Kumaratunga used her executive powers on Saturday to dissolve the legislature controlled by her arch rival Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who immediately cancelled his official visit to Thailand from Monday. 

"We have just got the gazette notification (dissolving parliament) for immediate printing," said government printer Neville Nanayakkara who performs a quasi legal function in the publication of official notices. 

Kumaratunga ordered that the new parliament should be in office by 23 April and nominations for the election would be received for a week from 17 February, officials said. 

Nanayakkara told AFP that Kumaratunga had dissolved the
225-member legislature with immediate effect. 

Uneasy cohabitation

Kumaratunga had been in an uneasy cohabitation arrangement with Wickremesinghe since his party won parliamentary elections in December 2001. 

The two leaders, who are elected separately, have been at odds over the handling of the Norwegian-backed peace process aimed at ending three decades of ethnic bloodshed that has claimed more than 60,000 lives since 1972. 

The crisis came to a head on 4 November when Kumaratunga sacked three ministers and took away the ministries of defence, interior and information from the prime minister's control. 

The move led to the premier saying he could no longer take
responsibility for a truce with Tamil Tiger rebels, while peace
broker Norway suspended its role, saying there was no clarity as to who was really in charge in Colombo. 

International presure

Kumaratunga's latest action to call snap elections came despite international pressure from donor countries and neighbouring India to sink her differences with the premier and revive the peace process. 

Diplomats said Saturday's move signalled an end to official
level talks aimed at hammering out a cohabitation arrangement between the leaders, both of whom are from the majority Sinhalese community. 

A four-member panel had been due to meet on Monday to discuss fresh proposals on a compromise between them before a crucial meeting in Washington on 17 February of Sri Lanka's key aid donors. 

A pledge of $4.5 billion in foreign aid to help rebuild Sri Lanka is linked to progress in the peace process which in turn depends on political stability in the capital Colombo.