Sri Lankan troops stand by as protestors occupy PM's office; Opposition asks Wickremesinghe to quit before Rajapaksa

The office was the fourth government building occupied by protesters, following the seizure of the president's seafront office and the official residences of country's two most senior officials.

Published: 14th July 2022 12:10 AM  |   Last Updated: 14th July 2022 12:10 AM   |  A+A-

Sri Lankan army soldiers watch as protesters storm the compound of prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe 's office, demanding he resign. (Photo | AP)

By AFP

COLOMBO: Sri Lankan troops stood with their weapons lowered in the grounds of the prime minister's office Wednesday, doing nothing to halt the huge mass of people wandering through the compound, despite orders to "restore order".

Some of the civilians sang or waved the Sri Lankan flag, with its motif of a golden lion brandishing a sword, after they lobbed back tear gas canisters and pushed past elite commandos on Wednesday to occupy the premises in the capital Colombo.

Thousands of people cheered as they breached the walls of the colonial-era compound on a leafy boulevard, opening yet another symbol of state power to the public.

The office was the fourth government building occupied by protesters in as many days, following the seizure of the president's seafront office and the official residences of Sri Lanka's two most senior elected officials.

And as with those earlier conquests, by evening the compound had been repurposed into a public attraction, with demonstrators who helped storm the building hours earlier now chaperoning others through its rooms.

"We feel proud," said Satish Bee, a businessman who came to explore the compound once the dust had settled.

"There's no proper governance in this country. It has never been good... The youngsters, they don't want to continue like this."

Guards abandoned a losing battle to halt the crowd's advance less than two hours after the building's usual occupant, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, was declared Sri Lanka's acting head of state by incumbent Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Wickremesinghe declared a nationwide state of emergency and soon appeared on television to warn that troops had been instructed to do "what is necessary" to return the building to government control.

But on the ground, his words went unheeded.

- 'We are not terrorists' -

People began mobbing the office in the morning, after news spread through the capital that Rajapaksa -- blamed by many for driving the country to economic ruin -- had left the island nation on a military aircraft bound for the Maldives in the early hours.

What followed was an object lesson in patience and strategy from a crowd hardened by earlier confrontations with security forces over months of protests.

Some carried red traffic cones to smother and safely extinguish tear gas rounds periodically fired into the street by guards stationed along the walls.

Others guided friends or strangers blinded by the smoke to safety behind the cover of a wall, helping to flush their eyes with fluid.

Bolder members of the crowd peeled off a part of the gate and sections of wrought iron fence, prompting fresh barrages of tear gas -- and loud cheers when still-smouldering canisters were thrown back at the troops that fired them.

In his televised statement, PM Wickremesinghe made allusions to "fascists" trying to "take over".

Dhaniz Ali, one of those walking through the compound after it was occupied, told AFP that protesters would continue to find new government buildings to occupy.

"We are not terrorists," he said. "We are just Sri Lankan citizens here to save the country."

Meanwhile, opposition leaders have asked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to quit ahead of the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa who has promised to step down on Wednesday, according to a media report.

Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP M.A. Sumanthiran said on Wednesday that the decision was taken at an all party meeting which was attended by leaders excluding those from the Government, News 1st channel reported.

He said two unanimous decisions were taken at the meeting, and one was for Wickremesinghe to resign immediately, while the other was for the speaker to sack the Prime Minister before the President's resignation takes effect, the channel reported.

Meanwhile, Chief Opposition Whip Lakshman Kiriella from the Samagi Jana Balavegaya said the Commanders of the three-armed forces were also present at the meeting.

"The Prime Minister was avoiding the party leaders," he said.

The Commanders informed that the protesters were near the gates of parliament, and wanted permission to repel them by using force, he said.

"We said we cannot agree to such a request," he said, adding that at the last party leaders meeting the call was for the President and the Prime Minister to resign.

The leaders have asked the speaker to sack Wickremesinghe to take up the post of Acting President, and thereafter Parliament is prepared to work with him.

President Rajapaksa on Wednesday fled to the Maldives from where he appointed Prime Minister Wickremesinghe as the acting President, escalating the political crisis and triggering a fresh wave of protests in the country reeling under the worst financial crisis in decades.

Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena has said that President Rajapaksa has informed him over telephone that he will resign today as promised.

He said the vote for the new president will take place on July 20.

Wickremesinghe, who is now acting President, has declared a state of emergency in the country and a curfew in the Western province has been imposed as protesters gathered near his office at Flower Road in Colombo.

Sri Lanka, a country of 22 million people, is under the grip of an unprecedented economic turmoil, the worst in seven decades, leaving millions struggling to buy food, medicine, fuel and other essentials.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe last week said Sri Lanka is now a bankrupt country.

(With PTI Inputs)



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