Sri Lanka’s prime minister resigns amid protests over economic crisis

The country has seen civil unrest since March, with demonstrations sometimes turning violent as anger mounts over the government’s apparent mishandling of Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis since independence from Britain in 1948.

On Monday, police announced a nationwide curfew after clashes erupted between ruling party supporters and anti-government protesters in the capital, Colombo. The restrictions were announced shortly before Rajapaksa announced his resignation.

Colombo National Hospital said at least 80 people were taken to hospital following the violence in the protests. The armed forces are deployed to Colombo, according to the CNN team on the ground.

Rajapaksa’s office released a statement announcing the resignation of the 76-year-old veteran politician, Reuters reported.

“Moments ago, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa sent his letter of resignation to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa,” the statement said.

In the letter, a copy of which was seen by Reuters, the prime minister said he had resigned to help form an interim unity government.

“Many stakeholders have indicated that the best solution to the current crisis is the formation of an all-party interim government,” the letter read.

“Therefore, I submitted my resignation so that the next steps can be taken in accordance with the constitution,” he added.

His departure came during a day of chaos and violence that culminated in the police imposing a nationwide curfew.

The standoff began with hundreds of ruling party supporters outside the official residence of the prime minister before marching to an anti-government protest site outside the presidential office.

A Reuters witness said police formed a line early on the main road to the site but did little to stop the pro-government protesters from advancing.

Special Task Force (STF) riot police pictured on Monday.

Government supporters, some armed with iron bars, attacked anti-government protesters in the tent village “Gota Go Jama” that emerged last month and became the focal point of protests across the country.

Police used tear gas and water cannons to break up the standoff, the first major clash between government supporters and opponents since the protests began in late March.

Government supporters march on Monday.

“This is a peaceful protest,” Basindu Senanayaka, one of the anti-government protesters, told Reuters. “They attacked Gota Jo Jama and set our tents on fire.”

“We are helpless now, we are begging for help,” Senanayaka said, as black smoke rose from a burning tent nearby, and parts of the protest camp were in disarray.

Dozens of paramilitaries with riot shields and helmets were deployed to separate the two groups after the initial clashes. The military said it had also deployed soldiers to the area.

“We strongly condemn acts of violence committed by the instigators and participants regardless of their political allegiances,” President Rajapaksa said in a tweet. Violence will not solve current problems.

Clashes took place outside the official residence of the Prime Minister.

Last week, Finance Minister Ali Sabri said Sri Lanka, which has been hit hard by the pandemic, high oil prices and tax cuts, has no more than $50 million in usable foreign reserves.

The government has approached the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for the rescue, and will begin a virtual summit on Monday with IMF officials to secure emergency assistance.

Facing rising anti-government protests, the Rajapaksa government last week declared a state of emergency for the second time in five weeks, but public discontent is steadily rising.

Long queues for cooking gas in recent days have often turned into impromptu protests as frustrated consumers block roads. Local energy companies said they are running out of stocks of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) used mainly for cooking.

Sri Lanka needs at least 40,000 tons of gas per month, and the monthly import bill will be $40 million at current prices.

“We are a bankrupt country,” said WK Wijabitia, chairman of Laugevs Gas, one of the country’s major gas suppliers.

“Banks don’t have enough dollars for us to open credit lines and we can’t go to the black market. We’re struggling to keep our business going.”

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