Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled his official residence on Saturday shortly before protesters, angered by an unprecedented economic crisis, overran the compound and stormed his nearby office.
Hundreds of thousands of people massed on the streets around the leader’s home, according to police estimates, to demand he step down over the government’s mismanagement of the unprecedented downturn.
After storming the gates of the presidential palace, hundreds of people could be seen in live broadcasts on social media walking through its rooms, with some among the boisterous crowd jumping into the compound’s pool.
Some were seen laughing and lounging in the stately bedrooms of the residence with one pulling out what he claimed was a pair of the president’s underwear.
Not long earlier, troops guarding the residence fired in the air to hold the crowd back until Rajapaksa was safely removed.
“The president was escorted to safety,” a top defence source told AFP on condition of anonymity. “He is still the president, he is being protected by a military unit.”
The colonial-era mansion he left is one of Sri Lanka’s key symbols of state power, and officials said Rajapaksa’s departure raised questions as to whether he intended to remain in office.
“We are awaiting instructions,” a top civil servant told AFP. “We still don’t know where he is, but we know he is with the Sri Lanka navy and is safe.”
Soon after the crowd stormed the presidential palace, Rajapaksa’s nearby seafront office also fell into the hands of protesters.
Security forces attempted to disperse the huge crowds that had mobbed Colombo’s administrative district.
Three people were hospitalised after being shot along with 36 others who suffered breathing difficulties following intense tear gas barrages, a spokeswoman for the main hospital in Colombo said.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the first person in line to succeed Rajapaksa, called a meeting with political leaders and said he was willing to step down to pave the way for a unity government.
– ‘Not a deterrent’ –
Sri Lanka has suffered through months of food and fuel shortages, lengthy blackouts and galloping inflation after running out of foreign currency to import vital goods.
The government has defaulted on its $51 billion external debt and is seeking an International Monetary Fund bailout.
Thousands of people had poured into the capital for Saturday’s demonstration, the latest outbreak of unrest sparked by the crisis.
Police had withdrawn a curfew issued on Friday after opposition parties, rights activists and the bar association threatened to sue the police chief.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-home order and even forced railway authorities to operate trains to take them to Colombo for Saturday’s rally, officials said.
“The curfew was not a deterrent, in fact it encouraged more people to get on the streets in defiance,” the defence official said.
Sri Lanka has nearly exhausted already scarce supplies of petrol, but protesters backed by the main opposition parties hired private buses to travel to the capital.
Other Sri Lankans unable to travel to the capital held protests in cities across the island.
Demonstrators had already maintained a months-long protest camp outside Rajapaksa’s seafront office demanding his resignation.
The camp was the scene of clashes in May when a gang of Rajapaksa loyalists attacked peaceful protesters gathered there.
Nine people were killed and hundreds were wounded after the violence sparked reprisals against pro-government mobs and arson attacks on the homes of lawmakers.
– Cricket goes on –
The unrest comes at the tail end of Australia’s ongoing cricket tour of Sri Lanka, with Pakistan’s squad also on the island for their upcoming series.
Cricket officials said there were no plans to change their schedules, adding that the sport was unaffected by the political turmoil.
“The Australian Test is coming to an end and we are due to start the Pakistan series,” a cricket board official told AFP.
“There is no opposition to having the games. In fact, fans are supportive and we have no reason to reschedule.”