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Sri Lanka set for snap election

world Updated: Feb 10, 2010 10:35 IST

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse has dismissed parliament to pave the way for a snap election in April as political tensions mounted over the arrest of his main rival Sarath Fonseka.

Rajapakse, who was returned to power last month after defeating former army chief Fonseka in a bitter election battle, dissolved the assembly from midnight Tuesday, two months early, his spokesman Lucien Rajakarunanayake said.

A formal announcement on the date for the election is expected later this month but officials said it was likely to be held on April 8.

The move came hours after the defence ministry said Fonseka, who was arrested by troops at his office in Colombo on Monday, will face a court martial on charges of conspiring against the government.

“The broader charges were that he engaged with political leaders and political parties that were working against the government,” defence ministry spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella told reporters.

“He shall be tried and punished for that offence by a court martial.”

Asked if Fonseka could be tried for treason, Rambukwella said: “It could be one of the charges.”

Fonseka and his former ally Rajapakse fell out after the army’s crushing defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels in May, with both seeking to take credit for ending the 37-year separatist insurgency.

Fonseka, 59, the only four-star general in the army, quit in November and then challenged Rajapakse for the presidency but was roundly defeated by his former commander in chief in the January 26 poll.

The opposition said Fonseka was seized by the military on Monday while he was discussing plans to contest the parliamentary election with several senior party leaders who had backed his failed bid for the presidency.

The government said Fonseka had been “conspiring” with opposition politicians while he was still the army chief and has also accused him of plotting a coup to overthrow Rajapakse and kill members of his family.

Earlier this month, Rajapakse sacked a dozen senior military officers described by the defence ministry as a threat to national security. More were arrested from Fonseka’s office.

Sri Lanka’s former peace facilitator, Norway, joined the United Nations, France and the United States in expressing concern over Fonseka’s arrest and deplored mounting government pressure on journalists and dissidents.

“There is a tremendous need for the government of Sri Lanka to work to overcome the fissures that exist within its society,” US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told AFP.

Norway said Fonseka’s arrest “will have consequences on the possibility to progress towards lasting political stability” in Sri Lanka while France said it was “extremely worried”.

UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said Secretary General Ban Ki-moon “is following developments in Sri Lanka with concern” and urged Colombo authorities “to follow due process of law and provide all necessary protections (for Fonseka) and guarantees to his safety.”

The Sri Lankan government is concerned about Fonseka’s apparent willingness to testify at any probe into alleged war crimes committed by Sri Lankan troops last year in the final stages of the conflict with Tamil Tiger rebels.

Fonseka told reporters shortly before his arrest that he was willing to face an international investigation, saying: “I am not prepared to protect anyone, if they have committed war crimes.”

The government has resisted international calls for a probe, amid charges that a senior defence official ordered the killing of surrendering rebel leaders.

The United Nations says 7,000 civilians died during the final stages of the conflict. Opposition leader and former premier Ranil Wickremesinghe said Fonseka’s arrest was “a big blow to democracy” in Sri Lanka.

Fonseka’s wife Anoma gave a tearful press briefing Tuesday, saying her husband had been treated “like an animal”.

“This is not an arrest. It is an abduction,” she said. “What I want to tell the government is: ‘Just be reasonable. Treat him like a human being.´”