COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Security forces on Friday raided the protest camp at the heart of the uprising that toppled Sri Lanka’s president, breaking down tents and cordoning off large stretches of the area before dawn, in a move that could set off further unrest as the bankrupt nation seeks stability.
The protesters, many of whom were sleeping, were caught by surprise. Hundreds of police and army personnel closed off the roads leading to the protest site outside the presidential offices in Colombo, and then began clearing a wide radius around it.
The police said in a statement that they had detained nine protesters, two of whom were taken to a hospital “after sustaining minor injuries.”
Activists and protest organizers expressed shock at the raid, questioning the timing and the necessity. They had already announced that they would vacate the area by midday Friday and hand the Presidential Secretariat, the last of the buildings they had occupied, and the surrounding area back to the authorities.
“They came at 1:30 in the morning,” said Ranga Silva, one of the protesters who were present when the raid happened. “Everyone was sleeping.”
Understand What Is Happening in Sri Lanka
A president ousted. Sri Lanka plunged into a deep crisis when protestors, pushing for the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, stormed his residence, pushing him to flee the country. Here is what to know:
Economic issues. Sri Lanka was once held up as an economic success story, with one of the highest median incomes in South Asia. But the country is now essentially out of money, and many people are living on the edge, a result of poor political decisions, reckless spending and economic mismanagement.
Growing discontent. Sri Lanka’s economic troubles amplified in 2022, when the country started running out of foreign currency. With supplies of food, fuel and other supplies dwindling, protesters started taking to the streets demanding that Mr. Rajapaksa and other members of his family, a powerful political dynasty, leave the government.
A new prime minister. As protests intensified, Mr. Rajapaksa began emptying his cabinet of family members. In May, his elder brother was forced out as prime minister and replaced by Ranil Wickremesinghe, who began discussions with the International Monetary Fund on the terms of an economic bailout.
The tipping point. On July 9, increasingly frustrated protesters took over the president’s residence in Colombo, while Mr. Rajapaksa went into hiding. The speaker of Parliament later said that the president and the prime minister had agreed to resign.
An acting president is appointed. On July 13, Mr. Rajapaksa fled the country. With the leadership of the nation uncertain, protesters surrounded the prime minister’s residence in Colombo, where they were met with tear gas. The prime minister, Mr. Wickremesinghe, was named acting president, declaring a state of emergency and vowing to retake government buildings overrun by protesters. On July 20, Mr. Wickremesinghe was elected president by lawmakers in Parliament.
Condemnation was swift, with Sri Lanka’s human rights commission calling the raid a “brutal and despicable attack.” Diplomatic missions in Colombo, the capital, expressed concern.
“We urge restraint by authorities & immediate access to medical attention for those injured,” the U.S. ambassador, Julie Chung, said on Twitter.
The raid came a day after Sri Lanka swore in a new president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, to replace Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who fled the country this month and resigned. Protesters blamed Mr. Rajapaksa and his family, who had dominated Sri Lankan politics for years, for running the economy into the ground. The island nation of 22 million has been plagued by shortages of fuel, food and medicine in recent months.
Mr. Wickremesinghe’s rise to the presidency completed a remarkable comeback for a leader whose party had just one unelected seat in Parliament two years ago. When Mr. Rajapaksa appointed him prime minister in May, Mr. Wickremesinghe pledged support for the protest movement.
But his tone changed drastically after protesters drove Mr. Rajapaksa out and Mr. Wickremesinghe became the acting president. Protesters called for him to resign, as well, seeing him as an ally and protector of the Rajapaksa dynasty.
Mr. Wickremesinghe — whose private residence was burned down on the day of rage that forced Mr. Rajapaksa into hiding — said there were “fascists” among the protesters and promised to restore law and order, which protesters saw as a signal that a crackdown would come.
“Shameful that within a day of his election, President Ranil Wickremesinghe considered it a priority to order a midnight raid on peaceful protesters,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“There are the massive social and economic challenges that need to be resolved which led to the protests in the first place, something that he has been promising donors and diplomats,” Ms. Ganguly said. “And yet it appears that he wants to prove his critics right, compromise on fundamental freedoms to silence dissent.”
As the sun rose on Friday, the security forces had cordoned off the area around the presidential offices and more troops were being bused in. Lawyers and activists at the site said the police had assaulted two lawyers during the raid, while video footage showed journalists also being attacked.
Witnesses said the security forces had closed all the roads leading from the camp site, and that injured people were stranded there without medical assistance.
Skandha Gunasekara contributed reporting from Colombo, Sri Lanka, and Emily Schmall from New Delhi.