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Sri Lanka's president sacks three ministers

Shimali Senanayake,Ap
Tuesday 04 November 2003 01:00 GMT

Sri Lanka's government was plunged into crisis and its peace process imperiled today when the president deployed troops around the capital and fired three key ministers who were trying to coax Tamil rebels back into talks to end a 20-year civil war.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga - who is commander of the armed forces and has wide executive authority under the constitution - also suspended Parliament for two weeks. Her political opponents have a thin two-seat majority in the 225-seat legislature.

Kumaratunga made the surprise power grab against her rival, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, while he was in Washington to meet US President George W. Bush.

In a statement from Washington, Wickremesinghe accused the president of seeking to plunge the country "into chaos and anarchy" and endangering Sri Lanka's peace process.

Kumaratunga has been severely critical of how Wickremesinghe has handled peace efforts with the Tamil Tiger rebels, arguing that his government has given too many concessions without ensuring that the Tigers abandon their armed struggle.

The president sacked Wickremesinge's defense, interior and information ministers and took control of those ministries; however, Wickremesinghe remained prime minister.

The troops were sent to the state TV and radio stations, and to a main power plant, shortly after announcements that the ministers had been fired.

"Several platoons have been deployed to prevent any unwanted incidents and to maintain law and order," military spokesman Col. Sumeda Perera told The Associated Press. Soldiers were seen armed with T-56 rifles.

Kumaratunga's office said in statement that the ministers were sacked "after careful consideration in order to prevent further deterioration of the security situation in the country." It did not elaborate.

The president did not immediately offer a reason for her move to suspend Parliament until Nov. 19.

Wickremesinghe and other Sri Lankan officials were holding an emergency meeting in the U.S. capital early Tuesday. Wickremesinghe was scheduled to meet Bush on Wednesday.

Defense Minister Tilak Marapone, Interior Minister John Amaratunga and Information Minister Imthiaz Bakeer Markar - who helped spearhead the fragile peace process - were removed from those posts Tuesday, spokesman Giruka Perusinghe said. Three top aides to the ministers also were fired.

Kumaratunga has accused Marapone of compromising the island's security against the rebels. She has accused Amaratunga of harassing her party supporters and has blasted the information minister for not giving her enough coverage on state media.

All three of the ministers still hold other Cabinet-level portfolios.

"All these ministries are now under the president and will continue to remain so," Janadasa Peiris, the president's media director told the AP.

Kumaratunga, who is from a different political party than Wickremesinghe, has wide authority to dismiss the government, and call new elections.

Tamil Tiger rebels declined to comment.

"We do not want to comment until we receive full details of what has happened," rebel spokesman, Daya Master, said.

The rebels on Friday submitted a plan for an interim administration in the war-battered northeast. They want powers to collect taxes and control the administration of the northeast, where most of the island's 3.2 million minority Tamils live.

The rebels signed a cease-fire agreement with Wickremesinghe's government in February 2002, halting two decades of fighting that killed 65,000 people. The Tigers launched their war to seek an independent homeland for Hindu Tamils, arguing discrimination at the hands of the Buddhist Sinhalese majority.

The rebels dropped their demand for independence - saying they would settle for regional autonomy - during six rounds of talks aimed at finding a political solution. But the rebels walked out of those talks in April, saying the government had not done enough to resettle refugees and redevelop Tamil areas.

Expanded autonomy is a key rebel demand for returning to the peace talks.

Kumaratunga accuses the prime minister of entertaining rebel demands for autonomy without insisting they disarm first.

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