COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka’s prime minister agreed to resign Saturday after party leaders in parliament demanded he and the embattled president step down on a day when protesters stormed the president’s residence and office in a frenzy because of the worsening economic crisis.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said in a voice statement that he would resign when all parties agreed on a new government.
“Today in this country we have a fuel crisis, food shortages, we have the head of the World Food Program coming here and we have several issues to discuss with the IMF. Therefore, if this government leaves, there must be another government,” he said.
His decision came after Sri Lanka’s biggest protest, when tens of thousands of people broke through barricades and entered President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s residence and nearby office to vent their anger at a leader they see as responsible for the nation’s worst crisis.
Footage shows people in a joyful mood bathing in the residence’s garden pool. Some were lying on beds, others were making tea and drinking and made “announcements” from the conference room that Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe should leave immediately.
Wickremesinghe said he had suggested the president have an all-party government, but said nothing about Rajapaksa’s whereabouts. The opposition parties in the parliament were currently discussing the formation of a new government.
Rajapaksa appointed Wickremesinghe as prime minister in May, hoping the career politician would use his diplomacy and contacts to revive the failing economy. But people’s patience ran out as shortages of fuel, medicine and cooking gas only increased and oil supplies dried up.
Many protesters accuse Wickremesinghe of trying to save Rajapaksa when he was under pressure to resign as every other member of his powerful political dynasty left the cabinet.
It was not clear whether Rajapaksa was at his residence when it was stormed earlier on Saturday. Government spokesman Mohan Samaranayake said there was no information on his movements.
Leaders of political parties in parliament later met and decided to ask Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe to step down, opposition lawmaker Rauf Hakim said on Twitter. He said a consensus had been reached that the speaker of parliament should take over as interim president and work for an interim government.
Sri Lanka’s economy is in a state of collapse, relying on aid from India and other countries as its leaders try to negotiate a bailout with the International Monetary Fund. The economic collapse has led to severe shortages of essential items, leaving people struggling to buy food, fuel and other essential goods.
The turmoil led to months of protests that nearly toppled the Rajapaksa political dynasty that had ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades.
The president’s older brother resigned as prime minister in May after violent protests forced him to seek safety at a naval base. Much of the public anger was directed at the Rajapaksa family, with protesters accusing them of plunging Sri Lanka into chaos with mismanagement and allegations of corruption.
At the president’s office, security officials tried to stop demonstrators who climbed through the fences to escape across the lawns and into the colonial-era building.
At least 34 people, including two police officers, were injured in clashes as protesters tried to enter the residence. Two of the injured are in critical condition, while others have minor injuries, said an official at the Colombo National Hospital, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Thousands of protesters poured into the capital from the suburbs after police lifted the curfew. With fuel supplies scarce, many crammed into buses and trains to come into the city to protest, while others made their way on bicycles and on foot.
Protest and religious leaders called on Rajapaksa to step down, saying he had lost the people’s mandate.
“His claim that he was voted by the Sinhalese Buddhists is now invalid,” said Ven. Omalpe Sobita, a prominent Buddhist leader. He called on parliament to meet immediately to elect an interim president, but said Wickremesinghe did not enjoy the support of the people.
Last month, Wickremesinghe said the country’s economy had collapsed. He said negotiations with the IMF were complicated because Sri Lanka was now a bankrupt country.
In April, Sri Lanka announced it was suspending foreign loan payments due to a shortage of foreign currency. Its total foreign debt stands at $51 billion, of which it must repay $28 billion by the end of 2027.
Police imposed a curfew in Colombo and several other major urban areas on Friday night, but lifted it on Saturday morning amid objections from lawyers and opposition politicians who called it illegal.
US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung on Friday urged people to protest peacefully and called on the military and police to “give peaceful protesters the space and security to do so”.
“Chaos and force will not fix the economy or bring the political stability that Sri Lanka needs right now,” Chung said in a tweet.
Associated Press writers Bharata Malavarachi in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and Krutika Patti in New Delhi contributed to this report.