The president of Sri Lanka has fled the country, days after protesters stormed his home and office amid a three-month economic crisis that triggered severe shortages of food and fuel.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, his wife and two bodyguards left aboard a Sri Lankan Air Force plane bound for for the city of Male, the capital of the Maldives, early on Wednesday, according to an immigration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Mr Rajapaksa had agreed to step down under pressure, while Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he would leave once a new government was in place.
The promised resignations brought no end to the crisis, and protesters have vowed to occupy official buildings until the leaders are gone.
For days, people have flocked to the presidential palace almost as if it were a tourist attraction – swimming in the pool, marvelling at the paintings and lounging on the beds piled high with pillows.
At one point, they also burned the prime minister’s private home.
While MPs agreed late on Monday to elect a new president from their ranks on July 20, they have not yet decided who will take over as prime minister and fill the cabinet.
The new president will serve the remainder of Mr Rajapaksa’s term, which ends in 2024 – and could potentially appoint a new prime minister, who would have to be approved by parliament.
The prime minster is to serve as president until a replacement is chosen – an arrangement that is sure to further anger protesters who want Mr Wickremesinghe out immediately.
Corruption and mismanagement have left the island nation laden with debt and unable to pay for imports of basic necessities.
The shortages have sown despair among the country’s 22 million people.
Until the latest crisis deepened, the Sri Lankan economy had been expanding and growing a comfortable middle class.
The political impasse added fuel to the economic crisis since the absence of an alternative unity government threatened to delay a hoped-for bailout from the International Monetary Fund.
The government must submit a plan on debt sustainability to the IMF by August before reaching an agreement.
In the meantime, the country is relying on aid from regional powers India and China.
Asked whether China was in talks with Sri Lanka about possible loans, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official gave no indication whether such discussions were happening.
“China will continue to offer assistance as our capability allows for Sri Lanka’s social development and economic recovery,” said the spokesman, Wang Wenbin.
On Tuesday, Sri Lanka’s religious leaders urged protesters to leave the government buildings.
The protesters have vowed to wait until both Mr Rajapaksa and Mr Wickremesinghe are out of office.
After the storming of the government buildings, “It was clear there is a consensus in the country that the government leadership should change,” Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka think tank, said.
Months of demonstrations have all but dismantled the Rajapaksa political dynasty, which has ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades.
The protesters accuse the president and his relatives of siphoning money from government coffers for years and Mr Rajapaksa’s administration of hastening the country’s collapse by mismanaging the economy.
The family has denied the corruption allegations, but Mr Rajapaksa acknowledged some of his policies contributed to the meltdown.
The president had not been seen nor heard from since Saturday, though his office issued statements indicating he continued to carry out his duties.