Sri Lanka leader flees amid protests over food, fuel shortages

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·3-min read
© Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatte
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Sri Lanka's President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled his official residence in Colombo Saturday, according to defence sources, as protesters stormed his compound to demand his resignation. Earlier, the government declared bankruptcy amid the country's worst food and fuel crisis since independence in 1948.

"The president was escorted to safety," a military source told AFP, adding that troops fired in the air to prevent angry crowds from overrunning the President's Palace.

Thousands of people had poured into the capital Colombo for the latest demonstration, sparked by the island nation's unprecedented economic crisis.

Police had withdrawn a curfew order issued on Friday after opposition parties, rights activists and the bar association threatened to sue the police chief.

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.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremsinghe said shortly after the storming of the palace that he was willing to resign to make way for a new unity government, his office said Saturday.

"So as to ensure safety of the citizens, he is agreeable to this recommendation by opposition party leaders" to quit, Wickremesinghe's office said.

Earlier, he hinted talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had hit a wall but added Sri Lanka next month would spell out a way past its total foreign debt of €49.8 billion.

"In the past we held discussions as a developing country but the situation is different as we are now participating in the talks as a bankrupt country," Wickremsinghe told parliament of the talks with the IMF.

He was appointed prime minister in May after the president’s brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, resigned from the post four days after anti-government clashes left 10 people dead on 9 May.

Bankrupt nation

In April, Sri Lanka for the first time in its history defaulted on its debt to foreign lenders even as it struggled to meet its daily expenses.

The island nation needs more than 5 billion euros to import essentials in the next six months but had only €1.8 billion by the end of May.

India has sent large consignments of food, fuel and medicines but the demand is much greater than the supplies, officials say.

The IMF has warned the Sri Lankan economy would shrink by 7 percent this year.

Unruly scenes erupted this week in parliament where MPs booed President Rajapaksa, who said he had reached out to Russian President Vladimir Putin for cash and fuel.

A video footage showing soldiers kicking and beating citizens in a queue at a gas station in Colombo has angered many.

Analyst Ahilan Kadirgamar blamed the crisis on the government’s "blind" dependence on food imports and excessive borrowing.

"Even now the government seems to think the solution to all our problems is to go for an IMF agreement as if the IMF can come to Sri Lanka and restructure the economy and make everything fine," he told Democracy Now online media.

The central bank which last week hiked interest rates to curb prices warned inflation would shoot to 70 percent and that the crashing local currency had wiped out savings by half.

The government also decided to shut its embassies in Norway, Iraq and consulates in Australia to cut running costs.

"This will be a bitter journey," the prime minister warned as experts said food prices have already risen by a staggering 80 percent.

UN bailout

On Wednesday, the World Food Programme (WFP) said 6.26 million Sri Lankans were unsure of where their next meal would come from.

Already, shortages of medicines have prompted some hospitals to put off surgeries.

The UN agency said it had offered a 59 million euro emergency food program for three million worst-affected Sri Lankans.

The instability prompted Britain and New Zealand to advise their citizens against all but essential visits and the US told Americans to “reconsider” travel plans.

France, Canada and Saudi Arabia, continue to advise against non-essential travel to the Asian nation.

Several other governments have cautioned their citizens in Sri Lanka to avoid places of possible confrontation and plan for shortages of essential items.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting