President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, his wife and two bodyguards left aboard a Sri Lankan Air Force plane and landed in the city of Male, the capital of the Maldives, officials say.

A man waves Sri Lanka's national flag after climbing a tower near the presidential secretariat in Colombo after it was overrun by anti-government protesters.
A man waves Sri Lanka's national flag after climbing a tower near the presidential secretariat in Colombo after it was overrun by anti-government protesters. (AFP)

Sri Lanka's embattled President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has fled his country and landed in the neighbouring Maldives, ahead of his expected resignation after months of protests.

The 73-year-old leader, his wife and two bodyguards were driven under police escort to an undisclosed location after they arrived in a military Antonov-32 aircraft from Sri Lanka, an airport official in Male told the AFP news agency early on Wednesday.

The Sri Lanka Air Force later confirmed that Rajapaksa and his wife left for the Maldives.

"Under the provisions of the Constitution and on a request by the government, the Sri Lanka Air Force provided a plane early today to fly the president, his wife and two security officials to the Maldives," the statement said.

The departure of Rajapaksa once known as "The Terminator" had been stymied for more than 24 hours in a humiliating stand-off with immigration personnel at the airport.

He had wanted to fly to Dubai on a commercial flight, but the staff at Bandaranaike International Airport withdrew from VIP services and insisted that all passengers had to go through public counters.

The presidential party was reluctant to go through regular channels fearing public reactions, a security official said, and as a result, missed four flights on Monday that could have taken them to the United Arab Emirates.

Clearance for a military flight to land in the closest neighbour India was not immediately secured, a security official said, and at one point on Tuesday the group headed to a naval base with a view of fleeing by sea.

On Wednesday, the Indian High Commission in Colombo said on Twitter it "categorically denies baseless and speculative media reports that India facilitated the recent reported travel of @gotabayar@Realbrajapaksa out of Sri Lanka"

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

Hasty retreat

Rajapaksa's youngest brother Basil, who resigned in April as finance minister, missed his own Emirates flight to Dubai early on Tuesday after a tense standoff with the airport staff.

Basil – who holds US citizenship in addition to Sri Lankan nationality – tried to use a paid concierge service for business travellers, but the airport and immigration staff said they had withdrawn from the fast track service.

Basil had to obtain a new US passport after leaving his suitcase behind at the presidential palace when the Rajapaksas beat a hasty retreat to avoid mobs on Saturday, a diplomatic source said.

Official sources said a suitcase full of documents had also been left behind at the stately mansion along with about $50,000 in cash, now in the custody of a Colombo court.

There was no official word from the president's office about his whereabouts, but he remained commander-in-chief of the armed forces with military resources at his disposal.

Rajapaksa is accused of mismanaging the economy to a point where the country has run out of foreign exchange to finance even the most essential imports, leading to severe hardships for the 22 million population.

If he steps down as promised, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe will automatically become acting president until parliament elects an MP to serve out the presidential term, which ends in November 2024.

Sri Lanka defaulted on its $51-billion foreign debt in April and is in talks with the IMF for a possible bailout.

READ MORE: 'We won't give up': Sri Lankans refuse to leave presidential palace

Source: TRTWorld and agencies