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Sri Lankan president Rajapaksa's resignation accepted, search begins for new leader

A vote for a new Sri Lanka president is set for Jul 20.

Sri Lankan president Rajapaksa's resignation accepted, search begins for new leader

Under Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka defaulted on its foreign debt for the first time in April and the country declared bankruptcy (Photo: Sri Lankan Presidential Media Division/AFP/File/-)

COLOMBO: The resignation of Sri Lanka's president has been accepted, the crisis-hit country's parliamentary speaker announced Friday Friday (Jul 15), after the leader fled his country earlier this week, prompting relief among protesters camped outside his former offices.

The formal declaration makes Gotabaya Rajapaksa - once known as "The Terminator" for his ruthless crushing of the Tamil rebellion - the first Sri Lankan head of state to resign since it adopted an executive presidency in 1978.

He emailed in his notice from Singapore after flying in from the Maldives, where he initially escaped after demonstrators overran his palace at the weekend.

"The president has officially resigned from his position," parliamentary speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana told reporters. "I have accepted the resignation."

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as acting president - his accession was automatic under Sri Lanka's constitution - but many of the demonstrators see him as complicit in the rule of the Rajapaksas and also want him to go.

Parliament would reconvene on Saturday and be notified formally of the vacancy at the top, with a vote for a new president set for Jul 20.

Sri Lanka's Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena at a media briefing at Speaker's house in Colombo on Jul 15, 2022. (Photo: AFP/Arun SANKAR)

Rajapaksa's departure came after months of protests over what critics said was his mismanagement of the island nation's economy, leading to severe hardships for its 22 million people.

At a seafront boulevard that has served as the headquarters of the protest movement that ousted him, a small crowd gathered its remaining strength late Thursday to celebrate his resignation.

Only a few hundred people were there to mark the milestone, with many veterans of the protest movement exhausted after enduring tear gas barrages and tense confrontations with security forces in the preceding days.

"I certainly feel, I think the crowd here definitely does feel, quite happy about it," activist Vraie Balthaazar told AFP.

"PRIVATE VISIT" TO SINGAPORE

Rajapaksa, his wife Ioma and their two bodyguards arrived in Singapore from the Maldives on board a Saudia airline flight.

Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) confirmed in a media statement shortly after 8pm that Mr Rajapaksa had entered Singapore on a "private visit".

Sri Lankans can travel to Singapore without a visa for trips shorter than 30 days.

"He has not asked for asylum and neither has he been granted any asylum. Singapore generally does not grant requests for asylum," said an MFA spokesperson.

As president, Rajapaksa enjoyed immunity from arrest, and he is understood to have wanted to go abroad before stepping down to avoid the possibility of being detained.

The former Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed is believed to have played a behind-the-scenes role in getting him out of the country, and said Rajapaksa feared he would be killed if he remained.

"I believe the President would not have resigned if he were still in Sri Lanka, and fearful of losing his life," Nasheed tweeted.

The spiralling economic crisis led to Sri Lanka defaulting on its US$51 billion foreign debt in April, and it is in talks with the IMF for a possible bailout.

But the talks have been thrown off course by the political upheaval, and an IMF spokesman said Thursday the fund hoped the unrest can be resolved soon so negotiations can resume.

The island has nearly exhausted its already scarce supplies of petrol, with the government ordering the closure of non-essential offices and schools to reduce commuting and save fuel.

PROTESTERS EXIT

In Colombo, demonstrators on Thursday left several of the emblematic state buildings they had occupied in recent days after Wickremesinghe instructed security forces to restore order and declared a state of emergency.

Witnesses saw dozens of activists leave Wickremesinghe's office as armed police and security forces moved in.

The capital was put under curfew and armoured personnel carriers patrolled some areas.

Hundreds of thousands of people had visited the prime minister's compound since it was opened to the public after he fled and his security guards backed down.

By Thursday afternoon, the gates were closed, with armed guards posted both inside and outside.

Police said a soldier and a constable were injured in clashes with protesters outside the national parliament as security forces beat back an attempt to storm the legislature.

Protesters also left the studios of the main state television station after breaking in on Wednesday.

The main hospital in Colombo said about 85 people were admitted with injuries on Wednesday, with one man suffocating to death after being tear-gassed at the prime minister's office.

The military and the police were issued fresh orders Thursday to firmly put down any violence, and warned troublemakers they were "legitimately empowered to exercise their force".

But student Chirath Chathuranga Jayalath, 26, said: "You cannot stop this protest by killing people. They'll shoot our heads but we do this from our hearts."

Source: Agencies/fh

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