COLUMBUS: The Sri Lankan president was planning to use a navy patrol boat to flee the island on Tuesday after a humiliating confrontation with immigration at the airport, official sources said.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa vowed to step down on Wednesday and pave 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 swarmed it on Saturday. He then wanted to travel to Dubai, officials said.
As president, Rajapaksa enjoys immunity from arrest and is believed to want to travel abroad before stepping down to avoid the possibility of detention.
But immigration officials refused to go to the VIP suite to stamp his passport, as he insisted he would not pass through public facilities, fearing reprisals from other commuters. airport.
The president and his wife spent the night at a military base next to the main Bandaranaike International Airport after missing four flights that could have taken them to the United Arab Emirates.
Rajapaksa’s younger brother Basil, who resigned as finance minister in April, missed his own Emirates flight to Dubai early Tuesday after a similar standoff with airport staff.
Basil – who holds US citizenship in addition to Sri Lankan citizenship – tried to use a paid concierge service for business travelers, but airport and immigration staff said he was withdrawing from expedited service with immediate effect.
“There were other passengers who protested against Basile boarding,” an airport official told AFP. “It was a tense situation, so he left the airport in a hurry.”
A man waves the national flag of Sri Lanka after climbing a tower near the presidential secretariat in Colombo on July 11, 2022, after it was overrun by anti-government protesters. AFP PHOTO
Basil had to get a new US passport after leaving his at the presidential palace when the Rajapaksas retreated on Saturday to avoid crowds, a diplomatic source said.
Official sources said a suitcase full of documents was also left at the stately mansion along with 17.85 million rupees in cash, which is currently in the custody of a court in Colombo.
There was no official word from the president’s office on his fate, but he remained commander-in-chief of the armed forces with military resources at his disposal.
A senior defense source said the president’s closest military aides were discussing the possibility of taking him and his entourage overseas on a naval patrol boat.
A navy boat was used on Saturday to ferry Rajapaksa and his aides to the northeast port city of Trincomalee, from where he was airlifted to the international airport on Monday.
“The best option now is to take the sea exit,” the defense official said. “He could go to the Maldives or India and fly to Dubai.”
Another alternative, he added, would be to charter a plane to fly from the country’s second international airport at Mattala, opened in 2013 and named after the president’s older brother, Mahinda.
It is widely considered a white elephant, with no regular international flights and described as possibly the least used international airport in the world.
Rajapaksa is accused of mismanaging the economy to such an extent that the country has run out of foreign exchange to fund even the most essential imports, causing serious hardship for the 22 million people.
If he steps down as promised, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe will automatically become interim president until parliament elects an MP to fulfill 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.
The island has almost exhausted its already scarce supplies of gasoline. The government has ordered the closure of non-essential offices and schools to reduce travel and save fuel.