Thu, Nov 13, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Leaders attempt to defuse crisis

SRI LANKAN STANDOFF The president and prime minister agreed to meet again to try to resolve their differences over a peace process with the Tamil Tigers

AFP , COLOMBO

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, center, stands with the Norwegian Ambassador to Sri Lanka, left, and Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgesen before talks in Colombo on Tuesday. The country's political turmoil has overshadowed the visit of a Norwegian delegation, who arrived late on Monday to arrange preliminary talks intended to sort out issues and logistics before resuming direct talks to end the 20-year civil war.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Sri Lanka's president and prime minister met yesterday in an attempt to defuse the political crisis threatening the island's peace process, but failed to make a breakthrough, sources said.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe held two-and-a-half hours of talks at the tightly-guarded office of President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who had invited him to discuss creating a government of national unity.

It was their first meetings since Kumaratunga, a critic of the prime minister's handling of the peace process with Tamil rebels, triggered the crisis last week by sacking three ministers and suspending parliament.

Sources from both camps said that while the leaders did not broker a solution to their stand-off, they agreed to hold another meeting next week.

Journalists were not allowed to cover the meeting between the president and prime minister, political rivals from different parties who share power in an awkward cohabitation.

A source close to the prime minister said he did not press for the re-instatement of the sacked ministers, but urged Kumaratunga to take over the Norwegian-backed peace process with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Wickremesinghe argued he could not handle the peace process unless he was in full control of the government, including the defense, interior and information portfolios taken by Kumaratunga.

Kumaratunga in turn expressed concerns about the security situation in the country following her allegations the government had jeopardized national security by being too soft on the rebels.

The prime minister earlier made it clear he would not accept a national unity government.

Wickremesinghe has said the peace process, which he revived after defeating Kumaratunga's party in 2001 polls, has been damaged by the president's Nov. 4 move against his Cabinet colleagues.

The political turmoil has cast a shadow over a visit here by Norwegian peace envoys who are trying to salvage a peace process aimed at bringing peace after three decades of bloodshed which have cost over 60,000 lives.

Kumaratunga's spokesman Sarath Amunugama declined to comment on the talks, but insisted that Kumaratunga would not give back the key defense portfolio.

Amunugama justified Kumaratunga's action last week, saying the president must constitutionally hold the defense portfolio and that it had been given by mistake to Wickremesinghe's government after the 2001 vote.

With no end in sight to the standoff between the government and the president, political sources said Kumaratunga's party was making overtures to its former Marxist ally, the JVP.

Kumaratunga had been in talks with the JVP from early this year to form a grand alliance to fight future elections, but the talks failed due to differences over sharing portfolios in a future government.

However, her sacking of three key ministers from the present government went some way to appease the Marxists.

An alliance of Kumaratunga's party and the JVP would still be short of the 113 seats required in parliament to topple Wickremesinghe's government which enjoys the backing of 130 legislators in the 225-member assembly.

Amunugama dismissed reports that Kumaratunga was planning to call snap elections four years ahead of schedule.

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