Sri Lankan president declares state of emergency

Power grab deepens national political crisis


COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - Sri Lanka's president declared a state of emergency yesterday, deepening a political crisis in the country and giving herself sweeping powers to ban assemblies, detain people without cause and censor news reports.

The move came a day after the president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, suspended the country's parliament, took control of the powerful defense, interior and media ministries and deployed a small number of troops at key government buildings.

Political analysts said the actions were an attempt by the president to undermine her longtime political rival, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is in Washington, where he met yesterday with President Bush.

Kumaratunga has criticized Wickremesinghe for making too many concessions to rebel Tamil fighters in the current peace negotiations.

In a television address to the nation late Tuesday night, Kumaratunga, who lost an eye in a 1999 rebel suicide bombing, said she was acting to protect the nation's security and remained willing to negotiate with the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

She said she would discuss a "just and a balanced solution of the national problem within the parameters of the unity, territorial integrity and sovereignty of Sri Lanka."

Emerging from his meeting with Bush, Wickremesinghe tried to play down the events. "This is not the first crisis I have had," he told reporters. "When I go back, I'll sort it out. We have a majority in parliament. I have a mandate to bring peace to the country."

Rebel officials told reporters yesterday that they were closely monitoring the political situation, but they declined to comment further.

The streets of Colombo appeared normal last night, with pedestrians strolling down sidewalks and music blaring from shops and vegetable stands.

But American, British, Indian and Japanese officials all expressed concern that the struggle between the two political rivals could endanger the country's fragile peace efforts.

For the past 20 months, a cease-fire between the government and the ethnic Tamil rebels has generally prevailed. But negotiations stalled in April, and some fear that the president's move could lead to a resumption of fighting on the island nation of 19 million.

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