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Sri Lankan President, PM to Meet Next Week in Attempt to End Political Crisis - 2003-11-27

There are signs that Sri Lanka's feuding president and prime minister may soon find a way to resolve the political crisis that erupted in part because of disagreements over how to handle peace talks with Tamil rebels. A top European Union official has wrapped up a two-day visit to the country, where he met with a rebel leader.

A spokesman for the prime minister says both Ranil Wickremesinghe and his rival, President Chandrika Kumaratunga, have the will to put their political differences behind them.

A crisis erupted November 4, when President Kumaratunga suspended parliament and fired three government ministers, including the minister of defense, who had led peace talks with the Tamil Tiger rebel group.

Ms. Kumaratunga acted within her constitutional powers. But the move shocked Sri Lanka and ignited fears that the peace process for ending two decades of civil war could collapse.

Representatives of the two leaders, who are from different political parties, are trying to find a compromise. Next week Mr. Wickremesinghe and Ms. Kumaratunga will meet for the third time since the crisis began.

The apparent thaw in relations comes as a top European Union official left Sri Lanka Thursday after a two-day visit. In addition to talks with both the leaders, the EU's Commissioner for External Relations, Chris Patten, visited the rebel-held town of Kilinochchi, some 330 kilometers north of the capital.

Mr. Patten says Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran remains committed to the peace process despite the political crisis in the capital.

But Mr. Patten also said he brought the rebel leader the international community's very clear message to give up violence.

"I said to them that the world expected them to negotiate for a federal solution, not for dividing Sri Lanka, expected them to stick absolutely to their cease-fire agreement," he said.

The Tamil Tiger guerrilla group has fought for the past 19 years for a separate homeland for the ethnic Tamil minority. It signed a cease-fire deal with the government in February 2002, and recently proposed power sharing in Tamil-majority areas.

Norwegian peace brokers recently pulled out of negotiations, saying they will not return until the political crisis is resolved. Officials had been trying to arrange the first direct talks between the rebels and the government since April.