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Many Sri Lankans flee Colombo as leaders meet to discuss crisis

Sri Lanka president warns of racial tensions amid economic crisis

Sri Lankans are thronging buses in the commercial capital Colombo to return to their hometowns as leaders of political parties prepare to meet after Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa quit and went into hiding on a military base.

Hundreds of people were on the move after authorities lifted an indefinite curfew at 7am (01:30 GMT) on Thursday. The curfew will be reimposed at 2 pm (08:30 GMT).

The island nation, battling its worst economic crisis since independence, was gripped by violence earlier this week after supporters of Mahinda Rajapaksa attacked an anti-government protest camp in Colombo on Monday.

In total, nine people were killed and more than 300 injured during the clashes, police said.

Days of violent reprisals against government figures aligned to the powerful Rajapaksa clan followed as protesters vowed to maintain pressure until the president also quits.

Mahinda’s younger brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, on Wednesday warned of anarchy.

Six Sri Lankan soldiers sit on top of their tank as they patrol the streets of Colombo
Sri Lankan army soldiers patrol during a curfew in Colombo [Eranga Jayawardena/AP]
Protesters sprayed graffiti on Mahinda Rajapaksa’s home in a southern town and ransacked a museum dedicated to his father.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa said on Wednesday he will appoint a new prime minister and cabinet this week “to prevent the country from falling into anarchy as well as to maintain the affairs of the government that have been halted”.

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He has repeatedly called for a unity government to find a way out of the crisis, but opposition leaders say they will not serve until he resigns over his handling of the crisis.

On Thursday, Colombo’s streets remained quiet, with a few people venturing out to buy essentials.

Later in the day, leaders of political parties will meet with the speaker of parliament to discuss the situation.

Hit hard by the pandemic, rising oil prices and tax cuts by the populist Rajapaksa government, Sri Lanka is experiencing its worst financial crisis since independence in 1948.

Useable foreign reserves stand as low as $50m, inflation is rampant, and shortages of fuel have brought thousands onto the streets in more than a month of anti-government protests, that had remained predominantly peaceful until Monday.

Sri Lanka’s central bank governor said on Wednesday failing to find a solution to the crisis in the next one to two weeks would lead to power cuts of up to 10 to 12 hours per day, as well as his own resignation.

Meanwhile, Cricket Australia on Thursday said it continues to monitor the situation in Sri Lanka but has no plans to change the schedule of the upcoming tour of the island state despite continued violence.

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“We are keeping a close eye on developments in Sri Lanka and talking regularly with DFAT and Sri Lanka Cricket,” Cricket Australia said on Thursday.

“Our players and support staff have been briefed and will continue to be kept up to date. There are three weeks until the scheduled departure of the squad and at this stage, there are no changes to the schedule.”

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade updated its travel advice for Sri Lanka on Wednesday, instructing potential visitors to reconsider their need to travel because of the security situation.

Australia announced three strong squads last month for the tour of Sri Lanka, which includes a Twenty20 series, five one-day internationals as well as two tests in Galle. An Australia “A” team will also play four matches.

Two of the T20 matches that kick off the tour early next month, three of the one-day internationals and two of the “A” matches are in the capital Colombo, where the worst of the violence has taken place.

Cricket Australia’s security chief visited Sri Lanka last month when a state of emergency was first declared and gave the all-clear for the tour.

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