Sri Lanka President warns of racial tensions amid economic crisis

People queue up to buy kerosene for domestic use at a supply station in Colombo. Photo AFP/ ISHARA S. KODIKARA

Sri Lanka's president urged people on Wednesday to reject what he called attempts to foment racial and religious disharmony, as clashes broke out in many parts of the country over the government's handling of a devastating economic crisis.

Violent street protests killed eight people this week and even the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa's elder brother as prime minister and a curfew have failed to douse public anger.

The government has ordered troops to shoot at anyone damaging public property or threatening lives.

Sri Lankans have blamed the Rajapaksa dynasty for the economic meltdown that has left the country with only about $50 million in reserves, stalling most imports and leading to massive shortages of fuel, cooking gas, and other essentials.

Protesters set the family's ancestral home in the south on fire earlier in the week.

"This is the time for all Sri Lankans to join hands as one, to overcome the economic, social & political challenges," Rajapaksa said on Twitter.

"I urge all #Srilankans to reject the subversive attempts to push you towards racial & religious disharmony. Promoting moderation, toleration & coexistence is vital."

It was not immediately clear what prompted the president to issue the warning. However, Sri Lanka has a long history of ethnic tensions.

Rajapaksa and his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, who resigned as prime minister on Monday, were in key government positions when a 26-year civil war ended in 2009 after security forces overcame militants from the minority Tamil community.

Sinhalese Buddhists are the majority in the country of 22 million which also has Muslim, Hindu and Christian minorities.

A police spokesperson said two shooting incidents were reported on Tuesday night, including one in the southern town of Rathgama that wounded four people.

"The situation is now calm," Nalin Thalduwa said. In Weerakettiya, a southern town that is home to the Rajapaksas, police and military patrolled the streets, with shops and businesses shut due to the curfew.

On Monday, video footage from local media showed the ancestral home of the family ablaze, while multiple attacks on houses and election offices of lawmakers were also reported.

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