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New Emergency Measures Enforced in Sri Lanka - 2003-11-06

Sri Lankan security forces are enforcing new emergency measures in the capital Colombo, as the nation's political crisis continues. Although the country remains calm, many citizens are bracing for a political battle between the president and her rival, the prime minister, who returns from overseas on Friday.

Troops in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo began guarding key intersections and checking people's identity papers on Thursday, as the emergency measures declared by President Chandrika Kumaratunga two days ago take effect.

The president declared a state of emergency after she fired three top cabinet ministers, and suspended Parliament for two weeks. She made the moves while her political rival, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, was in the United States. He is due back in Colombo on Friday.

The moves prompted protests from other government officials - who said the president had been reckless and would only damage Sri Lanka's tourist potential. On Thursday, cabinet members called for the reinstatement of the fired ministers.

The president and prime minister are from different parties, and have always had an uneasy relationship. The president has been particularly critical of Mr. Wickremesinghe's support for peace talks with the Tamil Tiger rebels. That is why defense analyst Iqbal Athas says the political crisis is not surprising. "The political undercurrents have been going on for a long period of time and what we see now is an open manifestation of those undercurrents," he says.

The president's moves come on the heels of a Supreme Court ruling last week in which the she was declared to have jurisdiction over Sri Lanka's armed forces - instead of the prime minister.

Mr. Athas says Ms. Kumaratunga sought to further consolidate her political win by exercising her constitutional right to fire the three ministers - among them, the minister of defense. "The court ruling becomes very significant in terms of who controls the defense forces of Sri Lanka, whether it is the president - who is the constitutional executive head of Sri Lanka and the minister of defense is a member of the cabinet - which is not from her party," says Mr. Athas. "So in this context the delineation of power becomes important."

Both President Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe have said they do not expect the political crisis to endanger a ceasefire deal made last year with guerrillas from the Tamil Tiger rebel group. The rebels from the Tamil ethnic minority group have been fighting for an independent homeland in northern Sri Lanka for 20 years.