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Political crisis hits Sri Lanka

Wickremesinghe calls for calm

Troops take up positions outside the main government printing press in Colombo.
Troops take up positions outside the main government printing press in Colombo.

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Sri Lanka
Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga
Politics

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (CNN) -- Sri Lanka's President Chandrika Kumaratunga has deployed troops to key buildings in Colombo, hours after she removed three powerful ministers from their posts in cabinet.

Kumaratunga took over the defense, interior and media ministries after she sacked the ministers and fired other top officials, sources inside the presidential and prime minister's offices said.

Kumaratunga -- who is commander of the armed forces and has wide executive authority -- made the moves while her political rival, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, is in Washington where he is scheduled to hold talks with U.S. President George W. Bush.

In a statement, Wickremesinghe called for calm and blamed Kumaratunga for precipitating a "national crisis."

"I pledge to you the people, your government will not allow this desperate and irresponsible attempt to undermine the peace process and economic prosperity of the people to succeed," Wickremesinghe said in the statement.

"I therefore call upon all of you, the people, the armed forces, police and public service to remain calm and vigilant in the face of this deliberate attempt of endangering the peace process which we will overcome together."

In a later televised address, she said "firm and steadfast action" was needed to preserve order in the country, which has been wracked by two decades of conflict with the Tamil separatists.

"I will not tolerate revenge and lawlessness from whatever quarter it may come. The maintenance of law and order is one of the paramount duties cast on me under the constitution. It is a duty I will discharge with the cooperation of the security forces and all the people of Sri Lanka."

In the absence of the prime minister, the surprise sackings have thrown Sri Lanka's government into chaos and brought the island's shaky peace process into question.

Kumaratunga has long been at odds with the government over concessions made to the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE) rebels during ongoing peace talks aimed at ending a 20-year civil war.

Troops were called in to secure four governmental buildings in the capital -- the power plant, the government printing press, the state radio building and the state television building.

Kumaratunga also appointed presidential spokesman Harim Peirif to the number two position in the Media Ministry -- the post of Secretary of the Mass Communications Ministry.

The sacked ministers -- Defense Minister Tilak Marapone, Interior Minister John Amaratunga and Media Minister Imthiaz Bakeer Markar -- are all Wickremesinghe appointees who've been spearheading the fragile peace process with the LTTE. The ministers' top aides were also fired.

Analysts say the dismissals could spark a constitutional crisis.

Sri Lanka's main opposition party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which is led by Kumaratunga, has expressed "grave concern" at the power-sharing proposals the Tigers' leadership put forward last week as a basis for resuming peace talks with the government.

The SLFP's statement came ahead of a meeting in Washington later Tuesday between Wickremesinghe and U.S. President George W. Bush.

Wickremesinghe had planned to ask for U.S. support for his government's peace efforts during the meeting.

The United States has been encouraging the peace process, which is being brokered by the government of Norway.

Ceasefire

Kumaratunga enjoys wide executive powers but has been at odds with Sri Lanka's prime minister.
Kumaratunga enjoys wide executive powers but has been at odds with Sri Lanka's prime minister.

The Tamil Tigers have been fighting for more than two decades for a homeland for the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka, saying they face discrimination from the island's Singhalese majority.

More than 65,000 people have died and hundreds of thousands more have been maimed and injured.

A 22-month-old ceasefire between government forces and the LTTE is still holding although the rebels broke off the peace talks in April. The rebels accused the government of failing to implement many of the decisions taken during the six previous rounds of peace negotiations.

Last week the rebels made public their long-awaited proposals for an interim arrangement for the Tamil-dominated northeast, demanding that they be in charge of the area for a period of five years until a permanent solution is put in place.

Laying out its concerns the SLFP said the proposal "lays the legal foundation for a future, separate, sovereign state."

"The proposals clearly affect the sovereignty of the Republic of Sri Lanka and violate its Constitution," the party added.

President Kumaratunga also rejected the proposal, highlighting an uneasy constitutional cohabitation arrangement with the prime minister since December 2000 elections.

Wickremesinghe's United National Front party won a landslide victory in the poll after promising to end two decades of civil war in the country.

On Saturday, his government issued a statement saying the Tigers' proposal outlining their vision for a political solution to the conflict, differed fundamentally from the proposals submitted by the government. (Full story)

In Washington, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said after meeting Wickremesinghe Tuesday that an adapted version of the power-sharing plan could help progress towards ending the war.

He said the Tigers' proposals unveiled last week were the first time he had seen such a "comprehensive delineation of the aspirations of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam)."

"I think it is significant," he said. But he cautioned that the blueprint "does go outside" declarations by Sri Lanka and the international community on guidelines for a final settlement after peace conferences in Oslo in 2002 and Tokyo earlier this year.


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