| Sri Lanka Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (centre) at Bandaranaike International Airport near Colombo. (AFP)
Colombo, Nov. 7 (Reuters): A defiant Sri Lankan Prime Minister unleashed a wave of public support when he returned home today, saying a peace bid with Tamil rebels at the heart of a power struggle with the island’s President must stay on track.
Fresh from receiving a seal of approval for his peace bid in the US, Ranil Wickremesinghe was mobbed by rapturous crowds, garlanded with flowers and bowed to a group of Buddhist monks after he stepped off a plane in Colombo.
Tens of thousands of well-wishers lined the highway from the airport chanting his name, dancing and waving banners as his convoy travelled at a walking pace into the capital.
It took more than six hours to make the 21-km trip.
“Parliament must re-assemble. It is the only body with a mandate for negotiations,” Wickremesinghe said, three days after President Chandrika Kumaratunga suspended parliament and sparked a crisis that threatens a 20-month ceasefire with the Tamil Tiger rebels.
But in a bizarre twist, the President’s office said there was no state of emergency, although officials had said on Wednesday it had been declared.
“A state of emergency becomes law only after the President signs a proclamation to that effect. The President did not sign such a proclamation...” said a statement from the Presidential Secretariat. There had been no denials over the last two days about the emergency, which set off alarm bells on the island and criticism around the world.
But Kumaratunga, who also sacked three cabinet ministers, signed a separate order that gave the military more powers to maintain public order.
She has accused the government of giving away too much to the LTTE, one of the world’s most ferocious guerrilla groups, and said she was acting in the country’s interests.
“We have to ensure parliament resumes so the peace process can continue,” said Wickremesinghe, who wore a white collarless shirt and seemed relaxed as he smiled and waved to the crowds.
Political observers said the standoff over the peace process could end in a general election, the third in four years.
There was also talk of a possible political compromise, and the island’s stock market, which fell 13 per cent on Wednesday and was flat yesterday, jumped more than 12 per cent today on those hopes.
The truce signed by Wickremesinghe and the rebels has given the island its longest break since the war that has killed 64,000 broke out in 1983, and the Prime Minister said he would seek talks with allies, including India and Norway. Vidar Helegsen, deputy foreign minister of Norway, which brokered the truce with the Tigers, is due in Sri Lanka early next week, while India has voiced concern that the crisis could threaten the peace effort. A rebel military leader said today the Tigers would be patient.
The split between the President and Prime Minister has been looming since Wickremesinghe won parliamentary elections in late 2001, campaigning on a platform of pursuing peace with the Tigers to defeat Kumaratunga’s party.
Kumaratunga, citing security concerns, made her moves this week while Wickremesinghe was visiting Washington where he met President George W. Bush. “I can only tell you that this has nothing to do with security,” said sacked defence minister Tilak Marapana, referring to the President’s actions. “This has to do with an agenda to take over a portfolio to trigger an election,” he said.
The LTTE has said political infighting in the capital would make it more difficult to cut a peace deal, but today the rebels said they would remain calm.
“We have to observe the political turmoil in Colombo quite soberly... We can remain patient as long as we are strong,” military leader Colonel V. Karuna was quoted as saying by the pro-rebel Tamilnet website.