By Alasdair Pal and Uditha Jayasinghe
COLOMBO (Reuters) -Many Sri Lankans thronged buses in the main city Colombo on Thursday to return to their hometowns with leaders of political parties due to meet after the prime minister quit and went into hiding and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa warned of anarchy.
The island nation off India’s southern tip, which overlooks shipping routes between Europe and Asia, is battling its worst economic crisis since independence. Violence erupted on Monday after supporters of former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president’s elder brother, attacked an anti-government protest camp in Colombo.
Days of violent reprisals against government figures aligned to the powerful Rajapaksa clan followed. The army was called out to patrol the streets and police said 9 people were killed and more than 300 injured in the clashes.
Hundreds of people thronged the main bus station in the commercial capital after authorities lifted an indefinite curfew at 7 am (0130 GMT) on Thursday. The curfew will be reimposed at 2 pm
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Streets in Colombo were quiet, with some people venturing out to buy essential supplies. Frustration remained at ongoing fuel shortages that have crippled the country’s economy.
“We have hit the bottom economically,” said Nimal Jayantha, an autorickshaw driver queuing for petrol after the curfew was lifted.
“I don’t have the time to do my job. By the time I stay in the fuel queue and get petrol, curfew will be imposed. I will have to go home without any money.”
Protesters have sprayed graffiti over Mahinda Rajapaksa’s home in a southern town and ransacked a museum dedicated to his father. They have vowed to keep up the protests until the president also quits.
Mahinda Rajapaksa stepped down after the fighting erupted and is in hiding in a military base in the northeast of the country. His brother said on Wednesday he will appoint a new prime minister and cabinet this week “to prevent the country from falling into anarchy as well as to maintain the affairs of the government that have been halted”.
Sri Lanka’s central bank governor said on Wednesday failing to find a solution to the crisis in the next one to two weeks would lead to power cuts of up to 10 to 12 hours per day, as well as his own resignation.
Later on Thursday, leaders of political parties were to meet the speaker of the country’s parliament to discuss the current situation.
President Rajapaksa has repeatedly called for a unity government to find a way out of the crisis, but opposition leaders say they will not serve until he resigns.
Hit hard by the pandemic, rising oil prices and tax cuts by the populist Rajapaksa government, the island nation is experiencing its worst financial crisis since independence in 1948.
Useable foreign reserves stand as low as $ 50 million, inflation is rampant, and shortages of fuel, medicine and other essential goods have brought thousands onto the streets in more than a month of anti-government protests, that had remained predominantly peaceful until Monday.
(Reporting by Alasdair Pal, Uditha Jayasinghe and Channa Kumara in Colombo; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)
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