Sun, Nov 16, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Sri Lankan leaders bury their personal hatchets for peace


Sri Lanka President Chandrika Kumaratunga said yesterday she is willing to share control of the Defense Ministry with the prime minister, softening her stance in a power struggle between the two leaders that has threatened to derail efforts to end the country's 20-year civil war.

"The president is willing to involve the prime minister in all such defense matters that can have a direct impact on the ceasefire and the peace process," said Mano Tittawella, the president's top adviser.

"The president is keen that the peace process should go on," said Tittawella, adding that the two leaders were scheduled to meet early next week and would discuss power sharing.

There was no immediate comment from Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on the offer.

Earlier this month, Kumaratunga seized control of the key defense, interior and media ministries, which had been spearheading efforts to resolve the island's 20-year civil war. The president also suspended parliament and briefly declared a state of emergency, saying Wickremesinghe had offered the rebels too many concessions.

The prime minister, who was in the US when the president made her Nov. 4 power grab, wants Kumaratunga to either hand back the ministries she took over or handle the peace process herself.

But given the animosity Kumaratunga, who lost an eye in a Tamil Tiger attack, has with the rebels it is unlikely that the guerrillas would agree to talk to her.

Kumaratunga's offer to share control over the Defense Ministry came a day after Norway announced it was suspending efforts to broker an end to the civil war, which has killed 65,000 people since 1983.

Calls for the two leaders to end their standoff and renew peace efforts have stepped up.

Adam Ereli, the US State Department's deputy spokesman, said in Washington that the US was disappointed with the suspension of the peace efforts and urged the two leaders to put aside their long-running rivalry.

"We urge the president and the prime minister to work together to bolster the peace process and protect Sri Lanka's democratic institutions," Ereli said.

A Tamil political party that is part of Wickremesinghe's coalition government pleaded with Kumaratunga to resume peace efforts.

The Tamil National Alliance said in a statement Saturday the president has a duty "to ensure that the ceasefire agreement is sustained."

Norway has been brokering peace talks between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamileelam since helping to negotiate a ceasefire between the two sides in February last year.

Norwegian mediators came to the country this week in hopes of setting the stage for new talks on resolving the conflict. The rebels pulled out of peace talks in April, saying they wanted greater autonomy in Tamil-dominated areas in the north and east of the country.

The president, who is elected separately from Parliament, has had a precarious power-sharing arrangement with the prime minister.

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