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Rajapaksa resigns as Sri Lanka's premier in order to end crisis

Rajapaksa resigns as Sri Lanka's premier in order to end crisis
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa speaks with a Buddhist monk Saturday after signing his resignation letter at his Colombo home. (Eranga Jayawardena / AP)

Sri Lanka's disputed prime minister resigned Saturday, saying he wanted to end a long political impasse over his appointment and allow the president to form a new government.

Mahinda Rajapaksa signed a letter of resignation, flanked by lawmakers from his party and blessed by Buddhist and other religious leaders in the presence of media. It was not immediately clear if the letter had been handed over to President Maithripala Sirisena.

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“Since I have no intention of remaining as prime minister without a general election being held, and in order to not hamper the president in any way, I will resign from the position of prime minister and make way for the president to form a new government,” Rajapaksa said in a statement.

He was to deliver an address to the nation later Saturday in which he was expected to explain his resignation.

Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena, a lawmaker close to Rajapaksa, told reporters Friday that Rajapaksa had decided to step down to end a crisis that began in October when Sirisena sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Sirisena then named Rajapaksa the new prime minister, but Parliament twice rejected the appointment.

Rajapaksa's resignation came a day after the Supreme Court extended a lower court's suspension of Rajapaksa and his Cabinet. The top court put off the next hearing until mid-January, when it plans to rule on whether they should hold office after losing two no-confidence votes in Parliament.

Sri Lanka has had no functioning government for nearly two weeks and is facing the prospect of being unable to pass a budget for next year if a new government is not appointed quickly.

The country runs the risk of being unable to use state funds from Jan. 1 if there is no government to approve the budget. It also has a foreign debt repayment of $1 billion due in early January, and it is unclear if it can be serviced without a lawful finance minister.

Rajapaksa is a former strongman president who is considered by some as a war hero for defeating the Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009 after a long civil war. But he lost a 2015 re-election bid amid allegations of wartime atrocities, corruption and nepotism. After his appointment as prime minister, he sought to secure a majority in the 225-member Parliament but failed. Sirisena then dissolved Parliament and called new elections, but the Supreme Court struck down the move as unconstitutional.

Sirisena has repeatedly rejected appeals to reappoint Wickremesinghe as prime minister, but has invited Wickremesinghe, who has the support of 117 lawmakers in Parliament, to form a government.

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