Sri Lankan leader promises investigation into police shootings

Sri Lankans hold their mobile phone torches during a vigil condemning police firing on protesters in Rambukkana, 90 kilometers (55 miles) northeast of Colombo, during a protest outside the president's office in Colombo, Sri Lanka on Tuesday, April 19, 2022. Sri Lankan police opened fire on a group of people protesting against further fuel price increases on Tuesday, killing one person and injuring 10 others, during the first shooting by security forces during weeks of protests over the country's worst economic crisis in decades.  (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

Sri Lankans hold their mobile phone torches during a vigil condemning police firing on protesters in Rambukkana, 90 kilometers (55 miles) northeast of Colombo, during a protest outside the president’s office in Colombo, Sri Lanka on Tuesday, April 19, 2022. Sri Lankan police opened fire on a group of people protesting against further fuel price increases on Tuesday, killing one person and injuring 10 others, during the first shooting by security forces during weeks of protests over the country’s worst economic crisis in decades. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

PA

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Wednesday promised “an impartial and transparent investigation” into a police shooting that left one dead and 13 others injured during protests against the country’s worst economic crisis in decades.

The president said in a tweet that he was “deeply saddened” by the incident, which happened on Tuesday in Rambukkana, 90 kilometers (56 miles) northeast of the capital, Colombo, and urged ” all citizens to refrain from violence while protesting”.

Public Security Minister Prasanna Ranatunga said on Wednesday that police had been patient but had to use minimal force to prevent protests from escalating into major violence.

Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa asked parliament: “Does killing a protester mean the use of minimal force?”

“What this murderous and terrorist government is doing today is repression of the people,” he added.

Fifteen police officers were also admitted to a hospital with minor injuries after clashes with protesters on Tuesday. Police said protesters in Rambukkana blocked train tracks and roads and ignored police warnings to disperse. Police also said protesters threw rocks at them.

It was the first shooting by Sri Lankan security forces during weeks of protests and it has reignited widespread protests across the Indian Ocean island nation.

Protests spread to other parts of Sri Lanka on Wednesday as people used vehicles to block key roads as they demonstrated against shootings as well as rising fuel prices and the government’s failure to address increasingly serious economic problems.

In Colombo, thousands of bank, port, health and other workers protested outside the main train station, condemning police shootings and demanding Rajapaksa’s resignation. They shouted slogans and displayed signs that read: “Bow down before the verdict of the people” and “Go home”. Gota is an abbreviated version of Rajapaksa’s given name.

Thousands of protesters also continued to occupy the entrance to the president’s office for a 12th day on Wednesday, blaming him for the economic crisis.

Rajapaksa has resisted calls to resign.

Much of the anger expressed over the weeks of mounting protests has been directed at Rajapaksa and his older brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who lead an influential clan that has been in power for most of the past two decades. Five other family members are lawmakers, three of whom resigned as ministers two weeks ago.

Sri Lanka is on the verge of bankruptcy, with almost $7 billion of its total external debt of $25 billion due to be repaid this year. A severe shortage of foreign exchange means that the country lacks money to buy imported goods.

US Ambassador Julie Chung and UN Resident Coordinator Hanaa Singer-Hamdy appealed to all parties for restraint and called on the authorities to guarantee the people’s right to peaceful protest. Chung also called for an independent investigation into Tuesday’s shooting.

Sri Lankans have endured months of shortages of essentials such as food, cooking gas, fuel and medicine, queuing for hours to buy the limited supplies available.

Fuel prices have risen several times in recent months, leading to sharp increases in transport costs and the prices of other goods. There was another round of increases earlier this week.

Mahinda Rajapaksa said on Tuesday that the constitution would be amended to reduce presidential powers and empower parliament. The prime minister said the change of power is a quick step that can be taken to stabilize the country politically and help talks with the International Monetary Fund on an economic stimulus package.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa concentrated power in the presidency after being elected in 2019.

The Rajapaksa brothers are likely to retain their hold on power even if the constitution is amended, since they hold both offices.

Both the president and the prime minister refused to resign, leading to a political stalemate. Opposition parties rejected the president’s proposal for a unity government but were unable to muster a majority in parliament and form a new government.

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