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Lanka showdown looms

Colombo, Nov 6 (Reuters): A showdown loomed in Sri Lanka’s bitter political crisis as the embattled Prime Minister headed home to confront a President who made a power grab while he was overseas and threatened the peace he built with Tamil rebels.

Backers of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said they planned to fill the airport with supporters when he returned tomorrow, armed with a fresh seal of approval for his peace overtures from the US.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga — who sacked three cabinet ministers, suspended parliament and declared a state of emergency this week citing security concerns — said she had acted in the nation’s best interests. She also said she backed the peace process despite the aggressive power play against her arch-rival.

The crisis is expected to come to a head with Wickremesinghe’s scheduled arrival at 0200 GMT tomorrow after meeting President George W. Bush in the White House.

He said there his foremost job was to keep the fragile peace with the LTTE on course.

A ceasefire signed 20 months ago has given the island its longest respite since the separatist war broke out in 1983, but Kumaratunga accuses the government of conceding too much to the LTTE, one of the world’s most ferocious guerrilla armies. Kumaratunga, who is elected separately from the Prime Minister, backed that up by invoking security concerns.

Her 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.”

“The President is committed to the continuity of the ceasefire agreement and to keep open the channel of communication with the LTTE and to a negotiated settlement within a united country.

“The President assures the people of Sri Lanka that there is no cause for alarm or panic.”

The statement came after Wickremesinghe’s cabinet called on her to reconvene parliament and restore the portfolios of the sacked defence, interior and media ministers.

“This was a gross abuse of presidential power. It is a reckless action. There is no violence, no security situation and no valid, proper reason to declare a state of emergency,” cabinet spokesman G.L. Peiris said.

The economy was already suffering, with tourists cancelling visits and investor confidence shaken, he said.

The state of emergency allows detention for up to one year without charge as well as widening Kumaratunga’s powers and those of the military. It was used widely by previous governments to crack down on the Tamil rebellion.

The split between the President and Prime Minister has been looming since Wickremesinghe won parliamentary elections in late 2001, defeating Kumaratunga’s party on a platform of pursuing peace with the Tigers.

Despite the crisis, Colombo was calm. There was increased buying of essential goods in Jaffna peninsula but residents said that was caused by false rumours the sole highway to the north would be closed.

The IMF also called for a quick resolution.

“We certainly hope that the present constitutional uncertainty is resolved quickly, so confidence, which has improved, is not eroded,” IMF spokesman Tom Dawson told a regular news briefing.

Police and army officials said for the moment, security at the airport was not being increased for Wickremesinghe’s return.

“We have no information that there are any demonstrations planned,” said police official Chandra Fernando.

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