TORONTO - Thousands of Tamil protesters who blocked a major highway in Toronto for several hours ended their passionate but peaceful occupation with news early Monday the federal Liberals would raise their concerns.
The impromptu blockade of the eastbound and westbound lanes of the Gardiner Expressway, a major route for people in Toronto and the surrounding area, began around 7 p.m. on Sunday and snarled traffic as protesters rushed the highway.
Video of the Tamil supporters marshalling at the bottom of the on-ramp showed that only a few Toronto police officers stood between the mass of protesters and a highway packed with speeding cars.
The half dozen officers in bright yellow jackets who appeared to be part of bike unit tried to hold them back but the protesters broke through the line and ran onto the road.
The group, including women with babies in strollers, sat down on the highway linking arms and chanting. As the sun set and a damp chill descended, only street lamps illuminated the sea of impassioned Tamils on the highway.
On the front lines of the protest young women held hands and looked into the eyes of officers wearing helmets and holding batons.
"We are losing our people every day. Bodies are every where, nobody is helping," pleaded sitting protester Rathi Vasanthakumar, 41. "Canada please, don't be silent."
Hundreds more protesters also blocked a major downtown intersection outside the Ontario legislature, where many people marched to after the crowd on the highway dispersed.
They cleared the intersection around the same time as the other protesters moved off the highway, but the boisterous protest continued around the legislature into the early morning hours.
The dramatic moves by the Tamils followed similar protests in recent weeks in both Ottawa and Toronto.
Protest spokesman Siva Vimal said leaders decided to end their protest after speaking with the office of Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and receiving assurances he would take up their cause at caucus.
"Why we have come to this point is that for months now the community has been protesting peacefully, and there has been a serious inaction on the Canadian government's part," Vimal said earlier.
"They have not done everything that they can to pressure the government of Sri Lanka to accept international calls for a ceasefire."
Rage and frustration over Sri Lanka's civil war boiled over earlier Sunday after news reports said that an all-night artillery barrage in the country's war zone killed more than 370 people and forced thousands to flee to makeshift shelters along the beach.
Protesters huddled together as temperatures plunged to just above freezing, held candles and placards and shouted chants through a megaphone. "Tamil Tigers, freedom fighters," they yelled, and "no more genocide."
The Tamil Tigers are considered a terrorist group by the Canadian government.
After leaders called for the crowd on the six-lane highway to move they finally descended, chanting "we won," while a line of riot police moved slowly behind the crowd, encouraging them to get off the road, by then littered with water bottles and protest signs.
Some protesters with garbage bags were clearing the litter as they left.
The large-scale protests were spontaneous and one organizer said they were able to mobilize so many people so quickly through word of mouth and through ethnic media.
The Tamils had refused to leave and had demanded to meet with an official from Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office.
Tempers began to fray as the protest dragged late into the night. Police went behind the protest line on the highway and arrested two women and a man.
They now face charges of assault on a peace officer and mischief interfere with property.
After the Gardiner occupation had ended, police chief Bill Blair said he was pleased it came to a peaceful resolution.
"We were able to reach out to some people within the crowd and within the community, (to) receive some help from some community members and some of our political leaders to do a bit of an intervention," he said.
He said the protesters at one point numbered in the thousands.
Earlier in the night, he had said police would take action if negotiations failed but was worried that moving protesters - who included women and children - could cause a stampede.
"It was a bad mistake, they made a very bad mistake going up there," he said.
Mothers cradled children and pushed strollers as young and old sat cross-legged on the dirty pavement chanting during the highway blockade.
"Usually it is the men who are at the front but this time we decided that we women had to be on the front line," said protester Howsiya Sethu, 19.
"We asked, we begged the government. We are fed up."
More than 100 police, including some on horseback, contained the crowd to a narrow area on the elevated roadway near the Spadina Road ramp.
Hundreds of cars were jammed for hours in the traffic havoc created by the highway occupation.
Alayna Longstaffe, was not only stuck on the Gardiner for two hours, she was also stopped by the protest near the legislature, trying to get to her nearby home.
"It's a big inconvenience," she said.
"It's my understanding that people have the right to protest peacefully. I just don't know what they hope to accomplish by protesting in this area. I don't know what I can do to help their cause," she said, throwing her hands up in exasperation.
Headlights from cars stuck in traffic for hours could be seen in both directions and the closure of what is part of a ring road slowed traffic all around and throughout the city.
Police from the surrounding regions sent in officers to assist the Toronto force.
Tamil Canadians and their supporters have been holding protests for several months to demonstrate against violence in Sri Lanka.
-With files from Steve Fairbairn