Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is next in line if Mr Rajapaksa steps down, immediately called an emergency cabinet meeting to discuss a “quick resolution” to the crisis. In a statement, he invited the leaders of the political parties to join this meeting and also asked that the Parliament be convened.

“The president has been escorted to a safe place,” a defense source told AFP. “He is still the president, he is protected by a military unit,” added this source, according to which the soldiers guarding the official residence fired in the air to dissuade the demonstrators from approaching until Mr. Rajapaksa be evacuated.

Local television channels showed images of hundreds of people climbing the gates of the presidential palace, a building dating from the colonial era, located by the sea and symbol of power in Sri Lanka.

Some protesters live-streamed videos on social media showing a crowd marching inside the palace.

Government officials said they were unaware of Mr. Rajapaksa’s intentions after his flight. “We are awaiting instructions,” a senior official told AFP. “We still don’t know where he is, but we know he is with the Sri Lanka Navy and is safe.”

Tens of thousands of people had earlier taken part in a demonstration in Colombo to demand the resignation of Mr. Rajapaksa, held responsible for the unprecedented crisis which is hitting Sri Lanka and causing galloping inflation as well as serious shortages of fuel, electricity and food.

The United Nations estimates in particular that around 80% of the population skips meals to cope with shortages and soaring prices.

Colombo’s main hospital reported 14 people being treated after being hit by tear gas canisters during the protest.

On Friday, the police had imposed a curfew to try to discourage protesters from taking to the streets. But the measure was lifted after threats of legal action against the police chief from opposition parties, human rights activists and the country’s bar association.

The curfew had been largely ignored by protesters anyway, some of whom even forced railway authorities on Saturday to take them by train to Colombo to take part in the rally, officials told AFP.

“The curfew did not have a deterrent effect. It actually encouraged more people to take to the streets in defiance,” the defense official said. “Passengers requisitioned trains to reach Colombo”.

Even as the country has nearly exhausted its meager petrol reserves, protesters, backed by the main opposition parties, have also hired private buses to travel to the capital.

According to the authorities, some 20,000 soldiers and police had been dispatched to Colombo to protect the president.

The UN had urged the Sri Lankan authorities and the demonstrators to ensure that the rallies on Saturday took place in a calm environment.

By May, nine people had been killed and several hundred injured during unrest in the country.

Sri Lanka defaulted in April on its $51 billion foreign debt, and began bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund.

This crisis, on an unprecedented scale since the country’s independence in 1948, is blamed on the Covid-19 pandemic which deprived this South Asian island of currency from the tourism sector and was aggravated by a series of bad policy decisions, say economists.