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Sri Lanka town under curfew, foreign concern over killing

Police kept up a curfew in central Sri Lanka on Wednesday, a day after the killing of an anti-government demonstrator in escalating protests across the island triggered international condemnation.

The government promised investigations into allegations that police used excessive force to disperse people protesting high fuel prices and demanding President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation over the worsening economic crisis.

Sri Lanka is in the grip of its worst economic downturn since independence in 1948, with regular blackouts, severe shortages of fuel and other goods and record inflation causing widespread misery, reports AFP.

“I have already initiated an inquiry into the conduct of officers at Rambukkana,” police chief Chandana Wickramaratne said in a statement as he ordered an indefinite curfew in the area.

The crowd was about to set alight a diesel tanker when officers opened fire to disperse in Rambukkana, 95 kilometres east of the capital, police said in an earlier statement.

In the first fatal clash since anti-government protests broke out this month, at least 29 people including 11 policemen were wounded, officials said.

Top Colombo-based envoys, including those from the US, Britain and Canada, expressed concern over the police shooting and called for restraint from all sides as Sri Lanka opens bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund in Washington.

“A full, transparent investigation is essential and the people’s right to peaceful protest must be upheld,” US ambassador Julie Chung said.

The British High Commissioner Sarah Hulton added: “I condemn violence in all forms and call for restraint.”

And her Canadian counterpart David McKinnon said that “those instigating violence must be accountable”.

Within hours, police fired tear gas to break up another protest in the south of the island, but there were no immediate reports of casualties, officials and residents said.

Police moved to disperse people occupying a main road and holding up traffic in Matara, 160 kilometres south of Colombo, residents said.

Across the country, there were protests against Tuesday’s sharp increase in fuel prices and the shortage of diesel and petrol as the government seeks three to four billion dollars from the IMF to overcome its balance-of-payments crisis and boost depleted reserves.

Trade unions have called a general strike on Wednesday to protest rising living costs.

Public transport fares are set to rise by 35% on Wednesday after diesel was raised by nearly 65% the day before. Bread has gone up nearly 30%.

In the capital Colombo, a large crowd has been camped outside the President’s seafront office since April 9, demanding the leader step down.

Rajapaksa acknowledged public anger over the ruling family’s mismanagement on Monday, after appointing a new cabinet to try to assuage fury over the crisis.

Sri Lanka’s economic meltdown came after the coronavirus pandemic torpedoed vital revenue from tourism and remittances and the government last week announced a default on huge foreign debt.