Sri Lankan army commandos walk past a damaged bus after it was set on fire by demonstrators at the top of the road to Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa's residence during a protest against him, as many parts of the crisis-hit country face up to 13 hours without electricity due to a shortage of foreign currency to import fuel, in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 1, 2022. Image Credit: REUTERS

Colombo: Police in Sri Lanka’s capital lifted a curfew on Friday after protests in which dozens of people were arrested and injured near the home of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa over his handling of an economic crisis.

Hundreds of protesters gathered near Rajapaksa’s residence in a Colombo suburb late on Thursday before police moved in to disperse them with tear gas and water cannons.

Rajapaksa’s media division said in a statement a small group of people carrying iron bars, clubs and sticks had provoked the protesters, the majority of whom were unarmed.

“We respect the peoples right to protest and that will be protected but they cannot harm any public property, said police spokesman Ajith Rohana.

“The 53 people arrested will be presented to court. The island nation of 22 million people is in the midst of its worst economic crisis in years with rolling blackouts for up to 13 hours a day because the government does not have enough foreign exchange to pay for fuel imports.

Protesters torched several police and army vehicles during the disturbance, including two buses, a jeep and several motorcycles, Rohana said.

A total of 24 police were injured, nine of whom remained in hospital, Rohana said.

People clash with riot police as they demonstrate outside Sri Lanka's president home demanding his resignation amid an unprecedented economic crisis in Colombo, on March 31, 2022. Image Credit: AFP

Police did not confirm the number of protesters injured.

Sources at two hospitals in Colombo said 20 to 25 people had been admitted, some of whom remained.

Streets in the capital were quiet on Friday morning as police combed through the wreckage of two burnt-out buses near Rajapaksa’s home, a Reuters witness said.

Tourism minister Prasanna Ranatunge said such protests would harm economic prospects.

“The main issue Sri Lanka is facing is a forex shortage and protests of this nature will hurt tourism and have economic consequences,” Ranatunge told a news conference.

“Our stance is that people have the right to protest but it should be constructive. What happened yesterday was the opposite.” The U.N. representative in the country, Hanaa Singer-Hamdy, called for restraint from all groups involved in the clashes.

“We are monitoring developments and are concerned by reports of violence,” she said on Twitter.

Trading on the country’s stock market was suspended for a third day in a row after the main blue-chip index fell 10% from the previous close.

Diesel shortage

Diesel shortages had sparked outrage across Sri Lanka in recent days, but the protests had been in various towns and not aimed at any top leader.

But on Thursday diesel was unavailable at stations across the island, according to officials and media reports.

The state electricity monopoly said it had enforced a 13-hour power cut from Thursday - the longest ever - because it did not have diesel for generators.

Public transport is crippled, as diesel is the main fuel used for buses and commercial vehicles.

“We are siphoning off fuel from buses that are in the garage for repairs and using that diesel to operate serviceable vehicles,” Transport Minister Dilum Amunugama said.

Reservoirs, which provide more than a third of electricity demand via hydropower plants, were also at dangerously low levels.

Several state-run hospitals have stopped conducting surgeries as they have run out of essential life-saving medicines.

The government has said it is seeking a bailout from the International Monetary Fund while asking for more loans from India and China.

IMF spokesman Gerry Rice told reporters in Washington on Thursday that such talks should begin “in the coming days”, with Sri Lanka’s finance minister expected in the US capital.