Sri Lankan president’s brother quits; UN launches aid appeal

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Basil Rajapaksa, the younger brother of Sri Lanka’s president and the country’s former finance minister, said he resigned from Parliament on Thursday amid mounting criticism of his role in the island nation’s economic crisis, as the United Nations launched an appeal for $47.2 million in emergency aid.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has said Sri Lanka needs about $6 billion to pay for vital imports and stay afloat for the next six months.

Rajapaksa said he submitted a letter to give up his Parliament seat but insisted that he was not solely responsible for the country’s economic hardships.

“The crisis was there even when I took over,” he said at a news conference. “I did my best with all my strength.”

He served as finance minister from July last year until April, when he resigned with other ministers over the government’s failure to resolve the economic situation.

His resignation from Parliament is seen as a severe blow to his family’s dynasty, which has faced growing public outrage. The powerful Rajapaksa family has ruled Sri Lanka for much of the past two decades.

For months, Sri Lankans have endured severe shortages of food, fuel and medicines, power outages and other difficulties because of an acute foreign currency shortage that prevents the country from buying needed imported goods and repaying its debts.

The United Nations said it launched the appeal on Thursday in response to a government request for assistance focusing on healthcare, food and agriculture, safe drinking water and protection of livelihoods.

It said 5.7 million Sri Lankans are in need of humanitarian assistance, but that the appeal will focus on 1.7 million who are most at risk and in need of urgent help.

“If we don’t act now, many families will be unable to meet their basic food needs,” the U.N resident coordinator in Sri Lanka, Hanaa Singer-Hamdy, said in a statement.

“Sri Lanka’s once-strong healthcare system is now in jeopardy, livelihoods are suffering and the most vulnerable are facing the greatest impact. Now is the time for the international community to show solidarity with the people of Sri Lanka,” she said.

Rajapaksa said Thursday that successive governments that ruled Sri Lanka since the 1950s also deserve blame because “they took loans and spent them” without taking steps to avert a crisis. He said he would not be involved in the government anymore but vowed to “continue political work.”

Protesters have occupied the entrance to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s office for more than 50 days demanding his resignation, saying the primary responsibility for the economic crisis rests with him and his family, whom they accuse of corruption and mismanagement.

The protests drove another family member, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, from office last month amid nationwide violence in which his supporters attacked peaceful protesters. Another of the president’s siblings and a nephew also resigned from their Cabinet posts but still serve as lawmakers. Mahinda Rajapaksa was Sri Lanka’s president from 2005 to 2015.

Demonstrations continued Thursday, with police using tear gas to prevent protesters from breaking into the police headquarters to demand action against the Rajapaksa supporters involved in the attacks. They also demanded the release of people they said had been unfairly detained in relation to retaliatory attacks in which nine people, including a lawmaker, were killed and dozens of homes of officials and ruling party supporters were burned.

Sri Lanka is nearly bankrupt. The government announced last month that it is suspending nearly $7 billion in foreign debt repayments due this year out of about $25 billion due by 2026. Sri Lanka’s total foreign debt stands at $51 billion.

Authorities have started discussions with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout package and have asked it to lead a conference to unite Sri Lanka’s lenders.

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