Sri Lanka PM Wickremesinghe tells police 'to do what is necessary' after office stormed

State broadcaster Rupavahini went off air after being seized by protesters in Colombo

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Sri Lanka's Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has delivered a televised address ordering the military to “do whatever is necessary to restore order” after thousands of protesters stormed his office on Wednesday.

Mr Wickremesinghe told protesters to leave his office and other state buildings and co-operate with authorities.

“We can't tear up our constitution,” he said. “We can't allow fascists to take over. We must end this fascist threat to democracy.”

Mr Wickremesinghe's speech came on the day he was named acting president, hours after incumbent Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the bankrupt country in an air force jet.

Witnesses said protesters who stormed Mr Wickremesinghe's office had breached military defences. It was unclear on Wednesday evening whether security forces would use live ammunition on protesters, as has been the case since May when the army were given orders to use any means necessary to stop rioting. Almost 30 protesters were shot in a single incident on April 22 — one fatally — the first of several shootings since protests began.

The UN has warned Sri Lankan authorities to refrain from deadly force, while the police say they have tried to use water canons and tear gas to protect property.

But on Wednesday evening, Sri Lanka's defence chief, General Shavendra Silva, said the armed forces and police would respect the constitution, and called for calm.

“We have requested political leaders to decide the way forward till a new president is sworn in and notify us and the public by this evening,” he said.

People stood on chairs and desks waving Sri Lankan flags, chanting “that's what we said, don’t mess with us”, the BBC reported from inside Mr Wickremesinghe's office.

Police and troops had failed to hold back crowds despite firing tear gas and water cannon, AFP reported.

Sri Lanka’s state broadcaster Rupavahini went off air after being seized by protesters in Colombo, Bloomberg reported.

At about 1.02pm local time, shortly after the protester-imposed deadline lapsed for Mr Rajapaksa to submit his resignation, Rupavahini showed images of one of its presenters introducing two protesters.

Shortly afterwards, the channel played the national anthem and went off air.

“We have not cast a stone at Rupavahini,” one protester said.

“We only ask that you join the people in our struggle rather than taking the side of the government in power. We thank the staff of Rupavahini for assisting us.”

Ranil Wickremesinghe's office was stormed on Wednesday, hours after he was named acting president. AP

Protesters captured the broadcaster after an announcement that Mr Wickremesinghe, who is also being asked to resign, will be acting president after Mr Rajapaksa fled.

Some local media reports cited unnamed Rupavahini officials as saying engineers shut down the broadcast after protesters stormed the building.

Sri Lanka's Information Ministry has not responded to requests for comment, Bloomberg reported.

Protests were widespread in Colombo on Wednesday. Tear gas was fired and barricades were set up in parts of the capital.

The country’s economy has been wrecked by a combination of mismanagement, a slump in tourism due to the pandemic and a surge in import costs related to the war in Ukraine.

Updated: July 14, 2022, 11:12 AM
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