Protesters defy tear gas, water cannon and a state of emergency to storm the prime minister's office after the president fled overseas, with the crowd demanding both men step down amid an economic crisis.

The declaration of both a nationwide state of emergency and a curfew failed to disperse protesters, who poured into PM Ranil Wickremesinghe's office.
The declaration of both a nationwide state of emergency and a curfew failed to disperse protesters, who poured into PM Ranil Wickremesinghe's office. (AFP)

Sri Lanka’s president has fled the country, plunging a nation already reeling from economic chaos into more turmoil, as protesters demanding a leadership change trained their ire on the prime minister.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his wife left aboard an air force plane bound for the Maldives on Wednesday, making his prime minister the acting president in his absence.

That appeared to only further roil passions in the island nation of 22 million people, 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 rallied outside his office compound and some scaled the walls. Dozens could later be seen inside the office or standing on a rooftop terrace waving Sri Lanka's flag.

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.

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.

Eventually security forces appeared to give up, with some retreating from the area and others simply standing around the overrun compound.

READ MORE: 'Change the system': How Sri Lankans descended on capital to protest

Political crisis

Although he fled, Rajapaksa has yet to officially resign, but the speaker of parliament said the president assured him he would do so later in the day.

Rajapaksa was expected to head to Singapore after fleeing to the Maldives, a government source said, requesting anonymity. The source said Rajapaksa could send his resignation after landing in Singapore.

Over the weekend, protesters seized the president's home and office and the 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.

As the protests escalated outside the prime minister's compound on Wednesday, the government imposed a state of emergency that gives broader powers to the military and police and declared an immediate nationwide curfew until Thursday morning.

In his TV appearance, Wickremesinghe, 73, said he created a committee of police and military chiefs to restore order.

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.

The political impasse threatens 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.

READ MORE: What’s next for crisis-ridden Sri Lanka?

Source: TRTWorld and agencies