwing rocks at villagers who were marching to the ceremony site.
The protesters, organised by the opposition and led by Buddhist monks, responded by throwing rocks at the government supporters. A group that appeared to have been transported to the area by the government joined in, attacking the protesters with poles.
Twenty one people, including three police officers, were taken to a government hospital in Hambantota, a hospital official said.
Sri Lanka's government has signed a framework agreement for a 99-year lease of the Hambantota port with a company in which China will have 80% ownership. Officials also plan to set up a nearby industrial zone where Chinese companies will be invited to set up factories.
The villagers and monks are opposed to it and demand their residential and farmlands be spared.
A court had issued a restraining order on the protest, saying it could lead to unrest, but the protesters defied it.
Mr Wickremesinghe inaugurated the industrial zone despite the clashes. Speaking at the ceremony, China's ambassador to Sri Lanka, Yi Xianliang, said that his country hopes to invest the equivalent of £4 billion in the region within the next five years, and that the new industries are expected to generate 100,000 jobs.
China invested about £1 billion in the port in what some analysts call its "string of pearls" strategy in countries surrounding its rival India. Although the project has seen losses since 2010, Sri Lanka's government, at first critical of the enterprise, approached China to seek help to make it viable.
D.V. Chanaka, one of the protest organisers, said he fears the port area will become a "Chinese colony".
"We are against leasing the lands where people live and do their farming, while there are identified lands for an industrial zone," Mr Chanaka said. "When you give away such a vast area of land, you can't stop the area from becoming a Chinese colony."
After the lease expires, it can be negotiated for another 99 years, according to the framework agreement, whose terms are still being negotiated. The government also has proposed to lease 15,000 acres (6,070 hectares) in Hambantota district and adjoining Moneragala district for the industrial zone.
Mr Wickremesinghe, speaking to reporters earlier in the week, said the partnership arrangement was necessary to free Sri Lanka from the debt incurred to build the port. He blamed the debt on former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose government was friendly to Beijing.