ARMY personnel shoo away demonstrators (unseen) who gathered inside the office building of Sri Lanka’s prime minister during an anti-government protest in Colombo on Wednesday.—AFP
ARMY personnel shoo away demonstrators (unseen) who gathered inside the office building of Sri Lanka’s prime minister during an anti-government protest in Colombo on Wednesday.—AFP

MALE: Escaping Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa faced protests in the Maldives on Wednesday with dozens of compatriots urging the government not to provide him safe haven.

Sri Lankan expatriates carrying flags and placards denounced Rajapaksa, who fled his country early on Wednesday after protesters overran his Colombo residence at the weekend over the worsening economic crisis in the South Asian nation.

“Dear Maldivian friends, please urge your government not to safeguard criminals,” said a black and white banner held by Sri Lankans working in the island’s tiny capital.

Local media carried unverified videos of residents shouting insults at Rajapaksa as he walked out of the Velana International airport following his arrival on a military aircraft. As Sri Lankans protested at an artificial beach area in Male on Wednesday, Special Operations police confiscated placards and dispersed the demonstrators, witnesses said.

Defying tear gas and state of emergency, protesters storm PM’s office in Colombo

Local reports suggested that Rajapaksa was staying at an exclusive resort and would leave for either the United Arab Emirates or Singapore. “He is going into exile in either of the two locations,” a Sri Lankan security source in Colombo said. “Ensuring security would be a challenge because there are Sri Lankan communities in both countries.”

The main opposition Progressive Party of Maldives opposed the granting of free passage to Rajapaksa, who faces several court cases, including allegations of war crimes.

Meanwhile, protesters in Sri Lanka defied tear gas, water cannon and a state of emergency to storm the prime minister’s office on Wednesday after the president fled overseas, with the crowd demanding both men step down in the face of an economic crisis.

In a televised statement, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he had instructed the military and police to do “what is necessary to restore order”. But footage showed armed security personnel standing by in the grounds of his office as protesters, some holding national flags, milled around and took pictures.

Other demonstrators at one point broke into state television studios, as the country’s months-long political and economic crisis appeared to be moving towards a climax.

Tear gas and water cannons fired by police and the declaration of a nationwide state of emergency and a curfew failed to disperse them and the crowd poured into the building.

Wickremesinghe, 73, would automatically become acting president if Rajapaksa steps down, but has himself announced his willingness to resign if consensus is reached on forming a unity government.

“We can’t tear up our constitution,” he said in his statement. “We can’t allow fascists to take over. We must end this fascist threat to democracy,” he said, adding that the official buildings occupied by protesters must be returned to state control.

The protesters’ actions were a repeat of the capture of President Gotabaya Raja­paksa’s home and office on Saturday, when Wickre­mesinghe’s private home was also set ablaze.

Earlier on Wednesday, smiling Sri Lankans again thronged the corridors of the president’s official residence after his departure, with young couples walking around hand in hand in a mood of quiet celebration.

Published in Dawn, July 14th, 2022

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