Sri Lanka’s new prime minister says the crisis-hit country is on its last day of petrol as the energy minister told citizens not to join the long queues for fuel that galvanized weeks of anti-government protests.
Ranil Wickremesinghe, appointed prime minister on Thursday, said in a televised address that the country urgently needed $75m (A$108m) in foreign currency to pay for essential imports.
“At the moment, we only have one day’s supply of gasoline. The next two months will be the most difficult of our lives,” he said.
“We must be prepared to make sacrifices and meet the challenges of this period.”
Two shipments of petrol and two of diesel using an Indian line of credit could bring relief in the coming days, he added, but the country is also facing a shortage of 14 essential medicines.
The crisis has led to widespread protests against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his family, culminating in the resignation of his older brother Mahinda as prime minister last week after fighting between government supporters and protesters left nine dead and 300 dead. wounded.
The president replaced him with Wickremesinghe, an opposition parliamentarian who held the post five times before, in a desperate attempt to appease protesters.
But protesters said they would continue their campaign as long as Gotabaya Rajapaksa remains president.
They also called Wickremesinghe a stooge and criticized his appointment of four ministers, all members of the political party led by the Rajapaksa brothers.
Wickremesinghe said Monday he took the role for the good of the country.
In Colombo, the commercial capital, long queues of auto rickshaws, the city’s most popular means of transport, lined up at gas stations in a fruitless wait for fuel.
“I stood in line for more than six hours,” said a driver, Mohammad Ali.
“We spend almost six to seven hours in line just to get gas.”
Another driver, Mohammad Naushad, said the gas station where he was waiting ran out of fuel.
“We’ve been here since 7-8am and it’s still unclear if they’ll have fuel or not,” he said.
“When will he come, no one knows. Is there any reason to wait here, we don’t know either.”
Hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, rising oil prices and populist tax cuts in Rajapaksas, the strategic Indian Ocean island nation where China and India vie for influence , is in the midst of a crisis not seen since its independence in 1948.
A chronic shortage of foreign currency has led to runaway inflation and shortages of medicine, fuel and other essentials, sending thousands to the streets in protest.
A shipment of diesel using an Indian line of credit arrived in the country on Sunday, but has yet to be distributed across the island.
“Ask the public not to queue or refuel in the next three days until deliveries from all 1,190 gas stations are completed,” Energy 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 badly needed financial aid.
Former finance minister Ali Sabry had held preliminary talks with the multilateral lender, but he resigned along with Mahinda Rajapaksa last week.