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Sri Lankan PM defiant, stresses peace process
( 2003-11-07 16:25) (Agencies)

A defiant Sri Lankan prime minister returned home Friday saying a peace process with Tamil rebels at the heart of a power struggle with the island's president must stay on track.

Fresh from receiving a seal of approval for his peace bid in the United States, Ranil Wickremesinghe was mobbed by rapturous crowds, garlanded with flowers and bowed to a group of Buddhist monks after he stepped off the plane upon his return to Colombo.

Tens of thousands of well-wishers lined the highway from the airport chanting his name, dancing and waving banners as his convoy traveled at a walking pace into the capital.

"Parliament must reassemble. It is the only body with a mandate for negotiations," Wickremesinghe said, three days after President Chandrika Kumaratunga suspended parliament and sparked a crisis that threatens a 20-month cease-fire with the Tamil Tiger rebels.

Kumaratunga has accused the government of giving away too much to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), one of the world's most ferocious guerrilla groups, and said she was acting in the country's interests.

Political observers said the standoff over the peace process could end in a general election, the third in four years.

"We have to ensure parliament resumes so the peace process can continue," said Wickremesinghe, who wore a white collarless shirt and seemed relaxed as he smiled and waved to the crowds.

The cease-fire signed 20 months ago by Wickremesinghe and the rebels has given the island its longest period of peace since the war that has killed 64,000 broke out in 1983.

The president, who suspended parliament until November 19, had been due to address the nation at 0600 GMT on the political crisis, but that was delayed until 1430 GMT.

Wickremesinghe said he would seek talks Sri Lanka's allies including giant neighbor India and peace mediator Norway.

Vidar Helegsen, deputy foreign minister of Norway, which brokered the truce with the Tigers, is due in Sri Lanka early next week for talks, while neighboring India has voiced concern the political stalemate could threaten the peace effort.

A rebel military leader said Friday the Tigers would be patient.

The split between the president and prime minister has been looming since Wickremesinghe won parliamentary elections late in 2001, campaigning on a platform of pursuing peace with the Tigers to defeat Kumaratunga's party.


Kumaratunga also sacked three cabinet ministers, but confusion surrounded a state of emergency declared Wednesday -- which set off alarm bells around the island -- and one of her aides said Friday it was never put in place because the order had never been officially gazetted, or published.

Instead, she passed a separate order, that was gazetted, giving the military more powers to maintain public order.

The Colombo Stock Exchange index jumped about 12 percent on Friday on Wickremesinghe's return and on the news there was no state of emergency. The index fell 13 percent Wednesday and ended flat Thursday because of the crisis.

Kumaratunga, citing security concerns, made her moves while Wickremesinghe was visiting Washington, where he met U.S. President Bush.

"I can only tell you that this has nothing to do with security," said sacked Defense Minister Tilak Marapana, referring to the president's actions.

"This has to do with an agenda to take over a portfolio to trigger an election," he said.

The LTTE has said political infighting in the capital would make it more difficult to cut a peace deal, but Friday the rebels said they would remain calm.

"We have to observe the political turmoil in Colombo quite soberly... We can remain patient as long as we are strong," military leader Colonel V. Karuna was quoted as saying by the pro-rebel Tamilnet Web site.

Kumaratunga's office said she "has only exercised her responsibility as the constitutional head of state in the greater interest of the sovereignty and the security of the nation."

It added: "The president is committed to the continuity of the cease-fire agreement and to keep open the channel of communication with the LTTE and to a negotiated settlement within a united country."

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