COLOMBO: Buddhist monks began a hunger strike today, demanding the immediate release of the former army chief who was arrested after his failed bid for the presidency on an opposition ticket.

The arrest of Sarath Fonseka has been condemned by the opposition and human rights groups, who accuse the government of retaliating against a man who dared challenge President Mahinda Rajapaksa in his re-election bid. They say the government is trying to cow the opposition before April 8 parliamentary elections.

Despite his detention, Fonseka is running for a seat in parliament as the leader of the opposition Democratic National Alliance.

Rev Wakamulle Uditha said yesterday the monks gave the government 24 hours to free Fonseka, who faces a court-martial.

With no word from the government, the monks began a “fast-unto-death” today. Uditha said they vowed to “continue it until he is released.” Fonseka was arrested in February and is accused of preparing his presidential campaign while still in uniform and also breaching rules in purchasing military hardware. He has denied the charges.