Sri Lanka’s deposed former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa returned to the country Friday, an airport official said, seven weeks after he fled amid the island’s worst-ever economic crisis.
Rajapaksa was festooned with flowers by a welcoming party of ministers and politicians as he disembarked at the main international airport, the official added – in a sign of his enduring influence in the Indian Ocean nation, which critics said he led to ruin.
“There was a rush of government politicians to garland him as he came out of the aircraft,” the official told newsmen.
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 on 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.”
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.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation ended his presidential immunity, and rights activists said they would press for his arrest on multiple charges, including his alleged role in the 2009 assassination of prominent newspaper editor, Lasantha Wickrematunge.
“We welcome his decision to return so that we can bring him to justice for the crimes he has committed,” said Tharindu Jayawardhana, a spokesman for the Sri Lanka Young Journalists’ Association.
Rajapaksa also faces charges in a court in the United States’ state of California over Wickrematunge’s murder and the torture of Tamil prisoners at the end of the island’s traumatic civil war in 2009.