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Sri Lankan President Takes Control of State-Run Media - 2003-11-06

The president of Sri Lanka has taken over state-run media in the latest move in a political battle with the country's prime minister. Troops also have taken to the streets of the capital Colombo on the president's order, a day before the prime minister returns from abroad.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga says she has taken over Sri Lanka's state newspapers, radio, and television but she will allow full freedom of expression.

The state-run newspaper the Daily News reflected this shift even before her announcement. It has dropped articles critical of the president, who has been locked in a long-running power struggle with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The decision to take over the media is the latest in a series of moves by the president that are creating political uncertainty across the country. Earlier this week, President Kumaratunga fired three top government ministers, including the information minister, and declared a 10-day state of emergency, which gives soldiers wide powers of arrest and forbids public gatherings.

Soldiers on the streets of the capital Colombo are manning checkpoints and examining the identity papers of some people, but the country remains calm.

President Kumaratunga also suspended Parliament for two weeks, prompting an angry response from lawmakers. They demanded the three ministers be reinstated, and threatened to reconvene Parliament in defiance of the suspension.

The president and prime minister have always had a strained relationship, in particular over the handling of peace negotiations with the Tamil Tiger guerrilla group.

Rebels from the Tamil ethnic minority group have been fighting for an independent homeland in northern Sri Lanka for 20 years - and last year signed a peace deal with the government.

Some Sri Lankans say they do not want politics to jeopardize the prospects for peace.

"It is a struggle for power," said one woman. "It actually should not be that. Whatever it is, the outcome should be, they all should get together for peace."

"The president has taken a critical action that is very bad for the country," said another bystander.

Both the president and prime minister have said that despite the political crisis, they remain committed to the peace process.

The power struggle is likely to intensify Friday when Prime Minister Wickremesinghe returns to Sri Lanka after an overseas trip. Some analysts say he and the president will spend the next two weeks working to consolidate power ahead of a likely confidence vote when Parliament resumes on November 19.