Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has fled the country, hours before his promised resignation amid widespread protests over his handling of the country’s worst economic crisis since independence in 1948.
Rajapaksa, his wife and two bodyguards flew on a Sri Lankan Air Force plane to Male, the capital of the Maldives, the Sri Lankan Air Force confirmed in a statement on Wednesday.
“Under the provisions of the Constitution and on a request by the government, the Sri Lanka Air Force provided a plane early today to fly the president, his wife and two security officials to the Maldives,” the statement said.
News agencies earlier reported the president’s departure for Male, citing unnamed government and immigration officials.
The president had said he would resign on Wednesday to make way for a unity government after tens of thousands of protesters stormed his official residence on Saturday, demanding he step down.
Rajapaksa, who helped end the country’s long-running civil war as defence secretary during his elder brother’s administration more than a decade ago, was elected president in 2019 promising security and stability.
But moves to cut taxes depleted government revenues and the country began running out of fuel, food and medicines because it could no longer afford to import them.
The president was accused of economic incompetence, and public opinion turned against both Gotabaya and the wider Rajapaksa family, who have dominated Sri Lankan politics for nearly 20 years. Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned as prime minister in May after mass protests that began in March turned violent.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa, accused of war crimes and other human rights abuses, had immunity from arrest while in office and had not been seen in public since Friday.
It is believed he wanted to go abroad before stepping down to avoid the possibility of being detained. The local branch of anti-corruption group Transparency International had filed a legal case to bar Gotabaya and five others, including his brother and former finance minister Basil, from leaving the country. It is due to be heard on July 14.
“It was a matter of time before the net closed in,” said Al Jazeera’s Minelle Fernandez, who is in the capital Colombo. “Gotabaya Rajapaksa had tried all avenues [to leave] – the ports, airports – and was facing a push back from the people with reports even immigration officials were refusing to stamp passports.”
Sri Lanka’s parliament is due to hold a vote on choosing a new president on July 20, but on Tuesday was struggling to decide on a candidate for prime minister and who should be in the new government.