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Protesters force Sri Lankan President to announce resignation

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Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has succumbed to a people’s revolution and agreed to step down next week.

The announcement by the country’s parliamentary speaker, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana came hours after protesters stormed the President’s official residence to vent their anger over Sri Lanka’s severe economic crisis. Protesters later broke into Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe residence in the capital, Colombo and set it on fire.

“To ensure a peaceful transition, the President said he will step down on 13 July”, Abeywardana said in a televised statement.

The Speaker said that Rajapaksa would remain as President until Wednesday to ensure a smooth transfer of power.

“The decision to step down on 13 July was taken to ensure a peaceful handover of power”, he said.

“I therefore request the public to respect the law and maintain peace”, he added.

Earlier in the day, President Rajapaksa was evacuated from the President’s House in the capital, Colombo, before thousands of protesters stormed his residence, demanding his resignation, in one of the largest anti-government marches in the crisis-hit island this year.

A Facebook livestream from inside the President’s house showed hundreds of protesters packing into rooms and corridors, shouting slogans against the beleaguered 73-year-old leader.

Footage of protesters standing and some bathing in the swimming pool inside the President’s home was widely circulated on social media.

Police use tear gas to disperse demonstrators near the President’s residence. Photo: Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters

Protesters later broke into the home of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and set it on fire. It was not immediately clear if he was inside at the time of the attack.

Military personnel and police were unable to hold back the crowd at the President’s residence, as the protesters chanted slogans asking Rajapaksa to step down.

“Today is independence day for me being born in this nation, not 1948, because today we have fought for our freedom from the tyranny and the scoundrels and greedy politicians who have run our nation to ground zero”, a protester told Al Jazeera.

Earlier on Saturday, Wickremesinghe called an emergency meeting of political party leaders and requested the speaker to summon parliament, a statement from the Prime Minister’s office stated.

Wickremesinghe had also been moved to a secure location, a government source told the Reuters.

At least 39 people, including two police officers were injured and hospitalised in the protests, hospital sources told Reuters.

Reporting from Colombo, Al Jazeera’s Minelle Fernandez said the protesters are adamant the President must go.

“Tens of thousands of Sri Lankans are still streaming into Colombo… People stormed railway stations and literally forced employees to put them on trains and bring them to Colombo. They say they are taking their country back”.

Many in the island nation of 22 million people blame the country’s decline on Rajapaksa. Largely peaceful protests since March have demanded his resignation.

Protesters gather outside the President’s office in Colombo. Photo: Thilina Kaluthotage/AP

“I came here to chase away the president. The situation in the country is not good. He has to go for our country to come out of this abyss”, Gihan Roshan, 38, told Al Jazeera.

Sri Lanka is struggling under a severe foreign exchange shortage that has limited essential imports of fuel, food and medicine, plunging it into the worst financial turmoil in 70 years.

Months of protests have nearly dismantled the Rajapaksa political dynasty that has ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades.

One of Rajapaksa’s brothers resigned as Prime Minister last month, and two other brothers and a nephew quit their cabinet posts earlier.

Wickremesinghe took over as Prime Minister in May and protests temporarily waned in the hope he could find cash for the country’s urgent needs.

But people now want him to resign as well, saying he has failed to fulfil his promises. One demonstrator held the Sri Lankan flag in one hand and a placard in the other that read: “Pissu Gota, Pissu Ranil” (Insane Gota, Insane Ranil) in Sinhalese.

Thyagi Ruwanpathirana, a researcher at Amnesty International told Al Jazeera Sri Lanka will “not come out of this crisis for some time”.

“There is a lot of wait and watch and that is affecting the people. We have not had fuel for days … Just imagine running out of fuel. People cant get to work. Kids can’t get to school. The whole economy is at a standstill”, she said from Colombo.

A demonstrator throws a tear gas grenade back towards the police. Photo: Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters

Discontent has worsened in recent weeks as the cash-strapped country stopped receiving fuel shipments, forcing school closures and rationing of petrol and diesel for essential services.

“The economy has collapsed. Most can’t have three meals a day”, Imasha Ranasinghe, a 22-year-old university student told Al Jazeera.

He is among the millions squeezed by chronic fuel shortages and inflation that hit 54.6 percent in June.

Political instability could undermine Sri Lanka’s talks with the International Monetary Fund seeking a $3 billion bailout, a restructuring of some foreign debt and fundraising from multilateral and bilateral sources to ease the dollar drought.

Speaking from Colombo, economist Chayu Damsinghe told Al Jazeera he hoped the protests would bring in a change in the country.

“Once that change happens, once the heads at the helm change, there is some sense that policy change can actually be implemented and accepted by the people”, he said.

“Last time the people really protested, there was a real change. It is increasingly likely the president will have to take real steps towards change”.

Source: Al Jazeera

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