Protesters break into Sri Lankan Prime Minister’s house and set it on fire

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Protesters broke into the Sri Lankan prime minister’s private residence and set it on fire, hours after he announced he would step down when a new government is formed. , in the biggest day of protests that also saw crowds storming the president’s home and office.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s office said protesters forced their way into his Colombo home on Saturday night. It is not immediately known whether he was inside at the time of the attack.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s previous story follows below.

Sri Lanka’s prime minister agreed to step down on Saturday after party leaders in parliament demanded that he and the embattled president stand down the day protesters stormed the president’s residence and office in a fury against the worsening of the economic crisis.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said in a statement that he would step down when all parties agree on a new government.

“Today in this country we have a fuel crisis, a food shortage, we have the head of the World Food Program coming here and we have several issues to discuss with the IMF. Therefore, if this government leaves, there should be another government,” he said.

His decision came after the biggest protest to date that swept across Sri Lanka as tens of thousands broke through barricades and entered President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s residence and nearby office to express their anger at a leader they hold responsible for the country’s worst crisis.

Images showed people in a jubilant mood bathing in the swimming pool in the residence’s garden. Some lay on beds, others made tea and drank, and made “statements” from the conference room that Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe must leave immediately.

Wickremesinghe said he had suggested to the president to have a multi-party government, but said nothing about Rajapaksa’s whereabouts. Opposition parties in parliament are currently discussing the formation of a new government.

Rajapaksa appointed Wickremesinghe as prime minister in May in hopes the career politician would use his diplomacy and connections to resuscitate a slumped economy. But people’s patience has worn thin as shortages of fuel, medicine and cooking gas have only increased and oil supplies have dried up.

Many protesters accuse Wickremesinghe of trying to save Rajapaksa when he was pressured to resign and all other members of his powerful political dynasty left the Cabinet.

Later Saturday evening, protesters moved near Wickremesinghe’s home in an effort to force him to resign immediately.

Private television Sirasa reported that at least six of its staff, including four journalists, were hospitalized after being beaten by police while covering the protest near Wickremesinghe’s home.

The Sri Lankan Medical Council, the country’s leading professional body, has warned that hospitals across the country are operating with minimal resources and will not be able to handle the massive casualties caused by the unrest.

The association said the president, prime minister and government would be held accountable if people died or were maimed. He urged the leaders to listen to the cry of the people, step down and hand over the reins to a multiparty government.

It was unclear whether Rajapaksa was inside his residence when it was stormed earlier on Saturday. A government spokesman, Mohan Samaranayake, said he had no information about his whereabouts.

Leaders of political parties in Parliament later met and decided to ask Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe to stand down, opposition MP Rauff Hakeem said on Twitter. He said a consensus had been reached that the speaker of parliament should take over as interim president and work on a caretaker government.

Sri Lanka’s economy is in a state of collapse, dependent on aid from India and other countries as its leaders try to negotiate a bailout with the International Monetary Fund. The economic crisis has led to severe shortages of essential items, leaving people struggling to buy food, fuel and other necessities.

The turmoil has led to months of protests, which have nearly dismantled the Rajapaksa political dynasty that has ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades.

The president’s older brother resigned as prime minister in May after violent protests led him to seek refuge at a naval base. Much of the public anger has been directed at the Rajapaksa family, with protesters accusing them of dragging Sri Lanka into chaos with mismanagement and allegations of corruption.

At the president’s office, security personnel attempted to arrest protesters who pushed through fences to run across lawns and inside the colonial-era building.

At least 34 people including two police officers were injured in scuffles as protesters tried to enter the residence. Two of the injured are in critical condition while others suffered minor injuries, said a Colombo National Hospital official who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to media.

Thousands of protesters entered the capital from the suburbs after police lifted an overnight curfew. With fuel supplies scarce, many piled into buses and trains to come to town to protest, while others got around on bicycles and on foot.

Protest and religious leaders called on Rajapaksa to stand down, saying he had lost the mandate of the people.

“His claim that he was elected by Sinhalese Buddhists is no longer valid now,” said Ven. Omalpe Sobitha, a prominent Buddhist leader. He urged parliament to convene immediately to select an interim president, but said Wickremesinghe did not have the support of the people.

Last month, Wickremesinghe said the country’s economy had collapsed. He said negotiations with the IMF have been complex as Sri Lanka is now a failed state.

In April, Sri Lanka announced it was suspending foreign loan repayments due to a shortage of foreign currency. Its total external debt stands at $51 billion, of which it must repay $28 billion by the end of 2027.

Police had imposed a curfew in Colombo and several other major urban areas on Friday night, but withdrew it on Saturday morning amid objections from lawyers and opposition politicians who called it illegal.

On Friday, US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung urged people to protest peacefully and called on the military and police “to give peaceful protesters the space and security to do so”.

“Chaos and force will not fix the economy or bring the political stability that Sri Lankans need right now,” Chung said in a tweet.

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Associated Press writers Bharatha Mallawarachi in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and Krutika Pathi in New Delhi contributed to this report.

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