Sri Lankan prime minister’s house set on fire as president fled from protesters

On Saturday evening, a mob broke into the home of Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in Colombo and set it on fire, police and his office said.

“Protesters broke into the private residence of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and set it on fire,” his office said in a statement.

President Rajapaksa flees the official residence

Earlier in the day, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa left his official residence shortly before protesters, angered by the unprecedented economic crisis, took over the complex and stormed his adjoining office.

Police estimate that hundreds of thousands of people gathered on the streets around the leader’s house to demand his resignation due to government mismanagement amid an unprecedented downturn.

After the presidential palace gates were stormed, hundreds of people could be seen live on social media walking through its rooms, with some of the noisy crowd jumping into the complex’s swimming pool.

Some were seen laughing and lounging in the residence’s stately bedrooms, with one pulling out what he said was a pair of the president’s underwear.

Shortly before this, the soldiers guarding the residence fired into the air to hold back the crowd until Rajapaksa was safely removed.

“The president has been taken to a safe location,” a senior defense source told AFP on condition of anonymity. “He is still the president, he is guarded by a military unit.”

The colonial-era mansion he left behind is one of Sri Lanka’s key symbols of state power, and officials have said Rajapaksa’s departure has raised questions about whether he intends to remain in office.

“We are awaiting instructions,” a senior government official told AFP. “We still don’t know where he is, but we do know he is with the Sri Lankan Navy and safe.”

Shortly after the mob stormed the presidential palace, Rajapaksa’s nearby seafront office also fell into the hands of protesters.

Security forces attempted to disperse the huge crowds surrounding the Colombo administrative region.

Three people were hospitalized after being injured and another 36 suffered from breathing difficulties after intense tear gas fire, a spokeswoman for the Colombo General Hospital said.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghethe first person in line to replace Rajapaksa called a meeting with political leaders and said he was ready to step down to pave the way for a unity government.

Media Minister Bandula Gunawardana announced his resignation from the cabinet as well as the Rajapaksa political party after the meeting. Presidential spokesman Sudeva Hettiarachchi also resigned.

“Not a deterrent”

Sri Lanka suffered months of food and fuel shortages, prolonged power outages and runaway inflation after running out of foreign exchange to import vital goods.

The government has defaulted on its $51 billion foreign debt and is seeking help from the International Monetary Fund.

Thousands of people poured into the capital for Saturday’s demonstration, another outbreak of unrest caused by the crisis.

Police lifted Friday’s curfew after opposition parties, human rights activists and the Bar Association threatened to sue the police chief.

Thousands of anti-government demonstrators defied stay-at-home orders and even forced railway authorities to use 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 take to the streets in defense,” a Defense Department spokesman said.

Protesters demanding the resignation of Sri Lankan President Gotabai Rajapaksa swim in a swimming pool on the grounds of the Presidential Palace in Colombo July 9, 2022. Photo: AFP

Sri Lanka has nearly run out of its already meager supply of gasoline, but protesters backed by major opposition parties have hired private buses to travel to the capital.

Other Sri Lankans unable to travel to the capital staged protests in towns across the island.

Demonstrators have been supporting a protest camp near Rajapaksa’s waterfront office for months, demanding his resignation.

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The camp became the scene of clashes in May when a gang of Rajapaksa supporters attacked peaceful demonstrators who had gathered there.

Nine people were killed and hundreds injured after the violence sparked a crackdown on pro-government mobs and arson of lawmakers’ homes.

Cricket goes on

The riots come at the end of Australia’s ongoing cricket tour of Sri Lanka, with the Pakistan team also on the island for their upcoming series.

Cricket officials have said they have no plans to change their schedules, adding that political instability has not affected the sport.

“The Australian Test is coming to an end and we should start the series in Pakistan,” a cricket board spokesman told AFP.

“There are no objections to holding games. In fact, the fans are supportive and we have no reason to postpone.”