COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka’s prime minister agreed to resign Saturday after party leaders in parliament called for him and the embattled president to step down, on a day when protesters besieged the president’s home and office, enraged by a worsening economic crisis.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has announced in a voice statement that he will step down once all parties agree to form a new government.
“Today this country has a fuel crisis, food shortages, the head of the World Food Program is here and there are many things to discuss with the IMF. Therefore, if this government leaves, another government should be formed,” he said.
His decision came after Sri Lanka’s biggest ever protest, as tens of thousands of people broke barriers and stormed into President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s home and nearby office to vent their anger against a leader responsible for the country’s worst crisis.
Footage showed people in a happy mood taking a dip in the apartment’s garden pool. Some lay in bed, others drank tea and issued “statements” from the conference room demanding that Rajapakse and Wickremesinghe leave immediately.
Wickremesinghe said he suggested to the President to form an all-party government, but did not say anything about Rajapaksa’s whereabouts. Currently, the opposition parties are discussing the formation of a new government in the parliament.
Rajapakse appointed Wickremesinghe prime minister in May, hoping the career politician would use his diplomacy and connections to revive the slumping economy. But as shortages of fuel, medicine and cooking gas increased and oil reserves dried up, people’s patience wore thin.
Many opponents accuse Wickremesinghe of trying to save Rajapaksa when he pressured him to resign, as all other members of his powerful political dynasty quit the cabinet.
It was not clear whether Rajapaksa was at his residence when he was attacked earlier on Saturday. Government spokesperson Mohan Samaranayake said that he has no information about his movements.
Leaders of political parties in Parliament later met and decided to demand the resignation of Rajapakse and Wickramasinghe, opposition lawmaker Raub Hakim said on Twitter. He said that an agreement has been reached regarding the formation of an interim government with the Speaker of the Parliament sworn in as the interim president.
As Sri Lanka’s economy slumps, its leaders try to negotiate a bailout with the International Monetary Fund, relying on aid from India and other countries. Due to the economic downturn, there is a severe shortage of essential commodities and people are suffering Buy food, fuel and other necessities.
The turmoil led to months of protests that nearly toppled the Rajapakse political dynasty that had ruled Sri Lanka for the past two decades.
The president’s older brother resigned as prime minister in May after violent protests saw him seek safety at a naval base. Much of the public is angry with the Rajapakse family, whom opponents accuse of dragging Sri Lanka into chaos with mismanagement and allegations of corruption.
At the presidential office, security personnel tried to hold back protesters who pushed through fences to run into the lawns and colonial-era building.
At least 34 people, including two police officers, were injured in the clashes when protesters tried to enter the residence. Two of the injured are in critical condition while others have minor injuries, an official at the Colombo National Hospital said.
Thousands of protesters poured into the capital from the suburbs after police lifted an overnight curfew. Due to lack of fuel supplies, many people flocked to the city on buses and trains to protest, while others traveled on bicycles and on foot.
Protesters and religious leaders called for Rajapakse to step down, saying he had lost the mandate of the people.
“His claim that he was voted in by Sinhalese Buddhists is now invalid,” he said. Omalbe Sobitha, a prominent Buddhist leader. He urged parliament to convene immediately to elect an interim president.
Last month, Wickramasinghe had said that the country’s economy had collapsed. He said negotiations with the International Monetary Fund were complicated as Sri Lanka was now a bankrupt country.
In April, Sri Lanka announced a moratorium on foreign debt Due to shortage of foreign currency. Its total external debt is $51 billion, of which $28 billion is due to be repaid by the end of 2027.
Police had imposed a curfew in Colombo and other major urban areas on Friday night, but lifted it on Saturday morning amid objections from lawyers and opposition politicians who said it was illegal.
US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung on Friday urged people to demonstrate peacefully and called on the military and police to “provide space and security for peaceful protesters”.
“Confusion and power will not fix the economy or bring Sri Lankans the political stability they need right now,” Chung said in a tweet.
Associated Press writers Bharatha Mallavarachi in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and Krithika Pati in New Delhi contributed to this report.