COLOMBO — Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will step down next Wednesday, the country’s parliamentary speaker said on Saturday, after a day of violent protests in which demonstrators stormed the president’s official residence and set fire to the prime minister’s home in Colombo.
Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena said in a video statement Rajapaksa had informed him that he will step down from his post.
“The decision to step down on 13 July was taken to ensure a peaceful handover of power,” Abeywardena said. “I therefore request the public to respect the law and maintain peace,” he said.
The announcement came after a dramatic escalation in months of anti-government protests over the dire economic crisis in Sri Lanka.
The news of president’s decision triggered an eruption of celebratory fireworks in parts of Colombo city.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe also said he is willing to resign to make way for an all-party government, his office said in a statement on Saturday evening.
Throughout the day soldiers and police were unable to hold back a crowd of chanting protesters demanding Rajapaksa’s resignation and blaming him for the country’s worst economic crisis in seven decades.
Neither Rajapaksa nor Wickremesinghe were in their residences when the buildings were attacked.
Video footage on local news channels showed a huge fire and smoke coming from Wickremesinghe’s private home in an affluent Colombo neighborhood. His office said that protesters had started the fire.
There were no immediate reports of injuries in the blaze. Wickremesinghe had moved to a secure location, a government source told Reuters early in the day.
Inside the president’s house earlier in the day, a Facebook livestream showed hundreds of protesters, some draped in the national flag, packing into rooms and corridors.
Video footage showed some of them splashing in the swimming pool, while others sat on a four-poster bed and sofas. Some could be seen emptying out a chest of drawers in images that were widely circulated on social media.
Hundreds milled about in the grounds of the colonial-era whitewashed residence, with few security personnel in sight.
Rajapaksa had left the official residence on Friday as a safety precaution ahead of the planned weekend demonstration, two defense ministry sources said. Reuters could not immediately confirm his whereabouts.
At least 39 people, including two police officers, were injured and hospitalized during the protests, hospital sources told Reuters. (Reporting by Uditha Jayasinghe, Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Helen Popper, Alex Richardson and Frances Kerry)