SRI Lanka’s sacked prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe resisted moves to evict him from his official residence Sunday, defiantly summoning allies for a crisis meeting as a thousand supporters stood guard.
Wickremesinghe, who says his shock dismissal on Friday was illegal, ignored a deadline to vacate the colonial-era residence, even as his controversial successor sought blessings at a prominent temple ahead of naming a new cabinet.
Officials said police will now seek a court order to evict Wickremesinghe, 69, threatening to escalate the standoff as neighbours and Western nations asked all sides to exercise restraint and respect the constitution.
About 1,000 of his supporters gathered outside the Temple Trees residence, with troops seen nearby, but there was no sign of an intervention into the dispute.
Wickremesinghe’s security and official cars were withdrawn by President Maithripala Sirisena on Saturday, as the ousted prime minister demanded an emergency session to prove he still commanded a majority in parliament.
Instead, Sirisena shut parliament for nearly three weeks to forestall any challenge against his appointment of former strongman Mahinda Rajapakse as the new prime minister.
Loyalists to Rajapakse, whose decade-long rule was marked by grave allegations of rights abuses and growing authoritarianism, still control the headquarters of two state-run television channels.
All police leave was cancelled as tensions heightened in Colombo, with soldiers seen near the prime minister’s residence as well as the president’s office.
Meanwhile, Rajapakse travelled to a highly venerated Buddhist temple in the central district of Kandy to seek blessings from monks before naming a cabinet.
Rajapakse’s aides said he was likely to name a few cabinet ministers later Sunday and begin work on Monday.
He is yet to make a formal statement or address the nation since being elevated to the new post.
The former strongman is a controversial figure at home and abroad and presided over the crushing of a decades-long Tamil Tiger uprising.
He is seen as being closer to China than Wickremesinghe, who had sought to re-establish stronger ties with traditional ally and regional power India.
The crisis has again put the Indian Ocean in the international spotlight following turmoil in the neighbouring Maldives over its presidential election.
India said it was “closely following” events in Colombo.
China’s ambassador to Colombo met separately with Rajapakse and Wickremesinghe on Saturday, officials said.
The suspension of parliament has made it difficult for speaker Karu Jayasuriya, who comes from Wickremesinghe’s party, to announce which of the two rivals he recognises.
Many observers now expect the crisis to turn into a series of court battles.
Privately-run newspapers on Sunday described Sirisena’s move as a “constitutional coup”.
Political commentator Victor Ivan said Sirisena’s action was a blatant violation of the constitution and “a capture of power through a conspiracy”.
However, Rajapakse loyalist and former foreign minister G. L. Peiris said there was nothing illegal about sacking Wickremesinghe and challenged him to prove his majority when parliament returns on November 16.
The falling out between Wickremesinghe and Sirisena has come to a head since the president this year backed a no-confidence motion against the man he had handpicked to lead the government.
The two allied against Rajapakse in the 2015 election, but their relationship steadily soured.
Sirisena initially said he would be a one-term president but has since indicated he will seek re-election next year, pitting himself against Wickremesinghe who also has presidential ambitions.
Wickremesinghe’s party has the largest number of parliamentary seats, but the president’s United People’s Freedom Alliance walked out of the coalition shortly before Wickremesinghe was sacked.
This is the second time that a president has ousted Wickremesinghe from office. In 2004, the then president sacked him and called snap elections.
After winning the premiership a third time in August 2015, Wickremesinghe amended the constitution to remove the head of state’s power to sack prime ministers to prevent a repeat of his earlier ouster.