Colombo, Sri Lanka (CNN) — Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has been named the country’s interim president, just hours after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled to the Maldives.
Parliament Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena confirmed the appointment during a televised speech on Wednesday.
Rajapaksa, who was expected to resign on Wednesday but fled before officially doing so, made the appointment, citing a section of the constitution that allows a prime minister to “perform the powers, duties and functions of the office of president” when the president is ill. or “absent” from Sri Lanka.
Wickremesinghe was expected to formally resign as prime minister on Wednesday “to make way for an all-party government.”
The move came as Wickremesinghe’s office said it planned to declare a state of emergency across the country, as protesters took to the streets of the commercial capital Colombo.
It also ordered the Defense Ministry to impose a curfew in Colombo and the rest of the country’s western province after police fired tear gas into the crowd outside the prime minister’s office, a ministry official told CNN.
The official, who did not want to be identified, said Wickremesinghe ordered “the undisciplined people traveling in trucks to be arrested.”
Rajapaksa and his wife flew to Malé, in the Maldives, on a Sri Lankan Air Force AN32 troop transport plane, according to a senior security official, shortly before he resigned.
Maldives air traffic control refused the plane’s landing request until an intervention by Maldivian Parliament Speaker and former President Mohamed Nasheed, according to the official. A spokesman for Nasheed neither confirmed nor denied the intervention.
The Sri Lankan air force confirmed Rajapaksa’s departure on Wednesday, saying in a statement: “In accordance with the government’s request and in accordance with the powers vested in a president in the Sri Lankan Constitution, the Sri Lankan air force provided a plane earlier today to fly the president, his wife and two security officers to the Maldives.”
Following his departure, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the prime minister’s office in Colombo, chanting and demanding that neither the president nor the prime minister “be spared”.
Live video seen by CNN showed protesters marching towards the prime minister’s office building, shouting that the leaders are trying to flee.
Police used tear gas to disperse a group of protesters who were trying to break through the barriers outside the building.
The embattled Rajapaksa was prevented from leaving Sri Lanka at least twice on Monday, after refusing to join a public immigration queue at Bandaranaike International Airport, a senior military source told CNN.
Rajapaksa’s aides arrived at Colombo airport on Monday with 15 passports belonging to the president and members of his family, including first lady Ioma Rajapaksa, who had reserved seats on a Sri Lankan Airlines flight leaving for Dubai at 6:25 a.m. . pm local time, according to the military source.
But immigration agents refused to process passports given to them by presidential aides, as Rajapaksa and his family were not physically present for cross-checks. Ultimately, the flight departed without the president and his family on board, the source added.
Another attempt was made to get the family on an Etihad flight scheduled to leave Colombo for Abu Dhabi at 9:20 p.m.
In both cases, the Rajapaksa family was in a nearby airport lounge, awaiting confirmation that they could board without queuing in the public, the source said.
On Tuesday, a video posted by a former police officer claimed that Rajapaksa was staying at a private home belonging to a top air force commander. The Sri Lanka Air Force has denied the claim, describing it as propaganda aimed at tarnishing the image of the body and the boss of it.
forced to resign
Rajapaksa’s expected resignation on Wednesday, which follows months of protests over the country’s crippling economic crisis, would leave him without presidential immunity and potentially exposed to a series of legal charges.
He has been accused of high-level corruption and economic mismanagement, which ultimately bankrupted the country and triggered its worst financial crisis since independence.
Rajapaksa agreed to resign from his post on Saturday, after more than 100,000 people gathered outside his residence and called for his resignation. Some of the protesters then stormed the property and splashed into his pool.
Stunning images shared on social media showed protesters singing protest songs and slogans calling for Rajapaksa to step down. Other photos showed groups of protesters setting up grills to grill food.
Journalist Rukshana Rizwie contributed to the report.