Sri Lankan president outside airport amid expulsion rumors

The Sri Lankan president was flown to an air base near the main international airport on Monday, officials said, sparking speculation that he would flee into exile abroad.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the presidential palace in Colombo under the protection of the navy on Saturday, shortly before tens of thousands of protesters took over the complex.

Hours later, the Speaker of Parliament announced that Rajapaksa would step down on Wednesday to ensure a “peaceful transfer of power.”

The 73-year-old leader fled to a naval base in the northeast of the island, a senior defense official said, adding that he was flown to Katunayake Air Base, adjacent to the country’s main international airport.

“He and his entourage were flown back to Colombo by two Bell 412 helicopters,” the official added.

There was no official word from the president’s office on his whereabouts, and several local media reports suggested that he was about to leave for Dubai later on Monday.

But four commercial flights subsequently departed for destinations in the Middle East without him, airport officials said.

Immigration officers refused to go to the VIP lounge to stamp his passport while he insisted he would not pass through public areas, they added – a humiliating standoff for the leader once known as “The Terminator.” .

A military source said that Rajapaksa, who remains the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, was able to travel on an Air Force plane.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s office said Rajapaksa had formally informed him of the president’s intention to step down, without specifying a date.

money in court

Earlier in the day, 17.85 million rupees (about $50,000) in cash that Rajapaksa had left at the presidential palace was taken to court after it was turned in by protesters, police said.

Official sources said that a suitcase with documents was also left in the stately mansion.

Rajapaksa took up residence in the two-century-old building after being kicked out of his private home on March 31 when protesters tried to storm it.

If Rajapaksa resigns as promised, Wickremesinghe will automatically become acting president until parliament elects an MP for the presidential term, which ends in November 2024.

But Wickremesinghe himself announced his readiness to resign 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 required to convene parliament, to the maximum 30 days allowed by law. If Rajapaksa resigns on Wednesday, the vote will take place on July 20, the parliament speaker said.

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The main opposition party, Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), held talks with small political groups on Monday to win the support of its leader, Sajit Premadasa.

An SJB spokesman said they had reached a tentative agreement with dissidents in Rajapaksa’s SLPP to support 55-year-old Premadasa, who lost the 2019 presidential election.

Premadasa is the son of former President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was killed in a suicide attack by Tamil rebels in May 1993.

Former Rajapaksa loyalist Dullas Alahapperuma, 63, a former media minister, was set to become the new prime minister, an SJB MP involved in the talks told AFP.

Five ministers resigned over the weekend, and Wickremesinghe’s office said the cabinet had agreed on Monday to step down en masse once an agreement on a “multi-party government” was reached.

Protesters stay put

Huge queues lined up at the palace on Monday, longer than some of the petrol lines winding through the city.

The protesters say they won’t leave until Rajapaksa officially leaves.

“The demand is very clear, people are still demanding (Rajapaksa) resignation and full resignation with written confirmation,” protester Dela Peiris said.

“So hopefully in the coming days we will get the resignation of the government, including the prime minister and the president.”

The prime minister’s private home in Colombo was also set on fire on Saturday evening.

Demonstrators camped outside the president’s office for more than three months, demanding that he leave due to the country’s unprecedented economic crisis.

Rajapaksa is accused of mismanaging the economy to the point where the country has run out of foreign exchange to finance even the most essential imports, causing severe hardship for its 22 million population.

Wickremesinghe, an opposition MP, was appointed prime minister in May to try to bring the country out of the economic crisis – his sixth appointment.

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.

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