On July 13, the ousted leader, his wife and two bodyguards left aboard an air force plane for the Maldives, before traveling to Singapore from where he officially resigned. He flew to Thailand two weeks later.
Sri Lanka's deposed former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa has returned to the country, an airport official says, seven weeks after he fled amid the island's worst-ever economic crisis.
Rajapaksa was festooned with flowers by a welcoming party of politicians as he disembarked at the main international airport on Friday, the official added — in a sign of his enduring influence in the Indian Ocean nation critics say he led to ruin.
"There was a rush of government politicians to garland him as he came out of the aircraft," the official told AFP news agency.
Rajapaksa fled Sri Lanka under military escort in mid-July after unarmed crowds stormed his official residence, following months of angry demonstrations blaming him for the nation's unprecedented economic crisis.
He sent in his resignation from Singapore before flying to Thailand, from where he had petitioned his successor Ranil Wickremesinghe to facilitate his return.
The 73-year-old leader arrived from Bangkok via Singapore on a commercial flight, ending his 52-day self-imposed exile.
"He has been living in a Thai hotel as a virtual prisoner and was keen to return," a defence official, who asked not to be named, told AFP.
"We have just created a new security division to protect him after his return," the official added. "The unit comprises elements from the army and police commandos."
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In the eye of the storm
Opposition politicians have accused Wickremesinghe of shielding the once-powerful Rajapaksa family.
Sri Lanka's constitution guarantees bodyguards, a vehicle and housing for former presidents, including Gotabaya and his elder brother and fellow ex-president Mahinda.
Singapore declined to extend Rajapaksa's short-term visa and he travelled to Thailand in August, but authorities in Bangkok instructed him not to step out of his hotel for his own safety.
Rajapaksa's youngest brother, Basil, the former finance minister, met with Wickremesinghe last month and requested protection to allow the deposed leader to return.
On Friday, police deployed plainclothes officers and armed guards outside a government residence allocated to Rajapaksa in Colombo ahead of his arrival.
Security at his private home was also stepped up, officials said, adding that he was expected to first visit the family residence.
Sri Lanka has endured months of shortages of crucial goods including food, fuel and medicines, along with lengthy electricity blackouts and skyrocketing inflation after running out of foreign currency to finance essential imports.
The coronavirus pandemic dealt a hammer blow to the island's tourism industry and dried up remittances from Sri Lankans working abroad — both key foreign exchange earners.
Rajapaksa, who was elected in 2019 promising "vistas of prosperity and splendour", saw his popularity nosedive as hardships multiplied for the country's 22 million people.
Wickremesinghe was elected by parliament to see out the remainder of Rajapaksa's term. He has since cracked down on street protests and arrested leading activists.
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