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Sri Lankan general behind Tigers defeat may stand for president

[Times Online UK, Thursday, 12 November 2009 17:54 No Comment]

The general who masterminded Sri Lanka’s victory over the Tamil Tiger rebels in May resigned from the army yesterday and strongly hinted that he would stand against President Rajapaksa in an election due by April.

General Sarath Fonseka is a highly controversial figure, hailed by most of the Sinhalese ethnic majority as a national hero, but accused by many ethnic Tamils and rights activist of committing war crimes in the final stages of the 26-year conflict.

He fell out with the President when he was removed as army chief and transferred to the largely ceremonial post of chief of defence staff in July in what was seen as a move to curb the powers of the military.

Yesterday, the highly decorated veteran announced that he had tendered his resignation, effective from December 1, to President Rajapaksa, who officials said was planning to accept it without delay.

“I gave my retirement papers,” General Fonseka told reporters. “I have been serving my country in the past and I will serve the country in future as well.” When asked whether he planned to stand in the election, he said: “I can’t comment as I am still in uniform. I will decide my future once my retirement comes into effect at the end of this month. I have the same basic right as anybody else.” His resignation follows local media reports that opposition parties had picked him to run as their presidential candidate — before which he would have to resign from the army under Sri Lankan law.

If he does stand against Mr Rajapaksa, he would probably divide the support base for the ruling alliance which has been riding a wave of popularity, especially among Sinhalese, ever since the end of the war.

But his candidacy would also raise fears about the army’s role in politics and the future of the reconciliation process with the Tamil minority, some 200,000 of whom are still in internment camps.

General Fonseka has been accused by Tamil activists and human rights groups of committing war crimes in the last few months of the conflict.

The general, who has a US green card and a residence in Oklahoma, was called in for questioning by the US Department of Homeland Security to discuss war crimes allegations during a recent visit to the US.

He cannot be prosecuted himself until he becomes a full US citizen, but he was asked to give evidence against Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Defence Secretary who is also the President’s brother and has full US citizenship.

The Defence Secretary has also been accused of committing war crimes.

General Fonseka returned to Sri Lanka without being questioned last week, following frantic diplomatic overtures by the Sri Lankan government, which said it was illegal for him to testify against the Defence Secretary.

The attempt to question the general followed the publication last month of a report by the US State Department’s War Crimes office which detailed possible atrocities by both the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers in the last few months of the war.

Colombo has repeatedly denied any split between General Fonseka and President Rajapaksa, but ruling alliance politicians have publicly rubbished the general’s ability to govern as President.

The Government announced last month that it would call early elections for president and parliament in what is widely viewed as an attempt to exploit its popularity following the Tigers’ defeat.

Opposition parties responded early this month by forming an alliance to contest the elections, saying their main aim was to scrap the strong executive presidency and increase the powers of parliament and the prime minister.

[Full Coverage]

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