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'He is a coward': Sri Lanka's President Rajapaksa resigns after fleeing to Singapore

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By Euronews  with AP, AFP
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Protesters holding national flags prepare to vacate prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's office building with other protesters in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Thursday, July 14, 2022.
Protesters holding national flags prepare to vacate prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's office building with other protesters in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Thursday, July 14, 2022.   -   Copyright  AP

Sri Lanka's parliament has confirmed that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is no longer in power following his resignation on Thursday after fleeing to Singapore, prompted by weeks of protests in his home country. 

Demonstrators in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo ended their occupation of government buildings but vowed to continue putting pressure on the south Asian nation's leaders.

The speaker of Sri Lanka’s Parliament Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana said on Friday Rajapaksa resigned, and Parliament will convene on Saturday to choose a new leader after massive protests over the country's economic collapse forced him from office. He expects it to be done within seven days.

Their new choice as president will serve the remainder of Rajapaksa’s term, which ends in 2024. That person could potentially appoint a new prime minister, who would then have to be approved by Parliament.

'A mix of victory and relief'

Sri Lanka has run short of money to pay for imports of basic necessities such as food, fertiliser and fuel, to the despair of its 22 million people. Its rapid economic decline has been all the more shocking because, before this crisis, the economy had been expanding, with a growing, comfortable middle class.

The president fled his residence on Saturday after protesters stormed the building to accuse him of mismanagement at a time when the country is going through the worst economic crisis in its history.

“To be validated like this is massive,” said Viraga Perera, an engineer who has been protesting since April and estimated that he has spent 60 or 70 nights there in all. 

“On a global scale, we have led a movement that toppled a president with minimal force and violence. It’s a mix of victory and relief.” 

After several attempts, Rajapaksa finally managed to leave Sri Lanka on Wednesday and went to the Maldives for a brief stopover, before flying with Saudi Arabia's national airline to Singapore on Thursday. 

He was booed and insulted as he left Velana airport, and a demonstration was held in the capital Malé calling on the Maldivian government not to let him transit safely.

Maldivian media reported that Rajapaksa spent the night at the luxury Waldorf Astoria Ithaafushi hotel, and contrasted this opulence with the extreme hardships many ordinary Sri Lankans are facing.

Singaporean authorities say that he has been "allowed entry on a private visit" but not to seek asylum. Sri Lankan security officials say the former president could try to fly to the United Arab Emirates next. 

Dozens injured in Colombo clashes

In Colombo, witnesses saw dozens of people leaving the prime minister's office on Thursday as armed security forces entered. Armoured personnel carriers patrolled parts of the capital under curfew.

"We are peacefully withdrawing from the presidential palace, the presidential secretariat and the prime minister's office with immediate effect, but we will continue our struggle," a spokesperson for the protesters said earlier. 

A few hours before the announcement of the withdrawal, the police had pushed back the demonstrators who tried to enter the parliament.

Nearly 85 people were injured in the clashes and one man died from tear gas in recent days.

Hundreds of thousands of people have visited the presidential palace since it opened to the public after Rajapaksa fled on Saturday.

On Thursday afternoon, the gates of the building were closed and guarded by armed men.

Earlier in the day, Gihan Martyn, a 49-year-old shopkeeper, accused the president of "playing for time".

"He is a coward," he growled outside the presidential palace, "he ruined our country with the Rajapaksa family, so we don't trust him at all. We need a new government."

The army and police were given new orders on Thursday to crack down on any violence, and warned troublemakers that they were "legitimately entitled to use force".

That didn't faze 26-year-old student Chirath Chathuranga Jayalath: "You can't stop these protests by killing people. They will shoot us in the head, but we are doing this with our heart," he said.

Euronews spoke with journalist and author Fidel Fernando who is in Colombo -- watch in the video player above.