Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country for the Maldives on Wednesday, hours before he was due to step down amid widespread protests over his handling of a devastating economic crisis.
Rajapaksa, his wife and two bodyguards left aboard a Sri Lankan Air Force plane, the air force said in a statement.
A government source and a person close to Rajapaksa said he was in Male, the capital of the Maldives. The president would most likely proceed to another Asian country from there, the government source said.
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The president’s flight brings an end to the rule of the powerful Rajapaksa clan that has dominated politics in the South Asian nation for the last two decades.
Protests against the economic crisis have simmered for months and came to a head last weekend when hundreds of thousands of people took over key government buildings in Colombo.
Critics blame the Rajapaksas and their allies for runaway inflation, corruption and a severe lack of fuel and medicines.
Government sources and aides said the president’s brothers, former prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and former finance minister Basil Rajapaksa, were still in Sri Lanka.
As news of the president’s flight spread, thousands of people gathered at the main protest site in Colombo chanting “Gota thief, Gota thief”, referring to him by a nickname.
Rajapaksa was due to step down as president on Wednesday to make way for a unity government, after protesters stormed his and the prime minister’s official residences.
The president has not been seen in public since Friday.
Sources close to Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, the speaker of Sri Lanka’s parliament, said he was yet to receive any communication from Rajapaksa. The source close to Rajapaksa said he would send in a letter of resignation later on Wednesday.
That would make Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe the acting president, although he has also offered to resign. If he does, the speaker will be the acting president until a new president is elected, as per the constitution.
A statement from protests leaders, however, has warned of a “decisive fight” if Wickremesinghe does not resign by Wednesday afternoon.
“If we don’t hear of the resignation of the president and the prime minister by the evening, we may have to gather back and take over parliament or another government building,” said Buddhi Prabodha Karunaratne, one of the organisers of recent protests.
“We are strongly against the Gota-Ranil government. Both have to go.”