Protesters in Sri Lanka storm president’s residence, office

Protesters demanding Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa resign forced their way into his official residence and nearby office on Saturday, local television reports said, as thousands of people demonstrated in the capital against the island nation’s worst economic crisis in recent memory.

It was not clear if Rajapaksa was inside the residence in the capital, Colombo, but footage shot on mobile phones showed a large number of people inside the well-fortified house and on the grounds outside.

A government spokesperson, Mohana Samaranayake, said he had no information about whether Rajapaksa had left the residence.

Later Saturday, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe offered to resign after party leaders in parliament demanded both he and the embattled president step down.

Wickremesinghe said in a statement that he will resign when all parties have agreed on a new government.

Protesters gather on the grounds of Sri Lanka’s presidential palace in Colombo on Saturday. (AFP/Getty Images)

“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 matters to discuss with the IMF,” he said, referring to the International Monetary Fund. “Therefore, if this government leaves, there should be another government.”

Wickremesinghe’s decision came after protesters, many who have occupied the entrance of Rajapaksa’s office for the past three months, overturned barricades to vent their fury against a leader they hold responsible for the nation’s worst economic crisis since its independence in 1948.

Video posted on social media showed hundreds of protesters running into the president’s residence, chanting “Gotta go home,” calling the president by his nickname.

At the president’s office, security personnel tried to stop protesters who passed through the fences and stormed the colonial-era parliament building, which has been converted into the president’s office.

More than 30 injured

At least 34 people, including two police officers, were wounded in suffles as protesters tried to enter the residence. Two of the injured are in critical condition, while others have sustained minor injuries, said an official at the Colombo National Hospital who spoke on condition of anonymity, as he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Thousands of protesters had entered the capital from the suburbs earlier on Saturday after police lifted an overnight curfew.

Protesters react after police fire tear gas to disperse them in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, on Saturday. (Amitha Thennakoon/The Associated Press)

Footage released on Saturday showed people in a jubilant mood taking a dip in the garden pool of the president’s residence. Some lay on beds, others made tea and drank, and made “statements” from the conference room that Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe must immediately quit.

Wickremesinghe said he suggested to the president to have an all-party government, but he didn’t say anything 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 contacts to resuscitate a collapsed economy. But people’s patience wore thin as shortages of fuel, medicine and cooking gas only increased and oil reserves ran dry.

Many protesters accuse Wickremesinghe of trying to save Rajapaksa when he came under pressure to resign, as every other member of his powerful political dynasty had quit the cabinet.

Protesters demanding the resignation of Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa swim in a pool inside the compound of the presidential palace in Colombo on Saturday. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has not said anything about Rajapaksa’s whereabouts. (AFP/Getty Images)

Months of protests have nearly dismantled the Rajapaksa political dynasty that has ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades. One of Rajapaksa’s brothers resigned as prime minister last month, and two other brothers and a nephew quit their cabinet posts earlier.

Last month, Wickremesinghe said the country’s economy has collapsed. The government’s negotiations with the IMF have been complex because it has now entered negotiations as a bankrupt state.

In April, Sri Lanka announced it is suspending repaying foreign loans due to a foreign currency shortage. Its total foreign debt amounts to $51 billion US, of which it must repay $28 billion by the end of 2027.

Police imposed a curfew in Colombo and several other main urban areas on Friday night, but it was withdrawn on Saturday morning amid objections by lawyers and opposition politicians, who called it illegal.

US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung on Friday asked people to protest peacefully and called for the military and police “to grant peaceful protesters the space and security to do so.”

“Chaos & force will not fix the economy or bring the political stability that Sri Lankans need right now,” Chung posted on Twitter.

Police use tear gas to disperse demonstrators taking part in an anti-government protest demanding the resignation of Sri Lanka’s president. (AFP/Getty Images)

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