Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is still in the country, Parliament Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena’s office said on Wednesday, noting that media speculation that the embattled leader may have fled the country sparked due to a “mistake” made by the Speaker during an interview.
Rajapaksa, 73, is yet to resign formally and his whereabouts are also not yet known.
However, the presidential secretariat has been issuing the President’s statement even after he had fled the official residence when thousands of people stormed it on Saturday.
He had not left the country as speculated in the media, Abeywardena’s office said.
“This was (speculated) after a mistake made by Speaker of Parliament Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena who had said he had left the country but would be back by Wednesday to offer his resignation. Abeywardena later corrected the mistake,” his office said.
Abeywardena, who is now tipped to be the acting president once Rajapaksa resigns on Wednesday, told BBC World Service that the president is staying “somewhere outside…in a nearby country”.
“He will come back on Wednesday, he will be there. He told me that he will be stepping down on July 13.” Abeywardena, 76, later said for security reasons he could not divulge the exact location of the president.
However, within a few hours, Abeywardena retracted his statement and said he had mistakenly told the BBC.
Rajapaksa informed the Speaker on Saturday that he will resign on July 13.
The Parliament has made all arrangements to elect a successor in terms of the procedure, the Speaker’s office said.
Rajapaksa is speculated to be spending time at a Sri Lanka Naval facility, according to sources.
Sri Lanka, a country of 22 million people, is under the grip of an unprecedented economic turmoil, the worst in seven decades, leaving millions struggling to buy food, medicine, fuel and other essentials.
Tens of thousands have taken to the streets in recent months, calling for the country’s leaders to resign over accusations of economic mismanagement. They blame the Rajapaksa family for the crisis.
Schools have been suspended and fuel has been limited to essential services. Patients are unable to travel to hospitals due to the fuel shortage and food prices are soaring.
In several major cities, including Colombo, hundreds are forced to stand in line for hours to buy fuel, sometimes clashing with police and the military as they wait. The country, with an acute foreign currency crisis that resulted in foreign debt default, had announced in April that it is suspending nearly USD 7 billion foreign debt repayment due for this year out of about USD 25 billion due through 2026. Sri Lanka’s total foreign debt stands at USD 51 billion.