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Sri Lankan PM arrives to crisis

Wickremesinghe, center, returned to growing political crisis.
Wickremesinghe, center, returned to growing political crisis.

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Sri Lankan PM facs political power struggle.
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A government in chaos after three ministers are removed from office.
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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- Sri Lanka's prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has arrived home to a showdown with the island's president that threatens to disrupt a peace process with Tamil rebels.

Officials at the airport said Wickremesinghe's plane touched down on Friday, while an aide to President Chandrika Kumaratunga said she would address the nation, according to Reuters.

Wickremesinghe faces a country in political turmoil sparked earlier this week when president Kumaratunga sacked three key cabinet ministers, suspended parliament and declared a national state of emergency.

Speaking to reporters before departing Washington where he held talks with top U.S. officials, Wickremesinghe played down the escalating row, insisting he still had a mandate to govern and that efforts to achieve peace with Tamil Tiger rebels would not be undermined.

Buoyed by a meeting Wednesday with U.S. President George W. Bush, Wickremeshinge said he was confident he could resolve the crisis.

"This is not the first crisis I have had. When I go back, I'll sort this out," Wickremesinghe said in the U.S.

"We have the majority in parliament and we're going to get the peace process on track... I have a mandate to bring peace to the country," he said.

According to Wickremesinghe's spokesman Laxman Pieris, the crisis has already hit Sri Lanka's economy hard, causing the stock market to drop by 13 percent and prompting some 2,000 tourists to cancel visits.

Despite the row back home, Wickremesinghe received strong American backing for his position during his stay in Washington.

Speaking of his meeting with Bush on Wednesday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the U.S. president had praised the prime minister for his efforts to end the 20-year civil war with the Tamil Tiger rebels -- officially known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

"The president expressed his strong support for the prime minister's leadership and his commitment to peace," McClellan said.

Power struggle

It is the direction of peace efforts that lie at the core of the power struggle.

Kumaratunga -- who is elected separately from the prime minister and has vast powers under the constitution -- has accused Wickremeshinge of being too soft and making too many concessions with the LTTE during his push to end the long running conflict that has left over 65,000 dead.

Aides have said the 22-month old ceasefire with the LTTE would continue to stand and there was no intention to restart hostilities.

Her office said in a statement, the "government will continue to negotiate with the LTTE and will be guided and supported in its quest for a negotiated settlement."

The crisis erupted just days after the rebels released their long awaited proposal on power sharing -- an offer strongly criticized by Kumaratunga's party.

Soldiers have been deployed though their powers under the declaration are not clear yet.
Soldiers have been deployed though their powers under the declaration are not clear yet.

On Tuesday, Kumaratunga sacked the defense, media and interior ministers -- all key players in the government's peace efforts -- and suspended parliament. She then deployed troops to Colombo before declaring the state of emergency on Wednesday.

Under the state of emergency, the military -- which are controlled by Kumaratunga -- have broad authority though the exact details and powers of the declaration have yet to be made clear.

Kumaratunga, who heads the main opposition party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), has been at odds with Wickremesinghe since he won parliamentary elections in 2001.

The SLFP was booted out of power two years ago when Wickremesinghe's United National Front scored a landslide win on a platform promising to bring an end to years of civil war.

Since then the president and prime minister have been locked in an uneasy constitutional cohabitation. (Power struggle)

On Friday, the rebels unveiled proposals for a power-sharing arrangement demanding they be placed in charge of Sri Lanka's Tamil-dominated northeast for a period of five years until a permanent solution is put in place.

The government said the rebel proposal differed fundamentally from its plan, but "the way forward lies through direct discussion of the issues arising from both sets of proposals."


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