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Thousands take to the streets to back ousted Sri Lankan PM

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Ousted prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe arriving at the protest against his removal, near the Prime Minister's official residence in Colombo, on Oct 30.

Colombo

TENS of thousands of supporters of sacked prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe blocked roads in Sri Lanka's capital on Tuesday, stepping up a showdown with the country's newly appointed leader.

Mr Wickremesinghe left his official residence for the first time since Friday to condemn President Maithripala Sirisena for dismissing him and appointing Mahinda Rajapakse, a former president accused of human rights violations and corruption.

Police sources estimated 25,000 people flooded the street even as scores of buses brought more demonstrators to the biggest rally since the constitutional crisis erupted.

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The army of followers chanted "Down With the Rogue PM" as they targeted Mr Rajapakse, whom Mr Sirisena has brought back into frontline politics as his prime minister.

"We are against the sacking, the people did not vote for Sirisena to act in this manner," Mr Wickremesinghe told supporters from a makeshift stage. "We will resist what the president has done."

Mr Rajapakse, 72, gave four legislators from Mr Wickremesinghe's party ministerial portfolios in his Cabinet after persuading them to defect on Monday. Mr Wickremesinghe has in turn convinced two lawmakers from Mr Sirisena's camp to join his United National Party.

Following the defections, Mr Wickremesinghe has 105 MPs in the 225-seat chamber while Mr Rajapakse and Mr Sirisena together have 98. A majority of the 22 remaining MPs are expected to back Mr Wickremesinghe in any vote but the horse-trading is sure to intensify, observers said.

A deputy minister in Mr Wickremesinghe's administration, Ranjan Ramanayake, accused China of paying for Mr Rajapakse - who favoured a pro-Beijing policy during his decade-long tenure as president - to buy legislators. "I am telling China not to spend their millions to buy MPs in Sri Lanka. They want to buy the country wholesale," he said.

The Chinese embassy in Colombo denied the claims. "Recent allegations about China by MP Ranjan Ramanayake are groundless and irresponsible," the statement said, adding that Beijing follows "the principle of non-interference in other country's internal affairs".

With Mr Sirisena showing no sign of lifting the parliamentary suspension which runs until Nov 16, Mr Wickremesinghe's Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera said the president was trying to buy time to secure votes for Rajapakse.

Mr Rajapakse, whose rule was marked by allegations of rights abuses and authoritarianism, said on Monday he was given the job because his predecessor's party "engaged in a quest to sell off valuable state assets and enterprises to foreign companies". REUTERS