Sri Lanka's government was plunged into crisis and its peace process imperiled yesterday when the president deployed troops around the capital and fired three key ministers who were trying to coax Tamil rebels back into talks to end a 20-year civil war.
Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga -- who is commander of the armed forces and has wide executive authority under the Constitution -- made the surprise power grab against her political rival, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, while he was in Washington to meet with US President George W. Bush.
Kumaratunga has been severely critical of how Wickremesinghe has handled peace efforts with the Tamil Tiger rebels, arguing that his government has given too many concessions without ensuring that the Tigers abandon their armed struggle.
However, Wickremesinghe remains prime minister.
The troops were sent to the state TV and radio stations, and to a main power plant, shortly after announcements that the ministers had been fired.
"Several platoons have been deployed to prevent any unwanted incidents and to maintain law and order," military spokesman Colonel Sumeda Perera told reporters.
Kumaratunga's office said in statement that the move to sack the ministers was "taken after careful consideration in order to prevent further deterioration of the security situation in the country." It did not elaborate.
Wickremesinghe and other Sri Lankan officials were holding an emergency meeting in the US capital early yesterday. Wickremesinghe was scheduled to meet Bush today.
Defense Minister Tilak Marapone, Interior Minister John Amaratunga and Information Minister Imthiaz Bakeer Markar -- who helped spearhead the fragile peace process -- were removed from those posts yesterday, spokesman Giruka Perusinghe said.
Three top aides to the ministers also were fired.
All three of the ministers still hold other Cabinet-level portfolios.
It was not immediately clear if Kumaratunga was planning to take on the revoked portfolios herself. Kumaratunga, who is from a different political party than Wickremesinghe, has wide authority to dismiss the government, and call new elections.
There was no immediate reaction from the rebels, who on Friday submitted a plan for an interim administration in the war-battered northeast. They want powers to collect taxes and control the administration of the northeast, where most of the island's 3.2 million minority Tamils live.
The rebels signed a ceasefire agreement with Wickremesinghe's government in February last year, halting two decades of fighting that killed 65,000 people. The Tigers launched their war to seek an independent homeland for Hindu Tamils, arguing discrimination at the hands of the Buddhist Sinhalese majority.
The rebels dropped their demand for independence -- saying they would settle for regional autonomy -- during six rounds of talks aimed at finding a political solution. But the rebels walked out of those talks in April, saying the government had not done enough to resettle refugees and redevelop Tamil areas.
Expanded autonomy is a key rebel demand for returning to the peace talks.
Kumaratunga accuses the prime minister of entertaining rebels' demands for autonomy without insisting they disarm first.