Sri Lanka protesters set fire to prime minister's private home in Colombo

Demonstrators also entered president's official residence in the capital

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Protesters have broken into the Sri Lankan prime minister’s private residence and set it on fire, hours after he agreed to step down amid unprecedented demonstrations over the country's continuing economic crisis.

The office of Ranil Wickremesinghe said the protesters forced their way into his Colombo home on Saturday evening.

Earlier, tens of thousands of protesters demanding the resignation of Sri Lanka's President Gotabaya Rajapaksa entered his official residence in the capital on Saturday, television footage showed.

Mr Rajapaksa had already left before protesters stormed the compound, a senior defence source told AFP. "The president was escorted to safety," the source said.

Mr Wickremesinghe said he would leave office once a new government was in place, and hours later the speaker of Parliament said President Gotabaya Rajapaksa would step down on Wednesday. There was no immediate word from the president himself.

"The decision to step down on July 13 was taken to ensure a peaceful handover of power," Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena said. "I therefore request the public to respect the law and maintain peace."

Mr Wickremesinghe, who was the first person in line to succeed Mr Rajapaksa, called a meeting of political leaders and said he was willing to step down to pave the way for a unity government.

Media Minister Bandula Gunawardana announced his resignation from the Cabinet, as well as Mr Rajapaksa's political party, after the meeting. The president's media director Sudewa Hettiarachchi also resigned.

Sri Lankan media reported that thousands of protesters reached the main entrance of the president's house in Colombo's Fort area after breaking through a series of barricades as police pulled back.

Shots were heard as rounds of teargas were fired, the Daily Mirror news site reported.

A Facebook live-stream from inside the president's house showed hundreds of protesters, some draped in the national flag, packed into its rooms and corridors.

Video footage showed some of them splashing in the swimming pool, while others sat on a four-poster bed and sofas. Some were seen emptying out a chest of drawers, in photos widely circulated on social media.

Hundreds milled about in the grounds of the white colonial-era residence, with no security officials in sight.

At the prime minister's residence, video footage showed a fire and smoke coming from the home in the affluent Colombo neighbourhood. His office said protesters had started the blaze.

At least 39 people, including two police officers, were injured and taken to hospital during the protests, hospital sources told Reuters.

Huge crowds had poured into the capital for the demonstration, the latest in months of unrest sparked by the country's economic collapse.

Police had withdrawn a curfew order issued on Friday after opposition parties, rights activists and the bar association threatened to sue the police chief.

Thousands of anti-government protesters ignored the stay-at-home order and even forced railway authorities to operate trains to take them to Colombo for Saturday's rally, officials said.

Sri Lankans have been struggling with severe shortages and soaring prices resulting from a foreign reserves crisis blamed on government policies.

Mr Wickremesinghe, who formed a new government after protesters forced the president's older brother Mahinda Rajapaksa to resign in May, told Parliament last month that the country's debt-laden economy had collapsed.

He said: “We are now facing a far more serious situation beyond the mere shortages of fuel, gas, electricity and food. Our economy has completely collapsed. That is the most serious issue before us today."

With reporting from agencies.

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Updated: July 11, 2022, 11:53 AM
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