Sri Lanka lifts curfew after violent protests over economic crisis

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COLOMBO, April 1 (Reuters) - Police in Sri Lanka's capital lifted a curfew on Friday after protests in which dozens of people were arrested and injured near the home of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa over his handling of an economic crisis.

Hundreds of protesters gathered near Rajapaksa's residence in a Colombo suburb late on Thursday before police moved in to disperse them with tear gas and water cannons. read more

Rajapaksa's media division said in a statement a small group of people carrying iron bars, clubs and sticks had provoked the protesters, the majority of whom were unarmed.

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"We respect the people’s right to protest and that will be protected but they cannot harm any public property,” said police spokesman Ajith Rohana.

"The 53 people arrested will be presented to court.”

The island nation of 22 million people is in the midst of its worst economic crisis in years with rolling blackouts for up to 13 hours a day because the government does not have enough foreign exchange to pay for fuel imports. read more

Protesters torched several police and army vehicles during the disturbance, including two buses, a jeep and several motorcycles, Rohana said.

A total of 24 police were injured, nine of whom remained in hospital, Rohana said.

Police did not confirm the number of protesters injured. Sources at two hospitals in Colombo said 20 to 25 people had been admitted, some of whom remained.

Streets in the capital were quiet on Friday morning as police combed through the wreckage of two burnt-out buses near Rajapaksa's home, a Reuters witness said.

Tourism minister Prasanna Ranatunge said such protests would harm economic prospects.

"The main issue Sri Lanka is facing is a forex shortage and protests of this nature will hurt tourism and have economic consequences," Ranatunge told a news conference.

"Our stance is that people have the right to protest but it should be constructive. What happened yesterday was the opposite."

The U.N. representative in the country, Hanaa Singer-Hamdy, called for restraint from all groups involved in the clashes.

"We are monitoring developments and are concerned by reports of violence," she said on Twitter.

Trading on the country's stock market was suspended for a third day in a row after the main blue-chip index fell 10% from the previous close.

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Reporting by Uditha Jayasinghe and Dinuka Liyanawatte in Colombo Writing by Alasdair Pal Editing by Robert Birsel & Shri Navaratnam

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