By KRISHAN FRANCIS and KRUTIKA PATHI – Associated Press
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka’s president fled the country early Wednesday, slipping away just hours before promising to step down under pressure from angry protesters over a devastating economic crisis. But the crowds quickly formed their anger against the Prime Minister, storming his office and demanding that he leave as well.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his wife departed on a Sri Lankan Air Force plane bound for the Maldives, the air force said in a statement. It has brought little relief to the island nation plagued for months by an economic disaster that has triggered severe food and fuel shortages – and is now in the throes of political chaos.
Thousands of protesters demanding Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe resign gathered outside his office and some scaled the walls, as crowds shouted their support and threw water bottles at those charging. Some could later be seen inside the building and standing on a roof terrace waving the flag of Sri Lanka.
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According to the speaker of parliament, Rajapaksa has appointed his prime minister as interim president, as he was out of the country, in a move that would only infuriate protesters even more. Rajapaksa has yet to step down, but President Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena said the president assured him he would do so later in the day.
“We need both… to get home,” said Supun Eranga, a 28-year-old civil servant in the crowd outside Wickremesinghe’s office. “Ranil couldn’t deliver what he promised during his two months, so he should quit. All Ranil did was try to protect the Rajapaksas.
But Wickremesinghe said he would only leave once a new government was in place. Police initially used tear gas in an attempt to disperse protesters outside his office, but failed, and more and more marched down the lane towards the compound. As the helicopters flew overhead, some protesters raised their middle fingers.
Some protesters who appeared unconscious were taken to hospital.
Amid the chaos, Wickremesinghe declared a nationwide state of emergency and state television briefly ceased broadcasting.
Protesters have already seized the home and office of the president and the official residence of the prime minister after months of protests that have all but dismantled the political dynasty of the Rajapaksa family, which has ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades. .
On Wednesday morning, Sri Lankans continued to flock to the presidential palace. A growing line of people waited to enter the residence, many of whom had come from outside the capital Colombo by public transport.
Protesters have vowed to occupy official buildings until key leaders have left. For days people flocked to the presidential palace almost as if it were a tourist attraction – swimming in the pool, marveling at the paintings and lounging on the beds piled high with pillows. At some point they also burned Wickremesinghe’s private home.
At dawn, protesters took a break to sing as the Sri Lankan national anthem blared from loudspeakers. A few waved the flag.
Malik D’Silva, a 25-year-old protester occupying the president’s office, said Rajapaksa “ruined this country and stole our money”. He said he voted for Rajapaksa in 2019, believing his military background would keep the country safe after Islamic State-inspired bombings earlier this year killed more than 260 people.
Nearby, Sithara Sedaraliyanage, 28, and her 49-year-old mother carried black banners around their foreheads that read “Gota Go Home”, the protests’ rallying cry.
“We expected him to be behind bars – not escaping to a tropical island! What kind of justice is that? Sedaraliyanage said. a president. We want some accountability.
Protesters accuse the president and his associates of embezzling money from government coffers for years and the Rajapaksa administration of hastening the country’s collapse by mismanaging the economy.
The family denied corruption allegations, but Rajapaksa acknowledged that some of his policies contributed to the collapse, which left the island nation laden with debt and unable to pay for imports of basic necessities.
The shortages have sown despair among Sri Lanka’s 22 million people and were all the more shocking given that before the recent crisis the economy was booming and a comfortable middle class growing.
The political stalemate only fueled the economic disaster as the absence of an alternative unity government threatened to delay the hoped-for bailout from the International Monetary Fund. In the meantime, the country is counting on help from neighboring India and China.
As protests escalated outside the prime minister’s compound on Wednesday, his office imposed a state of emergency that gives broader powers to the military and police and declared an immediate curfew in the city. western province which includes Colombo.
The Air Force said in a statement that it had provided a plane, with Defense Ministry approval, for the president and his wife to fly to the Maldives, an Indian Ocean archipelago known for its exclusive tourist resorts. He said all immigration and customs laws were followed.
The fate of other family members who had served in government, including several who have resigned from their posts in recent months, was uncertain.
Sri Lankan presidents are protected from arrest while in office, and it is likely that Rajapaksa planned his escape while still enjoying constitutional immunity. A corruption case against him in his former role as defense chief was withdrawn when he was elected president in 2019.
Assuming Rajapaksa steps down as expected, Sri Lankan lawmakers agreed to elect a new president on July 20 but struggled to decide on the composition of a new government to pull the bankrupt country out of collapse. economic and political.
The new president will serve the remainder of Rajapaksa’s term, which ends in 2024, and could potentially appoint a new prime minister, who would then need to be approved by parliament.
“Gotabaya’s resignation is one problem solved – but there are so many others,” said Bhasura Wickremesinghe, a 24-year-old marine electrical engineering student who is not related to the prime minister.
He complained that Sri Lankan politics has been dominated for years by “old politicians” who all have to go. “Politics should be treated like a job – you should have qualifications that get you hired, not because of your last name,” he said, referring to the Rajapaksa family.
Associated Press writer Bharatha Mallawarachi contributed to this report.
For more on AP’s coverage in Sri Lanka, go to https://apnews.com/hub/sri-lanka
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