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Protesters abandon seized palace with Sri Lanka in limbo

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA (AP) – Sri Lankan protesters began to retreat from government buildings they seized and military troops reinforced security at the Parliament yesterday, establishing a tenuous calm in a country in both economic meltdown and political limbo.

Embattled President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled a day earlier under pressure from demonstrators furious over the island nation’s economic collapse. But he failed to resign as promised – and further angered the crowds by making his prime minister acting leader.

Protesters want both men out and a unity government in to address an economic calamity that has triggered widespread shortages of food and other necessities.

But with a fractured opposition and confusion over who was in charge, a solution seemed no closer following Rajapaksa’s departure. Adding to the turmoil, the president left the Maldives for Singapore yesterday, according to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Months of protests reached a frenzied peak over the weekend when demonstrators stormed the president’s home and office and the official residence of the prime minister. On Wednesday, they seized the office of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. They initially vowed to hold these places until a new government was in place, but the movement appeared to shift tactics yesterday.

Protest leader Devinda Kodagode told The Associated Press they planned to vacate official buildings after the Parliament speaker said he was exploring legal options for the country given that Rajapaksa left without submitting his resignation letter as promised.

Protesters withdrew from the presidential residence, with some moving a red carpet they had rolled up back into place as they left. Some still milled outside the president’s office. “We are not willing to take power in the building,” said Sanka Jayasekar, a 20-year-old protester leaving the president’s residence. “We just want to kick out (the) Rajapaksa regime. Already Gota Rajapaksa (has) left the country, so he has no power in Sri Lanka so we have gained our power again so that is why we are leaving the building.”

Other protesters posted videos on social media pleading with their compatriots not to storm the Parliament, after clashes outside the building on Wednesday.

Troops in green military uniforms and camouflage vests arrived in armoured personnel carriers yesterday to reinforce barricades around the Legislature. The government, meanwhile, announced another curfew in the capital Colombo and its suburbs in the afternoon until 5am today.

It’s unclear what effect a curfew would have: Some ignored a previous one, but many others rarely leave their homes anyway because of fuel shortages.

Rajapaksa and his wife fled Sri Lanka early Wednesday for the Maldives, slipping away in the night aboard an air force plane.