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Sri Lankan police clear main protest site as new PM takes over

Security personnel standing guard near the Presidential Secretariat after a raid on an anti-government protest camp in Colombo, Sri Lanka on July 22, 2022. (Photo by Reuters)

Sri Lankan police and security forces on Friday cleared the main protest site in the capital Colombo occupied by demonstrators for months, hours after an ally of the Rajapaksa family was appointed the new prime minister.

Media footage showed soldiers in riot gear and armed with assault rifles tearing down the camp, set up in April by protesters enraged over the country's economic collapse that has caused severe shortages of fuel, food, and medicines in the island country.

The development came a day after President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was elected by legislators and sworn into office earlier this week, appointed Dinesh Gunawardena to succeed himself as the new premier.

Sri Lankan protesters have demanded the resignation of Wickremesinghe, as they deem him an accomplice of ousted president Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

While the security forces urged the protesters to withdraw from the presidential building of Sri Lanka, they also arrested several of them present at the site, according to reports. 

At least 50 protesters were injured, protest organizer Chameera Dedduwage said, including some journalists who were beaten by security forces. 

"They beat us really cruelly," said Buddhika Abeyrathne, 34, a protester who witnessed the raid but did not appear injured himself. "Mr. Wickremesinghe doesn’t know what democracy is."

Gunawardena, a close Rajapaksa ally, took the oath as Sri Lanka's new prime minister just hours after security forces moved against the protest camp. The rest of the cabinet is expected to be sworn in later on Friday, with Wickremesinghe expected to keep the finance portfolio.

"A joint operation involving the military, police, and police special forces was launched in the early hours to recover the presidential secretariat from the protesters as they have no legal right to hold it," police spokesperson Nalin Thalduwa told Reuters.

"Nine people, including two injured, have been arrested."

Hundreds of angry protesters marched from the city's main railway station towards the Galle Face protest site, where they were held back by military and riot police manning barricades.

"The very first day he used the armed forces - this is the face of Ranil Wickremesinghe," said Rajeevkanth Rajkumar, CEO of a construction company and one of the protesters. "We don't want any more innocent people to be injured. But we will go to that place (the protest site) at any cost."

Opposition politician Anura Kumara Dissanayake, who lost the vote for the presidency, said on Twitter: "Let's bring down the brutal ... regime that viciously attacked the protesters at Galle Face".

Ranil Wickremesinghe said in a speech that he accepts the decision of the parliament and tries to adopt policies to solve the economic crisis in the country.

Members of Sri Lanka's parliament on Wednesday, under strict security measures, voted to choose the president from among three competing candidates, hoping that the new president can lead the island nation out of a crippling economic and political crisis.

With the severe blow that the Sri Lankan economy suffered during the Corona epidemic and the tax cut by the Rajapaksa government, Sri Lanka is in the middle of the worst economic crisis since the independence of the country from the UK invasion in 1948 and in the past 70 years.

The inflation rate of 54.6 percent in June which is expected to hit 70 percent in the coming months, along with the shortage of food, medicine, and fuel, has drawn hundreds of thousands of protestors to the streets of the country months ago.

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