Sri Lankan prime minister resigns after weeks of protests

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned Monday following weeks of protests demanding that he and his brother, the president, step down over the country’s worst economic crisis in decades, an official said.

An aide to the prime minister, Wijayananda Herath, confirmed that Rajapaksa submitted a letter of resignation to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. There was no immediate official confirmation from the president’s office.

The resignation comes after authorities deployed armed troops in the capital, Colombo, on Monday following an attack earlier in the day by government supporters on protesters who have been camped outside the offices of the president and prime minster.

The Indian Ocean island nation is on the brink of bankruptcy and has suspended payments on its foreign loans. Its economic woes have brought on a political crisis, with the government facing widespread protests and a no-confidence motion in Parliament. Trade unions also called Monday for a general strike until the president and the rest of his ruling family leave.

The resignation of the prime minister means that the entire Cabinet is dissolved.

Supporters of the prime minister rallied inside his office earlier Monday, urging him to ignore the protesters’ demand to step down. They then went to the front of the office where protesters have been demonstrating for several days. Television channel Sirasa showed government supporters attacking protesters with clubs and iron bars, demolishing and then burning their tents.

After the attack, hundreds of armed soldiers were deployed in capital, as the protesters accused police of not preventing the attack despite using tear gas and water cannons on protesters as recently as Friday.

Sirasa TV showed government lawmaker Sanath Nishantha among the government supporters who attacked the protesters.

At the main hospital in Colombo, 23 people were admitted with non-critical injuries, an official said on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the media.

The attack came as protesters marked their 31st day outside the president’s and prime minister’s offices demanding that they and other powerful Rajapaksa family members quit. Similar protests have spread to other locations, with people setting up camps in other towns across the country.

Three other Rajapaksas out of the five who were lawmakers stepped down from their Cabinet posts in April.

For several months, Sri Lankans have endured long lines to buy fuel, cooking gas, food and medicine, most of which come from abroad. Shortages of hard currency have also hindered imports of raw materials for manufacturing and worsened inflation, which surged to 18.7% in March.

People blocked main roads to demand gas and fuel. On Sunday, television channel Hiru showed people in some areas fighting over fuel.

Sri Lanka was due to pay $7 billion of its foreign debt this year out of nearly $25 billion it must pay by 2026. Its total foreign debt is $51 billion.

Sri Lanka’s finance minister announced earlier this week that the country’s usable foreign reserves have plummeted below $50 million.

As oil prices soar during the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Sri Lanka’s fuel stocks are running out. Authorities have announced countrywide power cuts will increase to about four a day because they can’t supply enough fuel to power generating stations.

Protesters have crowded the streets since March, maintaining that President Rajapaksa and his family — who have dominated nearly every aspect of life in Sri Lanka for most of the last 20 years — are responsible for the crisis.

On Friday, President Rajapaksa declared a state of emergency, which empowers him to authorize detentions, property seizure and search of any premises. He can also change or suspend any law in the interests of public security and for the maintenance of essential supplies. Diplomats and rights groups have expressed concern over the move.

Sri Lanka has been holding talks with the International Monetary Fund to get an immediate funding facility as well as a long-term rescue plan but was told its progress would depend on negotiations on debt restructuring with creditors.

Any long-term plan would take at least six months to get underway.

(By KRISHAN FRANCIS and BHARATHA MALLAWARACHI | ASSOCIATED PRESS)

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