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Army cadets stand guard in front of Sri Lankan parliament building in Colombo on July 16, 2022. Image Credit: AFP

Colombo: Sri Lankan lawmakers met on Saturday to begin choosing a new leader to serve the rest of the term abandoned by the president who fled abroad and resigned after mass protests over the country’s economic collapse.

A day earlier, Sri Lanka’s prime minister was sworn in as interim president until Parliament elects a successor to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, whose term ends in 2024. Parliament Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana promised a swift and transparent political process that should be done within a week.

The new president could appoint a new prime minister, who would then have to be approved by Parliament.

Parliament’s secretary general, Dhammika Dasanayake, said during a brief session on Saturday that nominations for the election of the new president will be heard on Tuesday and if there is more than one candidate, the lawmakers will vote on Wednesday.

Dasanayake also read Gotabaya’s resignation letter out loud in Parliament.

In the letter, Rajapaksa says he was stepping down following requests by the people of Sri Lanka and political party leaders. He notes that the economic crisis was looming even when he took office in 2019 and was aggravated by frequent lockdowns during the coronavirus pandemic.

Security around the Parliament building in the capital, Colombo, was heightened on Saturday with armed masked soldiers on guard and roads near the building closed to the public.

In a televised statement on Friday, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he would initiate steps to change the constitution to curb presidential powers and strengthen Parliament, restore law and order and take legal action against "insurgents.’’

It was unclear to whom he was referring, although he said true protesters would not have gotten involved in clashes Wednesday night near Parliament, where many soldiers reportedly were injured.

“There is a big difference between protesters and insurgents. We will take legal action against insurgents,’’ he said.

Wickremesinghe became acting president after Rajapaksa fled Sri Lanka on Wednesday and flew first to the Maldives and then to Singapore. Many protesters insisted that Wickremesinghe too should step aside.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s opposition leader, who is seeking the presidency, vowed to ``listen to the people’’ and to hold Rajapaksa accountable.

In an interview with The Associated Press from his office, Sajith Premadasa said that if he wins the election in Parliament, he would ensure that ``an elective dictatorship never, ever occurs’’ in Sri Lanka.

“That’s what we should do. That is our function _ catching those who looted Sri Lanka. That should be done through proper constitutional, legal, democratic procedures,’’ Premadasa said.

Sri Lanka has run short of money to pay for imports of basic necessities such as food, fertilizer, medicine and fuel for its 22 million people. Its rapid economic decline has been all the more shocking because, before this crisis, the economy had been expanding, with a growing, comfortable middle class.

The protests underscored the dramatic fall of the Rajapaksa political clan that has ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades.

The Rev. Jeewantha Peiris, a Catholic priest and protest leader, said the country had “come through a hard journey.’’