Supporters of Sri Lanka's ruling party stormed a major protest site in the country's commercial capital Colombo on Monday, attacking anti-government demonstrators and clashing with police who used tear gas and water cannon to drive them back.
A curfew has been imposed across the island nation of 22 million people after the violence in Colombo, a police spokesman said, as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his elder brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, appealed for calm.
Protests against the Rajapaksa government have raged for weeks amid the country's worst financial crisis since independence, with thousands demanding Rajapaksa and his influential family quit for mishandling the economy.
On Monday, hundreds of ruling party supporters rallied outside the prime minister's official residence before marching to an anti-government protest site outside the presidential office.
Police had formed a line of personnel ahead of time on the main road leading towards the site but did little to stop pro-government protesters from advancing, according to a Reuters witness.
Pro-government supporters, some armed with iron bars, attacked anti-government demonstrators at the "Gota Go Gama" tent village that sprang up last month and became the focal point of the nationwide protests.
Police used dozens of tear gas rounds and water cannon to break up the confrontation, the first major clash between pro-and anti-government supporters since the protests began in late March.
At least nine people were taken to Colombo's National Hospital for treatment after suffering injuries or inhaling tear gas during the clashes, a hospital official said, declining to be named.
"This is a peaceful protest," Pasindu Senanayaka, an anti-government protestor told Reuters. "They attacked Gota Go Gama and set fire to our tents."
"We are helpless now, we are begging for help," Senanayaka said, as black smoke spiralled out of a burning tent nearby and parts of the protest camp lay in disarray.
Dozens of paramilitary troops with riot shield and helmets were deployed to keep both groups apart after the initial clashes. The army said it had also deployed soldiers in the area.
"Strongly condemn the violent acts taking place by those inciting & participating, irrespective of political allegiances," President Rajapaksa said in a tweet. "Violence won't solve the current problems."
Hit hard by the pandemic, rising oil prices and tax cuts, Sri Lanka has as little as $50 million of useable foreign reserves, Finance Minister Ali Sabry said last week.
The government has approached the International Monetary Fund for a bailout, and will begin a virtual summit on Monday with officials from the multilateral lender aimed at securing emergency assistance.
Facing escalating anti-government protests, Rajapaksa's government last week declared a state of emergency for the second time in five weeks, but public discontent has steadily simmered.
Long queues for cooking gas seen in recent days have frequently turned into impromptu protests as frustrated consumers blocked roads.
Domestic energy companies said they were running low on stocks of liquid petroleum gas mainly used for cooking. Sri Lanka needs at least 40,000 tonnes of gas each month, and the monthly import bill would be $40 million at current prices.
"With the involvement of the President we will get $7 million from the central bank to pay for a 3,500 metric tonne (MT) shipment, which is expected to arrive on Tuesday," Vijitha Herath, chairman of state-run Litro Gas, told Reuters.
The second player in Sri Lanka's duopoly, Laugfs Gas, has less than 2,000 tonnes of gas, which has been reserved for industries and hospitals. The company is also struggling to find dollars and is currently in talks to use its overseas assets to open letters of credit.
"We are a bankrupt nation. Banks don't have sufficient dollars for us to open lines of credit and we cannot go to the black market. We are struggling to keep our businesses afloat," Laugfs Chairman W.H.K Wegapitiya said.
He estimated it would take at least another week for the company to secure a gas shipment.