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Sri Lankans rally against government peace plan
( 2003-10-25 00:25) (Reuters)

Tens of thousands of Sri Lankans marched through the capital on Friday in an opposition-backed protest against the government's handling of a peace process with the island's Tamil Tiger rebels.

The protesters accused the government of making too many concessions to the rebels that could eventually lead to a separate Tamil state in the north and east of the island.

The march also came a day after President Chandrika Kumaratunga, a rival of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, told peace mediator Norway to fire the head of the mission overseeing a ceasefire signed 20 months ago.

Waving banners that read "We ask the prime minister to go home without dividing the country", the protesters converged on town hall from five directions in a peaceful procession that closed the central part of Colombo on a Hindu holiday.

Kumaratunga's opposition People's Alliance said the rally was the first of several it hoped would lead to Wickremesinghe's government being forced to step down.

"We are for Chandrika. We want to topple this government and bring her (party) back to power as soon as possible," said one protester, Sena Fernando.

The demonstration comes even though Wickremesinghe signed a truce in February 2002 that has given the island its longest period of calm since the separatist war -- which killed 64,000 people -- began in 1983.

The protest also comes one week before the rebels hand over a response to a government proposal on power-sharing in the minority Tamil-dominated north and east by mid-October.

Government officials said that would start a process leading to direct talks early next year.

The rebels walked away from the negotiating table in April, saying the government had reneged on promises to rebuild war-hit Tamil areas.

Protesters said they feared Wickremesinghe would give into the rebel demands, which are likely to include control over police and finances in the north and east.

"We are not against devolving power, what we are against is selling out the country," said protester Ranjith Perera.

Kumaratunga has also stepped up the pressure on Norway, which brokered the ceasefire, by saying the Norwegian head of the body overseeing the truce had to be fired because she had "serious doubts" about his impartiality and objectivity.

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