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Sri Lanka President, PM meet
( 2003-11-12 14:39) (Agencies)

Sri Lanka's prime minister and president met Wednesday for the first time since their power struggle erupted into a political crisis, but neither appeared ready for compromise that will clear the way for a resumption of peace talks with Tamil rebels. It was their first meeting since President Chandrika Kumaratunga sacked three ministers and suspended parliament on Nov. 4, while Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was on a trip to Washington. Wickremesinghe's bulletproof motorcade was seen driving into the President's House in central Colombo at 5:30 a.m. GMT.

The residence was off limits to the media.

Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga speaks to Buddhist priests during a briefing on the current situation in Colombo, Nov. 11, 2003.   [Reuters]
The two are childhood acquaintances and scions of political dynasties that have shared power in the island nation but have been bitter rivals for years.

Kumaratunga, who is elected separately from the prime minister, sacked the ministers and suspended parliament until November 19 because she felt Wickremesinghe was compromising security by making too many concessions to the rebels.

She followed that up with an offer to form a "national unity government." Wickremesinghe countered that she had to reinstate the ministers or take over herself the task of hammering out a peace after a two-decade war that has killed 64,000 people and pummeled the economy.

Despite their rivalry, the president and prime minister are polite and friendly when they meet, said officials who have seen them.

Nevertheless, their showdown comes as Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgesen and peace envoy Erik Solheim were in town to try to arrange preliminary talks before the government and Tigers resume negotiations to end a 20-year civil war.

The Norwegians met Wickremesinghe Tuesday and, later on Wednesday, were due to meet Kumaratunga, who narrowly survived a rebel suicide bomb attack in 1999.


A newspaper reported they would also meet the reclusive leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Velupillai Prabhakaran, Thursday.

"(It) would be the LTTE leader's first meeting with the facilitators in several months," the Daily Mirror reported.

Originally, they were just to meet the leader of the LTTE's political wing.

The Norwegian-brokered cease-fire has been in force since February 2002 but the peace talks stalled last April.

Wickremesinghe said in a letter to the president that his "principal concern is to protect and safeguard the peace process" and that her actions had put the process in jeopardy.

Kumaratunga's office said she wanted to get Wickremesinghe's views "on her call for a Grand Alliance of all national and patriotic forces."

The prime minister, with his majority in parliament, is under pressure from his party to stand firm in the battle of wills.

For Kumaratunga, who has vast powers under the constitution, reinstating the ministers would be an admission of weakness after last week's power grab, but agreeing to handle the peace process would alienate her from her left-wing supporters.

The LTTE, which has been fighting since 1983 for a separate state for Tamils in the country's north and east, has not commented this week on the latest developments.

Calls for a unity government have surfaced repeatedly over the past decade but have never succeeded because of deep policy and personal differences between political leaders.

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