RAMBUKKANA, Sri Lanka: Police enforced a curfew on Wednesday in a Sri Lankan town where an anti-government demonstrator was killed, a death that triggered international condemnation just as the crisis-hit country seeks an IMF bailout. Regular blackouts and acute shortages of food and fuel have sparked increasing public discontent in the island nation, which is dealing with its worst economic downturn since independence in 1948.

Huge protests have demanded the government's resignation, including the Tuesday blockade of a key highway and railway line on the day Sri Lanka's main petrol retailer announced another sudden price rise. Police dispersed the crowd in the town of Rambukkana with tear gas and a volley of live rounds that left a 42-year-old father of two dead, with nearly 30 others wounded in the confrontation.

"I was hit with a baton on my leg and hand," Vasantha Kumara, a local chef, told AFP on Wednesday. "I begged the cops not to beat me, but they didn't listen." "People are angry. We are all poor people fighting for basics." Authorities extended the curfew in Rambukkana, around 95 kilometres (60 miles) east of the capital Colombo, into Wednesday with shops closed through the morning.

Spent bullet cartridges littered the road hours after the previous evening's protest, which saw thousands of people blocking rail tracks and the highway to the central city of Kandy. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said he was "deeply saddened" by the police shooting and promised the public's right to peacefully protest against his government would not be hindered.

Sri Lanka's police force "will carry out an impartial and transparent inquiry", he wrote on Twitter. Police said they were forced to act when the crowd was about to set alight a fuel tanker-a claim dismissed by Sri Lanka's political opposition. "These people are not suicidal to burn a tanker and get killed in the process," lawmaker Rohini Kumari Wijerathna said in parliament.

International concern

Tuesday's incident was the first fatal clash since widespread anti-government protests began this month. At least 29 people, including 11 police officers, were wounded in Rambukkana, according to official figures.

Later that night, police fired tear gas to break up another protest in Sri Lanka's south, one of the dozens of demonstrations staged simultaneously across the country. Colombo-based diplomats have expressed concern over the police shooting. "A full, transparent investigation is essential and the people's right to peaceful protest must be upheld," US ambassador Julie Chung said. British High Commissioner Sarah Hulton condemned the violence and "call[ed] for restraint."

IMF talks

Sri Lanka opened talks with the International Monetary Fund in Washington this week after announcing an unprecedented default on the government's $51 billion foreign debt. The IMF said it had asked Sri Lanka to restructure its borrowings before the lender finalises a bailout programme.

Talks with Sri Lanka were still at an "early stage", the IMF said, expressing concern over the hardships suffered by the country's people. Sri Lanka's economic meltdown began after the coronavirus pandemic torpedoed vital revenue from tourism and remittances.

The country is short of dollars to finance even the most important essentials, including food, fuel and medicines. Runaway inflation has worsened the population's hardships. The Colombo Stock Exchange has suspended trading to prevent an anticipated market collapse and the government has urged citizens abroad to donate money to help pay for desperately needed essentials.

A large crowd has been camped outside President Rajapaksa's seafront office in Colombo since April 9, demanding the leader step down. Rajapaksa has acknowledged public anger over the ruling family's mismanagement and appointed a new cabinet to navigate the country out of the crisis, but has refused to entertain calls for his resignation. - AFP