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Sri Lanka turmoil sparks concern in US, Asia
( 2003-11-05 11:44) (Agencies)

A gloves-off political fight between Sri Lanka's president and prime minister that threatens a fragile peace process with Tamil rebels sparked concern in Washington and neighboring Asian countries.

Sri Lanka's President Chandrika Kumaratunga sacked three ministers on Tuesday and suspended parliament, drawing a furious response from Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who said her surprise move was aimed at undermining efforts to heal Sri Lanka's racial divide and would spread "chaos and anarchy."

U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli made clear the United States supported efforts to end one of Asia's longest-running and bloodiest conflicts, and was concerned at the eruption of long-simmering tensions between the island's top leaders. Wickremesinghe was due to meet President Bush in Washington on Wednesday.

In this image made from television, Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga addresses the nation on Tuesday Nov. 4, 2003 in Colombo, Sri Lanka.  [AP]
"We urge the president and prime minister to work together, to bolster the peace process and to protect Sri Lanka's democratic institutions," Ereli said.

"We are concerned that these events could have a negative effect on the peace process and talks with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and we stand firmly behind the government of Sri Lanka in its search for peace after 20 years of bloody conflict," he told reporters.

Kumaratunga's action came three days after the Tigers, fighting for a homeland for minority Tamils in the north and east, unveiled power-sharing proposals which went significantly beyond a more modest autonomy offer by the government.

The government says the proposals form the basis for fresh peace talks early next year. The president says the government is giving away too much.

The Tigers so far have said only that they are studying the political crisis.


U.S. appeals for Sri Lanka's leaders to cooperate were echoed around Asia.

"The two leaders should at least endure each other long enough for the peace process to work its way through," The Straits Times in Singapore said in an editorial.

"Sri Lanka has never been this close to a settlement. This is make or break."

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]
The split has been building since Wickremesinghe's party won parliamentary elections in late 2001. Kumaratunga has been sharply critical of government efforts to end the 20-year war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels.

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

In announcing the dismissal of the defense, interior and media ministers -- the three most powerful in Wickremesinghe's cabinet -- the president's office said the action was taken to "prevent further deterioration of the security situation."

Wickremesinghe vowed to press ahead with peace efforts.

"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.

Kumaratunga went on nationwide television to defend her actions and to send a message 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.

The military ordered a small number of troops deployed at strategic locations, including the government press, state media and a power station.

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