Protesters storm Sri Lankan PM’s office after president flees | Protests News

Protesters in Sri Lanka defied tear gas, water cannon and a state of emergency to storm the prime minister’s office after the country’s president was embroiled escape abroadwith crowds demanding that both men resign in the face of the economic crisis.

In a televised statement on Wednesday, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he had instructed the army and police to do “what is necessary to restore order”.

However, armed security personnel stood on the premises of his office as protesters, some holding national flags, milling and taking pictures.

Other protesters have at times stormed state TV studios, as the country’s months-long economic and political crisis appears to be moving into its climax.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 73, promised over the weekend to step down on Wednesday after fleeing his own official residence in Colombo shortly before tens of thousands of people protested against it.

He flew to Neighboring Maldives early Wednesday. As president, he enjoys immunity from arrest, and he is said to have wanted to go abroad before resigning to avoid possible detention.

But midnight passed without notice he had resigned.

Sri Lankan protesters, some holding national flags, on balconies after storming the office of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Sri Lankan protesters, some holding national flags, after storming the office of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe [Eranga Jayawardena/AP Photo]

In his absence, he was appointed Acting President, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose own office was soon abandoned by thousands of protesters.

Tear gas and water cannons fired by police and the declaration of a state of emergency and nationwide curfew failed to disperse them and crowds flooded the building.

One protester was killed by suffocation from tear gas, police said.

Helicopters flew over protesters in Colombo on Wednesday, in what one protest leader called an “attempt at intimidation”.

“We do not accept an illegal state of emergency imposed by an illegitimate prime minister. We want both Gota [Rajapaksa] and Ranil [Wickremesinghe] go rather than impose emergency rule,” protest leader Kalpana Madhubhashini told Al Jazeera.

“The state of emergency was not created to protect the people but to oppress the people. We urge everyone to come and join the rally at Galle Face,” Madhubhashini said, referring to a major protest site in the city.

Wickremesinghe, also 73, will automatically become acting president if Rajapaksa resigns but has himself said he is ready to step down if consensus on forming a unity government is reached.

The presidential succession process can take from three days – the minimum time required for parliament to elect a member of Parliament to serve Rajapaksa’s term, which ends in November 2024 – and up to a maximum of three days. 30 days allowed by statute.

Sri Lankan protesters place orange safety hats over containers of tear gas.
A canister of tear gas lands as protesters storm the residence of Sri Lanka’s prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe [Eranga Jayawardena/AP Photo]

A complicated way out

Rajapaksa is accused of mismanaging the economy to the point that the country has run out of foreign exchange to finance even the most essential imports, leading to severe hardship for its 22 million people.

Sri Lanka defaulted on an external debt of $51 billion in April and is in talks with the International Monetary Fund for a possible bailout.

The island has almost exhausted its already scarce supply of petroleum. The government has ordered the closure of non-essential offices and schools to reduce travel and save fuel.

The departure of Rajapaksa, once known as the “Terminator”, was thwarted for more than 24 hours in a humiliating standoff with immigration officers in Colombo.

He had wanted to fly to Dubai on a commercial flight, but Bandaranaike International staff withdrew from the VIP service and insisted that all passengers go through the public counter.

Mr.’s youngest brother Basil, who resigned as finance minister in April, missed his own Emirates flight to Dubai on Tuesday following a tense argument of his own with airport staff .

Meanwhile, some Sri Lankans and Maldivians have criticized the government in the Maldives for agreeing to host Rajapaksa.

A leader of the opposition in the Maldives, Dunya Maumoon, has expressed concern about her country providing a safe passage for Rajapaksa.

“Of course, we are very concerned about Mr. Rajapaksa’s presence here,” Dunya Maumoon, a former foreign minister and daughter of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, told Al Jazeera from Male.

“I think Mr. Rajapaksa should be in Sri Lanka to face the consequences of his actions,” she said.

“The people of Sri Lanka and the Maldives will be very concerned. One cannot create a situation that leads to the downfall of a nation and then flee to evade justice,” said Maumoon, who is now the chair of the women’s wing of the newly formed Maldivian National Party. .

Additional reporting by Saroj Pathirana in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

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