By Marco Bello
SAN JUAN, July 24 (Reuters) - Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló was expected to step down on Wednesday after almost two weeks of protests against his administration that were sparked by the publication of offensive chat messages with aides, several of whom have already quit.
Rosselló had made no announcement by early Wednesday, but major local media were reporting his resignation was imminent.
Protesters had cheered those reports late on Tuesday but warned that his departure would not end the demonstrations now entering their 12th day.
If he does step down his replacement as the Caribbean island's leader would likely be Justice Secretary Wanda Vazquez, whom protesters reject because of her ties to Rosselló.
The governor's chief-of-staff resigned on Tuesday as prosecutors investigated the scandal.
After some protesters threw bottles and police in riot gear used tear gas to disperse crowds on Monday, protests outside the governor's mansion were comparatively tame on Tuesday and early Wednesday, limited to chanting and cheering.
The demonstrations, which drew an estimated 500,000 people to the streets of San Juan on Monday, continue to rock the U.S. territory as it struggles to recover from a hurricane two years ago that killed some 3,000 people. The island was already bankrupt.
The protests were spurred by the publication on July 13 of chat messages in which Gov. Rosselló and aides used profane language to describe female politicians and openly-gay Puerto Ricans like Ricky Martin.
They unleashed simmering resentment over his handling of 2017's Hurricane Maria, alleged corruption in his administration and the island's bankruptcy process.
A string of Rosselló's closest aides have stepped down over the scandal. His chief of staff Ricardo Llerandi was the latest to hand in his resignation on Tuesday, citing concerns for the safety of his family after threats.
Puerto Rican officials on Tuesday executed search warrants for the mobile phones of Rosselló and 11 top officials involved in the leaked Telegram message group chats.
Puerto Rico's Justice Department first requested the phones last Wednesday as part of its investigation into the chat scandal, nicknamed "Rickyleaks."
Only Llerandi has so far said publicly he has handed in his phone.
Mariana Cobian, a Justice Department spokeswoman, declined to say whether the governor had surrendered his mobile.
CALLS FOR RESIGNATION
A first-term governor in his first elected office, 40-year-old Rosselló has for almost two weeks resisted calls to step down as leader of the U.S. territory and its 3.2 million residents, though he has vowed not to seek re-election in 2020.
"The people are talking and I have to listen," Rosselló said in a statement on Tuesday. He has apologized several times for the chats and asked Puerto Ricans to give him another chance.
But the island's leading newspaper, prominent Democratic officials and Republican President Donald Trump have all called on Rosselló to step down.
(Reporting by Marco Bello and Nick Brown in San Juan; additional reporting by Luis Valentin Ortiz in San Juan, Zachary Fagenson in Miami, Karen Pierog in Chicago and Rich McKay in Atlanta; writing by Scott Malone and Andrew Hay; Editing by Catherine Evans)
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