Political supporters clash in Sri Lanka

Government supporters hurl stones at opposition activists demonstrating against the arrest of their defeated presidential candidate.

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA // Government supporters hurled stones at thousands of opposition activists demonstrating against the arrest of their defeated presidential candidate in Sri Lanka's capital today. Clashes began outside the country's supreme court, where opposition supporters gathered to protest the arrest of former army chief Sarath Fonseka, who was taken into custody by military police on Monday on sedition charges.

The opposition says the detention is illegal and an attempt to harass them ahead of new parliamentary elections scheduled for April 8. Government supporters - who decided to hold a counter rally at the supreme court - threw rocks and chased away the opposition demonstrators. Police were deployed in the area but did not intervene until opposition members started fighting back. They then shot tear gas at them.

"We were walking peacefully when we were attacked by government goons," said Marina Abdeen, an opposition supporter. An Associated Press photographer said some opposition members had bloody head wounds. A hospital official, Pushpa Soyza, said three civilians and two policemen were treated for minor wounds. Thousands of opposition supporters demanded Mr Fonseka's release while burning life-size posters of the president, Mahinda Rajapaksa.

They also smashed coconuts, a local tradition based on a belief it could bring divine intervention to their cause. The clash is the first salvo in what promises to be a bruising pre-election period leading up to the parliamentary poll. It follows an acrimonious presidential election in which Mr Rajapaksa secured a landslide victory over Mr Fonseka. One-time allies, Mr Fonseka and Mr Rajapaksa were both considered heroes by Sri Lanka's Sinhalese majority for crushing the Tamil Tiger rebels, who were fighting for a homeland for minority Tamils.

However, their relationship deteriorated after the war ended in May. Opposition members said yesterday they would launch a series of countrywide protests following Mr Fonseka's detention. The arrest of the former army chief will likely serve as a warning to others who might seek to challenge the ruling party's grip on power. Already, media rights groups rank Sri Lanka among the most dangerous places in the world for dissenting journalists.

Mr Rajapaksa's ruling coalition is hoping to secure a two-thirds majority in parliament, giving it virtually unfettered control of this island nation, off the southern tip of India. * AP