COLOMBO (AFP, REUTERS) – Sri Lankan security forces demolished the main anti-government protest camp in the capital early on Friday (July 22) and evicted activists hours before the new president was due to name a cabinet.

The raid came a day after veteran politician Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as the crisis-hit country’s new leader, replacing Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who fled to Singapore and resigned after protesters overran his palace.

Special Task Force commandos armed with batons and automatic assault rifles swooped in on protesters blocking the capital’s Presidential Secretariat hours before they were due to vacate the area.

Hundreds of soldiers removed barricades set up by protesters blocking the main gate of the sea-front building, which demonstrators had partly overrun earlier this month.

An armoured personnel carrier was also seen in the area.

Activists had announced they planned to hand over the building, a symbol of state authority, by Friday afternoon, after a Cabinet was sworn in by new the president Mr Wickremesinghe.

The cabinet, which is expected to feature a cross-section of political parties, faces the difficult task of steering the country out of its worst economic crisis since gaining independence from Britain in 1948.

Witnesses saw soldiers surrounding the sea-front office and removing several temporary structures set up in the area to provide logistics for thousands of anti-government protesters since April.

Troops were also seen attacking people, including journalists, with batons as they advanced towards small groups of protesters gathered at what had become known as the “GotaGoGama (village)”.

At least 50 protesters were injured, the organisers said, including some journalists who were beaten by security forces.  

“It was a systematic and premeditated attack,” protest organiser Chameera Dedduwage told Reuters. “They actually brutally attacked people.” P

olice and army spokespeople did not immediately respond to calls from Reuters. 

The head of the influential Bar Association of Sri Lanka, Saliya Peiris, condemned the military action and warned it would hurt the new government’s international image.

“Unnecessary use of brute force will not help this country and its international image,” Mr Peiris said in a brief statement. He said several people, including a lawyer, had been detained by security forces.

Security forces used loud hailers asking a few hundred protesters to pull back and confine themselves to a designated area near the secretariat.

Police cordoned off the main roads leading to the area to prevent more people from joining the protesters.

Several activists were seized by troops who smashed tents set up along the main road leading to the presidential office.

Warning to demonstrators

Supporters of the #GoHomeGota campaign pressing president Gotabaya Rajapaksa to step down had taken over the area after capturing Rajapaksa’s palace on July 9, forcing him to flee and eventually resign.

After Rajapaksa stepped down, prime minister Wickremesinghe took over the leadership temporarily until he was confirmed as the new president in a parliamentary vote on Wednesday.