Sri Lanka gives emergency powers to army and police after clashes leave seven dead

  • Army and police are free to detain people without warrants
  • More than 200 injured in clashes that prompted the resignation of the Prime Minister
  • Island-wide curfew until 7 a.m. Wednesday

COLOMBO, May 10 (Reuters) – Sri Lanka on Tuesday gave its military and police emergency powers to detain people without warrants, after a day of clashes that left seven people dead and more than 200 injured, in violence that prompted Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to resign.

As the Indian Ocean nation battles the worst economic crisis in its history, thousands of protesters have defied curfew to attack government figures, torching homes, shops and businesses belonging to party lawmakers in the power and provincial politicians.

Despite sporadic reports of unrest, the situation calmed down on Tuesday, police spokesman Nihal Thalduwa said, adding that around 200 people were also injured in violence that led to a curfew. island-wide until 07:00 (01:30 GMT) the following day.

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The government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the prime minister’s younger brother, has given broad powers to the military and police to detain and interrogate people without arrest warrants.

The military can detain people for up to 24 hours before handing them over to police, while private property can be forcibly searched, including private vehicles, the government said in a notice to the official gazette on Tuesday.

“Anyone arrested by a police officer should be taken to the nearest police station,” he said, setting a 24-hour deadline for the armed forces to do the same.

Some analysts have expressed concern about the potential for abuse of emergency measures.

“In a situation where there is both a state of emergency and a curfew, who can monitor to ensure that these regulations are not abused?” said Bhavani Fonseka, of the Colombo-based Center for Policy Alternatives think tank.

The president had already declared a state of emergency on Friday as protests escalated.

VIOLENCE DAY

The attacks on government figures came in apparent retaliation for an incident just hours before Rajapaksa’s resignation.

Rajapaksa spoke to hundreds of supporters gathered at his official residence on Monday following reports he was considering stepping down.

After his remarks, many of them, armed with iron bars, stormed a camp of those protesting against the government, beating them and setting fire to their tents. Read more

Police fired water cannons and tear gas to disperse the skirmishers, after initially doing little to hold off government supporters, according to Reuters witnesses.

Thousands of people poured into the streets to celebrate Rajapaksa’s resignation, but the mood quickly became tense.

Protesters attempted to demolish the gates of Temple Trees, his residence in central Colombo, where broken glass and discarded shoes littered the surrounding streets on Tuesday, following some of the night’s worst clashes.

Military troops patrolled the area, where eight burnt-out vehicles lay partially submerged in a lake. Discarded files and broken equipment littered the ransacked offices of government officials.

Sri Lanka’s unprecedented economic crisis follows a pandemic that has hit key tourism revenue, leaving the government struggling with rising oil prices and the impact of populist tax cuts.

He has sought help from multilateral lenders such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, as well as Asian giants India and China.

Former finance minister Ali Sabry, who resigned on Monday, along with the rest of Rajapaksa’s cabinet, said usable foreign exchange reserves stood at just $50 million.

Shortages of fuel, food and medicine have taken thousands to the streets in more than a month of protests that had been mostly peaceful until this week.

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Reporting by Alasdair Pal and Uditha Jayasinghe in Colombo; Editing by Clarence Fernandez

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