Policemen stand guard next to a graffitied wall following protests near the President's House, amid the country's economic crisis, in Colombo, Sri Lanka July 21, 2022.
Policemen stand guard next to a graffitied wall following protests near the President's House, amid the country's economic crisis, in Colombo, Sri Lanka July 21, 2022. Reuters / ADNAN ABIDI

Sri Lankan security forces raided an anti-government protest camp in the commercial capital Colombo early on Friday, two protest organisers said, a sign that the country's new president was cracking down a day after his swearing-in.

Media footage from the site showed soldiers armed with assault rifles trying to tear down the camp as dozens of police watched on.

As daylight broke, dozens of troops in riot gear marched through the area and rows of protest tents that stood on both sides of the main road that passes in front of the president's secretariat completely cleared out.

Protesters had feared a crackdown was imminent under new President Ranil Wickremesinghe, an ally of his ousted predecessor, Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Protest organisers said hundreds of security personnel surrounded the "Gota Go Gama" protest camp, mockingly named after Rajapaksa, after midnight and then took apart a section of it.

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

"It was a systematic and premeditated attack," protest organiser Chameera Dedduwage told Reuters. "They actually brutally attacked people. What has happened is a very cheap show of power."

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

Sri Lanka is under a state of emergency imposed by Wickremesinghe on Sunday when he was acting president. Previous emergency regulations have been used to give powers to the military to detain and arrest protesters, and curtail the right to protest.

Wickremesinghe, the former prime minister, was sworn into office on Thursday after winning a parliamentary vote this week, following the resignation of Rajapaksa who fled to Sri Lanka in the wake of massive public protests triggered by the country's worst economic crisis in seven decades.

After surrounding the protest camp, security personnel moved in front of the presidential secretariat, started dismantling some tents and assaulted protesters, protest organiser Manjula Samarasekara said.

Security forces appeared to have taken control of the entire secretariat, with many more personnel visible inside the building perimeter that was earlier this month seized by protesters, along with the president and prime minister's official residences. The residences were later handed back to government authorities.

Dedduwage said protesters had planned to hand over the presidential secretariat to government authorities on Friday afternoon.

"The various steps being taken including declaring an emergency and calling out the troops, raises serious concerns this government is taking on fundamental rights and the rule of law in Sri Lanka," said Bhavani Fonseka, a senior researcher at Colombo-based think tank Center for Policy Alternatives.

"The excessive force and the violence used to remove protesters is a marked difference from what Sri Lanka needs right now, especially when the protesters had already said they will vacate the premises."

Diplomats also expressed concern.

"Very concerned about reports from the Galle Face protest site," Sarah Hulton, the British High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, said in a tweet.

"We have made clear the importance of the right to peaceful protest."