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Sri Lanka Awaits Prime Minister's Response to President's Criticism - 2003-11-08


The political crisis in Sri Lanka continues as the country awaits the prime minister's response to criticism by the president - a response a government spokesman says might not come for several days. The crisis began when the president announced a short-lived state of emergency, charging the prime minister with endangering national security by being too soft on the Tamil Tiger rebel group. Norwegian envoys plan to visit Sri Lanka next week despite the crisis, to continue plans for peace talks between the rebels and the government.

A government spokesman on Saturday said Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe would probably not reply for several days to a stinging attack by President Chandrika Kumaratunga, the prime minister's fierce political rival.

In a televised address late Friday, the president accused Mr. Wickremesinghe of displaying "callous irresponsibility" and neglecting the country's security by being too lenient towards the Tamil Tiger guerrilla group.

But she also appealed to the prime minister, who is from a different party, to join in a government of "national reconciliation" to help bring peace to the nation.

Ms. Kumaratunga made her speech after three days of dramatic political maneuvering that she herself initiated. On Tuesday, she fired three top ministers including the defense minister, suspended parliament and announced plans to impose a state of emergency, which she later called off. She also took over control of state-run newspapers, radio and television.

As president, she was within her constitutional right to make such moves, but she has not given a full explanation for her actions.

Analysts say the moves were intended as a show of power to attract members of the prime minister's ruling party to her side. They say President Kumaratunga was conciliatory in her Friday speech - despite the harsh tone - because her plan did not work.

Jehan Perera is an analyst with the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, a private organization.

"She didn't seem to want to escalate the conflict," he said. "She indicated that by proposing that there should be a government of national reconciliation under her leadership, because I think she has realized that her bid for power has failed."

Editorials in Sri Lanka's independent press expressed skepticism about the president's proposal for a joint government, but called on the two rivals to work together for the good of the nation.

Meanwhile, the government of Norway says two of its officials will go ahead Monday with a planned visit to Sri Lanka for discussions on the peace process between the government and the rebels.

Norway helped broker a cease-fire signed by the government and the Tamil Tigers last year, aimed at ending 20 years of bloodshed. The guerrilla group has been fighting for an independent state in northern Sri Lanka for members of the ethnic Tamil minority, but under the tentative peace deal, the rebels would agree to accept autonomy instead of independence.

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