Sri Lankan security forces raid protest camp as new leaders are sworn in

On Friday morning, Sri Lankan security forces raided a protest camp occupying government land in Colombo and emptied part of it, fueling fears that President Ranil Wickremesinghe had launched a crackdown a day after lending oath.

Media footage showed soldiers in riot gear and armed with assault rifles demolishing the camp, set up in April by protesters enraged by the country’s economic collapse, which has caused severe fuel shortages, of food and medicine.

Wickremesinghe, the former prime minister, was sworn in on Thursday after winning a parliamentary vote this week, following the resignation of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who fled to Singapore following massive public protests sparked by the world’s worst economic crisis. country in seven decades.

Protesters feared a crackdown was imminent as Wickremesinghe had imposed a state of emergency on the country from Monday when he was acting head of state, and many saw him as a ally of Rajapaksa.

Another Rajapaksa ally, senior lawmaker Dinesh Gunawardena, was sworn in as Sri Lanka’s new prime minister just hours after security forces moved into the protest camp. The rest of the cabinet is expected to be sworn in later on Friday, with Wickremesinghe expected to retain the finance portfolio.

On Friday, anti-government protesters speak with members of the Sri Lankan security forces. (Abhishek Chinnappa/Getty Images)

Gunawardena was sworn in in the presence of Wickremesinghe, seated in front of uniformed military officers in a room full of lawmakers and officials.

Arrests after pre-dawn raids

“A joint operation involving the army, police and police special forces was launched in the early hours of the morning to recover the presidential secretariat from the protesters because they have no legal right to hold it,” the doorman told Reuters. – police spokesperson, Nalin Thalduwa.

“Nine people, two of whom were injured, were arrested.”

Angry at the pre-dawn raids, hundreds of protesters marched from the city’s main train station to the Galle Face protest site, where they were held up by army and riot police who were holding barricades.

“The very first day he used the armed forces is the face of Ranil Wickremesinghe,” said Rajeevkanth Rajkumar, CEO of a construction company and one of the protesters. “We don’t want innocent people hurting anymore. But we will go to this place (the protest site) at all costs.”

Opposition politician Anura Kumara Dissanayake, who lost the vote for the presidency, said on Twitter: “Let’s bring down the brutal regime… which violently attacked the protesters at Galle Face.”

Members of the Sri Lankan security forces remove temporary structures set up in Colombo by militants. Hundreds of Sri Lankan soldiers and police raided the main anti-government protest camp on Friday morning. (Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images)

Protest organizers said hundreds of security personnel surrounded the “Gota Go Gama” protest camp, mockingly named after Rajapaksa, after midnight and then dismantled part of it.

At least 50 protesters were injured, organizers said, including some journalists beaten by security forces. According to hospital sources, two people have been hospitalized.

“They beat us really badly,” said Buddhika Abeyrathne, 34, a protester who witnessed the raid but did not appear injured himself. “Mr. Wickremesinghe does not know what democracy is.”

Previous emergency regulations in the island nation of 22 million people have been used to give the military the power to detain and arrest protesters and restrict the right to demonstrate.

After surrounding the protest camp, security personnel moved in front of the presidential secretariat, began tearing down tents and assaulting protesters, protest organizer Manjula Samarasekara said.

Security forces appear to have taken control of the entire secretariat, with many more staff visible inside the perimeter of the building which was seized by protesters earlier this month, as well as the official residences of the President and Prime Minister. The residences were then returned to government authorities.

Protest organizer Chameera Dedduwage told Reuters they planned to hand over the presidential secretariat to government authorities on Friday afternoon. Police said they had no information about it.

Foreign diplomats urge restraint

US and UK diplomats have expressed concern over developments.

“We call on the authorities for restraint and immediate access to medical care for the injured,” US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung said on Twitter.

The Bar Association of Sri Lanka said the crackdown could destabilize the country, which needs foreign aid and a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

“The use of the armed forces to suppress civil protests from the first day in office of the new president is despicable and will have serious consequences for the social, economic and political stability of our country,” the collective of lawyers said in a statement. communicated.