Troops killed at least 15 protesters on Thursday during banned demonstrations by Marxist rebels trying to topple President Junius R. Jayewardene.
Military officials said that about 25 people were wounded and 2,000 detained when thousands of people demonstrated in southern districts to demand the overthrow of the government.
The Marxist People’s Liberation Front, which mounted the demonstrations, staged a strike that crippled the Indian Ocean island of 16 million people.
The front, opposing last year’s peace agreement with India, held the “day of national protest” Thursday to coincide with declarations of candidacies for the Dec. 19 presidential elections.
Jayewardene is not running for reelection, but Sinhalese extremists claim his government is incapable of conducting fair elections.
In Colombo, soldiers in armored cars blocked streets leading to the town hall where nomination papers were presented. About 1,000 armed policemen stood guard.
Dozens of bodyguards, some wearing bulletproof vests, surrounded the three candidates: former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, leader of the opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party; current Prime Minister Ramasinghe Premadasa, the candidate of Jayewardene’s United National Party, and Ossie Abeygoonesekera of the United Socialist Alliance, a three-party coalition.
In a leaflet issued Wednesday, the Marxist front urged the people to “sweep away the murderous government of Jayewardene.”
Jayewardene responded by ordering troops to shoot troublemakers on sight, clamping curfews on potential trouble spots and threatening to fire hundreds of workers if they heeded the front’s strike call.
The front, made up of youths of the majority Sinhalese community, defied government orders and mounted demonstrations in southern areas.
Thousands of people marched through the streets in Tangalle and Tissmaharama in the southern Hambantota district and in Monaragala. Tangalle is a coastal town 100 miles southeast of Colombo; Tissmaharama is near the coast 40 miles northeast of Tangalle, and Monaragala is an inland town 40 miles north of Tissmaharama.
Military officials said soldiers opened fire after the demonstrators ignored appeals over bullhorns to disperse and warning shots were fired in the air.
Sources said five marchers were shot and killed in Tangalle, six in Tissmaharama and four at Monaragala. Twenty-five people were wounded in a scramble to escape when shooting broke out, and three soldiers were wounded when some demonstrators fired weapons, the sources said.
The police have blamed the front for the killings of more than 500 people, mostly from the ruling United National Party, since Jayewardene and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi signed the peace accord in July last year.
The pact, which seeks to end a revolt by the Tamil minority, has been criticized by the front as a sellout to India and the Tamils.
It wants the agreement abrogated and the 50,000 Indian troops brought to Sri Lanka to hunt down Tamil guerrillas sent home.