Earlier this month, president Chandrika Kumaratunga had sacked the defence minister, along with the interior and media ministers, amid differences with prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe over the peace negotiations with separatist Tamil Tigers.

As a compromise proposal from the president the prime minister has now been asked to "nominate a suitable candidate who can work cordially with the president for the post of minister assisting defence,"

The president's proposal, published in the State-run Daily News, also put Wickremesinghe back in charge of the peace bid. "

However, officials close to the premier said the compromise was unacceptable as a way out of the stand-off that has undermined the peace process.


"The offer of sharing defence ministry responsibilities was news to the prime minister," a source close to Wickremesinghe said.
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"The offer of sharing defence ministry responsibilities was news to the prime minister," a source close to Wickremesinghe said.

"You cannot conduct cohabitation negotiations through the media," said the source.

Earlier, a government official who is part of a committee the two sides have set up to resolve their power struggle expressed confusion over the offer.

"We (the committee) had agreed on a different formula to which both the president and prime minister agreed," Malik Samarawickreme, chairman of Wickremesinghe's United National Party, said.

"We were looking forward to implimenting that. But this is something totally new," he said.

The rebels did not make any comment on the president's proposals.

Tug of war

While sacking the three ministers, Kumaratunga had said that the prime minister was compromising security by conceding too much to end 20 years of strife with Tamil Tiger rebels, who are seeking a separate state in the north and east.

Wickremesinghe - from a different party - responded by saying he could not carry on the peace process without control over those portfolios.

Norway, which brokered a truce, holding since February 2002, suspended its role until it was clear who was handling the process, but the president's proposal said Oslo should continue to act as peace broker.

Other elements of the proposal include an advisory aouncil on peace composed of representatives of all parties, clergy and other civil society groups, which would provide ideas and suggestions on the peace process.

Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe were expected to meet next week for a third time since the crisis began.