Wed, Apr 07, 2004 - Page 1 News List

New Sri Lankan prime minister assumes office

REUTERS , COLOMBO

Sri Lanka's new prime minister was sworn into office yesterday and said hardline President Chandrika Kumaratunga was now in charge of reviving peace talks with Tamil rebels.

"They [talks] should start as soon as possible," new Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse told reporters as he left his house for the swearing-in ceremony. "We need peace."

He said Kumaratunga would be in charge of the peace process once the new government takes over after proving its majority in parliament, which is due to convene on April 22.

Direct talks with the Tamil Tigers, fighting for two decades for a separate Tamil state in the north and east of the island, broke down last April, although a two-year-old truce has held.

"The president will handle the peace process," Rajapakse said after 10 Buddhist monks blessed him in an early-morning ceremony.

But uncertainty surrounding the new government hit the markets, with the key Colombo all-share index plunging 9.5 percent.

Rajapakse also said neighboring India, which intervened in Sri Lanka's rebellion in the 1980s before withdrawing after heavy troop losses, should take a larger role in trying to bring a permanent end to the war that has killed 64,000 people.

"India must come in as soon as possible," he said.

Rajapakse was greeted by warm applause from party leaders when he entered the colonial-era Presidential Secretariat building to be sworn in as the country's 13th prime minister.

There was a light moment when Rajapakse's eyeglasses caught in the end of his trademark red scarf and it took him a minute to untangle them.

He said his first job would be to secure a majority in parliament.

"The first priority is that. We are very confident of getting a majority. I do not want to give names right now," he said of possible coalition partners.

Rajapakse, 58, will lead a government that is eight seats short of a majority in parliament, after his United People's Freedom Alliance won 105 seats in the 225-seat parliament in last Friday's general election.

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