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Fonseka launches attack on president

world Updated: Apr 22, 2010 15:34 IST
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Sri Lanka's detained former army chief briefly emerged from custody on Thursday to attend the opening of parliament and used the opportunity to launch an attack on President Mahinda Rajapakse.

Sarath Fonseka last year led troops to victory over Tamil Tiger rebels after decades of ethnic conflict on the island, but he later fell out with Rajapakse and unsuccessfully tried to unseat him in presidential elections in January.

"What the country needs is democracy, rule of law, personal freedoms and media freedom," Fonseka said when briefly allowed out of detention to attend the opening of parliament, in which he won a seat at polls two weeks ago.

"I am glad I was able to come here and raise these issues as I am being unjustly held," he added.

Fonseka's comments were his first since he was taken into custody on February 8 for an on-going court martial over allegedly engaging in politics while in uniform and involvement in corrupt arms procurement.

The former general, who was to return Thursday to the naval facility where he is being detained, has dismissed all the charges as a politically motivated attempt to silence him.

Rajapakse has been accused by political opponents and international human rights groups of suppressing dissent and critical media coverage.

His ruling coalition is just short of the two-thirds parliamentary majority required for the government to rewrite the constitution, which at present prevents him from standing again when his second term ends in 2016.

Both the presidential and parliamentary elections tightened Rajapakse's grip on power, but analysts say he faces serious challenges in uniting the Indian Ocean island, especially when it comes to its large Tamil minority.

When campaigning for the parliamentary election, Rajapakse asked the electorate to grant him an unequivocal mandate that would put aside political divisions in the pursuit of economic growth after decades of bloodshed.

Fonseka had accused his former commander-in-chief of sleeping at national security council meetings, failing to grasp military strategy and profiting from arms purchases -- allegations rejected by Rajapakse.

The president and his family, whose members occupy key government positions, were particularly angered by Fonseka's announcement that he would testify before any international probe into war crimes allegations linked to last year's victory over the Tamil Tiger rebels.

The United Nations says 7,000 civilians died during the final stages of the fighting with the Tigers and has also called on Colombo to account for alleged extrajudicial killings of Tamil prisoners.

The government has denied that any abuses took place.

The United States on Wednesday called on the new government to use its mandate to pursue a "healing process" as the island recovers from the conflict.

Fighting ended in May with the wiping out of the Tiger leadership after fighting in which the UN estimated 100,000 people died.

Fonseka's leftist Democratic National Alliance (DNA) party has a total of seven seats in the 225-member assembly, with the main opposition United National Party winning 60 seats and the biggest Tamil party 14.

Chamal Rajapakse, the elder brother of the president, was on Thursday elected uncontested as parliamentary speaker.