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President flees Sri Lanka amid crisis as ire turns toward PM

Sri Lankan protesters storm the compound of prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s office (Rafiq Maqbool/AP)
Sri Lankan protesters storm the compound of prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s office (Rafiq Maqbool/AP)

Sri Lanka’s president fled the country without stepping down on Wednesday, plunging a country already reeling from economic chaos into more political turmoil.

Protesters demanding a change in leadership then trained their ire on the prime minister and stormed his office.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his wife left aboard an air force plane bound for the Maldives — and he made his prime minister the acting president in his absence.

That appeared to only further roil passions in the island nation, which has been gripped for months by an economic meltdown that has triggered severe shortages of food and fuel.

Sri Lanka
Sri Lankan protesters storm the compound of prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s office (Rafiq Maqbool/AP)

Thousands of protesters — who had anticipated that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe would be appointed acting president and wanted him gone — rallied outside his office compound and some scaled the walls.

Dozens could later be seen inside the office or standing on a rooftop terrace waving Sri Lanka’s flag — the latest in a series of takeovers of government buildings by demonstrators seeking a new government.

“We need both … to go home,” said Supun Eranga, a 28-year-old civil servant in the crowd.

“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 Mr Wickremesinghe, who declared a state of emergency, appeared on television to reiterate that he would not leave until a new government was in place — and it was not clear when that would happen, with the opposition deeply fractured.

Sri Lanka
The president of Sri Lanka fled the country, days after protesters stormed his home and office and the official residence of his prime minister (Rafiq Maqbool/AP)

Although he fled, Mr Rajapaksa has yet to resign, but the speaker of the parliament said the president assured him he would later in the day.

The political impasse has only threatened to worsen the bankrupt nation’s economic collapse since the absence of an alternative government could delay a hoped-for bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

In the meantime, the country is relying on aid from neighbouring India and from China.

Police initially used tear gas to try to disperse the protesters outside the prime minister’s office but failed, and more and more marched down the lane toward the compound.

Eventually security forces appeared to give up, with some retreating from the area and others simply standing around the overrun compound.

Inside the building, the mood was celebratory, as people sprawled on elegant sofas, watched TV, and held mock meetings in wood-panelled conference rooms.

“We will cook here, eat here and live here. We will stay until (Wickremesinghe) hands over his resignation,” said Lahiru Ishara, 32, a supervisor at a supermarket in Colombo who has been a part of the protests since they kicked off in April. “There’s no other alternative.”

Sri Lanka
Protesters storm the Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s office, demanding he resign (Eranga Jayawardena/AP)

Over the weekend, protesters seized the president’s home and office and the official residence of the prime minister following months of demonstrations that have all but dismantled the Rajapaksa family’s political dynasty, which ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades.

On Wednesday morning, Sri Lankans continued to stream into the presidential palace, where people have flocked for days — swimming in the pool, marvelling at the paintings and lounging on the beds piled high with pillows.

At dawn, the protesters took a break from chanting as the Sri Lankan national anthem blared from speakers. A few waved the flag.

Protesters accuse the president and his relatives of siphoning money from government coffers for years and Mr Rajapaksa’s administration of hastening the country’s collapse by mismanaging the economy.

The family has denied the corruption allegations, but Mr Rajapaksa acknowledged some of his policies contributed to the meltdown, which has 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 because, before the recent crisis, the economy had been expanding and a comfortable middle class was growing.

“Not only Gotabaya and Ranil, all 225 members of Parliament should go home. Because for the last few decades, family politics have ruined our country,” said Madusanka Perera, a labourer who came to Colombo from the outskirts the day protesters occupied the first government buildings. He lost his job, and his father, a driver, cannot do his because of fuel shortages.

“I’m 29 years old — I should be having the best time of life but instead I don’t have a job, no money and no life,” he said.

As the protests escalated on Wednesday outside the prime minister’s compound, his office imposed a state of emergency that gives broader powers to the military and police and declared an immediate curfew in the western province that includes Colombo.

In his TV appearance, Mr Wickremesinghe said he created a committee of police and military chiefs to restore order.

The air force earlier said in a statement that it provided an aircraft, with the defence ministry approval, for the president and his wife to travel to the Maldives, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean known for exclusive tourist resorts.

It said all immigration and customs laws were followed.

The whereabouts of other family members who had served in the government, including several who resigned their posts in recent months, were uncertain.