Sri Lanka 's president appoints new prime minister, who urges Indian involvement in peace process
Tue April 6, 2004 08:35 EDT .
SHIMALI SENANAYAKE - Associated Press Writer - COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - (AP) Sri Lanka - 's hardline president installed a new prime minister on Tuesday who immediately called on neighboring India to help revive the island's frozen peace process amid threats of a new civil war by Tamil Tiger rebels. ``India must come in as soon as possible and get involved in the peace process,'' Rajapakse told reporters. ``I have always wanted India to play a role in Sri Lanka - .''
However, he said India's participation didn't mean that his party wanted Norway to step down as peace broker. But it was unclear whether he meant New Delhi should be diplomatically engaged or whether a troop deployment was possible.
Rajapakse's first appointment as prime minister was a 45-minute closed-door meeting with Indian High Commissioner Nirupam Sen. No details on the meeting were immediately available.
India sent peacekeeping troops to Sri Lanka - in 1987, but soon found itself in a military quagmire and withdrew in late 1989 after losing 1,200 soldiers.
Chastened by that experience and Rajiv Gandhi's killing, India has since played a hands-off role.
Rajapakse's overtures to India come after the rebels said 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 Monday.
Kumaratunga previously 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.
However, the rebels' political chief, S.P. Thamilselvan, was quoted in the Tamil-language Sudaroli newspaper on Tuesday as saying the guerrillas were still waiting to see what shape the new government would take.
The Norwegian-led Sri Lanka - Monitoring Mission charged with overseeing the cease-fire that has held since February 2002 said Monday it had seen no changes on the ground.
A top military analyst also discounted war fears for now.
``If the truce is to continue smoothly, whoever forms the government should accept it totally,'' Thamilselvan was quoted as saying.
Kumaratunga's United Peoples Freedom Alliance emerged just eight seats short of an absolute majority in Parliament in Friday's snap elections, securing 105 of the 225 seats. Parliament is scheduled to reconvene April 22.
``My first priority will be to obtain the support of other parties to form a government,'' Rajapakse said, dressed in traditional white clothes with a red scarf wrapped around his neck. ``We are confident of obtaining the support of other parties to form a government.''
Outgoing Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had initiated the most recent attempts to make peace with the rebels, who fought a long, bloody war for a separate nation for Sri Lanka - 's minority ethnic Tamils. They say they are discriminated against by majority Sinhalese.
Wickremesinghe's peace plan was a major factor in a bitter feud with Kumaratunga, who has taken a tough stance toward the rebels.
``We'll try to get the peace process going as soon as possible,'' Rajapakse said.
Japan expressed similar hopes.
``Japan strongly hopes that a responsible new government will be established expeditiously ... so that the peace talks will be resumed as soon as possible,'' its embassy in Colombo said in a statement.
Analysts said the appointment of Rajapakse was positive news.
``Rajapakse is a moderate person. He is one of the few liberals within the party,'' said Jehan Perera, a political analyst at the National Peace Council, an independent research institute.
``He is very approachable to a wide spectrum of the people,'' Perera said.
Rajapakse had been a legislator since 1970 and enjoys wide support among the rank and file of the party.
Kumaratunga's first choice for prime minister had apparently been former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar considered a hard-liner. She changed the decision under fierce opposition from Rajapakse, who threatened to walk out of the alliance and take with him several other lawmakers, senior party officials said on condition of anonymity.
But Rajapakse's plans to pursue negotiations with the Tigers could be complicated following the defection of a powerful guerrilla commander in March, who took with him some 6,000 guerrillas from the 15,000-strong rebel army.
The main Tiger leadership has warned the government not to negotiate with the breakaway faction.
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 poll, which came more than three years ahead of schedule.
Published: Tue Apr 6 12:09:27 EDT 2004