Sri Lankan protesters storm prime minister's office as president flees country

Demonstrators make their way into the prime minister's office after police used teargas on crowds

Sri Lankan protesters have vowed to stay put after storming the prime minister's office, demanding his resignation as the president flees the country amid an economic crisis.

Months of protests over severe fuel and food shortages have culminated over the past week, with demonstrators overrunning the president's home and office on the weekend.

The president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, had pledged to step down after overwhelming public pressure - but slipped away on a plane with his family early on Wednesday, just hours before he was meant to leave office.

Rajapaksa, his wife and two bodyguards left the main international airport near the capital of Colombo aboard an air force plane early on Wednesday, according to the air force.

He and his wife left aboard an air force plane bound for the Maldives. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, meanwhile, who has been made acting president, had said he will resign once a new government is formed but now faces urgent calls to resign immediately.

Groups could be seen scaling the wall and entering his office as the crowds roared in support, cheering them on and waving the Sri Lankan flag.

Police used tear gas to try to disperse the crowd but failed and more and more marched down the lane and towards the office.

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-panelled conference rooms.

Protesters sit around a dining table after storming the Sri Lankan prime minister's office. Credit: AP

“We will cook here, eat here and live here, we will stay until (Wickremesinghe) hands over his resignation,” said Lahiru Ishara, 32, repeating the same pledge protesters gave after storming the president's residence.

"There’s no other alternative.”

Some protesters who appeared to be unconscious were taken to a hospital.

Amid the continuing protests, Sri Lanka’s national television channel, Rupavahini, ceased broadcasting on Wednesday.

The prime minister’s office imposed a curfew in part of the country as part of the state of emergency.

Mr Wickremesinghe appeared on television to reiterate that he would not leave until a new government was in place - and it was not clear when that would happen.

Although he fled, Mr Rajapaksa has yet to resign, although the speaker of the parliament said the president assured him he would later in the day.

According to an immigration official who spoke anonymously, the president left aboard a Sri Lankan Air Force plane with his wife and two bodyguards bound for the Maldives.

While he appears to have fled the crisis engulfing his country, he cannot escape the notion the protests have all but dismantled his family's political dynasty, which ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades.

On Wednesday morning, Sri Lankans continued to stream into the presidential palace to remind him of his standing among the protesters.

Many of those around his residence had travelled from outside Colombo on public transport - 24-year-old Bhasura Wickremesinghe among those to have joined the demonstrations.

“What Rajapaksa did - flee the country - is a timid act," the maritime electrical engineering student said, who came with friends.

"I’m not celebrating. There’s no point celebrating. We have nothing in this country at the moment.”

He complained that Sri Lankan politics have been dominated for years by “old politicians” who all need to go.

Police continue to try to disperse the crowds. Credit: AP

For days, people have flocked to the presidential palace almost as if it were a tourist attraction - swimming in the pool and lounging on the beds piled high with pillows.

At one point, they also burned the prime minister's private home.

At dawn, the protesters took a break from chanting as the Sri Lankan national anthem blared from speakers.

Malik D’Silva, a 25-year-old demonstrator occupying the president’s office, said Mr Rajapaksa "ruined this country and stole our money."

Some protesters jumped into the swimming pool at the president's residence. Credit: AP

He said he voted for Mr Rajapaksa in 2019 believing his military background would keep the country safe after Islamic State-inspired bomb attacks earlier that year killed more than 260 people.

Nearby, 28-year-old Sithara Sedaraliyanage and her 49-year-old mother wore black banners around their foreheads that read “Gota Go Home,” the rallying cry of the demonstrations.

“We expected him to be behind bars - not escape to a tropical island. What kind of justice is that?” Sithara said.

“This is the first time people in Sri Lanka have risen like this against a president. We want some accountability.”

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know