- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 15, 2001

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka The country's new Cabinet started work two days ago, with its members bracing for more confrontation in their tense cohabitation arrangement with President Chandrika Kumaratunga.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who narrowly avoided a public showdown with Mrs. Kumaratunga on Wednesday over one of his Cabinet appointments, met with his ministers and discussed "the arrangements of the cohabitation without the president," an aide to the prime minister said.

Mrs. Kumaratunga was elected separately to a six-year term as president in 1999.

She had refused to swear in S.B. Dissanayake, who defected from her People's Alliance (PA) party two months ago, as welfare minister in the 25-member Cabinet named by Mr. Wickremesinghe. They avoided a deadlock by getting Mr. Dissanayake sworn in as agriculture minister, leaving the Welfare Ministry post vacant.

Official sources said the issue was developing into a prestige battle. Mr. Wickremesinghe had vowed before the election to give Mr. Dissanayake the welfare post he held before defecting to the United National Party (UNP).

The president said she did not want to give him the job because he was the subject of an investigation by the welfare ministry, officials said.

Mr. Dissanayake's defection and about a dozen others forced the head of state to call snap parliamentary elections last week in which her party was routed. It is the first time since 1994 that the president and prime minister are from opposing parties.

Under Sri Lanka's constitution, the Cabinet is appointed by the president in consultation with the prime minister, but it appears each has the power to veto a choice of the other.

"It looks like it is going to be a very difficult cohabitation," said a Western diplomat.

Under pressure from the UNP, the president agreed on Tuesday to give up the defense and finance portfolios she had previously been adamant about holding. In return, she was allowed full control over the elite Presidential Security Division that is deployed for her personal protection.

The Defense Ministry portfolio, which carries control over the police and the military, was given to Tilak Marapone, the former attorney general.

The president, however, remains commander in chief of the armed forces.

The PSD, nominally under the police department, has been accused of attacking political rivals and journalists and is also blamed for several politically motivated killings.

Mrs. Kumaratunga's security has been stepped up since the UNP's election victory.

The 25 Cabinet ministers, 28 non-Cabinet ministers and nine deputy ministers took their oaths at Mrs. Kumaratunga's residence which was guarded by tanks, anti-aircraft guns and hundreds of commandos.

"This is not the final Cabinet we have appointed," said a spokesman for Mr. Wickremesinghe. "We are keeping the door open for some members of President Kumaratunga's party who have expressed a willingness to join us."

His government already includes 12 members of Mrs. Kumaratunga's former administration.

The uneasy relations between Mrs. Kumaratunga and the new government showed when she banned live coverage of the swearing-in ceremony.

The new parliament will have its first sitting on Dec. 18.

Soon thereafter, Mr. Wickremesinghe will go to New Delhi for talks with Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, Foreign Minister Tyronne Fernando announced Thursday.

Mr. Fernando said the three-day visit starting Dec. 22 underscores the new Colombo government's desire to have closer cooperation with New Delhi.

"It is very important for us to have very close relations with our neighbor India," Mr. Fernando said, adding that he would accompany Mr. Wickremesinghe. The latter told supporters last week he was seeking India's cooperation as he works to turn around Sri Lanka's lagging economy.

Official sources said the prime minister is also expected to seek India's help in reviving a stalled Norwegian peace bid to bring rebel Tamil Tigers to the negotiating table.

Mr. Vajpayee is a personal friend of Mr. Wickremesinghe and the two are known to have maintained close relations while in and out of power.

Mr. Vajpayee was one of the first leaders to congratulate the Sri Lankan prime minister after his UNP beat the People's Alliance in last week's general election.

The United States has also pledged support to Sri Lanka's new government to its planned effort to revive the Norwegian peace bid and end decades of ethnic bloodshed, diplomats here said.

Mr. Wickremesinghe has had informal talks with U.S. and Indian diplomats in Colombo since taking office Sunday, official sources said.

"We don't see the U.S. in a central role, but they will support the present government's inclination for a negotiated settlement to the conflict," a Western diplomatic source said. The island nation's long-running Tamil separatist conflict has claimed more than 60,000 lives since 1972.

"The Indian government has been very supportive. They can be a real asset to Sri Lanka," said the senior Western diplomatic source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The United States banned the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), classing it as a "terrorist organization" in October 1997 and recently included the Tigers on a list for the monitoring and freezing of funds.

The source said that the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington and the subsequent global offensive against terrorism had affected Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels.

"The events after the 11th of September will have a salutary effect on the behavior of the LTTE to give up terrorist attacks and take part in talks," the source said.

But on Wednesday, Tamil Tiger rebels greeted the inauguration of Sri Lanka's new government with coordinated attacks that killed at least 26 persons and wounded 44.

The LTTE has demanded the lifting of a 1998 ban imposed by the Sri Lankan government before entering talks, and also lambasted the West for proscribing them while urging them to enter peace negotiations.

The source said the decision by Western nations to ban the Tigers was based on the perception of the threat they posed in those nations, but a change of tactics and policy by the rebels could lead to a reviewing of their proscription overseas.

"Foreign governments will be looking for signs of their change of behavior," the diplomatic source said.

The new prime minister has said he wants to open talks with the Tamil Tiger guerrillas as well as all other political and religious groups on a broad political settlement to the conflict.

LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran announced last month that his struggle was neither "separation nor terrorism," indicating for the first time that he was ready to settle for something less than total independence.

India once armed and trained Sri Lanka's Tamil separatists and later ended up fighting them from 1987 to 1990. It has since remained more aloof from the conflict but has blacklisted the Tamil Tigers since Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a Tamil radical in May 1991.

India has also publicly supported Norway's attempts to broker peace in Sri Lanka. However, Oslo's three-year initiative has failed to bring the Tigers and the Colombo government to the negotiating table.

The former Colombo government sidelined Norway's special peace envoy, Erik Solheim, in June, putting the peace process on hold.

Diplomats here say they believed Mr. Wickremesinghe will move quickly to revive the Norwegian process.

[Stratfor, a provider of global intelligence based in Austin, Texas, predicts that the new Colombo government's peace efforts will face difficult going, because the president will likely prove uncooperative with the prime minister's efforts.

[A brief analysis posted on its Web site, stratfor.com, said Mrs. Kumaratunga has taken a hard line with the LTTE and pursued its complete military defeat since her tenure began in 1994. But it noted that military victory has so far eluded her while the fighting has obstructed Sri Lanka's economic growth and development.]

Meanwhile, the Tamil guerrillas acknowledged losing 14 of their fighters in attacks against army and police units on Wednesday, the day the new government was sworn in.

The clandestine LTTE radio said the next day the rebels lost 10 cadres during an attack against the Valachchenai police station in the eastern district of Batticaloa, but captured a large haul of weapons from the station, which they held for 20 minutes.

In the second attack in the adjoining district of Trincomalee, four Tigers were killed, the radio said.

The military acknowledged that six constables were killed at Valachchenai, in addition to a civilian guard of the main telephone exchange, which was also destroyed by the Tigers.

The military said three soldiers were killed in the second attack at Trincomalee.

Intelligence reports this week had indicated the guerrillas were planning a major assault, ending a lull during a five-week election campaign, official sources said.

Mr. Wickremesinghe has proposed an "asymmetrical devolution" of power to address minority Tamil demands for greater autonomy in the northern and eastern regions of the country, where they are concentrated.

He promised during the election campaign to enter into a dialogue with the Tigers as well as all other political and religious groups to hammer out a political settlement to the long-running conflict.

Before the election, the Tigers said they were willing to settle for political autonomy rather than a fully separate state.

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