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Sri Lanka's President, PM Move to Patch Up Differences - 2003-11-18

Sri Lanka's feuding prime minister and president appointed a special committee to help resolve the political crisis that erupted earlier this month. But there are no firm plans yet to resume peace talks with Tamil rebels. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Chandrika Kumaratunga say the special committee will hammer out the details of how the pair would work together in the future. They also agreed to meet again in two weeks.

They made the announcement after a 90-minute meeting, which officials described as positive.

That is a long way from the rhetoric used when the country's political crisis erupted on November 4. President Kumaratunga exercised her constitutional power to take over three government ministries, including the defense ministry. She also seized control of state media and suspended Parliament for two weeks.

The president's moves also cast doubt on whether the 21-month-old ceasefire between the government and the Tamil Tiger guerrilla group would hold.

President Kumaratunga has been extremely critical of the prime minister's handling of peace talks with the Tamil Tigers. She says he has put national security at risk by being too soft on the rebels.

Jehan Perera of the National Peace Council, a peace advocacy group in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, said that if the new committee helps, the two sides can find a way to work together, then the peace process with the rebels, called the LTTE, can not only be saved, but it can be improved.

"Before it was the prime minister and his government taking the peace process forward, with the president and her party consistently criticizing and attacking it," said Mr. Perera. "Now if this agreement is reached we will find the president and her party too on the peace process and negotiations with the LTTE. So that is a much more desirable situation."

The Tamil Tigers have been fighting for a separate homeland for the ethnic Tamil minority in northern Sri Lanka for the past 20 years. But they signed a peace deal with the government last year, and have agreed to give up the idea of a separate state in return for more autonomy.

Norway brokered the ceasefire deal between the two sides. But Norwegian officials pulled out of the peace talks last week until the political crisis is resolved.

Parliament is to meet again Wednesday for the first time since its suspension.