Sri Lanka: President Gotabaya Rajapaksa flees the country on military jet

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By Matt MurphyBBC News

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Gotabaya Rajapaksa has fled Sri Lanka ahead of his expected resignation as president

Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has fled the country on a military jet, amid mass protests over its economic crisis.

The 73-year-old arrived in the capital of the Maldives, Male, at around 03:00 local time (22:00 GMT), the BBC understands.

Mr Rajapaksa’s departure ends a family dynasty that has ruled Sri Lanka for decades.

He had been in hiding after crowds stormed his residence on Saturday.

The president had earlier pledged to resign on Wednesday 13 July.

His brother, former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, has also left the country, sources have told the BBC. He is said to be heading to the US.

As news of the president’s departure filtered through, noisy celebrations broke out among demonstrators at Galle Face Green, the main protest site in the capital city, Colombo.

On Tuesday evening there were already thousands of people massing at the park, awaiting the president’s resignation.

Sri Lankans blame President Rajapaksa’s administration for their worst economic crisis in decades.

For months they have been struggling with daily power cuts and shortages of basics like fuel, food and medicines.

The leader, who enjoys immunity from prosecution while he is president, is believed to have wanted to flee abroad before stepping down to avoid the possibility of arrest by the new administration.

Sri Lanka: The basics

  • Sri Lanka is an island nation off southern India: It won independence from British rule in 1948. Three ethnic groups – Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim – make up 99% of the country’s 22 million population.
  • One family of brothers has dominated for years: Mahinda Rajapaksa became a hero among the majority Sinhalese in 2009 when his government defeated Tamil separatist rebels after years of bitter and bloody civil war. His brother Gotabaya, who was defence secretary at the time, is the current president but says he is standing down.
  • Presidential powers: The president is the head of state, government and the military in Sri Lanka but does share a lot of executive responsibilities with the prime minister, who heads up the ruling party in parliament.
  • Now an economic crisis has led to fury on the streets: Soaring inflation has meant some foods, medication and fuel are in short supply, there are rolling blackouts and ordinary people have taken to the streets in anger with many blaming the Rajapaksa family and their government for the situation.

Watch: Protesters storm Sri Lankan president’s palace in Colombo, swam in the pool and set the PM’s house on fire

The president’s departure threatens a potential power vacuum in the country, which needs a functioning government to help start digging it out of financial ruin.

Politicians from other parties have been talking about forming a new unity government but there is no sign they are near agreement yet. It’s also not clear if the public would accept what they come up with.

Under the constitution, it’s the prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who should act in the president’s stead if the latter resigns. The prime minister is considered the president’s deputy in parliament.

However, Mr Wickremesinghe is also deeply unpopular. Protesters set fire to his private residence on Saturday – he and his family were not inside – and he said he would resign to make way for a unity government, but gave no date.

That leaves the parliament’s speaker as the next most likely to step in as caretaker president, constitutional experts say. However Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena is an ally of the Rajapaksas. It is unclear whether the public would accept his authority.

Whoever does become acting president has 30 days to hold an election for a new president from among members of parliament. The winner of that vote could then see out the remainder of Mr Rajapaksa’s term until late 2024.

On Monday, the main opposition leader Sajith Premadasa told the BBC he would be tilting for the presidency. But he also lacks public support and there is deep public suspicion of politicians in general.

The protest movement which has brought Sri Lanka to the brink of change also does not have an obvious contender for the country’s leadership.

Additional reporting by the BBC’s Frances Mao, Yaroslav Lukov and Simon Fraser.

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