Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled his official residence on Saturday just before protesters, angered by an unprecedented economic crisis, overran the compound and stormed his nearby office.
Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets, according to police estimates around the leader’s home to call for his resignation over the government’s mismanagement of the unprecedented downturn.
After storming the gates of the presidential palace, hundreds of people could be seen in live social broadcasts Media passing through the rooms, with some from the boisterous crowd jumping into the grounds’ pool.
Some were seen laughing and lounging in the residence’s stately bedrooms, with one pulling out what it claimed was it be a pair of the President’s underwear.
Not long before, troops guarding the residence fired in the air to hold the crowd back until Rajapaksa was safely removed.
“The president was taken to safety,” a top defense source told AFP on condition of anonymity. “He is still the president, he is protected by a military unit.”
The colonial-era mansion he left behind is one of the key symbols of Sri Lankan state power, and officials said Rajapaksa’s departure raises questions whether he intends to remain in office.
“We are awaiting instructions,” a senior official told AFP. “We still don’t know where he is, but we do know that he is with the Sri Lanka Navy and is safe.”
Shortly after the crowd stormed the Presidential Palace, Rajapaksa’s nearby office also fell hands of protesters in the air by the sea.
Security forces tried to disperse the huge crowd that had attacked the Colombo prefecture.
Three people were hospitalized after being shot. along with 36 others who were suffering from breathing difficulties after intense tear gas barrages, a spokeswoman for the main hospital in Colombo said.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Rajapaksa’s first successor, called a meeting with politicians and said he stand ready to step down to pave the way for a unity government.
Media Minister Bandula Gunawardana announced his resignation from the Cabinet as well Rajapaksa’s political party after the meeting. The President’s Media Director, Sudewa Hettiarachchi, also resigned.
Sri Lanka has suffered months of food and fuel shortages, prolonged power outages and runaway inflation after running out of foreign exchange to import essential goods.
The government has defaulted on its $51 billion in foreign debt and is seeking an International Monetary Fund bailout.
Thousands of people flocked to the capital for Saturday’s demonstration , the latest outbreak of unrest sparked by the crisis.
Police lifted a curfew imposed on Friday after opposition parties, rights activists and the Bar Association threatened to sue the police chief.
Thousands of anti-government protesters ignored stay-at-home orders and even forced them Railway authorities are operating trains to take them to Colombo for Saturday’s rally, officials said.
“The curfew was actually not a deterrent it has encouraged more people to take to the streets defiantly,” he said Defender ial said.
Sri Lanka has nearly exhausted already tight fuel supplies, but protesters backed by the main opposition parties hired private buses to travel to the capital.
Other Sri Lankans have been able to Those not traveling to the capital staged protests in towns across the island.
Protesters had already maintained a month-long protest camp outside Rajapaksa’s seafront office, demanding his resignation.
The camp was the scene of clashes in May when a gang of Rajapaksa loyalists attacked peaceful protesters who had gathered there.
Nine people were killed and hundreds injured after violence fueled reprisals against government officials sparked mobs and arson attacks on lawmakers’ homes.
The riots come at the end of Australia’s ongoing cricket tour of Sri Lanka, with Pakistan’s side also on the Insel for their upcoming series.
Cricket officials said there were no plans to change their schedules, adding that the sport was unaffected by the political turmoil.
“The Australian Test is coming to an end and we are beginning the Pakistan series,” a cricket board official told AFP.
“There is no opposition to the matches. In fact, the fans are supporting us and we have no reason to reschedule.”