Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Wednesday fled the country for the Maldives, hours before he was due to step down from his post amid widespread protests over his handling of the island nation’s worst economic crisis since independence in 1948.

The 73-year-old leader, his wife and two bodyguards left after receiving approval from the defense ministry, a statement from the Sri Lankan Air Force media director said.

They flew on a Sri Lankan Air Force plane and landed in Male, the capital of the Maldives. There was no official confirmation of his arrival from the authorities in the Maldives.

A spokesperson from the prime minister’s office said “an islandwide state of emergency has been declared with immediate effect” in Sri Lanka after thousands of protestors took to the streets and shouted slogans saying “Gota thief, Gota thief”, referring to him by a nickname.

The police used water cannons and tear gas shells to control the protests.

Last week, Rajapaksa had said he will resign on Wednesday to make way for a “peaceful transition of power” in Sri Lanka after protestors stormed his official residence demanding he step down. Rajapaksa, accused of war crimes and the disappearances of government critics, was elected president in 2019.

Before Rajapaksa, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he would leave once a new government was in place.

Since Saturday, protestors have flocked to the presidential palace. In extraordinary scenes, some of them were seen jumping into the swimming pool, while others made their way into the kitchen. Many were also seen lifting weights and running on a treadmill.

On Wednesday, after landing in Male, Rajapaksa was taken to an undisclosed location under a police escort, according to AFP.

“If we don’t hear of the resignation of the president and the prime minister by the evening, we may have to gather back and take over parliament or another government building,” Buddhi Prabodha Karunaratne, one of the organisers of the recent agitation, told Reuters.

Rajapaksa, who enjoys immunity from prosecution while he is president, is believed to have wanted to flee abroad before stepping down in order to avoid the possibility of arrest by the new administration.

Meanwhile, the Indian High Commission in Sri Lanka refuted reports claiming that India helped the president and his younger brother Basil Rajapaksa flee the country.

“It is reiterated that India will continue to support the people of Sri Lanka as they seek to realise their aspirations for prosperity and progress through democratic means and values, established democratic institutions and constitutional framework,” the commission said in a tweet.

The economic crisis

Sri Lanka has run out of foreign-exchange reserves that has limited essential imports of fuel, food and medicine, plunging it into the worst economic meltdown in 70 years. The island nation’s inflation rate touched 54.6% year-over-year in June while food inflation shot up to 80%.

As the crisis deepened in April, violent clashes erupted between supporters of Rajapaksa’s party and the anti-government demonstrators. In May, 10 persons had died in the clashes.

The protestors had expressed discontent with the ruling dispensation by burning the ancestral home of the Rajapaksa family in Hambantota in May. The clashes had even forced Gotabaya Rajapaska’s brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was the prime minister at the time, to resign. However, Rajapaksa had refused to step down on multiple occasions.

As part of its efforts to resolve the crisis, Sri Lanka is holding talks with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout package.

On July 5, Wickremesinghe had told Parliament that the country is bankrupt. “We will have to face difficulties in 2023 as well,” he had said. “This is the truth. This is the reality.”

The United Nations has warned that more than a quarter of Sri Lanka’s people are at risk of food shortages. Sri Lanka Medical Council has stated that hospitals were running with minimum resources as the country imports more than 80% of its medical supplies. The top medical body also warned that it would not be able to handle any mass casualties due to the protests.