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Sri Lanka leader quits, parliament to sit

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Sri Lanka’s parliament will begin the process of selecting a new president following the official acceptance of the resignation of former leader Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Mr Rajapaksa fled the country on Wednesday amid mounting calls for him to resign over an economic crisis.

He submitted a letter of resignation, by email and more than a day later than he promised, on Thursday.

Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeyweardana confirmed Mr Rajapaksa’s resignation on Friday afternoon. He said Sri Lanka’s parliament would convene on Saturday to start the process of electing a new president.

“Gotabaya has legally resigned” with effect from Thursday, Mr  Abeywardana said.

Earlier, as word spread of the emailed resignation note, it triggered jubilation. Protesters massed in Colombo, defying a city-wide curfew. They set off firecrackers, shouted slogans and danced ecstatically at the Gota Go Gama protest site, named mockingly after Mr Rajapaksa’s first name.

“The whole country will celebrate today,” activist Damitha Abeyrathne said.

“It’s a big victory. We never thought we would get this country free from them,” she added, referring to the Rajapaksa family, who dominated the South Asian country’s politics for two decades.

Mr Rajapaksa reportedly landed in Singapore on a Saudi Arabian flight on Friday, after initially fleeing to the Maldives.

A passenger on the flight, who declined to be named, told Reuters that Mr Rajapaksa was met by security guards and then seen leaving the airport VIP area in a convoy of black vehicles. Singapore’s foreign ministry said Mr Rajapaksa had entered the country on a private visit, and had not sought or been granted asylum.

The president, who had immunity from prosecution while he remained in office, fled the island nation without resigning to avoid the likelihood of being arrested by the new government.

Mr Rajapaksa’s decision on Wednesday to make his ally Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe the acting president triggered further protests after weeks of upheaval. Demonstrators stormed parliament and the premier’s office demanding that Mr Wickremesinghe also quit.

“We want Ranil to go home,” Malik Perera, a 29-year-old rickshaw driver who took part in the parliament protests, said on Thursday.

“They have sold the country, we want a good person to take over, until then we won’t stop.”

The process of electing a new president is expected to take about a week.

It follows weeks of protests against Sri Lanka’s economic crisis that came to a head last weekend when hundreds of thousands of people took over government buildings in Colombo, blaming the powerful Rajapaksa family and allies for runaway inflation, shortages of basic goods, and corruption.

They accused Mr Rajapaksa and his powerful political family of years of siphoning money from government coffers, and his administration of hastening the country’s collapse by mismanaging the economy.

The family has denied the allegations, but Mr Rajapaksa acknowledged some of his policies contributed to the meltdown.

Demonstrators stormed the president’s home and office last Saturday, and remained there for days. The official residence became a de facto tourist attraction, with thousands of Sri Lankans touring the house, rifling through drawers and cupboards, and swimming in the presidential pool.

On Wednesday, protesters seized Mr Wickremesinghe’s office.

The demonstrators initially vowed to hold those places until a new government was installed. But they shifted tactics on Thursday, apparently concerned any escalation in violence could undermine their message.

The government imposed a curfew in Colombo from noon on Thursday to early on Friday in a bid to prevent further unrest. Local media showed armoured vehicles with soldiers atop patrolling the city’s streets.

The military said troops were empowered to use force to protect people and public property.

Police said one person was killed and 84 injured in clashes between riot police and protesters on Wednesday near the parliament and prime minister’s office.

The army said two soldiers were seriously injured when they were attacked by protesters near parliament on Wednesday night and that their weapons and magazines were snatched.

Police said the man who died was a 26-year-old protester who succumbed after he being injured.

Mr Rajapaksa had repeatedly assured Mr Abeywardana that he would step down on Wednesday, but his resignation email did not arrive until Friday.

A planned session of parliament on Friday was postponed, with opposition leaders initially due to meet to decide the next course of action, the speaker’s office said in a statement.

-with AAP