Sri Lanka prime minister resigns, curfew imposed after clashes

COLOMBO, May 9 (Reuters) – Sri Lanka’s prime minister resigned on Monday, hours after clashes with pro-and anti-government demonstrators in the commercial capital Colombo amid the country’s worst economic crisis that has spurred protests by thousands.

During weeks of unprecedented demonstrations, protesters across the island nation of 22 million people have demanded that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his elder brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, quit for mishandling the economy.

In a statement, the prime minister’s office said the 76-year-old veteran politician had resigned.

“A few moments ago, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa sent his letter of resignation to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa,” the statement said.

In the letter, a copy of which was seen by Reuters, the prime minister said he was quitting to help form an interim, unity government.

“Multiple stakeholders have indicated the best solution to the present crisis is the formation of an interim all-party government,” the letter said.

“Therefore, I have tendered my resignation so the next steps can be taken in accordance with the Constitution.”

His departure came during a day of chaos and violence which culminated in police imposing a curfew across the country.

The confrontation began with hundreds of ruling party supporters rallying outside the prime minister’s official residence before marching to an anti-government protest site outside the presidential office.

Police had formed a line 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 nationwide protests.

Police used tear gas rounds and water cannons 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 relating to injuries or tear-gas inhalation, 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 spiraled out of a burning tent nearby and parts of the protest camp lay in disarray.

Dozens of paramilitary troops with riot shields 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 IMF officials 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 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.

“We are a bankrupt nation,” said W.H.K Wegapitiya, chairman of Laugfs Gas, one of the country’s two main gas suppliers.

“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.”

Reporting by Alasdair Pal and Uditha Jayasinghe in Colombo; Writing by Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, Simon Cameron-Moore, and Bernadette Baum

China’s Xi tells German Chancellor all efforts must be made to avoid Ukraine conflict from intensifying

BEIJING, May 9 (Reuters) – China’s President Xi Jinping told German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Monday that all efforts must be made to avoid the Ukraine conflict turning into an “unmanageable situation”, Chinese state radio reported.

“All efforts must be made to avoid the intensification and expansion of the Ukraine conflict, which could lead to an unmanageable situation,” Xi said in the video call, according to the report.

Xi also invited Germany to participate in the Global Security Initiative, a broad and vague framework Xi put forward last month that upholds the principle of “indivisible security”, a concept invoked by Russia to justify its attack on Ukraine.

Mumbai mosques turn volume down after Hindu demands

MUMBAI, May 8 (Reuters): Sitting in an office lined with books overlooking a giant prayer hall, Mohammed Ashfaq Kazi, the main preacher at the largest mosque in Mumbai, checked a decibel meter attached to the loudspeakers before he gave the call to worship.

“The volume of our azaan (call to prayer) has become a political issue, but I don’t want it to take a communal turn,” said Kazi, one of the most influential Islamic scholars in the sprawling metropolis on India’s western coast.

As he spoke he pointed to loudspeakers attached to the minarets of the ornate, sand-coloured Juma Masjid in Mumbai’s old trading quarters.

Kazi and three other senior clerics from Maharashtra where Mumbai is located said more than 900 mosques in the west of the state had agreed to turn the volume down on calls to prayer following complaints from a local Hindu politician.

Raj Thackeray, leader of a regional Hindu party, demanded in April that mosques and other places of worship be kept within allowed noise limits. If they did not, he said his followers would chant Hindu prayers outside mosques in protest.

Thackeray, whose party has just one seat in the state’s 288-member assembly, said he was merely insisting that court rulings on noise levels be enforced.

“If religion is a private matter then why are Muslims allowed to use loudspeakers all 365 days (of the year)?” Thackeray told reporters in Mumbai, India’s financial hub and capital of Maharashtra.

“My dear Hindu brothers, sisters, and mothers come together; be one in bringing down these loudspeakers,” he said.

Leaders of India’s 200 million Muslims see the move, which coincided with the holy festival of Eid, as another attempt by hardline Hindus to undermine their rights to free worship and religious expression, with the tacit agreement of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

In recent weeks, a senior BJP leader began pushing for swapping marriage and inheritance laws based on religion with a uniform civil code, taking aim at rules that allow Muslim men, for example, to have four wives. 

The BJP did not respond to a request for comment on Thackeray’s initiative. It denies targeting minorities and says it wants progressive change that benefits all Indians.

At the Juma Masjid, Kazi said he complied with Thackeray’s demands in order to reduce the risk of violence between Muslims and Hindus.

Bloody clashes have erupted sporadically across India since independence, most recently in 2020 when dozens of people, mostly Muslims, were killed in Delhi following protests against a citizenship law that Muslims said discriminated against them.

While hardline Hindu leaders were seeking to undermine Islam, Kazi said, “we (Muslims) have to maintain calm and serenity.”

The state took Thackeray’s initiative seriously.

Senior police officials met religious leaders including Kazi earlier this month to ensure microphones were turned down, as they feared clashes in Maharashtra, home to more than 10 million Muslims and 70 million Hindus.

On Saturday, police filed a criminal case against two men in Mumbai for using loudspeakers to recite the early morning azaan and warned workers of Thackeray’s party from gathering around mosques.

“Under no circumstances will we allow anyone to create communal tension in the state and the court’s order must be respected,” said V.N. Patil, a senior Mumbai police official.

A senior official for Thackeray’s party said the initiative was not designed to single out Muslims but aimed to reduce “noise pollution” created by all places of worship.

“Our party does not appease the minority community,” said Kirtikumar Shinde, adding that police had issued warnings to 20,000 party workers this month.

The issue of calls to prayer extends beyond Maharashtra. BJP politicians in three states asked local police to remove or limit the use of loudspeakers in places of worship.

The deputy chief minister of the country’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, said over 60,000 unauthorized loudspeakers had been removed from mosques and temples.