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Protesters in Sri Lanka brave tear gas and storm prime minister's office

Police use tear gas as Sri Lankan protesters storm prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe 's office in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, July 13, 2022.
Rafiq Maqbool
Police use tear gas as Sri Lankan protesters storm prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe 's office in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, July 13, 2022.

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka's president fled the country early Wednesday, slipping away only hours before he promised to resign under pressure from protesters angry over a devastating economic crisis. But crowds quickly trained their ire on the prime minster, storming his office and demanding he also go.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his wife left aboard a Sri Lankan Air Force plane bound for the Maldives, the air force said in a statement. That brought little relief to the island nation gripped for months by an economic disaster that has triggered severe shortages of food and fuel — and now is beset by political chaos.

Thousands of protesters demanding that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe also step down rallied outside his office compound and some scaled the walls, as the crowd roared its support, waving Sri Lankan flags and tossing water bottles to those heading inside. As protesters feared, Rajapaksa appointed his prime minister as acting president in his absence, according to the speaker of the Parliament.

The prime minister, whose whereabouts were unclear, declared a nationwide state of emergency.

"We need both ... to go home," said Supun Eranga, a 28-year-old civil servant in the crowd outside Wickremesinghe's office. "Ranil couldn't deliver what he promised during his two months, so he should quit. All Ranil did was try to protect the Rajapaksas."

Police used tear gas to try to disperse the protesters but failed, and more and more marched down the lane and towards the prime minister's office. As helicopters flew overhead, some demonstrators held up their middle fingers.

Some protesters who appeared to be unconscious were taken to a hospital.

Amid the chaos, state television stopped broadcasting, but it was not clear why.

While Rajapaksa agreed under pressure to resign Wednesday, Wickremesinghe has said he would only leave once a new government was in place.

Protesters have already 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. A growing line of people waited to enter the residence, many of whom had traveled from outside the capital of Colombo on public transport.

Protesters dance shouting slogans against president Gotabaya Rajapaksa outside his office in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, July 13, 2022.
Eranga Jayawardena / AP
Protesters dance shouting slogans against president Gotabaya Rajapaksa outside his office in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, July 13, 2022.

Protesters have vowed to occupy the official buildings until the top leaders are gone. For days, people have flocked to the presidential palace almost as if it were a tourist attraction — swimming in the pool, marveling at the paintings and lounging on the beds piled high with pillows. At one point, they also burned the prime minister's private home.

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

Malik D' Silva, a 25-year-old demonstrator occupying the president's office, said Rajapaksa "ruined this country and stole our money." He said he voted for Rajapaksa in 2019 believing his military background would keep the country safe after Islamic State-inspired bomb attacks earlier that year killed more than 260 people.

Nearby, 28-year-old Sithara Sedaraliyanage and her 49-year-old mother wore black banners around their foreheads that read "Gota Go Home," the rallying cry of the demonstrations.

"We expected him to be behind bars — not escape to a tropical island! What kind of justice is that?" Sedaraliyanage said. "This is the first time people in Sri Lanka have risen like this against a president. We want some accountability."

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

The family has denied the corruption allegations, but 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 growing.

The political impasse has only added fuel to the economic disaster since the absence of an alternative unity government threatened to delay a hoped-for bailout from the International Monetary Fund. In the meantime, the country is relying on aid from neighboring India and from China.

As the protests escalated 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.

The air force said in a statement that it provided an aircraft, with the defense 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.

Sri Lankan presidents are protected from arrest while in power, and it is likely Rajapaksa planned his escape while he still had constitutional immunity. A corruption lawsuit against him in his former role as a defense official was withdrawn when he was elected president in 2019.

Sri Lankan lawmakers agreed to elect a new president next week but have struggled to decide on the makeup of a new government to lift the bankrupt country out of economic and political collapse.

The new president will serve the remainder of Rajapaksa's term, which ends in 2024, and could potentially appoint a new prime minister, who would then have to be approved by Parliament.

"Gotabaya resigning is one problem solved — but there are so many more," said Bhasura Wickremesinghe, a 24-year-old student of maritime electrical engineering, who is not related to the prime minister.

He complained that Sri Lankan politics have been dominated for years by "old politicians" who all need to go. "Politics needs to be treated like a job — you need to have qualifications that get you hired, not because of what your last name is," he said, referring to the Rajapaksa family.

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