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Sri Lankan troops destroy main protest camps

#Sri #Lankan #troops #destroy #main #protest #camps

Sri Lankan security forces demolished the main anti-government protest camp in the capital and drove out activists in a night attack that sparked international concern.

Special Task Force troops and police commandos armed with batons and automatic assault rifles rushed at protesters blockading the presidential secretariat.

Hundreds of soldiers removed protesters’ barricades in front of the seafront building, while the last remaining protesters inside the compound – some still on the steps – were evicted.

The operation came hours before the country’s new president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, swore in a new prime minister to try to deal with the financial crisis that has crippled the economy and sparked months of protests.

Wickremesinghe himself was elected by lawmakers on Wednesday to replace Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who fled to Singapore and resigned after protesters chased him from his palace.

The remaining protesters — far fewer than the thousands who ransacked several government buildings earlier this month — have also called on Wickremesinghe to step down, accusing him of protecting the Rajapaksa clan, which has largely dominated politics for the past two decades.

In the morning, police squads and soldiers armed with automatic assault rifles surrounded the complex, and the main roads leading to the area remained cordoned off.

Hundreds of activists demonstrated at a nearby designated protest site against the authorities’ actions, calling on Wickremesinghe to resign and dissolve parliament to allow new elections.

“Don’t attack peaceful protesters, listen to us,” said 26-year-old student Dimithu.

Activists insisted they would continue their struggle, and Basantha Samarasinghe, 45, a businessman and union leader, said: “People’s desire is for system change and Parliament should be dissolved. It has no public mandate.”

In a statement, police said: “Police and security forces acted to clear protesters who had occupied the Presidential Secretariat, the main gate and the surrounding area.

“Nine people were arrested. Two of them were injured.”

US Ambassador to Colombo Julie Chung said she was “deeply concerned” by the military action.

“We demand restraint from the authorities and immediate access to medical care for the injured,” she said on Twitter.

Canadian High Commissioner (Ambassador) David McKinnon said: “It is crucial that the authorities act with restraint and avoid violence.”

Amnesty International called on the Sri Lankan authorities to respect dissent and condemned the use of force against journalists, including a BBC photographer, covering the military action.

The night raid came after Wickremesinghe was sworn in and was condemned by the head of Sri Lanka’s influential Bar Association, Saliya Peiris, who warned it would damage the international image of the new government.

“Unnecessary use of brute force will not help this country and its international image,” Peiris said in a brief statement, adding that a lawyer was among those arrested.

– New Prime Minister –

Wickremesinghe has promised to install a unity government to pull the country out of the worst economic crisis since independence from Britain in 1948.

A foreign exchange crisis sparked by the coronavirus pandemic and exacerbated by mismanagement has left Sri Lanka suffering from protracted power outages and record high inflation.

The country’s 22 million people have also suffered months of food, fuel and medicine shortages.

The new head of state sworn in his political rival Dinesh Gunawardena as the country’s new prime minister on Friday.

The two men have been schoolmates and friends since they were three, but they lead ideologically diametrically opposed parties.

Wickremesinghe is a free market advocate and a pro-Western politician, while Gunawardena is a staunch Sinhala nationalist who believes in socialism and wants greater state control over the economy.

The cabinet is due to be sworn in later on Friday and is expected to include opposition MPs.

After Rajapaksa resigned, six-time prime minister Wickremesinghe temporarily took over the reins until he was confirmed as the new president on Wednesday.

Wickremesinghe had warned protesters that occupying state buildings was illegal and that they would be evicted if they did not go alone.

On the day Rajapaksa was forced to flee, protesters also set fire to Wickremesinghe’s private home in the capital.

“If you’re trying to overthrow the government, to occupy the office of the President and the Prime Minister, that’s not democracy, it’s against the law,” he said.

The new president has also declared a state of emergency, giving the armed forces sweeping powers and allowing police to arrest suspects and hold them for long periods without charge.

Protesters have accused Wickremesinghe of being a proxy to the former president’s powerful family – an accusation he has denied.

“I am not a friend of the Rajapaksas,” he told reporters at Gangaramaya Temple. “I am a friend of the people.”

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