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12 November 2009 

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Sri Lanka Military Chief Resigns

12 November 2009

Government officials in Colombo confirm the chief of Sri Lanka's armed forces has quit his post, but are not commenting on speculation he is poised to challenge the island nation's president in an upcoming election. The war hero would give popular incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa a serious challenge.

President Rajapaksa shakes hands with Army Chief, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka (May 2009 file photo)
President Rajapaksa shakes hands with Army Chief, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka (May 2009 File)
Army General Sarath Fonseka's resignation follows weeks of speculation he was contemplating taking on his commander-in-chief as candidate of an opposition coalition.

Political analysts say President Mahinda Rajapaksa wants to call an election soon to take advantage of his popularity following the military victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.  

Following this year's defeat of the Tamil rebels, ending a quarter-century civil war, the president promoted his top general.  

The head of the independent National Peace Council in Colombo, Jehan Perera, says that was a move General Fonseka appeared to resent.

"He wished to stay longer as the Army commander having defeated the LTTE," Perera said. "This was not granted to him as he was promoted to a position which seems to have left him with little power."

Opposition parties have been lacking a viable candidate to challenge Mr. Rajapaksa, whose has achieved cult-like status. Billboards around the capital, which sprouted following the end of the war, tout him as "king" and "savior."

But Perera notes, the leader of the Army, which crushed the rebels has also seen his stature greatly elevated since the military campaign concluded six months ago.

"He has become like a folk hero to many people, especially those belonging to the ethnic majority who constitute 75 percent of the population," Perera said.

Sri Lanka faces international criticism of its treatment of the minority Tamils during the final months of combat and for its slow resettlement of those displaced by the fighting.

The government and military have said they still need time to separate civilians from the surviving Tamil rebels who have blended into the general population.

General Fonseka was in the United States this month, but departed when the Department of Homeland Security asked to question him. Sri Lankan officials say they believe American investigators wanted to use the general as a source for a probe of alleged war crimes, which is said to target the president's brother, Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.  

The years of fighting were brutal. International organizations estimate up to 100,000 people died and hundreds of thousands more, mostly Tamils, were displaced.

The rebels wanted an ethnic-Tamil homeland and in addition to fighting a guerilla war they assassinated Sinhalese and Tamil politicians, as well as carrying out suicide bombings that killed civilians. 

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