COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka’s president and prime minister agreed to step down on Saturday after the country’s most chaotic day in months of political unrest, with protesters storming the homes of both officials and burned down one of the buildings. the serious economic crisis of the country.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he would step down once a new government was in place, and hours later the Speaker of Parliament said President Gotabaya Rajapaksa would step down on Wednesday. The pressure on both men increased as the economic crisis trigger severe shortages of essential items, leaving people struggling to buy food, fuel and other necessities.
The police had tried to thwart protests promised by a curfew, then lifted it as opposition lawyers and politicians denounced it as illegal. Thousands of protesters entered the capital, Colombo, and stormed Rajapaksa’s fortified residence. Video footage showed cheering crowds splashing in the garden pool, lying on beds and using their cellphone cameras to capture the moment. Some made tea, while others issued statements from a conference room demanding the president and prime minister leave.
It was unclear whether Rajapaksa was there at the time, and government spokesman Mohan Samaranayake said he had no information on the president’s movements.
Protesters then broke into the prime minister’s private residence and set it on fire, Wickremesinghe’s office said. It was not immediately clear if he was there when the incursion happened.
Earlier, police fired tear gas at protesters who gathered in the streets to march on the presidential residence, waving flags, beating drums and chanting slogans. In total, more than 30 people were injured in Saturday’s chaos.
President Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena said in a televised statement that he informed Rajapaksa that parliamentary leaders had met and decided to ask him to step down, which the president accepted. However, Rajapaksa will temporarily stay to ensure a smooth transfer of power, Abeywardena added.
“He asked me to inform the country that he will resign on Wednesday 13, because it is necessary to hand over power peacefully,” Abeywardena said.
“Therefore, there is no need for further disruption in the country, and I urge everyone, for the good of the country, to keep the peace to allow for a smooth transition,” the speaker continued.
Opposition lawmaker Rauff Hakeem said a consensus had been reached for the Speaker of Parliament to take over as caretaker president and work on an interim government.
Wickremesinghe announced his own impending resignation but said he would not resign until a new government was formed, angering protesters who demanded his immediate departure.
“Today in this country we have a fuel crisis, a food shortage, we have the head of the World Food Program coming here and we have several issues to discuss with the IMF,” Wickremesinghe said. “Therefore, if this government leaves, there should be another government.”
Wickremesinghe said he had suggested to the president to have a multi-party government, but said nothing about Rajapaksa’s whereabouts. Opposition parties were discussing the formation of a new government.
Rajapaksa appointed Wickremesinghe as prime minister in May in hopes the career politician would use his diplomacy and connections to resuscitate a slumped economy. But people’s patience was running out fuel shortagemedicine and cooking gas only increased and oil supplies dried up. Authorities have also temporarily closed schools.
Sri Lanka announced in April that it was suspending foreign loan repayments due to a shortage of foreign currency. Its total external debt stands at $51 billion, of which it must repay $28 billion by the end of 2027.
Months of protests have all but dismantled the Rajapaksa political dynasty, which has ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades but is accused by protesters of mismanagement and corruption. The president’s older brother resigned as prime minister in May after violent protests led him to seek refuge at a naval base.
With the cost of fuel making it impossible for many other forms of travel, protesters piled into buses and trains on Saturday to get to the capital, while others got around by bike and on foot. At the president’s beachfront office, security personnel tried unsuccessfully to arrest protesters who broke through the fences to run across the lawns and inside the colonial-era building.
At least 34 people including two police officers were injured in scuffles. Two were in critical condition, while others were lightly injured, according to an official from the Colombo National Hospital who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Private television Sirasa said at least six of its staff, including four journalists, had been hospitalized after being beaten by police while covering the protest at the prime minister’s home.
The Sri Lankan Medical Council, the country’s main professional body, has warned that hospitals are operating with minimal resources and will not be able to handle the massive casualties caused by the unrest.
Protest and religious leaders said Rajapaksa had lost his mandate and it was time for him to go.
“His claim that he was elected by Sinhalese Buddhists is not valid now,” said Omalpe Sobitha, a prominent Buddhist leader. He urged parliament to convene immediately to choose an interim president.
On Friday, US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung urged people to protest peacefully and called on the military and police “to give peaceful protesters the space and security to do so”.
“Chaos and force will not fix the economy or bring the political stability that Sri Lankans need right now,” Chung tweeted.
Associated Press writers Bharatha Mallawarachi in Colombo and Krutika Pathi in New Delhi contributed to this report.
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