The International Monetary Fund (IMF) on Wednesday said that it has asked cash-strapped Sri Lanka to “restructure” its massive foreign debt before a bailout programme could be finalised as anti-government protests escalated across the island.

Sri Lanka opened talks with the IMF in Washington this week after announcing its first ever default on external borrowings.

Also read: Myanmar military government denies rumours of fuel shortages

The island nation is in the grip of its worst economic crisis since independence in 1948 and has been rocked by a wave of protests over food and fuel shortages.

In a statement, the Fund’s country director Masahiro Nozaki said, “When the IMF determines that a country’s debt is not sustainable, the country needs to take steps to restore debt sustainability prior to IMF lending.”

Also read: Protester shot dead by Sri Lankan police, first death since start of massive protests

“Approval of an IMF-supported program for Sri Lanka would require adequate assurances that debt sustainability will be restored.”

The IMF said talks with Sri Lanka were still at an “early stage,” but it was “very concerned” about the economic situation and the hardships suffered by people, especially the poor and vulnerable.

Also read: Sri Lankan PM Mahinda Rajapaksa says president’s powers will be reduced

Earlier, the IMF had warned Sri Lanka’s approximately $51 billion foreign debt was unsustainable.

Colombo’s existing debt also means the country cannot apply for emergency financing, the IMF said.

Also read: Protesters burn tyres, block roads as Sri Lanka faces fuel shortage, price hikes

It is reported that debt restructuring will require creditors to accept a “haircut” — a reduction in the value of their assets — or agree to longer repayment periods.

Nearly two weeks ago, the government nearly doubled key interest rates and allowed the currency to depreciate faster, hoping the move would encourage foreign currency inflows.

Also read: Sri Lanka Cabinet reshuffle: 17-member appointment with economic crisis as top priority

On Monday, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa conceded that Sri Lanka should have gone to the IMF “much earlier”.

One man was shot dead and 29 others were wounded in clashes in a central town, while tens of thousands continued demonstrations outside the president’s office in Colombo demanding his resignation.