Sri Lanka protesters set prime minister's home alight, president flees

Sri Lankan protesters set the prime minister's private home on fire, hours after chasing the president from his residence, as months of frustration over an unprecedented economic crisis boiled over on Saturday.

Hundreds of thousands of people massed in the capital Colombo through the morning to demand the government take responsibility for mismanaging the nation's finances, and for months of crippling food and fuel shortages.

After storming the gates of the presidential palace, hundreds of people could be seen in live broadcasts on social media walking through its rooms, with some among the boisterous crowd jumping into the compound's pool.

Others were seen laughing and lounging in the stately bedrooms of the residence, with one pulling out what he claimed was a pair of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa's underwear.

Shortly beforehand, troops guarding the residence fired in the air to hold the crowd back until Rajapaksa was safely removed.

"The president was escorted to safety," a top defence source told AFP on condition of anonymity. "He is still the president, he is being protected by the navy."

He said the president had boarded a naval craft at the Colombo port, which later moved to the southern waters of the island.

The colonial-era mansion he left is one of Sri Lanka's key symbols of state power, and officials said Rajapaksa's departure raised questions as to whether he intended to remain in office.

Soon after the crowd stormed the presidential palace, Rajapaksa's nearby seafront office also fell into the hands of protesters.

Security forces attempted to disperse the huge crowds that had mobbed Colombo's administrative district.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the first person in line to succeed Rajapaksa, called a meeting with political leaders and said he was willing to step down to pave the way for a unity government.

But that failed to placate protesters, who stormed the premier's private residence and set it alight after night fell.

Footage shared on social media showed a crowd cheering the blaze, which broke out shortly after a security detachment guarding Wickremesinghe attacked several journalists outside the home.

No casualties have been reported in the fire so far, and police said Wickremesinghe and his family were away at the time.

Earlier, a spokeswoman for Colombo's main hospital said three people were being treated for gunshot wounds, along with 36 others suffering breathing difficulties after being caught up in tear gas barrages.

- 'Not a deterrent' -

Sri Lanka has suffered through months of shortages of basic goods, lengthy blackouts and galloping inflation after running out of foreign currency to import necessities.

The government has defaulted on its $51 billion external debt and is seeking an International Monetary Fund bailout.

Thousands of people had poured into the capital for Saturday's demonstration, the latest outbreak of unrest sparked by the crisis.

Police had withdrawn a curfew 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 stay-home order and even forced railway 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 get on the streets in defiance," the defence official said.

Sri Lanka has nearly exhausted its already scarce supplies of petrol, and people unable to travel to the capital held protests in other cities across the island.

Demonstrators had already maintained a months-long protest camp outside Rajapaksa's seafront office demanding his resignation.

The camp was the scene of clashes in May when a gang of Rajapaksa loyalists attacked peaceful protesters gathered there.

Nine people were killed and hundreds were wounded after the violence sparked reprisals against pro-government mobs and arson attacks on the homes of lawmakers.

- Cricket goes on -

The unrest comes at the tail end of Australia's ongoing cricket tour of Sri Lanka, with Pakistan's squad also on the island for their upcoming series.

Cricket officials said there were no plans to change their schedules, adding that the sport was unaffected by the political turmoil.

"The Australian Test is coming to an end and we are due to start the Pakistan series," a cricket board official told AFP.

"There is no opposition to having the games. In fact, fans are supportive and we have no reason to reschedule."

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