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Feud Between Sri Lanka's President, PM Endangers Peace Talks - 2003-11-10

Sri Lankan officials say peace talks with Tamil rebels will be indefinitely postponed until a political crisis gripping the country is resolved.

The government's chief peace negotiator, G.L. Peiris, says it will not be possible to resume peace talks with Tamil rebels as long as President Chandrika Kumaratunga controls the ministries of defense, internal security and information.

The president took charge of those portfolios last week and suspended parliament, undermining the government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and triggering a power struggle. The president and the prime minister, who are elected separately, belong to rival political parties.

The president accuses Mr. Wickremesinghe of endangering national security by conceding too much to the rebels in peace talks so far. She says the prime minister can continue to direct the peace process, but under her guidance.

But the prime minister says he wants to hand over the running of the peace process to the president, since due to her actions he is no longer in full control of the government.

The head of the independent Center for Policy Alternatives, Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, says the rivalry between the two officials will hamper efforts to solve the country's two decade-long ethnic conflict.

"he peace process "needs the broadest possible support, and certainly the support of the two major political parties," said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu. "Cooperation, collaboration between them is the most desirable outcome. Therefore, in the absence of that the peace process, in terms of its acceptability, its sustainability into the future will always be questioned."

Mr. Peiris, the government spokesman, says the recent events have placed the peace process at risk. He says the government is prepared to face an early election to resolve the political impasse in the country - although it is the president, not the prime minister, who has the power to dissolve parliament and order elections.

Before the crisis erupted, the government had asked Norwegian mediators to arrange a face-to-face meeting with the rebels later this month. The meeting was to pave the way for resuming the peace talks that have been suspended for the past six months.

But the political crisis now threatens to set back these attempts to end the country's conflict, which has cost tens of thousands of lives during the past 20 years.