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Tamils bring their fight to Westminster

Demonstrators take over Parliament Square to highlight war in Sri Lanka

Tamil activists vowed to spend a second night on the streets of London last night after hundreds of demonstrators converged on Parliament to protest at the worsening conflict in Sri Lanka.

Police have struggled to contain the crowds who managed to blockade Westminster Bridge on Monday night and were yesterday camped out on Parliament Square.

The unauthorised protests began on Monday afternoon. The demonstration caused widespread traffic disruption and led to at least five arrests. The authorities appear to have been caught off guard by the protests which were organised by Tamil students texting each other. The protests drew more than 3,000 people on Monday night as demonstrators blocked Westminster Bridge, while some threatened to throw themselves into the Thames below. Four lifeboats were scrambled in response and at least two people did jump into the water. Both were taken to hospital.

Early yesterday morning police forcefully moved the protesters off the bridge and the numbers in Parliament Square appeared to be dwindling. But by the late afternoon the crowds had swollen once again, with as many as 1,000 people thronging the area.

Police "snatch squads", armed with truncheons, caused anger in the broadly peaceful crowd yesterday morning as they repeatedly waded in to remove flags supporting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). It is listed as a terrorist group in Britain but many Sri Lankan Tamils venerate it and regard members as freedom fighters.

Tamil Tiger units are battling the Sri Lankan army, which has won a series of victories over them in the past six months. Tamil activists and human rights groups have accused the Sri Lankan government of committing numerous human rights abuses as they push to take remaining Tamil strongholds. The Sri Lankan government has banned journalists from entering the war zone but the UN estimates there are 155,000 civilians caught up in the fighting.

Last night the Metropolitan Police warned it may have to make a "huge number of arrests" to disperse crowds and said they were confiscating flags which represented a proscribed group under the Terrorism Act 2000. But many of the activists condemned the tactics, saying they were needlessly provocative and risked turning a peaceful crowd into a violent and angry one.

Mathavi Uthayanan, a 26-year-old medical student, said: "These are not LTTE flags - they are our national flags. To Tamils around the world they represent our suffering and our national struggle. We are not supporters of terrorists but we are treated like terrorists simply because we dare to say that there is genocide in our homeland or raise a flag in Parliament Square."

Iven Sinnappu, a 49-year-old businessman from Harrow, said he left Sri Lanka in the late 1970s after a friend was killed by the Sri Lankan army.

"The world completely ignores what is happening to the Tamil people," he said. "Well, now we want to make sure people cannot forget about us. We will stay here for as long as it takes. The killing of Tamils has to stop."

Earlier this year a young Tamil from London committed suicide by setting himself on fire in Geneva in protest at UN inaction over the conflict.