The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Peace trap laid for Chandrika
- Govt asks President to take over talks with rebels

Colombo, Nov. 9 (Reuters): The Sri Lankan government, in a power struggle with the island’s President, said today it may ask her to take over a peace process with Tamil rebels if she does not reverse a decision to sack three ministers.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga — who has accused the government of being too soft on the separatist rebels — fired the defence, media and interior ministers, and suspended parliament until November 19. Her action has thrown the country into political turmoil and analysts say it threatens the peace process initiated by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government.

Kumaratunga has said Wickremesinghe could continue pursuing peace with the minority Tamil rebels, but a cabinet spokesperson said today the Prime Minister must be in overall charge to do that.

“The Prime Minister has the mandate and he must have control over all aspects,” G. L. Peiris told a news conference. “If the institutions of defence and media are not in control of the Prime Minister, the Prime Minister cannot have responsibility for the peace process,” he said.

There was no immediate comment from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam rebels, fighting for a separate state for minority Tamils since 1983.

Kumaratunga said she was acting in the country’s interests when she sacked the ministers and suspended parliament, and has accused the government of giving away too much in the peace bid, which began with a Norwegian-brokered truce that has been holding for 20 months.

On Friday, Kumaratunga called on the Prime Minister to join her in a unity government — an idea that has surfaced repeatedly over the past decade but has never succeeded because of deep policy and personal differences between the main parties.

“The Prime Minister will be called upon to to continue the peace process, while I shall take responsibility for the defence of the nation with the participation of the Prime Minister,” she said in a speech.

But the government seems to have called her bluff by offering to let her take over the peace process.

“The government’s view is if Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is not entrusted with all responsibilities then it would be desirable for the President to take over the peace process,” Peiris said. He said the government would support Kumaratunga if that happened.

The rebels have repeatedly said political fighting in the capital threatened the peace process and have accused Kumaratunga in the past of trying to scuttle the process, which most Sri Lankans seem to favour after decades of war.

It was Kumaratunga who opened peace talks with the Tigers in 1994, but when they broke down, fighting resumed in the war that has killed 64,000.

Kumaratunga, who narrowly survived a rebel suicide bomb attack in 1999, started another peace bid in 2000 by inviting Norway to act as a facilitator, although that stalled until Wickremesinghe won parliamentary elections in late 2001.

Norwegian deputy foreign minister Vidar Helgesen and peace envoy Erik Solheim arrive tomorrow for talks with the government and rebel leaders, but it was unclear if they would also meet the President.

The reaction of the independent media to the political crisis was negative, with The Sunday Leader saying the country was in“the throes of mad cow disease”.

A poll of 150 business leaders published in The Sunday Times showed that two-thirds of them disagreed with the president's actions and about 80 percent thought the crisis would“seriously set back economic growth”.

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