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Sri Lanka president flees as angry protesters storm residence

Security forces fire teargas to disperse the anti-government protest rally in Colombo.(Photo by AFP)

Angered by an unprecedented economic crisis, thousands of protesters in Sri Lanka's commercial capital Colombo have stormed the president's official residence. 

One news agency said President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled shortly before protesters overran the compound and stormed his nearby office on Saturday. Others said he was removed from the official residence on Friday for his safety ahead of the planned rally.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe summoned an emergency party leaders meeting to discuss the situation and come to a swift resolution.

He has requested the speaker to summon parliament, his office said in a statement.

A Facebook livestream from inside the president's house showed hundreds of protesters, packing into rooms and corridors, shouting slogan's against Rajapaksa.

The island of 22 million people is struggling with its worst economic crisis since independence in 1948 amid a severe foreign exchange shortage that has limited essential imports of fuel, food and medicine.

Soaring inflation, at a record 54.6% in June and expected to hit 70% in the coming months, has heaped hardship on the population.

The country's leaders are seeking a $3 billion bailout from the US-dominated International Monetary Fund and a restructuring of some foreign debt, but its desperate bid has gone unanswered. 

Discontent has worsened in recent weeks as the cash-strapped country stopped receiving fuel shipments, forcing school closures and rationing of petrol and diesel for essential services.

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Police had withdrawn a curfew issued on Friday after opposition parties, rights activists and the bar association threatened to sue the police chief.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

Police used teargas and water cannon to disperse the crowds in some places and shots were fired into the air. However, as the crowds persistently moved towards the president’s official residence, they broke down barricades and stormed into the palatial property.

The economic collapse began to be felt earlier this year after the coronavirus pandemic torpedoed vital revenue from tourism and remittances.

The country is dealing with its worst economic downturn since independence in 1948.

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