Protesters in Sri Lanka storm prime minister's office, tear gas fired
A state of emergency was declared after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled to the Maldives.
COLOMBO: Thousands of anti-government protesters stormed Sri Lanka Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's office on Wednesday (Jul 13), hours after he was named acting president, witnesses said.
Men and women breached military defences and entered the prime minister's office to raise national flags, witnesses told AFP after police and troops failed to hold back crowds despite firing tear gas and water cannon.
Protesters see Wickremesinghe as an ally of the president's Rajapaksa clan and want him out.
"We want Ranil to step down," said S Shashidharan, a 30-year-old who said he was tear-gassed outside the prime minister's office. "Arrest all those who helped Gota (the president) to escape. We want our stolen money back."
In a televised address, Wickremesinghe said he had instructed security forces to restore order, but troops were seen backing down at his office leaving gates open for protesters to stroll in.
"I have ordered military commanders and the police chief to do what is necessary to restore order," Wickremesinghe said.
"Those who stormed into my office want to stop me from discharging my responsibilities as acting president."
He added that state buildings occupied by protesters must be returned to state custody. "We can't tear up our constitution. We can't allow fascists to take over. We must end this fascist threat to democracy," he added.
Sri Lanka earlier declared a state of emergency after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled to the Maldives, following months of widespread protests against an economic crisis.
He had promised at the weekend to resign on Wednesday and clear the way for a "peaceful transition of power" after fleeing his official residence in Colombo just before tens of thousands of protesters overran it.
As president, Rajapaksa enjoys immunity from arrest, and he is believed to have wanted to go abroad before stepping down to avoid the possibility of being detained.
He, his wife and two bodyguards were the four passengers on board an Antonov-32 military aircraft that took off from Sri Lanka's main international airport, immigration sources told AFP.
Hours later, with no formal announcement he was stepping down, thousands of demonstrators mobbed the office of the prime minister, demanding both officeholders should go.
"Go home Ranil, Go home Gota," they shouted.
Police imposed an indefinite curfew across the Western Province, which includes Colombo, "to contain the situation", a senior police officer said.
Anti-government protesters also broke into the main state television station and briefly took over broadcasts, footage showed.
An unidentified man barged into the studio of Rupavahini network during a live programme and ordered that only protest-related news should be broadcast. The transmission was cut off and replaced with a recorded programme.
Rajapaksa telephoned the speaker of parliament saying that his resignation letter will be sent later in the day.
"The president got in touch with me over the phone and said that he will ensure that his resignation letter will be received by me today," speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena said in a video statement.
"I appeal to the public to have confidence in the parliamentary process we have outlined to appoint a new president on the 20th and be peaceful."
Wickremesinghe has himself announced his willingness to resign if consensus is reached on forming a unity government.
The presidential succession process could take between three days - the minimum time needed for parliament to elect an MP to serve out Rajapaksa's term, which ends in November 2024 - and a maximum of 30 days allowed under the statute.
A COMPLICATED EXIT
Rajapaksa is accused of mismanaging the economy to a point where the country has run out of foreign exchange to finance even the most essential imports, leading to severe hardships for its 22 million people.
Earlier Wednesday, smiling Sri Lankans again thronged the corridors of the president's official residence after his departure, with young couples walking around hand in hand in a mood of quiet celebration.
"People are very happy, because these people robbed our country," said retired civil servant Kingsley Samarakoon, 74. "They've stolen too much money, billions and billions."
But he held little hope for an immediate improvement in Sri Lanka's plight. "How are people going to run the country without money?" he asked. "It's a problem."
The departure of Rajapaksa, 73 and once known as "The Terminator", had been stymied for more than 24 hours in a humiliating stand-off with immigration personnel in Colombo.
He had wanted to fly to Dubai on a commercial flight, but staff at Bandaranaike International withdrew from VIP services and insisted that all passengers had to go through public counters.
The presidential party was reluctant to go through regular channels, fearing public reactions, a security official said, and as a result, missed four flights on Monday that could have taken them to the United Arab Emirates.
Clearance for a military flight to land in nearby India was not immediately secured, a security official said, and at one point on Tuesday the group headed to a naval base with a view to fleeing by sea.
On arrival in the Maldives, his party were driven to an undisclosed location under police escort, an airport official in the capital Male said.
Rajapaksa's youngest brother Basil, who resigned in April as finance minister, missed his own Emirates flight to Dubai early Tuesday after a tense standoff of his own with airport staff.
Basil - who holds US citizenship in addition to Sri Lankan - tried to use a paid concierge service for business travellers, but airport and immigration staff said they had withdrawn from the fast-track service.
The leader of the main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya party, Sajith Premadasa, who lost the 2019 presidential election to Rajapaksa, has said he will stand for the position.
Premadasa is the son of former president Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was assassinated in a Tamil rebel suicide bombing in May 1993.
Sri Lanka defaulted on its US$51 billion foreign debt in April and is in talks with the IMF for a possible bailout.
The island has nearly exhausted its already scarce supplies of petrol. The government has ordered the closure of non-essential offices and schools to reduce commuting and save fuel.
Amid the economic and political chaos, Sri Lanka's sovereign bond prices hit fresh record lows on Wednesday.
The US Embassy in Colombo, which is in the central district of the city, said it was cancelling consular services for the afternoon and for Thursday as a precautionary measure.