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Sri Lankan president flees to Maldives as prime minister declares emergency

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled Sri Lanka aboard a military aircraft for the Maldives, according to the country’s air force, leaving a deepening economic and political crisis in the island nation on the day he was expected to resign in the face of widespread protests.

The 73-year-old leader was forced to offer his resignation on Saturday by a street uprising in which thousands of protesters were angry at rising prices and shortages of fuel and food gathered in Colombo, the commercial capital, and over-ran the presidential palace.

“At the request of the government and under the terms of the power available to the president under the constitution, with full approval from the ministry of defense, the president, his wife and two security officials were given Sri Lanka air force plane to depart from Katunayake international airport for the Maldives in the early hours of July 13, ”the air force said on Wednesday morning.

Overnight on Tuesday, Rajapaksa and his younger brother Basil Rajapaksa, a former finance minister, were prevented by immigration officials from boarding commercial flights. “I can confirm to you that he left last night,” a senior immigration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Financial Times. “All immigration formalities have been fulfilled.”

The official said Rajapaksa’s brother remained in the country. He added: “We have no power to prevent the president from leaving, as the media claims.”

In a speech after 1pm, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, the Parliamentary Speaker of Sri Lanka, said Rajapaksa had named Ranil Wickremesinghe, the prime minister, as the acting president in his place.

Police use tear gas as protesters cross the compound of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s office in Colombo on Wednesday © Rafiq Maqbool/AP

Under Sri Lanka’s constitution, the prime minister is the next to succeed the president if he resigns. However, in the early afternoon on Wednesday Rajapaksa had not yet formally resigned.

“Since the president is out of the country, under Article 37 (1) he has informed me that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has been appointed acting president,” Abeywardena said.

Wickremesinghe himself was the target of protesters ’anger, and had previously said he would resign once there was a new unity government.

The fall of Rajapaksa marked the end of one of the most powerful political dynasties in Asia, believed by many Sri Lankans to have won a long and brutal war against Tamil separatists in the north of the country.

However, they now blame him for excessive borrowing to build China-backed Belt and Road spending projects and for a series of failed economic policies that caused Sri Lanka to default on its debt last year. Mayo.

The word that Rajapaksa had fled was greeted with joy by the protesters occupying the palace, who plastered graffiti on its walls with the slogan “Gota, go home”.

“I am happy that he has left, both as a citizen of this country and as a campaigner,” said Nirmani Liyanage of Citizens Forum, a civic group belonging to the Aragalaya (Struggle) movement that called for Rajapaksa’s resignation from in April.

He said this was an important development for Aragalaya in its pursuit of “accountability, transparency and participatory democracy” in Sri Lanka.

Wickremesinghe on Wednesday morning declared a national state of emergency and a curfew in the Western Province, the most populous subdivision that includes Colombo.

Meanwhile, protesters gather in his office and call for him to resign with the songs of “Come home Ranil”.

The president’s flight from Sri Lanka leaves a power vacuum at a time when the country needs to form a new government and obtain an IMF funding facility. The agreement will open up financing for emergency loans that will allow it to import essential goods and move forward with negotiations to restructure its debt.

After Rajapaksa promised to step down, opposition parties began talks on forming a new government, a step needed to secure an IMF program.

Sri Lanka’s debt pile is at $ 51bn, more than half of which is debt to bilateral and multilateral lenders led by China.

According to the UN World Food Program, more than 6mn people in a population of 22mn are “food insecure”, meaning they do not consume enough calories to live healthy and productive lives.