Protesters abandon seized palace with Sri Lanka in limbo | world news


COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lankan protesters began retreating from government buildings they had seized and military troops tightened security at parliament on Thursday, establishing a tenuous calm in a country both in crisis. economic and political limbo.

Embattled President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled a day earlier under pressure from angry protesters over the island nation’s economic collapse. But he did not resign as promised – and made his almost equally despised prime minister acting leader.

Protesters want the men out and a unity government in to deal with the economic calamity that has triggered widespread shortages of food, fuel and other basic necessities. But with a fractured opposition and confusion over who was in charge, a solution seemed no closer after Rajapaksa’s departure. Adding to the confusion, the president was still on the move, leaving the Maldives for Singapore on Thursday, according to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

Rajapaksa and his wife fled Sri Lanka early Wednesday on an air force plane as protesters swarmed government buildings demanding his resignation. Rajapaksa promised this weekend that he would, but instead appointed his prime minister as interim president in his absence.

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Meanwhile, on Thursday the government announced a curfew in the capital Colombo and its suburbs until 5 a.m. Friday and protesters were retreating from the presidential palace after occupying it over the weekend. Some were seen rolling out a red carpet in the palace as they left.

Anticipating further protests after a group tried to storm the entrance to Parliament a day earlier, soldiers in green military uniforms and camouflage vests arrived in armored personnel carriers on Thursday to reinforce the barricades around the building.

Some protesters had posted videos on social media pleading with others not to storm parliament, fearing an escalation in violence.

Protest leader Devinda Kodagode told The Associated Press they were leaving official buildings after the Speaker of Parliament said he was looking for legal options to consider since Rajapaksa left without submitting his letter of resignation. resignation as promised.

Protesters accuse the president and his powerful political family of siphoning money from government coffers for years and the Rajapaksa administration of hastening the country’s collapse by mismanaging the economy. The family denied allegations of corruption, but Rajapaksa acknowledged that some of his policies contributed to the collapse.

It was not immediately clear what Rajapaksa’s destination would be. An official from the Maldives initially said he planned to visit Saudi Arabia, but was later only able to confirm his first stop in Singapore. Given that Sri Lankan presidents are protected from arrest while in office, it is likely that Rajapaksa planned his departure while he still enjoyed constitutional immunity and had access to a military aircraft.

On Wednesday, protesters, undeterred by multiple tear gas canisters, scaled the walls to enter Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s office as the crowd outside cheered them on and threw water bottles at them. Protesters took turns posing at the prime minister’s office or stood on a rooftop terrace waving the Sri Lankan flag.

Amid the mounting chaos, Wickremesinghe’s office imposed a state of emergency giving broader powers to the military and police. Defense leaders have called for calm and cooperation with security forces — comments that have upset some lawmakers who insist civilian leaders would be the ones to find a solution.

Protesters blame the Rajapaksas for driving the country into an economic abyss, but they are also furious with Wickremesinghe. They believe he protected the president and that his appointment in May eased the pressure on Rajapaksa to step down.

Wickremesinghe also announced that he would step down, but not before a new government was installed. He urged the Speaker of Parliament to find a new Prime Minister acceptable to both ruling and opposition parties.

It’s unclear when that might happen as the opposition is deeply fractured. But assuming Rajapaksa steps down as promised, Sri Lankan lawmakers have agreed to elect a new president on July 20 who will serve the remainder of Rajapaksa’s term, which ends in 2024. That person could potentially appoint a new prime minister, which would then have to be approved by Parliament.

The political stalemate threatens to deepen the economic collapse of the bankrupt nation as the absence of an alternative government could delay the hoped-for bailout from the International Monetary Fund. In the meantime, the country is counting on help from India and China.

Shortages of basic necessities have sown despair among Sri Lanka’s 22 million people. The country’s rapid decline is all the more shocking because before the recent crisis, the economy was booming, with a wealthy and growing middle class.

“Gotabaya’s resignation is one problem solved – but there are so many others,” said Bhasura Wickremesinghe, a 24-year-old marine electrical engineering student who is not related to the prime minister.

He complained that Sri Lankan politics has been dominated for years by “old politicians” who all have to go. “Politics should be treated like a job – you should have qualifications that get you hired, not because of your last name,” he said, referring to the Rajapaksa family.

After the president fled to the Maldives, the fate of other members of the Rajapaksa family who had served in the government was unclear.

Associated Press writer Bharatha Mallawarachi contributed to this report.

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