Sri Lanka's president dissolved the parliament Tuesday, setting the stage for new elections a day after authorities arrested the leader of the opposition - a move analysts said was meant to prevent him from contesting the vote.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa's decision follows his sweeping victory at the polls last month over his former army chief Gen. Sarath Fonseka who had defected to the opposition.
Fonseka, who last year led government troops in their crushing defeat of Tamil Tiger rebels, was dragged out of his office Monday by military police and arrested on charges he plotted to overthrow the government while running the army. He has repeatedly denied similar accusations lobbed at him since the election.
One-time allies, Fonseka and Rajapaksa were both considered heroes by Sri Lanka's Sinhalese majority for ending the quarter-century civil war. However, their relationship deteriorated after hostilities ended, and Fonseka led the opposition's attempts to unseat the president in an election last month. Rajapaksa won the election by 17 percentage points.
The new parliamentary poll will choose the country's next 225 lawmakers, said a senior government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government policy. No date has been set.
If the presidential poll is anything to go by, the contest will be another bitter race between the government and the opposition. Rajapaksa's party is hoping to secure a two-third majority in the country's parliament, giving them the absolute majority and entrenching their grip on power.
Fonseka's arrest leaves a mix of opposition parties - from ultranationalist Sinhalese Marxists to former Tamil separatists - in a difficult spot.
Fonseka's wife Anoma Fonseka said Tuesday the former army chief has been cut off from family and friends and is being held at a secret location, though the government denied that.
After announcing Monday that Fonseka would face a court martial on sedition charges, the government heaped more accusations on him. A statement Tuesday said the former army chief's reported call for anyone who committed war crimes during the conflict to be prosecuted showed he was "hell-bent on betraying the gallant armed forces of Sri Lanka."
More than 7,000 civilians were killed in the final months of the fighting that crushed the rebels last spring. Human rights groups have accused the military, which was led by Fonseka at the time, of shelling hospitals and heavily populated civilian areas during the fighting, and the rebels of holding the local population as human shields.
"It seems the government is preparing for the next parliamentary election," he said at a gathering of opposition leaders, where they also announced a countrywide protest, starting Wednesday.
(Left: An opposition party supporter holds a placard during a protest in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Feb. 3, 2010. Thousands of opposition supporters took to the streets of Sri Lanka's capital Wednesday to protest the results of the recent presidential election, which they say was marred by fraud.)
Fonseka's wife, Anoma, told reporters Tuesday that she has not been allowed to meet her husband or told where he is being held.
"He was dragged like an animal," Anoma said. "Is this what he gets for ending a 30-year war?"
"He never wanted to topple the government, while he was in uniform. While he wore the uniform, he never talked about politics," she said.
Military spokesman Maj. Gen. Prasad Samarasinghe denied that Fonseka is cut off from family or friends.
"Family members are allowed to see him, and he has been allowed to obtain legal advice also," he said, adding that the former commander is not even in a cell.
Since the Jan. 26 election, Fonseka has complained that the government was attempting to arrest him on trumped up charges. Even as returns came in, troops surrounded the hotel where he was staying, in a massive show of force. Last week, security forces raided his office and arrested at least 15 of his staff. A number of serving military officers, which the government said were considered to be a threat to national security, have been fired.
The opposition has rejected the results of the presidential election, accusing the government of stealing more than 1 million of Fonseka's votes during the tallying process, and said it will challenge them in court.
It has also accused the government of a campaign of threats, intimidation and illegal imprisonment of its supporters and activists.
By Associated Press Writer Fisnik Abrashi