Sri Lanka under curfew, troops deployed after protesters attacked

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has quit after a day of violence saw three people including an MP killed and over 150 wounded as government supporters armed with sticks and clubs attacked protestors.

Lawmaker Amarakeerthi Athukorala from the ruling party shot two people – killing a 27-year-old man – and then himself after being surrounded by a mob of anti-government protestors outside the city, police said.

Sri Lanka has suffered months of blackouts and dire shortages of food, fuel and medicines in its worst economic crisis since independence, sparking weeks of overwhelmingly peaceful anti-government demonstrations.

On Monday scores of Rajapaksa loyalists attacked unarmed protesters camping outside the president’s office at the sea-front Galle Face promenade in downtown Colombo since April 9, AFP reporters said.

Rajapaksa had addressed some 3,000 supporters at his house and pledged he would “protect the interests of the nation.”

The supporters then initially pulled down tents of protesters in front of the prime minister’s Temple Trees residence and torched anti-government banners and placards.

They then marched to the nearby promenade and began destroying other tents set up by the “Gotta go home” campaign that demands the president step down.

“We were hit, the media were hit, women and children were hit,” one witness told AFP, asking not to be named.

Police fired tear gas and water cannon and declared an immediate curfew in Colombo which was later widened to include the entire South Asian island nation of 22 million people.

Over 150 injured people were hospitalised, Colombo National Hospital spokesman Pushpa Soysa told AFP.

Officials said the army riot squad was called in to reinforce police. Soldiers have been deployed throughout the crisis to protect deliveries of fuel and other essentials but until now not to prevent clashes.

“Strongly condemn the violent acts taking place by those inciting & participating, irrespective of political allegiances. Violence won’t solve the current problems,” Rajapaksa tweeted.

Reporting from Colombo, Al Jazeera’s Minelle Fernandez said thousands of Rajapaksa’s supporters were brought in buses from all over the country to converge at his official residence.

“Mahinda Rajapaksa addressed that group, saying he will do what is best for the public interest. But this group was a very belligerent group, they were spoiling for a fight,” she said.

“The violence unleashed by Rajapaksa’s supporters really started this day of violence.”

The attack on protesters came a day after Rajapaksa was heckled during his first public outing since nationwide protests erupted. On Sunday, the premier visited one of the holiest Buddhist temples – housing a tree said to be 2,300 years old – in Anuradhapura.

Dozens of people carried hand-written placards and chanted slogans demanding that “thieves” be banned from the sacred city, 200km (125 miles) north of Colombo.

‘Week of Protests’
Meanwhile, trade unions on Monday began a “Week of Protests” demanding the government change and its president step down, trade union activist Saman Rathnapriya said. adding that more than 1,000 unions representing health, ports, education, and other key service sectors have joined the movement.

During the week, he said, the workers will stage demonstrations at their workplaces across the country. At the end of the week, they will launch a huge march to parliament, demanding President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s removal and a new government.

Sri Lanka protests
Supporters of Sri Lanka’s ruling party run as police fire tear gas in Colombo [Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters]
The Indian Ocean island nation is on the brink of bankruptcy and has suspended payments on its foreign loans. Its economic woes have brought on a political crisis, with the government facing widespread protests and a no-confidence motion in parliament.

For several months, Sri Lankans have endured long lines to buy fuel, cooking gas, food and medicine, most of which come from abroad.

Shortages of hard currency have also hindered imports of raw materials for manufacturing and worsened inflation, which surged to 18.7 percent in March.

On Sunday, local television channel Hiru showed people in some areas fighting as people blocked main roads to demand gas and fuel.

Sri Lanka was due to pay $7bn of its foreign debt this year out of nearly $25bn it must pay by 2026. Its total foreign debt is $51bn.

Its finance minister announced last week that the country’s usable foreign reserves have plummeted below $50m.

As oil prices soar during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Sri Lanka’s fuel stocks are running out. Authorities have announced countrywide power cuts will increase to about four a day because they cannot supply enough fuel to power generating stations.

Protesters demanding Rajapaksa’s resignation have been occupying the entrance to the president’s office for more than a month now, demanding that the president, his older brother Mahinda and other powerful Rajapaksa family members quit.

Similar protests have spread to other locations, with people setting up camps opposite the prime minister’s residence and in other towns across the country.

So far, the Rajapaksa brothers have resisted calls to resign, though three out of the five Rajapaksas who were lawmakers stepped down from their cabinet posts in April.

Protesters have crowded the streets since March, maintaining that Rajapaksa and his family – who have dominated nearly every aspect of life in Sri Lanka for most of the last 20 years – are responsible for the crisis.

On Friday, Rajapaksa declared a state of emergency, which empowers him to authorise detentions, property seizure and search of any premises. He can also change or suspend laws in the interests of public security and for the maintenance of essential supplies.

Diplomats and rights groups have expressed concern over the move.

Sri Lanka has been holding talks with the International Monetary Fund to get an immediate funding facility as well as a long-term rescue plan but was told its progress would depend on negotiations on debt restructuring with creditors.

Any long-term plan would take at least six months to get under way.



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