Army evacuates former Sri Lankan PM from besieged residence

Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family taken to safety by heavily armed soldiers as anti-government protesters storm gates.

Armed police in body armour stand outside the president's office in Colombo
Police stand guard outside the president's office amid worsening violence in Sri Lanka after weeks of anti-government protests [Ishara S Kodikara/AFP]

Heavily armed troops have evacuated outgoing Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa from his official residence after thousands of protesters breached the main gate amid the worst violence in weeks of protests over an unprecedented economic crisis.

Protesters who forced their way into the prime minister’s official Temple Trees residence in Colombo then attempted to storm the main two-storey building on Tuesday where Rajapaksa was holed up with his immediate family.

“After a pre-dawn operation, the former PM and his family were evacuated to safety by the army,” a top security official told AFP news agency. “At least 10 petrol bombs were thrown into the compound.”

The embattled 76-year-old leader was forced to resign on Monday after weeks of protests over the worst economic crisis the island nation is facing since its independence in 1948.

The resignation marked a sudden fall from grace for the patriarch of the all-powerful Rajapaksa clan that has dominated Sri Lankan politics for nearly 20 years.

Rajapaksa’s evacuation to an undisclosed location followed a day of violent protests in which at least five people, including a member of parliament, were killed and nearly 200 wounded.

The security official said police kept up a barrage of tear gas and fired warning shots in the air to hold back protesters at all three entrances to the colonial-era building, a key symbol of state power.

A property belonging to a government minister is consumed by flames in Sri Lanka
Anti-government demonstrators set dozens of properties linked to government ministers and the Rajapaksas on fire after ruling party supporters stormed a peaceful protest camp in the centre of Colombo [Stringer/Reuters]

Elsewhere, dozens of properties linked to top Rajapaksa loyalists were torched and mobs attacked the controversial Rajapaksa museum in the family’s ancestral village in the island’s south, razing it to the ground, police said.

Two wax statues of the Rajapaksa parents were flattened.

The Rajapaksa clan’s hold on power has been shaken by months of blackouts and shortages in Sri Lanka.

The sudden surge in violence comes despite a curfew and a state of emergency that was imposed on Friday.

The emergency order from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the outgoing premier’s younger brother, gives sweeping powers to the military amid vocal demands for him to step down over the country’s deepening economic crisis.

Protesters and Sri Lankan religious leaders have blamed the former prime minister for instigating the family’s supporters to attack unarmed protesters on Monday and fuelling the violence.

“People are still not happy,” said Al Jazeera’s Minelle Fernandez from Colombo, referring to the prime minister’s resignation.

She said the protesters say “enough is enough” and want the Rajapaksas “to go home”.

“Obviously, the president is trying to look at all kinds of alternatives: an interim government, a national coalition, a unity government, because obviously there is still some time left on his term. But people seem to be digging in their heels and saying enough is enough,” she said.

Sri Lanka unrest
Sri Lanka’s ruling party supporters are seen in Beira Lake after they jumped in there to protect themselves from anti-government demonstrators in Colombo [Reuters]

Curfew after deadly unrest

Sri Lankan authorities deployed thousands of troops and police on Tuesday to enforce a nationwide curfew.

Streets were calm on Tuesday in the commercial capital of Colombo following a day of deadly unrest.

“The situation is calmer now, though there are still reports of sporadic unrest,” said police spokesman Nihal Thalduwa.

No arrests have yet been made in the isolated incidents of violence, he said, adding that three of the five deaths had been from gunshot injuries.

Authorities said the curfew will be lifted Wednesday morning, with government and private offices, as well as shops and schools, ordered to remain shut on Tuesday.

US Ambassador Julie Chung tweeted that Washington condemned “the violence against peaceful protestors” and called on the Sri Lankan “government to conduct a full investigation, including the arrest & prosecution of anyone who incited violence”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies