A protester shouts slogans after setting a bus on fire during a demonstration outside the Sri Lankan president's home in Colombo on Thursday night. AFP
Street protests gripped Sri Lanka on Friday as demonstrators blocked main roads across the country, a day after hundreds tried to storm the president's home in anger over an unprecedented economic crisis.
The South Asian nation is facing severe shortages of essentials, sharp price rises and crippling power cuts in its most painful downturn since independence from Britain in 1948.
Police reimposed a nighttime curfew on Friday in the Western Province, which includes the capital Colombo, slightly expanding the zone's circumference from the prior night.
Protesters hold banners and placards during a demonstration against the surge in prices and shortage of fuel. AFP
Earlier in the evening, dozens of rights activists carried handwritten placards and oil lamps in the capital while demonstrating at a busy intersection.
"Time to quit Rajapaksas," said one placard. "No more corruption, go home Gota," said another — referring to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
In the highland town of Nuwara Eliya, activists blocked the opening of a flower exhibition by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa's wife, Shiranthi, police said.
The southern towns of Galle, Matara and Moratuwa also saw anti-government protests, and similar demonstrations were reported in the northern and central regions. All held up traffic on main roads.
'LUNATIC, GO HOME:' Thursday night's unrest outside the president's private home saw hundreds of people demand he step down. People chanted "lunatic, lunatic, go home," before police fired tear gas and used water cannon.
A police official walks past a cordoned off site next to the burnt-out bus near President Gotabaya Rajapaksa's home. AFP
The crowd turned violent, setting ablaze two military buses, a police jeep, two patrol motorcycles and a three-wheeler. They also threw bricks at officers.
At least two protesters were wounded in police firing but it was not clear whether officers used live ammunition or rubber bullets. Four people were injured when a security vehicle ran over them.
Police said 53 protesters were arrested, but local media organisations said five news photographers were also detained and tortured at a local police station, a charge the government said it will investigate.
The police and military presence was beefed up Friday across the country as social media posts urged residents to demonstrate peacefully outside their homes.
MAJOR INTELLIGENCE FAILURE: Two government ministers said a major intelligence failure had placed the lives of the president and his wife in danger on Thursday. "Both the president and his wife were at their home when the protests were going on," Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella told reporters in Colombo, discounting earlier claims that they were away at the time.
"We had information of a demonstration, but nothing suggesting that it could turn violent. This is a major intelligence failure." Transport Minister Dilum Amunugama said "terrorists" were behind the unrest.
Rajapaksa's office said on Friday that the protesters wanted to create an "Arab Spring" — a reference to anti-government protests in response to corruption and economic stagnation that gripped the Middle East more than a decade ago.
A common theme of demonstrations was a demand for all members of the powerful Rajapaksa family to quit.
One of the president's brothers, Mahinda, serves as prime minister while the youngest, Basil, is finance minister. His eldest brother and nephew also hold cabinet positions.
Sri Lanka's predicament has been compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic, which torpedoed tourism and remittances.
Many economists also say the crisis has been exacerbated by government mismanagement and years of accumulated borrowing.
RECORD INFLATION: The latest official data released on Friday showed inflation in Colombo hit 18.7 per cent in March, the sixth consecutive monthly record. Food prices soared a record 30.1 per cent.
Colombo imposed a broad ban on imports in March 2020 in a bid to save foreign currency needed to repay nearly $7.0 billion this year to service its $51 billion debt.
Diesel shortages have sparked outrage across Sri Lanka in recent days, causing protests at empty pumps.
Since Thursday, diesel has been unavailable at stations across the island, according to officials and media reports.
Hundreds of people protested in Lebanon’s capital on Sunday over increasingly difficult living conditions, amid fears of a dollar shortage and possible price hikes.
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