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Sri Lanka's President Clamps Down

In this image made from television, Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga addresses the nation on Tuesday Nov. 4, 2003 in Colombo, Sri Lanka. President Kumaratunga suspended Parliament, sacked three Cabinet ministers and deployed troops around the capital Tuesday, moves that endanger the fragile peace process with Tamil Tiger rebels.
AP /APTN
Sri Lanka's political crisis deepened Wednesday when the president declared a state of emergency, but officials insisted she wouldn't restart a bloody 20-year civil war and would honor a shaky cease-fire with Tamil Tiger rebels.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga further asserted her power across the troubled island nation as her rival Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was scheduled to go ahead with talks in Washington with U.S. President George W. Bush.

The state of emergency was declared to "take stock of the security situation" and would go into effect at midnight Thursday, senior presidential aide Eric Fernando told The Associated Press.

It allows the military to enter homes without search warrants, arrest people without reason and hold them for lengthy periods. It also gives the president the power to enact laws and gives her extraordinary control over the media, allowing for the tight censorship that was common under earlier states of emergency.

The crisis began Tuesday when Kumaratunga — who has wide authority under the constitution to dismiss the government — made a dramatic power play while Wickremesinghe was in the United States.

Kumaratunga, who accuses the prime minister of being soft on the rebels, fired three top ministers, suspended Parliament and deployed troops around the capital.

The emergency order was certain to infuriate the Tiger rebels, who have fought a two-decade war for independence for the country's Tamil people, but who have held to a cease-fire with the government for more than 18 months.

The minority Tamils suffered the worst during the country's last state of emergency, often enduring brutal treatment by security forces.

Wickremesinghe was to meet later Wednesday with Bush to secure further U.S. support for his drive to bring a lasting peace in the civil war, which has left 65,000 people dead since 1983.

The Tamil Tiger rebels signed a cease-fire in 2002, halting the fighting, but have since dropped out of peace talks and demanded sweeping administrative powers in the Tamil-majority areas of Sri Lanka's northeast as a condition for returning to the peace process.

Lakshman Kadirgama, a top aide to Kumaratunga, said the president has no plans to resume fighting the Tigers.

"I am specially authorized by the president to state that the cease-fire agreement stands, and will stand," he told reporters. "The president has absolutely no intention whatsoever of resuming hostilities."

A Web site that reports on Tamil affairs said Kumaratunga's Tuesday moves threw the status of the cease-fire into uncertainty. "Prospects for ending the conflict (have) dimmed," said TamilNet.

Rebel fighters in several regions were put on alert by top rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran following emergency meetings, a senior rebel told The Associated Press Wednesday on condition of anonymity.

The situation was being carefully watched, the official said.

People were lined up outside stores and gas stations in Jaffna, the main city in Sri Lanka's Tamil-dominated north, as residents bought food, fuel and other supplies. Many parents didn't send their children to school, fearing violence could break out or a curfew could be put in place.

"People are worried here," said Jeya Devadasan, a Tamil schoolteacher in Jaffna. "I am disturbed."

Jaffna, 190 miles north of Colombo saw some of the worst fighting of the civil war. The city is government controlled, though the rebels govern much of the country's northeast.

Kumaratunga argues that Wickremesinghe has endangered Sri Lanka's sovereignty by granting too many concessions to the rebels without first insisting that they disarm and renounce any notion of returning to armed struggle.

On Wednesday, Kadirgamar said a power-sharing proposal submitted last week by the rebels — officially called the Liberation Tigers of Tamileelam, or LTT — could lead to secession.

The proposal, which included demands for power over the court system and finances in Tiger-controlled areas, would mean an "erosion of powers" for the central government, he said.

"The people of Sri Lanka will have to decide ... are they willing to surrender two thirds of their country to the LTT?"

But officials insisted the peace process would go ahead.

"Our commitment to the peace process is total," said G.L. Peiris, the chief government negotiator.

Wickremesinghe holds a slim majority in the parliament. His administration is mulling a snap election in hopes of bolstering its mandate, the state-run Daily News reported. In a statement from Washington on Tuesday, Wickremesinghe denounced Kumaratunga for moving toward "chaos."

Kumaratunga sacked the ministers of defense, interior and information — who have been instrumental in the government's peace efforts — and took control of those ministries, saying the steps were need to check a deteriorating security situation.

Kumaratunga is commander of the armed forces and has broad executive powers.

Residents in Colombo woke up Wednesday to find their city of 1.2 million people calm. Troops guarded vital government installations, including the state-run television and radio station, though there was no dramatic security presence on the street.

"We were afraid that a curfew will be imposed, but the situation seems to be OK," resident Sumana Gamage said.

As dawn broke, soldiers withdrew from the outer security ring around Kumaratunga's home in downtown Colombo and lifted roadblocks that are generally posted for the night. Kumaratunga escaped a Tamil rebel suicide bomber in 1999, but lost an eye.

Kumaratunga said on state TV late Tuesday that she was prepared to talk to Tamil Tiger rebels to "find a transparent and just solution to the ethnic conflict," but also pledged to safeguard law and order with the help of the armed forces.

Wickremesinghe's party, campaigning on a peace platform, defeated Kumaratunga's in 2001 parliamentary elections, and subsequently entered talks with the Tigers on resolving the conflict, the major hope of most of the 19 million people on this tropical island off the southern tip of India.

Sri Lanka's constitution gives considerable powers to both the president and the prime minister. But that electoral defeat largely sidelined Kumaratunga, who had held sway over earlier prime ministers who had come from within her own party.

When Wickremesinghe became prime minister, he began exercising the political power those earlier prime ministers had ceded to the president.

The Tigers launched their war two decades ago to seek an independent homeland for Tamils, most of them Hindus, arguing discrimination at the hands of the Buddhist Sinhalese majority.

Expanded autonomy is now the key rebel demand.