Sri Lanka’s police fired at protesters, killing one and wounding 24 others, in what media reports described as the first fatal clash with demonstrators on Tuesday, April 19.
The South Asian country is in the grip of its most painful economic downturn since independence in 1948, with regular blackouts and severe shortages of fuel and other goods causing widespread misery.
Huge protests have called for the resignation of the government, which is preparing to negotiate an urgently needed bailout with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
In the capital Colombo, a large crowd has been camped outside the seafront office of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa for more than a week, demanding the leader step down.
Rajapaksa acknowledged public anger over the ruling family’s mismanagement on Monday after appointing a new cabinet to navigate the country out of the crisis.
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo, however, said “there is no use in changing and appointing new ministers, just misguiding the people.”
“Changing pillows for a headache will not solve the problem,” said the cardinal in a media briefing on Monday.
The Church leader also condemned as “unacceptable and an immoral response” reports that goons have been deployed to quell the demonstrations.
Police fired live rounds at a crowd that had blockaded a railway line and highway connecting the capital Colombo with the central city of Kandy to protest oil shortages and high prices.
“One man died of gunshot injuries,” a hospital official told AFP by telephone.
Another 16 protesters were wounded, with eight in need of emergency surgery, while a further eight police officers were injured, the hospital official said.
Police said the crowd were about to set alight a tanker carrying diesel when officers fired tear gas to disperse them at the town of Rambukkana, 95km east of the capital.
“Instead of dispersing, the mob began pelting stones. At that point officers fired at them,” police spokesman Nihal Thalduwa said in a statement.
An indefinite curfew was imposed in the area, officials said.
Local media reports said demonstrators had thrown back tear gas canisters fired by officers in running street battles.
The protest was one of many spontaneous gatherings staged around Sri Lanka on Tuesday, after the country’s main petrol retailer hiked prices by nearly 65 percent.
Local media footage showed dozens of police officers wearing anti-riot gear firing tear gas into the crowd.
“Fire, fire and chase them out,” a senior officer is heard shouting while directing his men to attack the crowds with tear gas.
Police said demonstrators had stopped road and train traffic for hours by the time of the shooting.
Footage from the local hospital showed victims being rushed into the facility and a man pleading for someone to treat his brother, who had been shot in the abdomen.
“Please rush quickly, my brother is bleeding,” the man shouted. – with a report from AFP
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