Sri Lanka's Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigns after latest protest violence

Loyalists armed with sticks and clubs seen attacking unarmed protesters camping outside the president's office

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Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned on Monday over the country's worsening economic situation and violence at mass protests to clear the way for a “new unity government”, his spokesman Rohan Weliwita said.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the prime minister's younger brother, accepted the resignation, office representative Sudeva Hettiarachchi said.

The resignation paves the way for the president to appoint opposition members to important government roles, a solution he has proposed to end the crisis. But it’s unclear if the resignation of Mr Rajapaksa, 76, will placate angry citizens, many of whom have called for the president to step down as well.

The move comes as Sri Lanka posted troops on the streets and imposed an indefinite nationwide curfew after government supporters attacked protesters outside President Rajapaksa's office in the capital Colombo.

Ruling party parliamentarian Amarakeerthi Athukorala died after a stand-off with anti-government protesters in the town of Nittambuwa near Colombo, a police source told Reuters without giving details. At least three others were wounded and the atmosphere in the area remained tense with dozens of protesters still on the streets, the source said.

Dozens of demonstrators have been injured elsewhere in Sri Lanka.

Rajapaksa loyalists armed with sticks and clubs attacked unarmed protesters who have been camping outside the president's office since April 9, AFP reported. Footage shared on social media, purporting to be from Colombo, showed fires burning on the streets.

Officers fired tear gas and water cannon on the government supporters, who breached police lines to smash tents and other structures set up by anti-government protesters. The violence against peaceful protesters was condemned internationally.

"Strongly condemn the violence against peaceful protesters today," British High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Sarah Hulton said on Twitter. "The authorities have a responsibility to safeguard citizens’ rights to protest peacefully and to hold the perpetrators of violence to account."

The Indian Ocean island nation is on the brink of bankruptcy and has suspended payments on its foreign loans. Its economic woes have led to a political crisis, with the government facing widespread protests and a no-confidence motion in the Sri Lankan Parliament.

Supporters of Mr Rajapaksa had earlier rallied inside his office, urging him to ignore the protesters’ demands for him to step down.

After the meeting, they went to the front of the office where people have been demonstrating for several days. Local television channel Sirasa TV showed pro-government supporters attacking protesters with clubs, demolishing and later burning down their tents.

Meanwhile, trade unions on Monday called for protests throughout this week, union activist Saman Rathnapriya said, and more than 1,000 unions representing health, ports, education and other vital service sectors have joined the “Week of Protests” movement.

Protesters made accusations on Sirasa TV that police did not interfere to prevent the attack by pro-government supporters, despite using tear gas and water cannon on protesters as recently as Friday.

At the main hospital in the capital Colombo, 23 wounded people were admitted although none in critical condition, an official said on condition of anonymity, as she was not authorised to speak to the media.

The attack came as protesters marked their 31st day outside the president’s and prime minister’s offices. They have been demanding that the president, his older brother Mahinda Rajapaksa 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.

Dire economic situation

For several months, Sri Lankans have endured long queues 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 per cent in March.

Protesters have blocked main roads to demand gas and fuel. On Sunday, local TV channel Hiru showed citizens in some areas fighting over fuel.

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

Sri Lanka’s finance minister announced this week that the country’s usable foreign reserves have plummeted below $50 million.

As oil prices soar during the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Sri Lanka’s fuel stocks are running out. Authorities have announced nationwide cuts that will afford people about four hours of power a day because they cannot supply enough fuel to power generating stations.

Updated: May 11, 2022, 10:03 AM