Sri Lanka president blasts Tamil rebels as campaigns end for Friday vote
Tue March 30, 2004 12:16 EST .
DILIP GANGULY - Associated Press Writer - KULIYAPITIYA, Sri Lanka - (AP) Toughening her stand against Tamil Tiger rebels, Sri Lanka - 's president on Tuesday wound up campaigning ahead of parliamentary elections by blaming the Tigers for a series of recent political killings. ``They have started killing Tamil people. Soon they will start killing us,'' she said, referring to Sri Lanka - 's Sinhalese majority.
Four anti-aircraft guns and hundreds of commandoes with drawn guns protected Kumaratunga, and every spectator was frisked. The level of security was unsurprising. In her last public rally in 1999 elections a suicide bomber tried to assassinate her, leaving her blind in one eye and killing at least 26 others.
Campaigns ahead of Friday's parliamentary polls have largely revolved around the question of who is best suited to negotiate an end to decades of civil war with the rebels: the president or Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Sri Lanka - 's two main parties, one lead by the president and the other by the prime minister, have both offered themselves as the best choice to restart stalled peace talks with the Liberation Tigers of Tamileelam.
Two decades of war with the Tigers has cost this tropical nation some 65,000 lives. The rebels are seeking an autonomous Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka - 's north and east.
A Norwegian-brokered cease-fire went into affect in Feb. 2002, and several rounds of peace talks now stalled followed.
The president, who profoundly distrusts the Tigers, has long argued the prime minister gave them too many concessions while getting little in return.
``Where is the peace the prime minister promised?'' she demanded during her speech. ``The prime minister doesn't mind even if the country is divided, as long as he can stay in power.''
Kumaratunga insisted she still wanted peace, saying she would invite the Tigers to return to peace talks.
``But we want peace with honor and not at the cost of sacrificing our sovereignty,'' she said referring to rebel demands for broad autonomy.
While the president is not a candidate in the election, and will remain in power until 2005 regardless of its outcome, each side is hoping a parliamentary majority will give them more political power to set the tone for the negotiations.
But that doesn't appear likely.
Analysts and opinion polls indicate that neither of the two parties will win a majority of the 225 parliamentary seats, making it necessary for them to rely on minority parties to form a coalition government.
The prime minister also made his final address Tuesday evening, though his was more low-key. Wickremesinghe urged his supporters to back him, saying his ``is the only party that can bring peace to Sri Lanka - '' but also insisted that they not resort to violence, no matter the result.
Campaigning during the last 48 hours before the election is banned.
Political violence has surged in recent days. On Tuesday, gunmen killed a Tamil parliamentary candidate in the country's east who was allied with a renegade commander, police and witnesses said.
No arrests have been made but a spokesman for renegade leader Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan blamed the Tigers, who denied involvement.
The rebel movement has been sharply divided since Muralitharan broke away with nearly half the groups' fighters last month. If peace talks resume, the split will complicate negotiations.
Kumaratunga called the elections three years ahead of schedule as part of her long-running power struggle with Wickremesinghe. In recent months, she used her constitutional powers to seize control of the defense, interior and media ministries.
Published: Tue Mar 30 14:16:21 EST 2004