Sri Lanka president seeks seaborne escape after airport standoff

Sri Lanka president seeks seaborne escape after airport standoff

Sri Lanka’s president headed to a naval base Tuesday with a view to fleeing his island by ship following a humiliating standoff at the airport, official sources said.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa has promised to resign on Wednesday and clear the way for a “peaceful transition of power” following widespread protests against him over the country’s worst economic crisis.

The 73-year-old leader fled his official residence in Colombo just before tens of thousands of protesters overran it on Saturday. He then wanted to fly to Dubai, officials said.

As president, Rajapaksa enjoys immunity from arrest, and he is believed to want to go abroad before stepping down to avoid the possibility of being detained.

But immigration staff at Bandaranaike International withdrew from VIP services on Monday and insisted that all passengers must go through public counters.

The presidential party were reluctant to go through regular channels fearing public reactions, a security official said, and as a result, missed four flights that could have taken them to the United Arab Emirates.

Attempts to arrange a military flight to a neighbouring country also failed as clearance to land was not immediately available, the official added.

The president and his wife spent the night at a military airbase next to the airport.

A top defence source said the president’s closest military aides were discussing the possibility of taking him and his entourage overseas aboard a naval patrol craft.

“The best option now is to take the sea exit,” the defence official said. “He could go to the Maldives or India and get a flight to Dubai.”

The group left the airbase on Tuesday afternoon in two Bell 412 helicopters, an airport source said, bound for the northeastern port of Trincomalee, site of the naval base where Rajapaksa initially took refuge after fleeing his palace on Saturday.

Another option was to fly from Hingurakgoda air base where the choppers stopped to refuel, an air force source said, adding it had a runway that could accommodate executive jets.

Rajapaksa’s youngest brother Basil, who resigned in April as finance minister, missed his own Emirates flight to Dubai early Tuesday after a tense standoff with airport staff.

Basil — who holds US citizenship in addition to Sri Lankan nationality — tried to use a paid concierge service for business travellers, but airport and immigration staff said they had withdrawn from the fast track service.

“There were some other passengers who protested against Basil boarding their flight,” an airport official told AFP. “It was a tense situation, so he hurriedly left the airport.”

– Hasty retreat –

Basil had to obtain a new US passport after leaving his behind at the presidential palace when the Rajapaksas beat a hasty retreat to avoid mobs on Saturday, a diplomatic source said.

Official sources said a suitcase full of documents had also been left behind at the stately mansion along with 17.85 million rupees (about $50,000) in cash, now in the custody of a Colombo court.

There was no official word from the president’s office about his whereabouts, but he remained commander-in-chief of the armed forces with military resources at his disposal.

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

If he steps down as promised, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe will automatically become acting president until parliament elects an MP to serve out the presidential term, which ends in November 2024.

Sri Lanka defaulted on its $51-billion foreign debt in April and is in talks with the IMF for a possible bailout.

Agence France-Presse (AFP) is a French state-owned international news agency based in Paris. It is the world's oldest news agency, having been founded in 1835 as Havas.

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