COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — As a growing crowd called for Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to step down, protesters stormed the gates of his office, security forces fired tear gas and a military helicopter circled overhead .
Earlier, when protesters marched near the prime minister’s office, security forces had tried to disperse the crowd with tear gas, but they were unmoved and joined another group. Riot police, many wearing gas masks and holding rifles, stood with nearby Air Force and Army units, making no contact with the crowd.
“We don’t want robber Lanier, bank thieves, deal thieves!” the crowd chanted.
Hundreds of marchers, including families with young children, set off from the president’s office in the morning. Crowds arriving in the capital Colombo from all over Sri Lanka increased their numbers overnight.
The atmosphere outside the Oval Office was generally calm and celebratory at the start of the day. People are digesting the news that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has fled to neighbouring Maldives.
“The thieves are running away,” said Sanjayra Perera, a university librarian of thousands who had been to Colombo. She took her two children, 12 and 10, by train from the western city of Gampaha on Wednesday morning.
She said she wanted her family to remain in the capital when the Rajapaksa dynasty fell.
“This is our country,” she said. “we won.”
Crowds found patches of shade under the statue, sat on the walls of the waterfront park, held umbrellas to block the sun, and lined up for a chance to see the historic office building, one of three government buildings occupied by protesters. A past weekend.
Despite uncertainty over whether Mr Rajapaksa will resign on Wednesday, as the speaker said, and who might succeed him, protesters believe an era is coming to an end.
“This is a historic day for us,” said Randika Sandaruwan, 26, who was on a train with nine friends from the nearby city of Negombo on Tuesday night. “We need to kick out our president, and now Gota is gone,” he said, using the presidential nickname.
Like many protesters, Mr Sundaruwan and his friends had nothing to protect them from tear gas.
Shameen Opanayake, 22, sat on the front steps with his mother and two sisters. They took an early bus from their home in Kalutara, south of the capital.
“If he doesn’t step down today,” he said of the president, “I don’t think this place will remain calm. The whole country is rejecting him.”