COLOMBO, Sri Lanka –
Protesters stormed the Sri Lankan prime minister’s private residence and set it on fire, hours after he said he would step down when a new government is formed, in the biggest day of angry demonstrations on Saturday that also saw crowds storm the home and office of the president.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s office said protesters forced their way into his Colombo home on Saturday night. It was not immediately clear if he was inside at the time of the attack.
Wickremesinghe has previously said he will step down only when all parties have agreed on a new government.
He was responding to a call by the leaders of the political parties represented in Parliament for him and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign, after tens of thousands of people flocked to the capital to vent their fury against the leaders they considered responsible for the worst economic and political crisis in the nation. .
“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. Therefore, if this government leaves, there must be another government.” Wickremesinghe said in a voice statement.
But he made it clear that he will not resign before a new government is formed, angering crowds who flocked to his home to force him out of office immediately.
Wickremesinghe said he suggested the president have an all-party government but said nothing about Rajapaksa’s whereabouts. Opposition parties in Parliament were currently discussing the formation of a new government.
Rajapaksa appointed Wickremesinghe as prime minister in May in the hope that the career politician would use his diplomacy and connections to revive a collapsing economy. But people’s patience ran out as shortages of fuel, medicine and cooking gas increased and oil reserves dried up.
Many protesters accuse Wickremesinghe of trying to save Rajapaksa when he was pressured to resign and all other members of his powerful political dynasty resigned from the cabinet.
Privately owned Sirasa Television reported that at least six of its staff, including four reporters, were hospitalized after they were beaten by police while covering the protest near Wickremesinghe’s home.
The Sri Lanka Medical Council, the country’s main professional body, has warned that the country’s hospitals were operating with minimal resources and will not be able to treat the mass casualties of the unrest.
The association said the president, prime minister and government would be held accountable if people were killed or maimed. He urged the leaders to listen to the cry of the people, resign and hand over the reins to an all-party government.
Crowds stormed Rajapaksa’s fortified residence early Saturday. The images showed people in a jubilant mood taking a dip in the residence’s garden pool. Some lay down on beds, others made tea and drank, and made “declarations” from the conference room that Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe must leave immediately.
It was not clear if Rajapaksa was inside her residence when she was robbed. A government spokesman, Mohan Samaranayake, said he had no information about her movements.
Political party leaders in parliament met later and decided to call for Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe to resign, opposition lawmaker Rauff Hakeem said on Twitter. He said a consensus was reached that the parliament speaker should take over as temporary president and work on an interim government.
Sri Lanka’s economy is in collapse and dependent on help from India and other countries as its leaders try to negotiate a bailout with the International Monetary Fund. The economic collapse has led to severe shortages of essential items, leaving people struggling to buy food, fuel and other necessities.
The turmoil has sparked months of protests, which have all but dismantled the Rajapaksa political dynasty that has ruled Sri Lanka for most of the last two decades.
The president’s older brother resigned as prime minister in May after violent protests prompted him to seek safety at a naval base. Much of the public anger has been directed at the Rajapaksa family, with protesters blaming them for dragging Sri Lanka into chaos with mismanagement and allegations of corruption.
At the president’s seaside office, security personnel tried to stop protesters pushing through fences to run through the gardens and into the colonial-era building.
At least 34 people, including two police officers, were injured in a scuffle as protesters tried to enter the residence. Two of the injured are in critical condition, while others suffered minor injuries, said an official at the Colombo National Hospital who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Thousands of protesters poured into the capital from the suburbs after police lifted a nightly curfew. With fuel supplies running low, many boarded buses and trains to come into the city to protest, while others made their way on bicycles and on foot.
Religious and protest leaders called on Rajapaksa to resign, saying he had lost the people’s mandate.
“His claim that he was voted in by Sinhalese Buddhists is not valid now,” Ven said. Omalpe Sobitha, prominent Buddhist leader. He urged parliament to meet immediately to select an interim president, but said Wickremesinghe did not have the support of the people.
Last month, Wickremesinghe said the country’s economy has collapsed. He said negotiations with the IMF have been complex because Sri Lanka is now a bankrupt state.
In April, Sri Lanka announced that it would suspend payment of foreign loans due to a shortage of foreign exchange. Its total external debt amounts to 51,000 million dollars, of which it must pay 28,000 million dollars by the end of 2027.
Police had imposed a curfew in Colombo and several other major urban areas on Friday night, but lifted it on Saturday morning amid objections from lawyers and opposition politicians who called it illegal.
US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung called on people to protest peacefully on Friday, calling 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 at this time,” Chung said in a tweet.
Associated Press writers Bharatha Mallawarachi in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and Krutika Pathi in New Delhi contributed to this report.