Thousands of protesters in Sri Lanka’s commercial capital Colombo stormed the president’s official residence and his secretariat on Saturday, amid months of mounting public anger over the country’s worst economic crisis in seven decades.
Some protesters, holding Sri Lankan flags and helmets, broke into the president’s residence, video footage from a local TV news channel showed.
Videos posted on social media showed demonstrators moving around inside the palace and swimming in the outdoor pool.
Earlier, thousands of people swarmed into Colombo’s government district, shouting slogans against the president and dismantling several police barricades to reach Rajapaksa’s house, a witness told Reuters.
Police fired shots in the air but were unable to stop the angry crowd from surrounding the presidential residence, the witness said.
TV footage also showed thousands of protesters breaking open the gates of the sea-front presidential secretariat, which has been the site of a sit-in protest for months, and entering the premises.
Military personnel and police at both locations were unable to hold back the crowd, as they chanted slogans asking President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to step down.
Two defence ministry sources said President Rajapaksa was removed from the official residence on Friday for his safety ahead of the planned rally over the weekend. Reuters could not immediately confirm his whereabouts.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on Saturday summoned an emergency party leaders meeting to discuss the situation and come to a swift resolution, his office said. He has also requested the speaker to summon parliament, a statement said.
Wickremesinghe has also been moved to a secure location, a government source said.
A Facebook livestream from inside the president’s house showed hundreds of protesters, some draped in flags, packing into rooms and corridors, shouting slogans against Rajapaksa.
Hundreds also milled about on the grounds outside the colonial-era white-washed building. No security officials were visible.
At least 21 people, including two police were injured and hospitalised in the ongoing protests, hospital sources told Reuters.
Authorities have imposed a 9pm curfew in Colombo until further notice to counter the protests. However, opposition politicians have slammed the move as illegal.
The island of 22 million people is struggling under a severe foreign exchange shortage that has limited essential imports of fuel, food and medicine, plunging it into the worst economic crisis since independence in 1948.
The crisis comes after COVID-19 hammered the tourism-reliant economy and slashed remittances from overseas workers, and has been compounded by the build-up of huge government debt, rising oil prices and a ban on the import of chemical fertilisers last year that devastated agriculture.
Many blame the country’s decline on President Rajapaksa. Largely peaceful protests since March have demanded his resignation.
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 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.