Thousands of protesters stormed the president’s official residence and secretariat in Sri Lanka commercial capital Colombo on Saturday, following months of mounting public outrage over the country’s worst economic crisis in seven decades.
Protesters holding Sri Lankan flags and helmets broke into the president’s residence, according to video footage from the local TV news channel NewsFirst.
Thousands of protesters also broke open the gates of the presidential secretariat on the seafront, which has been the site of a sit-in protest for months, according to TV footage.
Military personnel and police officers at both locations were unable to keep the crowds at bay as they chanted anti-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa slogans.
According to two defense ministry sources, President Rajapaksa was removed from the official residence on Friday to ensure his safety ahead of the weekend rally.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe called an emergency meeting of party leaders on Saturday to discuss the situation and reach a quick resolution, according to his office.
According to the statement, he has also requested that the speaker convene parliament.
A government source told Reuters that Wickremesinghe has also been moved to a secure location.
A Facebook livestream from inside the president’s residence showed hundreds of protesters, some draped in flags, crowding into rooms and corridors and shouting anti-Rajapaksa slogans.
Hundreds of people milled about outside the white-washed colonial-era building. There were no security personnel visible.
According to hospital sources, at least 21 people have been injured and hospitalized as a result of the ongoing protests, including two police officers.
The economy in Sri Lanka has collapsed.
The 22-million-person island is suffering from a severe foreign exchange shortage, which has restricted essential imports of fuel, food, and medicine, plunging it into the worst economic crisis since its independence in 1948.
The crisis follows COVID-19, which devastated the tourism-dependent economy and reduced remittances from overseas workers, and has been exacerbated by the accumulation of massive government debt, rising oil prices, and a ban on the import of chemical fertilisers last year.
Many blame President Rajapaksa for the country’s decline. Since March, largely peaceful protests have called for his resignation.
Thousands of people swarmed into Colombo’s government district, shouting anti-president slogans and dismantling several police barricades to reach Rajapaksa’s house.
Police fired shots into the air but were unable to stop the angry crowd from surrounding the presidential residence.
Reuters was unable to confirm the president’s whereabouts immediately.
Despite a severe fuel shortage that has halted transportation services, demonstrators traveled from all over the country to Colombo to protest the government’s failure to protect them from economic ruin.
The country’s discontent has grown in recent weeks as it has stopped receiving fuel shipments, forcing school closures and rationing of petrol and diesel for essential services.
Sampath Perera, a 37-year-old fisherman, boarded an overcrowded bus from Negombo, 45 kilometers (30 miles) north of Colombo, to join the protest.
“We have repeatedly told Gota to go home, but he is still clinging to power.” “We won’t stop until he listens to us,” Perera declared.
He is one of millions of people affected by chronic fuel shortages and inflation that reached a record 54.6 percent in June.
Political unrest could jeopardize Sri Lanka’s talks with the International Monetary Fund, which is seeking a $3 billion bailout, a restructuring of some foreign debt, and multilateral and bilateral funding to alleviate the dollar drought.