Sri Lankan protesters storm president’s house amid economic crisis

People line up after being given tokens to buy gasoline due to a fuel shortage, amid the country’s economic crisis, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, June 27, 2022.

Dinuka Liyanawatte | Reuters

Thousands of protesters in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s commercial capital, stormed the president’s official residence and his secretariat on Saturday amid months of mounting public anger over the country’s worst economic crisis in seven decades.

Some protesters, holding Sri Lankan flags and helmets, stormed into the president’s residence, video footage from local television station NewsFirst showed.

Thousands of demonstrators also forced the doors of the presidential secretariat on the waterfront, which has been the scene of a sit-in protest for months, and entered the premises, television images showed.

Military personnel and police at both locations were unable to hold back the crowd, as they chanted slogans calling on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to stand down.

Two Defense Ministry sources said President Rajapaksa was evicted from the official residence on Friday for his safety ahead of the rally scheduled for the weekend.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe called an emergency meeting of party leaders on Saturday to discuss the situation and reach a speedy resolution, his office said in a statement.

He also asked the president to convene parliament, the statement said.

Wickremesinghe has also been moved to a safe place, a government source told Reuters.

A Facebook live stream from inside the president’s home showed hundreds of protesters, some draped in flags, thronging rooms and hallways, shouting slogans against Rajapaksa.

Hundreds of people also strolled the grounds outside the colonial-era whitewashed building. No security guard was visible.

At least 21 people, including two police officers, have been injured and hospitalized during the ongoing protests, hospital sources told Reuters.

The economic collapse

The island of 22 million people is struggling with a severe shortage of foreign exchange which has limited essential imports of fuel, food and medicine, plunging it into the worst economic crisis since independence in 1948.

The crisis comes after COVID-19 hit the tourism-dependent economy and reduced remittances from foreign workers, and was compounded by the accumulation of huge public debt, rising oil prices and the import ban on chemical fertilizers last year that devastated agriculture.

Many blame the country’s decline on President Rajapaksa. Largely peaceful protests since March have demanded his resignation.

Thousands of people swarmed Colombo’s government district, shouting slogans against the president and dismantling several police barricades to reach Rajapaksa’s house, a Reuters witness said.

Police fired shots into the air but were unable to stop the angry mob from surrounding the presidential residence, the witness said.

Reuters could not immediately confirm the president’s whereabouts.

Despite a severe fuel shortage that has brought transportation services to a standstill, protesters piled into buses, trains and trucks from several parts of the country to reach Colombo to protest the government’s failure to protect them from ruin. economic.

Discontent has deepened in recent weeks as the cash-strapped country has stopped receiving fuel deliveries, forcing school closures and the rationing of petrol and diesel for essential services.

Sampath Perera, a 37-year-old fisherman, took a crowded bus from the seaside town of Negombo, 45 km (30 miles) north of Colombo, to join the protest.

“We told Gota many times to go home, but he still clings to power. We won’t stop until he listens to us,” Perera said.

He is among millions squeezed by chronic fuel shortages and inflation that hit a record 54.6% in June.

Political instability could undermine Sri Lanka’s talks with the International Monetary Fund aimed at securing a $3 billion bailout, restructuring of some external debt and fundraising from multilateral and bilateral sources to mitigate dollar drought.

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