Sri Lanka sends troops to fuel stations amid worsening economic crisis

Sri Lanka ordered troops to petrol stations as sporadic protests erupted among the thousands of motorists queueing up daily for scarce fuel.

The Indian Ocean island nation is grappling with its worst economic meltdown in over seven decades, with rolling electricity blackouts and essential goods such as food and cooking gas also in short supply.

Colombo is battling a foreign exchange crisis that forced a currency devaluation and hit payments for essential imports such as food, medicine and fuel, prompting it to turn to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for help.

Soldiers were deployed after angry crowds blocked a main artery in Colombo and held up traffic for hours because they were unable to buy kerosene oil on Monday, government spokesman Ramesh Pathirana said.

Footage of the incident shared on social media showed a group of angry women blockading a tourist coach to protest shortages of kerosene needed for cooking stoves

"The government has to provide solutions," said Seetha Gunasekera, 36, who lives with her husband and two children in Colombo, the capital. "There is too much hardship and suffering," added Gunasekera, who said she was spending more time in fuel queues than doing anything else.

"Prices of everything have increased and we are barely able to manage with what we earn daily."

The decision to deploy troops near petrol pumps and kerosene supply points came after three elderly people dropped dead during their wait in long queues, officials said.

It was a response to complaints of stockpiling and inefficient distribution, said government spokesman Ramesh Pathirana. "The military has been deployed to help the public, not to curtail their human rights," he added.

Military spokesman Nilantha Premaratne told Reuters at least two army personnel would be stationed at every fuel pump to help organize fuel distribution, but the soldiers would not be involved in crowd control.

Tension over the scarcity of supplies has fed sporadic violence among those scrambling to buy fuel and other essential items. Police said a man was stabbed to death in an argument with the driver of a three-wheeled vehicle, while last week three elderly men died queueing for fuel in sweltering heat.

The rapid drain of Sri Lanka's dollars has left it struggling to pay for critical imports as currency reserves have slumped 70% in the last two years to $2.31 billion. But Sri Lanka has to repay about $4 billion in debt in the rest of this year, including a $1-billion international sovereign bond that matures in July.

Ahead of IMF talks in Washington in April, the government said it would hire a global law firm to provide technical assistance on debt restructuring to fight the crisis.