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Sri Lankan leader flees as protesters head home

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Colombo (AFP) – Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled his official residence on Saturday shortly before protesters, angered by an unprecedented economic crisis, stormed and invaded the compound.

Huge crowds had surrounded the leader’s home demanding his resignation, blaming government mismanagement for the painful recession.

As protesters stormed the gates of the presidential palace, troops guarding the compound fired into the air to stem the tide until Rajapaksa was safely evacuated, a senior source told AFP. defense level on condition of anonymity.

“The president has been escorted to safety,” the source added. “He is still president, he is protected by a military unit.”

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who would assume the presidency if Rajapaksa resigns, has called an urgent cabinet meeting to discuss a “swift resolution” to the political crisis, his office said.

Members of the crowd broadcast live footage on social media showing hundreds of people marching through the presidential palace.

The colonial-era state mansion is one of the key symbols of state power in Sri Lanka and officials said Rajapaksa’s departure raised questions about whether he intended to stay in power.

“We are awaiting instructions,” a senior official told AFP. “We still don’t know where he is, but we know he is part of the Sri Lankan Navy and is safe.”

Colombo’s main hospital said 14 people were being treated there after being hit by tear gas canisters.

“Not a deterrent”

Sri Lanka has suffered for months of food and fuel shortages, long power cuts and runaway inflation after running out of foreign currency to import vital goods.

Thousands of people had flocked to the capital for the demonstration, the latest expression of the unrest triggered by the crisis.

Police had withdrawn a curfew order issued on Friday after opposition parties, rights activists and the bar association threatened to sue the police chief.

Thousands of anti-government protesters ignored the order and even forced rail authorities to operate trains to take them to Colombo for Saturday’s rally, officials said.

“The curfew was not a deterrent, in fact it encouraged more people to take to the streets in defiance,” the defense official said.

“Passengers had commandeered trains to reach Colombo.”

The country has nearly run out of already scarce supplies of petrol, but protesters backed by the main opposition parties have hired private buses to travel to the capital.

Protesters camped outside Rajapaksa’s waterfront office to demand his resignation over the government’s mishandling of the crisis.

Soldiers armed with assault rifles were bused into Colombo on Friday to reinforce police guarding Rajapaksa’s official residence.

Authorities said they had deployed nearly 20,000 troops and police for a security operation to protect the president.

Sri Lanka defaulted on its $51 billion foreign debt and began bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund.

Nine people were killed and hundreds injured when clashes erupted across the country after Rajapaksa loyalists attacked peaceful protesters outside the president’s office in May.