COLOMBO, SRI LANKA, JULY 28 -- The young man's body lay in front of the main railroad station exactly where he fell when the bullet hit him in the forehead. Around him the crowd surged in panic at the crackle of gunfire and the pop of tear gas grenades from the small line of policemen about 100 yards away.
"They were doing nothing wrong. They were just waiting there," a middle-aged woman said, her voice rising over the din. "The Sinhalese just want their rights. He was just standing there."
Time and again as police tried to keep the crowd of 2,000 to 3,000 in check, the refrain was heard.
"The Moslems have their countries. The Tamils have theirs. The Sinhalese have only Sri Lanka. There is no place else," said Namdana, a 29-year-old bookshop employe.
In reaching an accord that would give Sri Lanka's minority Tamil population a large degree of autonomy in a predominantly Tamil area of the country, 70-year-old President J.R. Jayewardene has hit a raw nerve among many of his Sinhalese coreligionists who feel that they already have been pushed to the limit within their small island nation.
Sri Lanka's predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese argue that the proposed accord concedes too much to the island's mostly Hindu Tamils. Militant Tamils have been seeking an independent state.
Anger at those concessions boiled over today in front of the Fort railway station.
By the end of the day, the area looked like a battleground.
Most of the targets of the crowd's wrath were government property. There were several reports of people in the crowd stopping others who tried to loot Tamil-owned shops. On side streets, however, the looting reportedly went on until Sri Lankan Air Force units arrived in jeeps to clear the area, something the police seemed unable, or unwilling, to do.
Witnesses said they saw police fire repeatedly on the crowds, sometimes with tear gas and sometimes with rifles. Each time a wounded young man was carried from the area, the crowd's anger would grow. When a truck or bus went up in flames, cheers would rise from the mob.
Whether the intensity of feelings reflected by the crowd today continues will do much to determine the success or failure of the proposed peace accord.
"This is a country for all of us, not just Tamils or Moslems or Sinhalese," said Anuma Sumaratna, general manager of a private firm.