Angered by the economic crisis, Sri Lankan protesters laid siege to the Presidential Palace

  • Thousands of protesters besieged the presidential palace and office
  • Protesters have demanded that the president should step down due to the crisis
  • Party leaders should convene a meeting
  • At least 39 people were injured in the riots

COLOMBO, July 9 (Reuters) – Thousands of Sri Lankan protesters stormed the president’s official residence in Colombo on Saturday to demand his resignation, amid growing public anger over the country’s worst economic crisis in seven decades.

The army and police were unable to contain the crowd of chanting demonstrators, who stormed through heavy metal gates into the waterfront offices of the Finance Ministry and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Rajapaksa left the official residence on Friday as a security precaution ahead of a planned weekend demonstration, two Defense Ministry sources said. Reuters could not immediately confirm the president’s whereabouts.

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Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has held talks with several political party leaders and will convene a meeting under the Speaker’s arrangement on what action to take following the unrest.

A government source told Reuters that Wickremesinghe had also been shifted to a safe place.

A Facebook livestream from inside the president’s home showed hundreds of protesters, some draped in the national flag, huddled in rooms and corridors.

Video footage showed some of them splashing in the swimming pool, while others sat on four-poster beds and sofas. Some people can be seen emptying the chest of drawers in pictures that have been circulated widely on social media.

On the grounds of the white-washed colonial-era presidential residence, hundreds of people were seen, with no security officers to be seen.

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Hospital sources told Reuters that at least 39 people, including two police officers, were injured and hospitalized during the protests.

Economic collapse

The Indian Ocean island of 22 million people is struggling under a severe foreign exchange shortage, which has limited essential imports of fuel, food and medicine, and is mired in its worst economic crisis since independence in 1948.

Soaring inflation, which hit a record 54.6% in June and is expected to reach 70% in the coming months, has heaped hardship on the population.

Political instability could undermine Sri Lanka’s talks with the International Monetary Fund, which is seeking a $3 billion bailout, restructuring some foreign debt and raising funds from multilateral and bilateral sources to ease the dollar drought. read more

The crisis comes after COVID-19 hit the tourism-based economy and reduced remittances from foreign workers.

This is compounded by last year’s ban on the import of chemical fertilizers that devastated agriculture, substantial government debt and rising oil prices. The fertilizer ban was withdrawn in November.

However, many blame the country’s downfall on Rajapakse’s economic mismanagement, and peaceful protests calling for his resignation have been ongoing for months.

Demonstrators dismantled several police barricades in Colombo’s government district before storming government buildings on Saturday.

Police fired into the air but could not stop the angry crowd from surrounding the presidential residence, the witness said.

Despite severe fuel shortages that have brought transport services to a standstill, protesters packed buses, trains and trucks from various parts of the country to reach Colombo for the weekend demonstration.

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Discontent has worsened in recent weeks as the cash-strapped country halted fuel exports, forced school closures and rationed petrol and diesel for essential services. read more

Sampath Perera, a 37-year-old fisherman, joined the protest on an overcrowded bus from the city of Negombo, 45 km (30 miles) north of Colombo.

“We have repeatedly asked Kota (Rajapaksa) to go home, but he is still clinging to power. We will not stop until he listens to us,” Perera said.

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Reporting by Udita Jayasinghe, Devjyot Ghoshal Editing by William Mallard, Sri Navaratnam and Helen Popper

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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