Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe ordered the early release of nearly 1,000 prisoners to mark the island's main Buddhist holiday, the prisons chief said Saturday.

The pardons on Vesak Day, which commemorates the Buddha's birth, enlightenment and death, applied only to those convicted of minor offences, said Commissioner-General Thushara Upuldeniya.

"We released these inmates from 28 prisons across the country," Upuldeniya told AFP of the Friday evening releases. "There were 982 men and six women who walked free."

The cash-strapped South Asian nation is holding official Vesak celebrations for the first time in five years.

Festivities were cancelled in 2019 after Islamic extremists carried out Easter Sunday suicide bombings that claimed 279 lives at churches and hotels in the capital Colombo.

Official events marking the holiday were then put on hold by the Covid-19 pandemic and last year's economic crisis, the worst since independence from Britain in 1948.

The island defaulted on its $46 billion foreign debt in April 2022 -- one of a chain of events that led to the ouster of former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa -- but secured a $3.0 billion IMF bailout in March this year.

Sri Lanka has declared a week of celebrations to mark Vesak, which fell on Friday, the first full moon of May, and banned the sale of alcohol over the weekend.

The island's jails are overcrowded. There were nearly 27,000 inmates at the start of May in facilities designed to hold 11,000, according to official data.