COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) – Sri Lanka’s prime minister agreed to resign on Saturday after party leaders in parliament demanded that he and the embattled president step down on the day protesters stormed the president’s residence and office in anger over the deepening economic crisis.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said in an audio statement that he will resign when all parties agree to form a new government.
“Today in this country we have a fuel crisis and a food shortage and we have the head of the World Food Program come here and we have many things to discuss with the IMF. So, if this government leaves there must be another government.
His decision came after the largest protest to have swept Sri Lanka as tens of thousands broke through barriers and entered President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s residence and nearby office to vent their anger against a leader they see as responsible for the country’s worst crisis.
The footage showed people in a euphoric mood as they plunged into the pool garden of the residence. Some were lying on the beds, others making tea and drinking, and making “statements” from the conference room that Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe should resign immediately.
Wickremesinghe said he had suggested to the president an all-party government, but he did not say anything about Rajapaksa’s whereabouts. The opposition parties in Parliament are currently discussing the formation of a new government.
Rajapaksa appointed Wickremesinghe as prime minister in May in the hope that the professional politician would use his diplomacy and contacts to revive the collapsing economy. But people’s patience waned as fuel, medicine and cooking gas shortages increased and oil reserves ran out.
Many protesters accuse Wickremesinghe of trying to save Rajapaksa when he was pressured to resign, as every other member of his powerful political dynasty has resigned from the cabinet.
It was not clear if Rajapaksa was inside his home when he was stormed earlier on Saturday. Government spokesman Mohan Samaranayake said he had no information about his movements.
Opposition MP Raouf Hakim said on Twitter that political party leaders in parliament later met and decided to ask Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe to step down. He said that a consensus had been reached that the Speaker of Parliament would assume the position of interim president and work to form an interim government.
Sri Lanka’s economy is in a state of collapse, dependent on aid from India and other countries as its leaders try to negotiate a rescue plan with the International Monetary Fund. The economic collapse has led to an acute shortage of basic materials, leaving people to suffer To buy food, fuel and other necessities.
The unrest led to months of protests, which nearly unraveled the political Rajapaksa dynasty that had ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades.
The president’s older brother resigned as prime minister in May after violent protests made him seek safety at a naval base. Much of the public anger was directed at the Rajapaksa family, with protesters blaming them for dragging Sri Lanka into chaos with mismanagement and allegations of corruption.
In the president’s office, security personnel tried to stop protesters who stormed the fences to run across lawns and into the colonial-era building.
At least 34 people, including two police officers, were injured in clashes as protesters tried to enter the house. An official at Colombo National Hospital said, on condition of anonymity, that two of the injured were in critical condition while others had minor injuries.
Thousands of protesters entered the capital from the suburbs after police lifted an overnight curfew. With fuel supplies scarce, many crowded buses and trains to come into town to protest, while others made their way on bicycles on foot.
Protest and religious leaders have called on Rajapaksa to step down, saying he has lost the mandate of the people.
“His claim that Sinhalese Buddhists voted for him is now incorrect,” said Fein. Omalpe Sobitha, a prominent Buddhist leader. He urged Parliament to convene immediately to choose an interim president, but said Wickremesinghe did not have the support of the people.
Last month, Wickremesinghe said the country’s economy had collapsed. He said negotiations with the IMF were complicated because Sri Lanka is now a bankrupt country.
In April, Sri Lanka announced the suspension of the repayment of foreign loans due to lack of foreign currency. Its foreign debt totals $51 billion, and it has to repay $28 billion by the end of 2027.
Police imposed a curfew in Colombo and several other major urban areas on Friday night, but withdrew the ban on Saturday morning amid protests from lawyers and opposition politicians who called it illegal.
US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung on Friday asked people to protest peacefully and called on the army and police to “give the peaceful protesters the space and security to do so.”
“Chaos and power will not fix the economy or bring the political stability that Sri Lankans need at the moment,” Chung said on Twitter.
Associated Press writers Bharata Malawarashi in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and Krutika Pathy in New Delhi contributed to this report.