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Sri Lanka president sacks ministers; chaos says PM
( 2003-11-05 09:11) (Agencies)

Sri Lanka's president sacked three ministers on Tuesday, suspended parliament and ordered troops to guard key installations, infuriating the prime minister and sparking a crisis that threatens the peace with Tamil rebels.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, on an official visit in Washington, described the moves by arch-rival President Chandrika Kumaratunga as desperate and irresponsible and said they could plunge the country into chaos and anarchy.

In this image made from television, Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga addresses the nation on Tuesday Nov. 4, 2003 in Colombo, Sri Lanka.  [AP]
The split has been building since Wickremesinghe's party won parliamentary elections in late 2001, with Kumaratunga sharply critical of government efforts to end the 20-year war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels.

The open conflict between the president and prime minister now threatens the bid to end the war that has killed 64,000 people, diplomats said.

"This is bad, the focus on the peace process will be gone," said one Western diplomat.

The sacking of the defense, interior and media ministers comes three days after the Tigers unveiled power-sharing proposals, which the government said were a basis for fresh peace talks early next year. The president says the government is giving away too much in its efforts to win peace.

Announcing the dismissal of the ministers, the three most powerful in Wickremesinghe's cabinet, the president's office said: "This step has been taken after careful consideration, in order to prevent further deterioration of the security situation in the country."

Wickremesinghe said he would not waver in the pursuit of peace.

"Your government will not be deviated from the mandate given it by the people to pursue the path of peace, security and economic prosperity due to the irresponsible and precipitous actions of the president aimed at plunging the country into chaos and anarchy," said a statement issued by his office in Colombo.


"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."

Sri Lanka's Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesingh talks to the press before a luncheon meeting at the American Enterprise Institute during his visit to Washington, Nov.4, 2003.  [Reuters]
A U.S. official said Wickremesinghe was expected to continue with his schedule in Washington, including a meeting with U.S. President Bush at the White House on Wednesday.

"We certainly hope that these political tensions do not delay progress on peace talks...," the official said.

The pro-Tiger Tamilnet Web site said the president's actions had "dimmed" prospects for peace, adding that the status of the cease-fire had become uncertain.

Kumaratunga went on nationwide television to defend her actions and to reach out to the Tigers.

"I remain willing to discuss with the LTTE a just and a balanced solution of the national problem within the parameters of the unity, territorial integrity and sovereignty of Sri Lanka," she said.

Kumaratunga also suspended parliament for two weeks. That will postpone the announcement of next year's budget, which was to have been presented to the legislature next week.

"Parliament has been prorogued as of 12 midnight yesterday to be resummoned on November 19," Kumaratunga's spokesman Harim Peiris told reporters.

Central Bank Governor Amarananda Jayawardena told Reuters the budget was on hold and would have to be passed after parliament resumed its session.

Sri Lankan army soldiers patrol on the streets of Colombo, Sri Lanka, Tuesday, Nov.4, 2003. Sri Lankas government was plunged into crisis and its peace process dealt a severe blow when the president fired the defense minister, interior minister and media minister, who have been working to coax Tamil rebels back into talks to end a 20 years civil war.  [AP]
Government ministers and top officials were huddled in a meeting, and analysts said developments could snowball.

"We have to expect the government would respond in kind. They would have to fight back, including even impeachment," said Jehan Perera of the independent National Peace Council.

The military said a small number of troops were ordered out as a precautionary measure. But there were no signs of unrest on the streets.

"We have deployed troops in a couple of key locations to prevent any disturbances," army spokesman Sumedha Perera told Reuters, listing the government press, state media and a power station among the locations.


Kumaratunga is elected separately from the prime minister and parliament, and has vast powers under the constitution.

She has sparred with Defense Minister Tilak Marapana, accusing him of allowing the Tigers to use a Norwegian-brokered cease-fire in place for 20 months to strengthen militarily.

The truce has mostly held, although the rebels have been accused of violations and arms smuggling.

Kumaratunga also fired Interior Minister John Amaratunga, who controls the police, and Mass Communications Minister Imthiaz Bakeer Markar, who controls the state-run media.

The Colombo Stock Exchange slipped less than one percent on Monday after the LTTE proposals were released at the weekend, but political worries pushed it down about five percent on Tuesday.

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