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Sri Lanka's PM Returns to Colombo - 2003-11-07


Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has returned to a hero's welcome in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo for a showdown with his political rival, the president. His return from overseas comes as authorities announced they had withdrawn plans to implement a state of emergency across the country.

Tens of thousands lined the streets outside the airport to celebrate the return of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Swarmed by officials and supporters at the airport, Mr. Wickremesinghe says his priority is to reconvene Parliament - which his political rival, President Chandrika Kumaratunga, has suspended for two weeks. That way the government can proceed with peace talks with rebels from the Tamil Tigers guerrilla group, called the LTTE.

"Parliament is the only institution which has a mandate from the people to engage in a dialogue discussion with the LTTE to find a political solution including the establishment of an interim council," he said. "Within that Parliament, the people have given this government a majority."

President Kumaratunga precipitated a political crisis on Tuesday, when she suspended Parliament, fired three top government ministers, and announced plans to impose a state of emergency across the country. Later, she declared she had taken over all state media.

On Friday, authorities said the state of emergency would not be implemented.

President Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe have always had a difficult relationship. The president says the prime minister has been too lenient in talks with the Tamil Tigers - members of the Tamil ethnic minority who had been fighting for an independent homeland in northern Sri Lanka for 20 years. The group signed a cease-fire with the government last year.

All of President Kumaratunga's decisions this week fell within her constitutional powers - and she did not violate any laws. She said she was working to defend national security, and promised to continue peace talks with the rebels. But the moves raised concerns that she had jeopardized the peace process.

"An action taken in the name of security may well have created a situation of insecurity - hopefully, only in the short-term," said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, an analyst at the Center for Policy Alternatives, a think-tank in Colombo.

A Web site quoting a Tamil Tigers commander accused Ms. Kumaratunga of scuttling the peace process just when it was going in the right direction. But the commander also said the group would look "soberly" at the political situation in the capital.

President Kumaratunga is expected to address the nation on television later Friday.

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