Your Thursday Briefing: Sri Lanka’s Leader Flees


Good morning. We’re covering the flight of Sri Lanka’s leader, President Biden’s visit to Israel and negotiations to free up Ukraine’s blockaded grain.

For hours yesterday, it was not clear who was in charge of Sri Lanka.

The president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, fled to the Maldives overnight — but did not resign. His appointed replacement, Ranil Wickremesinghe, moved from his role as prime minister to become acting president yesterday. Wickremesinghe had previously said he would resign.

After the transfer of power, crowds took over Wickremesinghe’s office and the state broadcaster. In his first address as acting president, Wickremesinghe declared a curfew and referred to some protesters as a “fascist threat.”

Details: The military met protesters with tear gas yesterday. One man died of exposure, a rights group said.

Analysis: Protesters are calling for a wholesale change in leadership, whom they blame for nearly running the country into bankruptcy. Wickremesinghe is unlikely to satisfy their demands: He has been prime minister six times and is viewed as a protector of the Rajapaksa family.

Background: Food, fuel and medicine are in critically short supply. Prices have soared, power cuts have become the norm and public transportation has often been suspended to shore up fuel supplies.

Biden promised not to cave to one of Tehran’s key demands — that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps be taken off Washington’s foreign terrorist list as part of any agreement — and assured Israelis that the U.S. would use force if needed to stop Iran from developing a bomb.

The negotiations have yet to yield a new accord. One of Biden’s missions is to make sure the U.S. is on the same page with Israel, Saudi Arabia and other enemies of Iran should the talks fail. Here are live updates.

Background: Donald Trump withdrew from the accord in 2018. Iran has since produced a considerable amount of uranium at near-bomb-grade purity — something it never did before the 2015 agreement.

What’s next: Biden will also focus on improving relations with Saudi Arabia and speeding up oil flow to the U.S. The trip is fraught with political perils.

Russian and Ukrainian negotiators met in Istanbul yesterday in an increasingly desperate effort to release grain from Ukraine’s ports for countries facing hunger.

Wednesday’s meeting had raised hopes for a breakthrough, but ended without a comprehensive deal. “The progress was extremely encouraging,” the U.N. secretary general said.

The urgency is real. More than 22 million tons of grain are stuck in Black Sea ports that are blockaded by Russia. And famine looms in the Horn of Africa, for which Ukraine is a crucial source of grain after years of drought.

Here are live updates.

Weapons: Ukraine said newly arrived Western weapons had allowed it to strike deep within Russian-controlled areas.

China: The war has only widened the divide between Beijing and Washington. The U.S. has used the threat of sanctions to dissuade China from aiding Russia. But China is unlikely to help the U.S. end the conflict, fearing geopolitical isolation without a viable Moscow at its side.

Two towns in Sardinia are fighting for the distinction of having the longest-living residents, a prize that could bring much-needed economic revenue from longevity tourism.

One town, which has been recognized by Guinness World Records as the municipality with “the largest concentration of centenarians,” has seven in a population of about 1,780.

The other has only four centenarians. But its residents note that their town has a smaller population: 790 people. That’s not the 1,000 required for Guinness, but density doesn’t lie. “They got their calculations wrong,” an 89-year-old scoffed.

Sierra Leone has the third-highest maternal mortality rate in the world. As part of an expansive set of laws aimed at making motherhood safer, President Julius Maada Bio announced last week that he and his cabinet unanimously backed legalizing abortion.

Activists celebrated the move to repeal a colonial-era law and contrasted Bio’s support with the narrowing of reproductive rights in the U.S. Others saw it as out of step with society and as a bid to appease international donors — a similar bill passed Parliament in 2015 but was rejected by the president at the time, Ernest Bai Koroma, after public pressure, particularly from religious groups.

Bio’s supporters point to his success in abolishing the death penalty, but the bill must still pass in Parliament, where it may face fierce opposition from politicians keen to please a religious bloc.

If abortion is legalized, access may be hampered by poor infrastructure and stigma. But for some, the reopening of a public debate on the issue is a hopeful sign.

“As a teenager I nearly bled to death after a backstreet abortion,” Josephine Kamara, an activist, said in a statement. “Let this generation be the last to experience the horrors of what happens when women’s most basic reproductive health needs are pushed underground.” — Lynsey Chutel, a Briefings writer

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