Sri Lanka police shot dead a protester and wounded 24 others on Tuesday in the first fatal clash with residents demonstrating against the government over a crippling economic crisis.
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.
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, 95 kilometres (60 miles) 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.
US condemns violence
The US ambassador to Sri Lanka, Julie Chung, said she was “deeply saddened” by the incident.
“I condemn any violence,” Chung said on Twitter.
“A full, transparent investigation is essential and the people’s right to peaceful protest must be upheld.”
Sri Lanka’s Bar Association also called for an impartial probe into the violence.
Elsewhere tens of thousands of angry motorists blocked arterial roads around the country with parked buses and burning tyre mounds to protest the latest rise in fuel prices and months of acute shortages.
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.
Doctors at Sri Lanka’s main children’s hospital also staged a protest on Tuesday over a severe shortage of medicines and equipment.
‘I deeply regret it’
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.
“People are suffering because of the economic crisis and I deeply regret it,” he said.
Sri Lanka’s economic meltdown began after the coronavirus pandemic torpedoed vital revenue from tourism and remittances.
The government last week announced a default on its $51 billion foreign debt and the Colombo Stock Exchange has suspended trading to prevent an anticipated market collapse.
Rajapaksa’s administration has urged citizens abroad to donate foreign exchange to help pay for desperately needed essentials.
Colombo has sent a delegation to Washington and opened bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund.