Sri Lanka Parliament speaker: President to resign Wednesday

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has agreed to resign in the coming days, the speaker of Sri Lanka’s Parliament said on a tumultuous Saturday that also saw the prime minister say he would step down and the storming of both leaders’ residences by protesters angry over the nation’s severe economic crisis.

Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena said in a televised statement that he informed Rajapaksa that parliamentary leaders had met and decided to request he leave office, and the president agreed. However Rajapaksa will remain until Wednesday to ensure a smooth transfer of power, Abeywardena added.

“He asked me to inform the country that he will make his resignation on Wednesday the 13th because there is a need to hand over power peacefully,” Abeywardena said.

“Therefore there is no need for further disturbances in the country and I urge everyone for the sake of the country to maintain peace to enable a smooth transition,” the speaker continued.

Opposition lawmaker Rauff Hakeem said a consensus was reached for the speaker of Parliament to take over as temporary president and work on an interim government.

The announcement of the president’s resignation came hours after protesters swarmed into his fortified residence in Colombo. Video images showed jubilant crowds taking a dip in the garden pool. Some people lay on the home’s beds, while others made tea and issued statements from a conference room demanding the departure of both Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

It was not clear if Rajapaksa was there at the time, and government spokesman Mohan Samaranayake said he had no information about the president’s movements.

Protesters also broke into the prime minister’s private residence and set it on fire, Wickremesinghe’s office said. It wasn’t immediately clear if he was there when the incursion happened.

Hours earlier Wickremesinghe had announced his own impending resignation, amid calls for him to quit. But he said he will not step down until a new government is formed, angering protesters who demanded his immediate departure.

“Today in this country we have a fuel crisis, a food shortage, we have the head of the World Food Program coming here and we have several matters to discuss with the IMF,” Wickremesinghe said.. “Therefore, if this government leaves there should be another government.”

Wickremesinghe said he suggested to the president to have an all-party government, but didn’t say anything about Rajapaksa’s whereabouts. Opposition parties in Parliament were discussing the formation of a new government.

Rajapaksa appointed Wickremesinghe as prime minister in May in the hope that the career politician would use his diplomacy and contacts to resuscitate a collapsed economy. But people’s patience wore thin as shortages of fuel, medicine and cooking gas only increased and oil reserves ran dry.

The country is relying on aid from India and other nations as leaders try to negotiate a bailout with the International Monetary Fund.

Months of demonstrations have all but dismantled the Rajapaksa political dynasty, which has ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades but is accused by protesters of dragging the country into chaos through poor management and alleged corruption. The president’s older brother resigned as prime minister in May after violent protests saw him seek safety at a naval base.

Thousands of protesters entered the capital from the suburbs Saturday after police lifted an overnight curfew denounced as illegal by lawyers and opposition politicians. With fuel supplies scarce, many crowded onto buses and trains while others made their way on bicycles and on foot.

At the president’s seaside office, security personnel tried in vain to stop protesters who pushed through fences to run across the lawns and inside the colonial-era building.

At least 34 people including two police officers were hurt in scuffles. Two of the injured were in critical condition, while others sustained minor injuries, according to an official at the Colombo National Hospital who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to talk to the media.

Privately owned Sirasa Television reported that at least six of its workers, including four reporters, were hospitalized after being beaten by police while covering the protest at the prime minister’s home.

Sri Lanka Medical Council, the country’s top professional body, warned that hospitals were running with minimum resources and would not be able to handle any mass casualties from the unrest.

Protest and religious leaders said Rajapaksa has lost his mandate and it is time for him to go.

“His claim that he was voted in by the Sinhala Buddhists is not valid now,” said Ven. Omalpe Sobitha, a prominent Buddhist leader. He urged Parliament to convene immediately to select an interim president.

Wickremesinghe said last month that the country’s economy had collapsed and that negotiations with the IMF were complex because Sri Lanka was now a bankrupt state.

Sri Lanka announced in April that it was suspending repayment of foreign loans due to a foreign currency shortage. Its total foreign debt amounts to $51 billion, of which it must repay $28 billion by the end of 2027.

U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung on Friday asked people to protest peacefully and called for the military and police “to grant peaceful protesters the space and security to do so.”

“Chaos & force will not fix the economy or bring the political stability that Sri Lankans need right now,” Chung tweeted.

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Associated Press writers Bharatha Mallawarachi in Colombo and Krutika Pathi in New Delhi contributed to this report.