13th death reported in Sri Lanka fuel queues

By Susitha Fernando

Colombo, Jul 5 (IANS): A total of 13 people have died while waiting in long queues for fuel in Sri Lanka since the worst-ever economic crisis began earlier this year.

On Monday, a 60-year-old man was found dead in his car in Colombo while he was awaiting for his turn at a fuel station run by the Lanka Indian Oil Company (IOC).

"He had a chat with me and wanted to take some pills and went to the car. But later when I called him he didn't respond," a man who was in the same queue told reporters.

This incident comes as Sri Lanka suspended the sales of petrol and diesel for non-essential vehicles on June 27 as it struggles to pay for imports like fuel, food and medicines.

Experts believe it is the first country to take the drastic step of halting sales of petrol to ordinary people since the 1970s oil crisis, when fuel was rationed in the US and Europe.

In the wake of the suspension, several kilometres-long queues, some that were formed for days, were witnessed at IOC-run fuel stations across the island nation, while roads remained isolated without any vehicles.

The country has come to a standstill with no transportation, while government offices were hardly functional and schools have been completely closed.

Struggling to supply fuel for transportation, the government earlier declared four-day a week for working but declared two-week work from home from June 27.

On Sunday, Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekera issued a stark warning and said that the country had 12,774 tonnes of diesel and 4,061 tonnes of petrol left in its reserves.

"The next petrol shipment is expected between the 22nd and 23rd (of July)," he told reporters here.

He said Sri Lanka's central bank could only supply $125 million for fuel purchases, far less than the $587 million needed for its scheduled shipments.

Wijesekera added that the country owed $800 million to seven suppliers for purchases it made earlier this year.

With less than $50 million in foreign reserves, Sri Lanka owes over $587 million to a number of foreign oil companies for fuel imports.

Over the last six months Sri Lanka was depending on India's $3.5 billion financial assistance from lines of credit were issued to purchase fuel.

The island nation of 22 million people is facing its worst economic crisis since gaining independence from the UK in 1948 as it lacks enough foreign currency to pay for imports of essential goods.

Acute shortages of fuel, food and medicines have helped to push up the cost of living to record highs in the country, where many people rely on motor vehicles for their livelihoods.



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