Sri Lanka’s prime minister quits as protesters storm presidential residence

Sri Lanka’s prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has said he will resign as escalating protesters over the country’s economic crisis leave the government on the brink of collapse.

Protesters stormed the residence of president Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the capital Colombo on Saturday and the government effectively lost control of the city, prompting party leaders to call on Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe to quit.

In a statement on Twitter, Wickremesinghe said his resignation would make way for an all-party government. Rajapaksa has not commented.

Sri Lanka is struggling through one of the worst economic disasters in its history after it ran out of foreign reserves, leading to crippling shortages of fuel, food and medicine and a dramatic drop in living standards.

The island of 22mn defaulted on foreign debt repayments in May, becoming the first country in the Asia-Pacific region to do so in two decades.

Demonstrators filled the streets of Colombo on Saturday © Chamila Karunarathne/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Tens of thousands of protesters thronged central Colombo on Saturday calling on Rajapaksa to resign. The crowds overwhelmed security forces, which had tear gas and water cannon, and stormed the President’s House and the Presidential Secretariat, his office.

Local media reported Rajapaksa had been evacuated from the residence on Friday in anticipation of the unrest. His whereabouts were unclear. Videos on social media showed the protesters swimming in the president’s pool after occupying the building.

Rajapaksa has defed widespread calls to step down and in May appointed Wickremesinghe in a bid to keep control. But Saturday’s leaders marked a new low for the president, a former military hold on power has become precarious.

A monk throws a tear gas shell fired by police to disperse the protesters in Colombo on Saturday

The crowds overwhelmed efforts by security forces to disperse them © Amitha Thennakoon/AP

The confrontation was the most dramatic escalation of the demonstrations since May, when the clash between pro and anti-government protesters prompted Wickremesinghe’s predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya’s brother, to quit as prime minister.

Sri Lanka is negotiating a multibillion-dollar bailout package with the IMF and is beginning debt-restructuring reviews with its creditors, who include private bondholders and countries including China, Japan and India. Sri Lanka owes more than $50bn in foreign debt.

An IMF team visited Colombo last month but is yet to agree on a rescue deal.

The situation for Sri Lankans, who previously enjoyed some of the highest living standards in South Asia, has deteriorated precipitously. The country last month banned private vehicles from refuelling in order to conserve energy for essential services.

Businesses are struggling to operate because of daily blackouts that last for hours at a time, while authorities have closed schools. Several governments have advised their citizens not to travel to the country, devastating tourismone of Sri Lanka’s most important sources of foreign currency.

Rajapaksa, who hails from one of Sri Lanka’s most powerful political dynasties, was elected in 2019. Together with his brother Mahinda, who served as president between 2005 and 2015, Gotabaya helped bring an end to the island’s brutal civil war in 2009 after leading a military campaign to crush the Tamil Tiger rebels.

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