Sri Lanka 's president appoints new prime minister as rebels threaten fighting
Mon April 5, 2004 13:33 EDT .
KRISHAN FRANCIS - Associated Press Writer - COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - (AP) Sri Lanka - 's president on Monday appointed veteran politician Mahinda Rajapakse to be the country's new prime minister, as Tamil Tiger rebels threatened to start fighting again, casting concerns on a shaky cease-fire that halted a two-decade civil war. Outgoing Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had initiated the most recent attempts to seal a lasting peace with the Tamil Tiger rebels, who fought a long, bloody war for a separate state for Sri Lanka - 's minority ethnic Tamils, claiming discrimination by the majority Sinhalese.
Wickremesinghe's approach was a major factor in a bitter feud with Kumaratunga, who has taken a tough stance toward the rebels and accused Wickremesinghe of giving them too many concessions.
It wasn't immediately clear how Rajapakse's appointment would affect the fragile truce with the Tamil Tigers, or future negotiations with them. Rajapakse is an ethnic Sinhalese.
Kumaratunga's first choice for prime minister had apparently been former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. She changed the decision under fierce opposition from Rajapakse.
Kadirgamar, a Tamil, is credited with getting the Tamil Tigers banned overseas as terrorists. He's less popular on the ground than longtime lawmaker Rajapakse.
Meanwhile, the Tamil Tigers said on Monday that they hoped a political solution could be found to their demands for sweeping autonomy.
If not, ``the Tamil people will fight to establish the Tamil sovereignty in their homeland,'' the pro-rebel TamilNet Web site said.
Earlier, Kumaratunga's top aide said peace talks with the rebels were first on her agenda.
``The top priority of the Freedom Alliance is to take steps to resume negotiations'' with the Tamil Tigers, said aide Harim Peiris.
What remains unclear is the direction those talks, on hold for the past year, could take.
While the Tigers have said they would negotiate with whichever political party emerged on top, the president left blind in one eye by a rebel assassination attempt has made no secret of her distrust for them.
And for the Tigers, divided since the March defection of a powerful guerrilla commander, negotiations would be highly complicated.
The renegade commander took with him some 6,000 guerrillas from the 15,000-strong rebel army.
The Norwegian-led Sri Lanka - Monitoring Mission charged with overseeing a cease-fire that has held since February 2002 said there were no changes on the ground Monday.
A top military analyst discounted war fears for now.
``Technically, the (Tamil Tigers) can resume fighting any time but I think they will wait and see if they get that autonomy by talking,'' said retired Air Marshall Harry Goonetilleke.
After hammering out the cease-fire that halted Sri Lanka - 's civil war, Norwegian negotiators withdrew at the peak of a power struggle between Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe last year, saying they would return only after the two settled their differences.
The two longtime rivals failed to stop their bickering, eventually leading to Friday's snap poll, which came more than three years ahead of schedule.
Although the shaky cease-fire has held for two years, the main Tiger leadership has warned the government not to negotiate with the breakaway faction.
Kumaratunga has refused to give the Tamils the degree of autonomy the rebels want, saying that would all but formalize the de facto state they've created.
President Kumaratunga's alliance emerged just eight seats short of an absolute majority in Parliament in Friday's elections.
An official at the presidential secretariat said Kumaratunga's United Peoples Freedom Alliance, which secured 105 seats in the 225-member Parliament, was holding talks with smaller parties and considered a ruling coalition a certainty. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.
Under Sri Lanka - 's constitution, the president has the power to administer the oath of office to a prime minister, but the latter must prove a majority in the Parliament, which is scheduled to convene April 22.
Published: Mon Apr 5 14:52:41 EDT 2004