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Sri Lanka: Crowds demand PM's resignation, hours after president flees

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By AP  with Euronews
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Sri Lankan protesters rally outside prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe 's office, demanding he resign
Sri Lankan protesters rally outside prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe 's office, demanding he resign   -   Copyright  Rafiq Maqbool / AP

Thousands of protesters have rallied outside the prime minister's office compound in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, demanding that PM Ranil Wickremesinghe resign. 

Some protesters scaled the walls, while others roared their support and tossed tossed water bottles to those charging in. Several of the protesters could later be seen inside the building and standing on a rooftop terrace waving Sri Lanka's flag.

The latest developents, with crowds turning their ire on the prime minister, come just hours after the president of Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, fled the country.

Rajapaska, along with his wife and two bodyguards, left aboard a Sri Lankan Air Force plane bound for the city of Male, the capital of the Maldives, on Wednesday morning according to an immigration official who spoke on condition of anonymity. The air force said in a statement that it provided an aircraft for the president and his wife to travel to the Maldives with the defence ministry’s approval. It said all immigration and customs laws were followed.

The president's departure followed months of protests amid a devastating economic crisis that has triggered severe shortages of food and fuel.

Rajapaksa had previously agreed to resign, with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe saying that he would leave once a new government was in place.

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 A corruption lawsuit against him in his former role as a defence official was withdrawn when he was elected president in 2019.

Rafiq Maqbool / The Associated Press
Sri Lankan protesters storm the compound of prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe 's office, demanding he resign, 13 July 2022Rafiq Maqbool / The Associated Press

On Wednesday morning, Sri Lankans continued to stream into the presidential palace.

“What Rajapaksa did - flee the country - is a timid act," said Bhasura Wickremesinghe, a 24-year-old student of maritime electrical engineering, who came with friends.

"I’m not celebrating. There’s no point celebrating. We have nothing in this country at the moment,” he added

For days, Sri Lankans have flocked to the presidential palace almost as if it were a tourist attraction. At one point, they also burned the prime minister's private home. Protesters have vowed to occupy the official buildings until the top leaders are gone.

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 that 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 said that they “expected him to be behind bars — not escape to a tropical island! What kind of justice is that?”

Corruption and mismanagement have left Sri Lanka laden with debt and unable to pay for imports of basic necessities. The shortages have sown despair among the country's 22 million people, with Sri Lankans skipping meals and lining up for hours to try to buy scarce fuel.

Until the latest crisis deepened, the Sri Lankan economy had been expanding and growing a comfortable middle class.