COLOMBO - 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.
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."
VICTIM OF PANDEMIC
The island nation's tourism-dependent economy was hammered first by the COVID-19 pandemic and then suffered from a fall in remittances from overseas Sri Lankans. A ban on chemical fertilisers damaged farm output although the ban was later reversed.
The Rajapaksas implemented populist tax cuts in 2019 that affected government finances while shrinking foreign reserves curtailed imports of fuel, food and medicines.
Petrol has been severely rationed and long lines have formed in front of shops selling cooking gas. Headline inflation hit 54.6% last month and the central bank has warned that it could rise to 70% in coming months.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president's elder brother, resigned as prime minister in May after protests against the family turned violent. He remained in hiding at a military base in the east of the country for some days before returning to Colombo.
In May, the Rajapaksa government appointed Mohammed Nasheed, the speaker of the Maldives parliament and a former president, to help coordinate foreign assistance for crisis-hit Sri Lanka.
The same month, Nasheed publicly denied allegations that he was helping Mahinda Rajapaksa secure safe haven in the Maldives.
Media reports in the Maldives said the Sri Lankan president had arrived in the country early Wednesday although Reuters was unable to independently verify this.
A Maldives government spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.
On Tuesday, Sri Lankan immigration officials prevented Basil Rajapaksa, from flying out of the country.
It was not clear where Basil Rajapaksa, who also holds U.S. citizenship, was trying to go. He resigned as finance minister in early April amid heavy street protests and quit his seat in parliament in June.
(Additional reporting by Kanishka Singh, Krishna Das and Alasdair Pal; Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Sam Holmes)