Sri Lanka's President Fires Three Ministers

Sri Lanka's (searchgovernment was plunged into crisis and its peace process imperiled Tuesday when the president deployed troops around the capital and fired three key ministers who were trying to coax Tamil (search) rebels back into talks to end a 20-year civil war.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga (search-- who is commander of the armed forces and has wide executive authority under the constitution -- then suspended Parliament for two weeks. Kumaratunga gave no reason for suspending the 225-seat legislature, but her opponents have a thin two-seat majority.

Kumaratunga made the surprise power grab against her political rival, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, while he was in Washington to meet with President Bush.

Kumaratunga has been severely critical of how Wickremesinghe has handled peace efforts with the Tamil Tiger rebels, arguing that his government has given too many concessions without ensuring that the Tigers abandon their armed struggle.

However, Wickremesinghe remains prime minister.

The troops were sent to the state TV and radio stations, and to a main power plant, shortly after announcements that the ministers had been fired.

"Several platoons have been deployed to prevent any unwanted incidents and to maintain law and order," military spokesman Col. Sumeda Perera told The Associated Press. Soldiers were seen armed with T-56 rifles.

Kumaratunga's office said in statement that the move to sack the ministers was "taken after careful consideration in order to prevent further deterioration of the security situation in the country." It did not elaborate.

Wickremesinghe and other Sri Lankan officials were holding an emergency meeting in the U.S. capital early Tuesday. Wickremesinghe was scheduled to meet Bush on Wednesday.

Defense Minister Tilak Marapone, Interior Minister John Amaratunga and Information Minister Imthiaz Bakeer Markar -- who helped spearhead the fragile peace process -- were removed from those posts Tuesday, spokesman Giruka Perusinghe said. Three top aides to the ministers also were fired.

All three of the ministers still hold other Cabinet-level portfolios.

"All these ministries are now under the president and will continue to remain so," Janadasa Peiris, the president's media director told the AP.

Kumaratunga appointed Cyril Herath, a former police chief as defense secretary, Thilak Ranavirajah, a former health ministry secretary, has been appointed secretary of mass media while M.N. Junaid, interior ministry secretary will continue in his post, Peiris said.

Kumaratunga, who is from a different political party than Wickremesinghe, has wide authority to dismiss the government, and call new elections.

Defense Secretary Austin Fernando, contacted by telephone in London, said that he had been informed of the president's move but declined to comment further.

Tamil Tiger rebels also declined to comment.

"We do not want to comment until we receive full details of what has happened," rebel spokesman, Daya Master, said.

The rebels on Friday submitted a plan for an interim administration in the war-battered northeast. They want powers to collect taxes and control the administration of the northeast, where most of the island's 3.2 million minority Tamils live.

The rebels signed a cease-fire agreement with Wickremesinghe's government in February 2002, halting two decades of fighting that killed 65,000 people. The Tigers launched their war to seek an independent homeland for Hindu Tamils, arguing discrimination at the hands of the Buddhist Sinhalese majority.

The rebels dropped their demand for independence -- saying they would settle for regional autonomy -- during six rounds of talks aimed at finding a political solution. But the rebels walked out of those talks in April, saying the government had not done enough to resettle refugees and redevelop Tamil areas.

Expanded autonomy is a key rebel demand for returning to the peace talks.

Kumaratunga accuses the prime minister of entertaining rebels' demands for autonomy without insisting they disarm first.