Hours later, Wickremesinghe told the military to maintain order across key districts the South Asian nation’s capital.
“They beat us really cruelly,” said Buddhika Abeyrathne, 34, a protester who witnessed the raid but did not appear injured himself. “Mr Wickremesinghe doesn’t know what democracy is.”
The president is expected to appoint Rajapaksa ally Dinesh Gunewardena as prime minister along with a new cabinet later on Friday.
After surrounding the protest camp, security personnel moved in front of the presidential secretariat, started dismantling some tents and assaulted protesters, protest organiser Manjula Samarasekara said.
Security forces appeared to have taken control of the entire secretariat, with many more personnel visible inside the building perimeter that was earlier this month seized by protesters, along with the president and prime minister’s official residences. The residences were later handed back to government authorities.
Protest organiser Chameera Dedduwage told Reuters they had planned to hand over the presidential secretariat to government authorities on Friday afternoon. Police said they had no information on that.
“The excessive force and the violence used to remove protesters is a marked difference from what Sri Lanka needs right now, especially when the protesters had already said they will vacate the premises,” said Bhavani Fonseka, a senior researcher at Colombo-based think tank Centre for Policy Alternatives.
The Bar Association of Sri Lanka said the crackdown could destabilise the country, which is in need of foreign aid and a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.
“The use of the armed forces to suppress civilian protests on the very first day in office of the new president is despicable and will have serious consequences on our country’s social, economic and political stability,” the collective of lawyers said in a statement.
US and British diplomats also expressed concern.
“We urge restraint by authorities and immediate access to medical attention for those injured,” US ambassador to Sri Lanka, Julie Chung, said on Twitter.
“Very concerned about reports from the Galle Face protest site,” Sarah Hulton, the British High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, said in a tweet.
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