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Sri Lanka closes schools and limits work amid fuel shortage

Motorists queue up to buy petrol near a fuel station in Colombo (AP)
Motorists queue up to buy petrol near a fuel station in Colombo (AP)

Sri Lankan authorities have closed schools and asked public officials not to come to work in a desperate move to prepare for a fuel shortage that is expected to last days amid the nation’s worst economic crisis in decades.

The Public Administration Ministry asked officials — except for those who maintain essential services — not to come to work on Friday “in a view of current fuel shortage and issues in transport facilities” across the country.

State and government-approved private schools also closed on Friday amid the worsening fuel shortage, with thousands of people waiting in queues at fuel stations across the country for days at a time.

Sri Lanka protester
An anti government protest in Colombo, Sri Lanka (AP)

Sri Lanka is now almost without petrol and faces an acute shortage of other fuels as well.

The government has been struggling to find money to pay for the importation of fuel, gas and other essentials in recent months with the Indian Ocean island nation on the brink of bankruptcy.

Its economic woes have brought on a political crisis, with the government facing widespread protests.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa swore in nine cabinet ministers on Friday, raising the total number to thirteen as he attempts to stabilise the government after a string of resignations.

The new ministers include four independents, three from the ruling and two from the main opposition. Four ruling party politicians were appointed as cabinet ministers last week.

Sri Lanka protester
A protester fires a tear gas canister back to police in Colombo (AP)

Mr Rajapaksa sought a unity government in early April but the largest opposition political party, the United People’s Force, had rejected the proposal.

For months, Sri Lankans have endured long queues to buy those essentials, most of which come from abroad. Shortages of hard currency have also hindered imports of raw materials for manufacturing and worsened inflation.

Protesters blocked main roads to demand gas and fuel, and television stations showed people in some areas fighting over limited stocks.

Authorities have announced countrywide power cuts of up to four hours a day because they cannot supply enough fuel to power generating stations.

Sri Lanka has suspended repayment of about seven billion dollars £5.6 billion in foreign loans due this year out of 25 billion dollars (£20.1 billion) to be repaid by 2026. The country’s total foreign debt is 51 billion dollars (£41 billion). The finance ministry says the country currently has only 25 million dollars (£20 million) in usable foreign reserves.

Colombo protests
Students run for cover as police fire tear gas to disperse protesting members of the Inter University Students Federation during an anti government protest in Colombo (AP)

Protesters have occupied the entrance to the president’s office for more than a month, calling for Mr Rajapaksa to resign.

Months of anti-government rallies have led to the near-dismantling of the once-powerful ruling family, with one of the president’s brothers resigning as prime minister, and other siblings and a nephew leaving their Cabinet posts.

Protesters accuse the Rajapaksas of triggering the crisis through corruption and misrule.

Sri Lanka’s new Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said on Monday that about 75 billion dollars (£60 billion) is needed urgently to help provide essential items, but the country’s treasury is struggling to find even one billion dollars (£804 million).

Attacks by Mr Rajapaksa’s supporters on protesters last week sparked nationwide violence that left nine people – including a parliamentarian – dead, and more than 200 injured. Homes of legislators and their supporters were burned down.

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