Sri Lanka down to last day of gasoline as protests erupt

Sri Lanka down to last day of gasoline as protests erupt

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - Sri Lanka's new prime minister said on Monday that the nation was down to its last day of gasoline, as the country s power minister told citizens not to join the long fuel lines that have galvanized weeks of anti-government protests.

In an address to the nation, Ranil Wickremesinghe, appointed prime minister on Thursday, said the country urgently needed $75 million in foreign exchange to pay for essential imports.

We only have petrol stocks for a single day. The next couple of months will be the most difficult ones of our lives, he said.

We must prepare ourselves to make some sacrifices and face the challenges of this period. He said that two shipments of gasoline and two of diesel using an Indian credit line could provide relief in the next few days, but the country is also facing a shortage of 14 essential medicines.

The crisis resulted in widespread demonstrations against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his family, culminating in the resignation of his elder brother Mahinda as prime minister last week after fighting between government supporters and protesters killed 9 people and wounded 300.

The president replaced Wickremesinghe, an opposition parliamentarian who had held the post five times before, in a bid to placate protesters.

The protesters have said they will keep up their campaign as long as Gotabaya Rajapaksa remains president. They labeled Wickremesinghe a stooge and criticized his appointment of four cabinet ministers, all members of the political party run by the Rajapaksa brothers.

Wickremesinghe said on Monday that he took the role for the good of the country.

Long lines of autorickshaws, the most popular means of transport in the city, lined up at gas stations in a fruitless wait for fuel.

One driver, Mohammad Ali, said he had been in the queue for more than six hours. We spend almost six to seven hours in the line just to get petrol. Another driver, Mohammad Naushad, said the gas station he was waiting for had run out of fuel.

We have been here since 7 - 8 a.m. in the morning, but it is not clear if they will have fuel or not, he said. When will it come, no one knows. What is the point in our waiting here that we don't know? The coronaviruses epidemic, rising oil prices and populist tax cuts by the Rajapaksas, the strategic Indian Ocean island nation where China and India are fighting for influence, is in the midst of a crisis that has never been seen since its independence in 1948.

A chronic foreign exchange shortage has resulted in rampant inflation and shortages of medicine, fuel, and other essentials, causing thousands to turn their backs on the streets in protest.

A diesel shipment using an Indian credit line arrived in the country on Sunday, but has yet to be distributed across the island.

The public should not queue up or top up in the next three days until the 1,190 fuel station deliveries are completed, Power Minister Kanchana Wijesekera said on Monday.

Wickremesinghe has yet to announce key ministers, including the crucial post of finance minister, who will negotiate with the International Monetary Fund for desperately needed financial help for the country.

The former Finance Minister Ali Sabry had held preliminary talks with the multilateral lender, but he left with Mahinda Rajapaksa last week.