Sri Lanka leader catapulted to top: The simple and unassuming man who stepped into Premadasa's shoes may yet surprise

SRI LANKA'S former prime minister and acting President, Dingiri Banda Wijetunge - a man whom most Sri Lankans regarded as a figurehead - has found himself in high office almost by accident.

Mr Wijetunge, 71, a simple and unassuming man, never expected to become prime minister, let alone head of state. When he was nominated in 1989 he expressed 'complete surprise'. Now Ranasinghe Premadasa's assassination has catapulted him into the limelight, where he is likely to remain until presidential elections at the end of next year.

Sri Lanka's parliament meets today to determine a date for the nomination of the new president to serve out Premadasa's term. The government has already chosen Mr Wijetunge. The opposition, who had earlier announced they would nominate Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike, are now undecided whether to enter the contest. But in any event, the opposition cannot muster a majority.

Sahul Hameed, one of the ministers who nominated Mr Wijetunge - like the late president a devout Buddhist, a vegetarian and a teetotaller - explained why. 'The country has witnessed two assassinations in the last 10 days and the people are horrified. There has to be continuity - someone who can hold the government together. DB has been in public life for half a century. His simplicity is borne out of rich experience.'

Mr Wijetunge may yet surprise people. Admirers say he may be considered to be ineffectual but could surprise his critics. 'I think Wijetunge will blossom,' said a Western diplomat. 'He's been cast in the role of a blind loyalist. But I've had very close dealings with him and I've found him alert and intelligent.'

Most analysts feel it is essential to continue the government's economic progress. Under Premadasa's liberalisation programmes, designed to turn Sri Lanka from a socialist state into a market economy, stock market capitalisation rose to dollars 2bn ( pounds 1.3bn) in the last 18 months. Foreign investment, at dollars 200m last year, and tourism have risen to almost pre-civil war levels.

The appointment of Mr Wijetunge, who was also finance minister, is intended to preserve this trend. For now, most foreign bankers are gloomy. 'International investors are savvy people,' said a Western banker. 'One little thing tips the balance.'

Yesterday Premadasa's body was moved from the house in the oldest and poorest part of the city, where had lived until his death, to his official residence, President's House. The funeral on Thursday will be heavily guarded, following unconfirmed reports of possible further assassination attempts on opposition leaders.

Police said the suicide killer who claimed 24 lives and left 36 injured was a Tamil guerrilla who lived in a boarding house near the residence. Gruesome pictures of the assassin's severed head were published yesterday, requesting the public to call with information. A fragment of a cyanide capsule in his neck points to the man being a Tamil Tiger.

Security forces patrolled the streets of Colombo yesterday but life was returning to normal. Military officials said there were no signs of violence or any hostile reaction against Tamils, who allege discrimination by the majority Sinhalese and have been fighting for a homeland in the north and east since 1983.

Reaction to the official announcement blaming Premadasa's death on Tamil separatists was mixed. Some said only Tamil rebels were known to carry out suicide attacks but others wondered whether a Premadasa rival could have been responsible.

(Photograph omitted)