Sri Lankan protesters storm the compound of prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe 's office. Photo:AP
Colombo: Sri Lanka's embattled President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled to the Maldives on a military jet on Wednesday, hours before he was supposed to quit in the face of a public revolt against his government for mishandling the economy that has bankrupted the country.
From the Maldives, 73-year-old Rajapaksa appointed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as the acting President, citing Article 37(1) of the Constitution that allows a premier to "discharge the powers, duties and functions of the office of president" when the president is ill or "absent" from the country.
Parliament Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena announced that President Rajapaksa has appointed Prime Minister Wickremesinghe to act to perform his functions while he is abroad.
Abeywardena also said that President Rajapaksa has informed him over telephone that he will resign today as promised. He said the vote for the new president will take place on July 20.
Wickremesinghe, who is now acting President, has declared a state of emergency in the country and a curfew in the Western province has been imposed as protesters gathered near his office at Flower Road in Colombo.
"I am now imposing a State of Emergency and a Curfew," he said in a special televised statement adding that threats by fascists must be countered.
Wickremesinghe said he instructed the security forces to enforce the emergency and curfew to bring the situation to normalcy, adding that a committee comprising the heads of armed forces have been given the responsibility in doing so with zero political intervention.
He also pledged that he would step down as Prime Minister when an all-party government is formed.
He said he was alarmed by the informations received by the intelligence services.
"Despite the President leaving, and measures taken to elect a new President, some groups in the struggle have organised to take over the Prime Minister's Office, and surround the Air Force Commander's residence for providing an Air Force plane for the President to fly to the Maldives. They had also decided to surround the Navy Commander's residence and Army Commander's residence. These groups tried to obtain control of the country,” he added.
He ordered the security forces to arrest people acting in a riotous manner.
Meanwhile, the protesters who had arrived in large numbers at the PM Office have surrounded the building. The police fired tear gas on protesters who broke through a barricade and stormed the prime minister's office, calling for his resignation.
Sri Lanka's state-owned television channel Rupavahini briefly suspended its telecast on Wednesday as protesters stormed the building. Later, the channel resumed its transmission.
Also, a second Sri Lankan state television channel went off air, less than an hour after Rupavahini suspended its operations.
Earlier, President Rajapaksa left the country along with his wife and two security officers on a military jet, a brief statement from the Sri Lanka Air Force said.
"On government request and in terms of powers available to a President under the Constitution, with complete approval from the ministry of defence, the President, his wife and two security officials were provided a Sri Lanka Air Force plane to depart from the Katunayake international airport for the Maldives in the early hours of July 13," the statement said.
Rajapaksa, who enjoys immunity from prosecution while he is president, fled the country before resigning to avoid the possibility of arrest by the new government.
On Saturday, Rajapaksa had announced to step down on Wednesday after thousands of protesters stormed his official residence, blaming him for the unprecedented economic crisis that has brought the country to its knees.
He arrived in the capital of the Maldives, Male, at around 03:00 local time (22:00 GMT), BBC reported.
He was received by a Maldivian government representative at the Velana airport and taken to an undisclosed location under police escort, sources said, quoting Maldivian officials. The Maldives government has not yet officially commented on his presence in the island nation.
Rajapaksa's escape to the Maldives was negotiated by the Maldivian Majlis (Parliament) Speaker and former president Mohamed Nasheed, sources in the Maldives capital Male said.
The Maldivian government's argument is that Rajapaksa is still the President of Sri Lanka, and that he hasn't resigned or handed over his powers to a successor. Therefore, if he wanted to travel to the Maldives, it could not have been denied, sources said.
Communications Director at the Parliament Secretariat, Hassan Ziyau, said Parliament was not aware of the matter.
Thirteen people accompanied Rajapaksa to the Maldives. They arrived in an AN32 aircraft, according to TV news channels.
Reports say that initial requests to land a military aircraft in the Maldives were refused by the Civil Aviation Authority in Maldives, but later landing was authorised on the request of Speaker Nasheed.
President Rajapaksa is likely to leave for Singapore later Wednesday, the Daily Mirror reported, citing sources in Maldives.
He is likely to send his resignation letter only after reaching his final destination on Wednesday evening, Sri Lanka's The Morning news portal reported, citing highly placed government sources.
Meanwhile, the High Commission of India in Sri Lanka categorically denied "baseless and speculative" media reports that it facilitated the escape of Rajapaksa to the Maldives.
"It is reiterated that India will continue to support the people of Sri Lanka as they seek to realize their aspirations for prosperity and progress through democratic means and values, established democratic institutions and constitutional framework,” the India mission tweeted.
As the news of Rajapaksa's departure spread, an enthusiastic crowd gathered in Galle Face Green chanting the popular phrase Aragalayata Jayawewa, or “Victory to the struggle” in Sinhalese and "Go home Gota".
Citing sources, BBC also reported that Rajapaksa's younger brother and former finance minister Basil Rajapaksa has also left the country.
On Monday night, both Rajapaksa and his brother Basil were turned back at the Colombo airport as they attempted to leave the country amid mounting anger against the powerful family for mishandling the island's worst economic crisis.
Sri Lanka's political parties have stepped up efforts to form an all-party government and subsequently elect a new President on July 20 to prevent the bankrupt nation sliding further into anarchy.
Under the Sri Lankan Constitution, if both the president and prime minister resign, the Speaker of parliament will serve as acting president for a maximum of 30 days.
The Parliament will elect a new president within 30 days from one of its members, who will hold the office for the remaining two years of the current term.
Sri Lanka, a country of 22 million people, is under the grip of an unprecedented economic turmoil, the worst in seven decades, leaving millions struggling to buy food, medicine, fuel and other essentials. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe last week said Sri Lanka is now a bankrupt country.