COLOMBO – Sri Lanka’s ousted president Gotabaya Rajapaksa returned home in the early hours of Saturday after fleeing the country in July, a senior security official said.

Mr Rajapaksa resigned after protesters angered by a debilitating economic crisis stormed his office and residence.

He had fled to Singapore via the Maldives and then spent the past few weeks in Thailand.

The 73-year-old leader was reportedly garlanded with flowers by a welcoming party of ministers and politicians as he disembarked at the main international airport, having returned to Sri Lanka from Bangkok via Singapore.

Mr Rajapaksa fled the island under military escort in July after unarmed crowds stormed his official residence, following months of angry demonstrations blaming him for the nation’s unprecedented economic crisis. 

He issued his resignation from Singapore before flying onward to Bangkok, where he has been petitioning his successor to facilitate his return. 

“He has been living in a Thai hotel as a virtual prisoner and was keen to return,” the defence official, who asked not to be named, told AFP.

“We have just created a new security division to protect him after his return on Saturday. The unit comprises elements from the army and police commandos.”

Sri Lanka’s constitution guarantees bodyguards, a vehicle and housing for former presidents. 

Rights activists said they would press for Mr Rajapaksa’s arrest over a series of crimes, 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. 

Mr Rajapaksa’s resignation ended his presidential immunity, which could see the revival of stalled criminal cases against the former leader. 

He also faces charges in a California court over Mr Wickrematunge’s murder and the torture of Tamil prisoners at the end of the island’s traumatic civil war in 2009.  REUTERS, AFP