President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled Sri Lanka on a military plane

The struggling president of Sri Lanka flew out of his country early Wednesday morning in what is likely the prelude to his resignation after months of mass protests over the worst economic crisis in the history of the island nation.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa vowed over the weekend to step down on Wednesday and clear the way for a “peaceful transfer of power” after he left his official residence in Colombo shortly before tens of thousands of protesters stormed it.
As president, Mr. Rajapaksa is entitled to immunity from arrest and is believed to have wanted to go abroad before resigning to avoid the possibility of being detained.
According to immigration sources, he, his wife and a bodyguard were among the four passengers on board the Antonov An-32 military aircraft that took off from the main international airport in the direction of the neighboring Maldives.
“Their passports were stamped and they boarded a special Air Force flight,” said an immigration official involved in the process.

The departure of the 73-year-old leader, once known as “The Terminator”, was delayed for more than 24 hours in a humiliating confrontation with immigration staff at the airport.


He wanted to fly to Dubai on a commercial flight, but Bandaranaike International refused VIP service and insisted that all passengers go through public counters.
The presidential party was reluctant to use conventional channels for fear of public backlash and, as a result, missed four flights on Monday that could have taken them to the United Arab Emirates, the security official said.
Permission to land a military aircraft in nearby neighboring India was not immediately obtained, a security official said, and at one point on Tuesday, the group headed for a naval base to flee by sea.
Mr Rajapaksa’s younger brother Basil, who retired as finance minister in April, missed his own Emirates flight to Dubai early Tuesday morning due to his own tense standoff with airport staff.

Basil, who holds US citizenship in addition to Sri Lankan citizenship, tried to use paid concierge services for business travelers, but airport and immigration officials said they refused the fast track.

According to a diplomatic source, Basil had to get a new American passport after he left his home in the presidential palace when the Rajapaks hurriedly retreated on Saturday to avoid the crowd.
A suitcase full of documents was also left at the stately mansion, as well as 17.85 million rupees (about $50,000) in cash, which is currently in custody at the Colombo court, official sources said.

There was no official information from the presidential administration about his whereabouts, but he remained the commander-in-chief of the armed forces with military resources at his disposal.

What’s going on in Sri Lanka?

Mr. Rajapaksa has been accused of mismanaging the economy to such an extent that the country has run out of foreign exchange to finance even the most essential imports, causing severe hardship for its 22 million people.
If he resigns as promised, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe will automatically become acting president until parliament elects an MP for the presidential term, which ends in November 2024.

But Mr. Wickremesinghe has himself declared his readiness to step down if a consensus is reached on the formation of a government of national unity.


The succession process can take anywhere from three days, the minimum time needed to convene parliament, to the maximum 30 days allowed by law.
If Mr. Rajapaksa does step down on Wednesday, the vote will take place on July 20, the Speaker of Parliament said.
The leader of the main opposition party Samagi Jana Balawegaya, Sajit Premadasa, who lost the 2019 presidential election to Rajapaksa, said he would run for the post.
Premadasa is the son of former President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was killed in a suicide attack by Tamil rebels in May 1993.
Sri Lanka defaulted on its $51 billion foreign debt in April and is in talks with the IMF for possible bailouts.

The island has nearly exhausted its already meager supply of gasoline. The government has ordered non-essential offices and schools to close to reduce travel and conserve fuel.