Sri Lanka’s President Rajapaksa to step down on July 13: Official

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has agreed to step down next week, the country’s parliamentary speaker, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana, has said.

The announcement came hours after protesters stormed the president’s official residence to vent their anger over the country’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 July 13,” Abeywardana said in a televised statement.

Rajapaksa will remain as president until Wednesday to ensure a smooth transfer of power, Abeywardena said.

“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.

The news of president’s decision triggered an eruption of celebratory fireworks in parts of Colombo.

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.

Protesters later broke into the home of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and set it on fire.

Video footage on local news channels showed a huge fire and smoke coming from Wickremesinghe’s private home in an affluent Colombo neighbourhood. His office said that protesters had started the fire.

There were no immediate reports of injuries in the blaze. Wickremesinghe had moved to a secure location earlier in the day, a government source told Reuters.

Thyagi Ruwanpathirana, a researcher at Amnesty International, told Al Jazeera that 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,” she said.

“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.

Military personnel and police were unable to hold back the crowd at the president’s residence earlier on Saturday where they 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.

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

Protesters gather outside the president’s office in Colombo [Thilina Kaluthotage/AP]

The president must go

Reporting from Colombo, Al Jazeera’s Minelle Fernandez said the protesters were adamant that 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,” Fernandez said.

Sri Lanka protest
A demonstrator throws a tear gas grenade back towards the police [Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters]

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.

“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 earlier in the day.

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 had 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 that he could find cash for the country’s urgent needs.

But people now want him to resign too, 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.

Sri Lanka crisis
Demonstrators inside the President’s House in Colombo [Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters]

‘Complete mayhem’

Al Jazeera’s Fernandez said security forces responded with tear gas after university students and other members of the public congregated on a road leading to the president’s house early on Saturday.

“There’s been a heavy security and special task force presence. The comeback was completely over the top with tear gas canisters raining down to disperse the protesters. There was complete mayhem, almost a stampede to get out,” said Fernandez.

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

“Such a curfew is blatantly illegal and a violation of the fundamental rights of the people of our country,” the Bar Association of Sri Lanka said.

Sri Lanka protest
Police use tear gas to disperse demonstrators near the president’s house [Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters]

Despite a severe shortage of fuel that has stalled transportation services, demonstrators packed into buses, trains and trucks from several parts of the country to reach Colombo to protest against the government’s failure to protect them from economic ruin.

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 to obtain a $3bn 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 earlier on Saturday.

“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.”

Additional reporting by Aanya Wipulasena in Colombo, Sri Lanka

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