COLOMBO, SRI LANKA — Sri Lanka's president fled the country Wednesday, plunging a nation already reeling from economic chaos into more political turmoil. Protesters demanding a change in leadership then trained their ire on the prime minister and stormed his office.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his wife left aboard an air force plane bound for the Maldives, and he made his prime minister the acting president in his absence. That appeared to only further roil passions in the island nation, which has been gripped for months by an economic meltdown that has triggered severe shortages of food and fuel.
Thousands of protesters who wanted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to go had anticipated that he would be put in charge. They rallied outside his office compound, and some scaled the walls. The crowd roared its support for the people charging in and tossed water bottles to them.
Dozens could later be seen inside the office or standing on a rooftop terrace waving Sri Lanka's flag — the latest in a series of takeovers of government buildings by demonstrators seeking a new government.
"We need both ... to go home," said Supun Eranga, a 28-year-old civil servant in the crowd. "Ranil couldn't deliver what he promised during his two months, so he should quit. All Ranil did was try to protect the Rajapaksas."
But Wickremesinghe appeared on television to reiterate that he would not leave until a new government was in place — though he urged the Parliament speaker to find a new prime minister agreeable to both the government and the opposition. It was not clear when that would happen, in part because the opposition is deeply fractured.
Although he fled, Rajapaksa has yet to officially resign, but the speaker of the parliament said the president assured him he would do so later in the day.
The political impasse only threatened to worsen the bankrupt nation's economic collapse since the absence of an alternative government could delay a hoped-for bailout from the International Monetary Fund. In the meantime, the country is relying on aid from neighboring India and from China.
Police initially used tear gas to try to disperse the protesters outside the prime minister's office but failed, and more and more marched down the lane toward the compound. As helicopters flew overhead, some demonstrators held up their middle fingers.
Eventually security forces appeared to give up, with some retreating from the area and others simply standing around the overrun compound. Inside the building, the mood was celebratory, as people sprawled on elegant sofas, watched TV and held mock meetings in wood-paneled conference rooms. Some wandered around as if touring a museum.
"We will cook here, eat here and live here. We will stay until (Wickremesinghe) hands over his resignation," said Lahiru Ishara, 32, a supervisor at a supermarket in Colombo who has been a part of the protests since they kicked off in April. "There's no other alternative."
Chief of Defense Staff Gen. Shavendra Silva issued another call for calm Wednesday and asked the public to cooperate with security forces. Similar comments in recent days rankled opposition lawmakers, who insisted that civilian leaders would be the ones to find a solution.
Over the weekend, protesters seized the president's home and office and the official residence of the prime minister following months of demonstrations that have all but dismantled the Rajapaksa family's political dynasty, which ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades.
Protesters accuse the president and his relatives of siphoning money from government coffers for years and Rajapaksa's administration of hastening the country's collapse by mismanaging the economy.
The family has denied the corruption allegations, but Rajapaksa acknowledged some of his policies contributed to the meltdown, which has left the island nation laden with debt and unable to pay for imports of basic necessities.
The shortages have sown despair among Sri Lanka's 22 million people. The country's rapid decline was all the more shocking because, before the recent crisis, the economy had been expanding, and a comfortable middle class was growing.
"Not only Gotabaya and Ranil, all 225 members of Parliament should go home. Because for the last few decades, family politics have ruined our country," said Madusanka Perera, a laborer who came to Colombo from the city's outskirts on the day protesters occupied the first government buildings. He lost his job, and his father, a driver, can't work because of fuel shortages.
"I'm 29 years old — I should be having the best time of life, but instead I don't have a job, no money and no life," he said.
As the protests escalated Wednesday outside the prime minister's compound, his office imposed a state of emergency that gives broader powers to the military and police and declared an immediate nationwide curfew. It was unclear what effect the curfew would have: Some ignored it, while many others rarely leave their homes anyway because of fuel shortages.
In his TV appearance, Wickremesinghe said he created a committee of police and military chiefs to restore order.
The air force earlier said in a statement that it provided an aircraft, with defense ministry approval, for the president and his wife to travel to the Maldives, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean known for exclusive tourist resorts. It said all immigration and customs laws were followed.
Local media in the Maldives reported that Rajapaksa's planned travel to another country was delayed, forcing him to remain there Wednesday night.
The whereabouts of other family members who had served in the government, including several who resigned their posts in recent months, were uncertain.
Sri Lankan presidents are protected from arrest while in power, and it is likely Rajapaksa planned his escape while he still had constitutional immunity. A corruption lawsuit against him in his former role as a defense official was withdrawn when he was elected president in 2019.
Assuming Rajapaksa resigns as planned, Sri Lankan lawmakers agreed to elect a new president on July 20 who will serve the remainder of Rajapaksa's term, which ends in 2024. That person could potentially appoint a new prime minister, who would then have to be approved by Parliament.
"Gotabaya resigning is one problem solved — but there are so many more," said Bhasura Wickremesinghe, a 24-year-old student of maritime electrical engineering, who is not related to the prime minister.
He complained that Sri Lankan politics have been dominated for years by "old politicians" who all need to go. "Politics needs to be treated like a job — you need to have qualifications that get you hired, not because of what your last name is," he said, referring to the Rajapaksa family.
Associated Press writer Bharatha Mallawarachi contributed to this report.