Sri Lankan Prime Minister flies home for showdown

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Security troops bracing for a political showdown between Sri Lanka's prime minister and his arch rival, the president, are manning checkpoints across Colombo in anticipation of violent clashes between rival supporters in the streets today.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, fresh from trade talks in Washington where President Bush praised his leadership in seeking a solution to three decades of civil war between Tamil separatists in the north and the Sinhalese majority, was due to arrive this morning to an island nation with a radical new political landscape.

Cabinet members were stunned by President Chandrika Kumaratunga's hostile takeover of the government - which is within her legal powers - as well as her moves to scuttle a proposed budget. Ministers met yesterday to pledge loyalty to Mr Wickremesinghe and to discuss how to wrest back the three crucial ministries which the feisty president now heads - defence, internal security, and mass communication.

State owned media, which hitherto had been critical of the president, yesterday praised the resolve of the self-appointed supremo who dismissed parliament on Tuesday and declared a national state of emergency for what she called "administrative and logistical reasons." The cabinet ordered the Finance and Justice ministries to remove the new editors from television, radio and national newspapers.

G L Peiris, the government spokesman, said such changes "should not be made without the prior consultation of the prime minister according to written instructions by the attorney general."

Mr Peiris, who also is the chief negotiator in the Norwegian-backed peace talks with the Tamil Tiger guerrillas, rebuked President Kumaratunga for her "gross abuse of presidential power, which was a shortsighted and selfish action." He added "There was no justification to declare a state of emergency. There is no violence. No security threat. It will worsen the economy."

The stock market dropped precipitously after the emergency declaration.

Since the president's power play, at least 2,000 tourists have cancelled their trips to the island, which had enjoyed a property boom and revitalised investment since a ceasefire was agreed with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in February 2001. The rebels reportedly have retreated to enclaves in the north until the political feud in the capital plays out. Villagers outside the Tamil city of Jaffna have stockpiled petrol after the main highway was briefly closed.

Despite the presence of armoured personnel carriers in the streets, there is no hint of civil unrest in a capital where uniformed schoolboys play ball on the seafront and the biggest dread is that the English cricket team might cancel its tour.

Analysts in Colombo said that President Kumaratunga's People's Alliance party faces oblivion in the wake of Mr Wickremesinghe's successful peace process. His populist policies, which are stimulating economic growth, have been widely praised.

It was while Mr Wickremesinghe was abroad that President Kumaratunga moved in what is viewed as a brazen constitutional coup. She gambled that at least five legislators would shift allegiance and undermine her PM's majority. Now she may be forced to call a snap election instead, one that she has little hope of winning. Some opponents contemplate impeachment proceedings against the president. However, state of emergency powers gives police the right to detain suspects for one year without trial.

Playing to the fears of the Sinhalese majority, Mrs Kumaratunga claimed she had acted out of disgust over too many concessions to the LTTE, which is demanding autonomy in the North-east. An assassination attempt by Tamil Tigers four years ago cost her an eye and shrapnel in the brain. Both her father and her husband were assassinated.

To date, 60,000 lives have been lost in the insurgency.