Sri Lanka’s Rajapakse denies post-election coup bid
COLOMBO (AFP) – Sri Lanka’s former president Mahinda Rajapakse on Tuesday denied government allegations that he attempted a coup to remain in office after it became clear that he had lost last week’s election.
In comments published on Twitter as Pope Francis landed on the island, Rajapakse insisted he had readily accepted "the people’s verdict" in what was his first reaction to last Thursday’s polls.
Top aides of new President Maithripala Sirisena have alleged the veteran strongman tried to cling to power in the early hours of Friday by urging the island’s army and police chiefs to deploy the security forces.
But Rajapakse wrote: "I deny in all possible terms reports of attempts to use the military to influence election results."
"I accepted the outcome long before the final official results were released and congratulated the new president," he said.
The 69-year-old, who came to power in a 2005 presidential election, added that he had "always bowed down to the people’s verdict".
Sirisena’s new administration has pledged to make an investigation into what it has called "the coup and conspiracy" one of its top priorities and ordered the sacking of hundreds of Rajapakse-appointed officials.
Although the military has not confirmed an approach from Rajapakse’s camp in the hours before the final results were announced, Sirisena’s top lieutenants have said there was clear evidence of a conspiracy.
Rajapakse, who had been South Asia’s longest-serving leader, had initially been widely praised for conceding defeat to Sirisena before the final results were announced.
But Mangala Samaraweera, who has been appointed as Sirisena’s foreign minister, has said "it was anything but" a peaceful transition.
"He stepped down only when the army chief and the police inspector general refused to go along with him," he charged at the weekend.
– Papal visit –
Any sustained bid by Rajapakse to cling to power would have thrown a huge question mark over the visit by Pope Francis who called for human rights to be respected on the island as he flew into Colombo on Tuesday.
Rajapakse, who had invited the pope last year, has been accused of presiding over large-scale human rights abuses, including allegations of mass civilian casualties at the end of Sri Lanka’s Tamil separatist war.
He was conspicuous by his absence at the airport welcoming ceremony for Francis which was headed by Sirisena.
Local media has reported that a number of Rajapakse’s relatives, including his brother Basil who had been economic development minister, left the country after the election results were announced.
The police criminal investigations department has also been called in to probe a fleet of limousines that have gone missing from the president’s office after Rajapakse’s defeat.
But Rajapakse himself has reportedly told supporters that he plans to remain on the island and engage in politics.
"I will continue to be engaged in politics," Rajapakse was quoted as saying by a private TV network on Monday night. "I will not flee the country."
While Sirisena’s camp have said that the army and police chiefs resisted the pressure from Rajapakse to launch a coup, leading lawyers have accused the country’s Chief Justice Mohan Peiris of being party to a plot.
Lawyers have been demanding the resignation of Peiris, a former advisor to Rajapakse who was appointed chief justice after the controversial impeachment of his predecessor Shirani Bandaranayake in January 2013.
Speaking on a visit to regional powerhouse India on Monday, US Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters he had impressed "the importance of maintaining a peaceful process no matter what" when he spoke by phone to Rajapakse last week.
While Kerry hailed the "peaceful change of power" in an island which was devastated by the 37-year ethnic conflict, he also warned that "there are still real challenges in Sri Lanka."